If you’re heading to Australia, you may realize as you’re building your itinerary (if you’re into that kind of thing) that you’re not very familiar with what the country has to offer outside of the Sydney Opera House and surfing. And admittedly so, these are absolute musts when taking a trip down under. I’ll be frank (being Jenn can be taxing) I’m definitely a fly by the seat of your pants, jump in with both feet kind of girl. When I went to Australia I had a one way ticket, two nights booked at a hostel, with no idea of where to go from there. Lucky for me I decided to go through a travel company who would help coordinate bank accounts, tax information, help me to find a job and all of that fun stuff. So I wasn’t totally free-falling; yet.
During our travel group orientation, one of the agents gave us a brief spiel about the importance of getting out and really seeing the country and experiencing the backpacker life before settling down and getting caught up in a job, relationship, whatever. This is advice that I passed on to other new travelers, because for me, it was the best introduction into Australia and the backpacker lifestyle. I pre-booked various hostels in numerous cities with an open reservation. This way the accommodation was already paid for, but I got to choose when I would check in. Whenever I was leaving a town or city, I would call ahead to my destined hostel to book a room, and it would be ready for me when I got there. This isn’t necessarily the best way, but it’s certainly the easiest. It’s just as easy to find a free bed at a hostel when you arrive to your destination, it just adds a bit of extra security. There are so many hostels, designed to fit the needs of various travelers. I tend to hostel-hop when I arrive in a new city to find the best fit. Here is what I’ve found during my travels:
Greyhound Hop On- Hop Off
If you don’t have a car of your own, which I didn’t in the beginning, then get yourself one of these babies. It’s the Greyhound Hop On-Hop Off Pass. Essentially, you either pay for a 3 or 6 month passage, and during that time you can use this service as much as you like! Unfortunately the pass will only take you in one direction (allegedly) so if you’re heading North, and decide you want to drop back down to visit some friends you left behind, you’ll have to pay extra. But it isn’t much honestly! This is a great way to travel if you are just starting out. You just book online (or on the phone) to let the bus know which day you want to get picked up. They’ll give you a time and a bus stop, all you need to do is be there! The buses offer free wifi, and comfortable seating with retractable seats. (Try to snag an empty row if the bus isn’t too full. Put your backpack on the other seat and lay on it for optimum comfort. There’s nothing worse than sitting through a 10 hour bus ride with a stinky, snoring person next to you.) This is a safe way to meet people as well. You’re stuck in close quarters for an extended amount of time, probably headed to the same directions. Make some friends and make some plans for when you get there!
This was my starting destination. I plan on doing another bit on what to do in Sydney alone, because I spent a bit of time there. But if you’re just passing through for a few days there are definitely a few MUSTS!
You MUST stay at Wake Up! Hostel. Even if just for a night or two. It’s super clean, they have great facilities, on-site café, the staff is awesome and charismatic, and they always have free activities to help you to get involved.
Visit the beaches! The beaches surrounding Sydney are some of the most beautiful on the East Coast. So don’t miss out on that!! There is a cliff walk that starts in Bondi Beach, and winds all along the coast, taking you to wonderful little nooks like Gordans Bay or Bronte Beach.
The Opera House! Duh. If you can’t afford to see a show in the Opera House (check for prices because you might get lucky!) at least make a trip down to Circular Quay to take a selfie with the iconic masterpiece and the Harbor Bridge as well. The Rock’s (a bustling neighborhood with awesome restaurants, bars and museums) is just on the other side of the harbor!
This place is truly a hidden gem. I call it hidden because although it has recently been added to the backpacker circuit, it still qualifies as the road less traveled by. Most travelers pass over this spot because “there’s nothing to do there” which in terms of nightlife is relatively true. Instead you must seek out the treasures that this place has to offer.
Stay at the YHA. You don’t have much of an option here, it’s the only hostel in Yamba. But even if given the option, I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else. The hostel is clean, the staff is very friendly and interactive. The onsite restaurant is BOMB.com. And they have a lovely little mascot named Charlie. An old little cocker spaniel. This was a huge selling point for me. They often have beer pong tournaments and other activities to get involved with. The most exciting of which being “Shane-o’s Extreme Tour”!!! I can’t tell you much of which goes on during the tour; I’m sworn to secrecy. But I can tell you that you get a tour of Yamba, there is cliff jumping, and tons of incredible wild life.
You can often catch a glimpse of dolphins passing by in the waves. There are a bunch of great little cafes that cater to gluten-free and vegan patrons. (You’d never get that out in the country in America, just saying).
If I may, I would suggest saving this place for last. The reason for that being, you’re never going to want to leave. Byron has claimed the souls of many unknowing backpackers, holding them captive for a lifetime of free living, happy, hippy bliss (and by lifetime, I mean the duration of their visa)
Stay at The Arts Factory! This place is a complete escape from reality. Imagine festival camping, live music everywhere, people lounging in the sun, hooping, crafting, yoga, I could go on and on. They also offer a vast array of accommodation; from teepees, to regular dorms, to surf shacks. In the back of the hostel which is referred to as the “jungle” you’ll find hundreds of tents, filled to the brim with happy backpackers. Just be weary when you make the transition from the “mainland” to the “jungle”. That’s when you know you’ve fallen into the Byron web (not that it’s a bad thing.) You can take guided tours through the “bush” to learn about medicinal and edible plants from the expertise of seasoned bushman Cockatoo Paul. They also have a shuttle that runs every 20 minutes to take you into town!
Head to The Wreck on the beach for sunset. You’ll find a nice crowd of jingling, dreadlocked forest fairies, playing drums and guitar, didgeridoo and flutes, dancing merrily as the we say goodbye to the sun and drift into twilight. You may find bon-fire parties sprinkled along the beach, or you may want to head back into the town to check out Cheeky Monkeys or the Byron Bay Brewery, I just called it the Buddha Bar (just right outside of the Arts Factory), or the Railway Friendly Bar (also right outside of the Arts Factory.)
Don’t miss out on a walk to the Lighthouse, the most Eastern Point in all of Australia. It’s a gorgeous walk, and you’re sure to catch a glimpse of some captivating sea-life. I walked there at sunset, and drank wine as I watched a family of humpback whales pass through, splashing and jumping around in the water. It was truly magical.
If you’re feeling adventurous, book a kayak trip out on the ocean. There’s tons of sea life here, and you’re sure to see a sea turtle, dolphins, whales, or even sharks if you’re lucky. Dare to be daring and get out there! Your tour guides will keep you safe.
There’s a wide assortment of restaurants to visit. There’s a O-Sushi sushi train, Byron Juice Bar (a great place to pick up a young coconut to sip and lounge on the beach), Miss Margarita for some awesome tacos and of course Margaritas. You’ll find that all places cater to vegan and gluten free options. This is relatively true for most parts of Australia (on the East Coast, it gets a bit tricky deep in the Outback).
Just over the border from New South Whales, crossing into Queensland, one of your first stops will be Surfers Paradise.
I’ll be honest. This place was not my scene at all. But that’s just a matter or preference. I feel that people who love Byron Bay aren’t really keen on Surfer’s, and visa versa. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do here! Surfer’s Paradise was described to me as a “Little Miami” and, I didn’t get that at all. But it is a party town, and it is on the beach. So I guess I see the connection. If you’re into partying, you’ll find tons of promoters outside of various clubs competing for your business. My roommates succumbed to the pressure and bought us all bar-crawl tickets. It included 4 bars, one free drink at each bar and free admission. Not so bad except that the lines are so long, by the time you get your drink it’s time to go!
I stayed at Nomads. It was a decent enough hostel with a pool and a hot tub, right in the middle of town. I arrived mid-week which I wouldn’t suggest doing. It was a total ghost town. But as the weekend neared, I found myself amidst “footy-weekend” where various Footy teams (it’s a sport, I guess) come to Surfers Paradise to party and let off some steam. I made friends with the team from Adelaide and decided to join in on their drinking games. I somehow thought I could keep up, and an hour later I was face down on the floor. But I was still able to rouse myself in time for the bar crawl!! So as I said, if you like to party, you’ll like Surfers.
The surrounding area is absolutely stunning. Aside from the main beach, is Burleigh Heads, a less touristy and gorgeous beach. Also be sure to check out Springbrook. If you don’t have a car, there are day tours (and night tours) that will take you out into the jungle to witness some of the incredible fauna and flora they have to offer. The tour I booked took us to 4 different waterfalls, one of them streaming through a cave (during the night tour, you can find glow worms in the cave!), and then stopped by Buck’s Farm for a tropical fruit tasting. If you’re not into partying, then definitely look into the various day tours available.
A city is just a city right? Maybe. But Brisbane definitely has a few little hidden gems to offer those of us who don’t really fancy themselves to be “city people.”
I stayed in Base Hostel for the first few days, and then moved to Base Embassy when my boyfriend came to meet me for my birthday weekend. It was the first time in months I’d had my own room and a double bed, so I felt like royalty. The staff was super friendly and helpful. In fact, all of my friends at the first Base Hostel happened to work there. This is a city where lots of backpackers bunker down for a time to work and replenish their travel funds.
If you’re into zoos (which I am not) then head to the Australia Zoo (Steve Irwin Zoo). Unlike most zoos, the animals kept here were rescued in the wild, and taken here to be rehabilitated. It’s also a safe home for animals who would not be able to survive in the wild. They have a kangaroo walk through where you can pet and feed these lazy dudes and get to know the wild life first hand, (and not feel guilty about doing so).
Head down to the Southbank to lounge at the manmade lagoon. Unfortunately there aren’t any beaches in the actual city, but the alternative is excellent. The bank stretches all along the river, lined with gorgeous Jacaranda trees and art structures. This is perfect if you need a break from the city, and it is brimming with photo opportunities!
If you decide to stop off here, stay at Nomads!! Typically backpackers come from all around Noosa to party here, so you’ll only be a few stumbles away from your bed. Play it safe kids 😉
There is a main beach in Noosa. And by all means it is absolutely gorgeous and makes for a good day trip. But if you’re keen to step off the beaten path, then get your tail over to the National Park. There are many windy trails that will take you through the enchanting forest. These trees are also the home to thousands of adorable koalas (and drop bears, BEWARE!) so keep an eye out and you may be lucky enough to spot one! The farther you go, you’ll notice little pathways leading out to the beach. There are tons of secret beach spots to be found throughout the park (secret to tourists, not to locals, but the locals are usually super friendly!)
Give your legs and break and stretch out those arms. Australia has the second largest Everglades in the world! (Florida being the first) and they are located right in Noosa. They’re not crawling with crocs, you’re not far up enough on the coast but trust me you’ll get there. Take a kayak tour through the everglades, without the threat of salties (crocs) cause trust me those critters are terrifying!
Rainbow Beach- Fraser Island
This is definitely one of the more remote places on your East Coast trip. Rainbow Beach is one of two outlets to get onto Fraser Island, which is a sacred Aboriginal Reservation. Herby Bay is the other, if you’re heading from the North back down South.
Although remote, this is one of my favorite stops along the coast. Not only is it gorgeous, but the people are what made my stay truly special. There are a few hostels to choose from but I stayed at Frasers on Rainbow.
Typically people only stay here if they plan on going to Fraser Island. Therefore there isn’t much in the town except for two cafes, and a small IGA for some basic shopping. But there are some long-termers and they’re very friendly! Head over to the bar at Frasers on Rainbow to play Grahams passport photo game to win some free drinks! Free is always great!
Before you head out to the Island, your groups are rounded up to a) meet each other b) decide who’s driving since you’ll be traveling the island via 4×4 truck, c) coordinate your meals and drinks. They’re very strict on what can be brought onto the island, and it saves you a trip to the liquor store. They’ll order everything for you, and it will be ready and waiting the morning of your departure. Talk to your group mates and be realistic about the alcohol you order. Don’t end up like me with 20 extra beers that you have to abandon at the end of the trip. It’s tragic.
You’ll be completely cut off from technology. So enjoy that and don’t fret over lack of wifi. Because it’s not going to happen so just get over it. Also, if you can’t drive a manual car, now is not the time to learn. You will get bogged, you will crash the car (eh hem, sorry guys). It’s hard enough to drive on the sand, but learning to drive manually will make it all the more taxing. Let the pros handle it, and enjoy the view.
Your group will be taken to the Shipwreck, the Champagne Pools, the Lazy River, and a few crystal clear Lakes, the most famous of which being Lake Mackenzie. It’s honestly stunning. Don’t let your guide take you to a different lake. You want Mackenzie. The majority of your trip will consist of driving, swimming, and eating. If you can afford a GoPro, you’ll want to bring it along.
At night you’re dropped off at the campsite along with the other groups from various hostels. There is a “dance club” on the property which I’ve never been to. My group chose to hang around the fire, and after a few too many drinks walk down to the beach for some skinny dipping. If you decide to leave the campground to wander, go in a group. There are wild dingos on the island and although they aren’t that aggressive towards humans, they can be. So don’t give them a reason and make yourself vulnerable. Also, the waters are extremely infested with sharks, mainly Tiger Sharks. That’s why all of the swimming is in-land. So if you happen to go for a midnight skinny-dip, just be sure not to be the farthest out 😉
Another one of the lesser known stops on the coast (if you haven’t caught on, I love these the best!) This area is also more commonly known as Agnes Water. This is the most northern part of the East Coast where you can actually swim in the water, without the threat of Box Jellyfish (super deadly) and Saltwater Crocodiles (just as deadly). This is a great place to surf if you’re into that. Although let’s be honest, anywhere on the East Coast is great for surfing as long as nothing is trying to eat you.
This town is called 1770, because allegedly Captain James Cook first landed on this very spot in 1770, first discovering the Land of Plenty; Australia. There is a monument deep in the National Forest in tribute to this. The monument is pretty much just a pile of rocks with a plaque nailed to it but it’s still a sight to be seen. It’s a gorgeous walk, and the water is flush with dolphins and sea turtles.
The best way to navigate this town is to hire a bike and travel that way. It’s too far to walk, and I’m not keen on hitch hiking. (I’m not saying I’ve never done it, but I prefer not to.) You can hire a bike for around $20 for the day, so it’s a great deal. Just be warned, as you’re following the trail to 1770, don’t bother to keep an eye out for the “town.” There isn’t one. The only town is Agnes Water. 1770 is literally the monument in the forest.
As far as accommodation, you MUST stay at Cool Bananas. If you loved the Arts Factory in Byron Bay, you’ll dig this place. It’s a bit more laid back, not as much drug activity here. But it’s a very bohemian style hostel, laid back, with an awesome vibe. I found my tribe my first night here, the whole hostel is like a big family. A few nights a week a local farmer stops by to make dessert crepes for the backpackers, and take on workers for his farm.
There is also a wonderful kangaroo sanctuary nearby, with a shuttle to and from the hostel. Abandoned kangaroo joeys are brought here for rescue, nursed back to health and released into the wild. Many of the kangaroos love it there so much, that they never leave! Or at least they often return. You won’t find any cages on this sanctuary, just many willing and friendly kangaroos, hungry for some sweet potatoes. They also offer work-stay accommodation if that is something you’re into.
Two words. Full Moon Party. If you can’t make it to Thailand, then Magnetic Island comes in as a close second for this festival. I made it just in time for the Halloween FMP, so it was even more epic. There are many places to stay on the Island, but I would either suggest Base where I stayed (because it’s right on the beach, and where they host the Full Moon Party) or Bungalow Bay (probably the best option) because they often have wildlife on-site to interact with.
I only stayed here for two days, because I was running out of money at this point, and wanted to be back in Byron Bay to meet my soon to be boyfriend for his birthday. So although I didn’t get into much, I still picked up on a few activities to get into.
Barbie Cars! That’s right. I’m serious. You can rent Barbie trucks to travel around the island in style. I’m pretty bummed I had to miss out on this, but I didn’t have a valid license at the time (naughty me). The only issue with these though is that you can only take them on certain routes. I’ve heard tell of secret beaches, with an array of hammocks to lounge in your own slice of paradise on a lonely beach, but you need a 4×4 to get there. So the decision is yours. The novelty of a Barbie Car, or the freedom of a 4×4. I think we know which one I’d pick.
If you are struggling to decide which East Coast tour to go on due to lack of timing or money, make sure you fit this into your agenda. It’s a very unique and incredible experience.
First, you’ll get dropped off at Airlie Beach, you’ll exit the bus with your fellow backpackers and scatter to your destined hostels. I stayed at Base, which is conjoined with Nomads. It’s like a little hostel village, and right across the way from the man-made lagoon. (You really can’t go swimming in the ocean here unless you have a stinger suit.)
Be sure to book a sailboat tour to visit the Whitsunday Islands. These are the whitest beaches in the world, a slice of (slightly) untouched paradise. Just be careful not to go during the rain season (like I did) to ensure clear skies. I went on The Clipper. There are an assortment of boats to choose from, this one being the calmest. The other boats are known for constant partying and debauchery and I wanted to choose just how much partying I got into. Perhaps I regretted my choice a bit because other than 5 or 6 of us, everyone on the boat went to bed at 9pm. Granted we had to wake up for 6 but still! It’s only a few days, you should make the most of it! Besides, I wanted to spend as little time cramped downstairs as possible. I’d rather sleep out on the deck, admiring the stars.
Words of advice: always wear your stinger suit in the water! There are jelly fish, and they will sting you. Even if it’s not poisonous, it hurts. And itches. In the worst way. Don’t worry about your tan, you’ll get plenty of sun out on the deck.
Also! Bring Dramamine. Even if you don’t normally get sea sick. I suffer from sea sickness, so I’m always sure to bring a pack whenever I venture out to sea. Otherwise I will spend the whole trip hugging the toilet. I was popping these the entire venture, so I was fine. And so was everyone else. Until we hit a storm heading back inland, sending the boat rocking every which way. The majority of the group was either inside, green and curled up in the fetal position, or on the rear deck, puking their brains out. Meanwhile, along with a few other brave souls from the Netherlands, I was clinging to the front of the boat, getting drenched in the rain and the ocean as it crashed into the deck. It was slightly terrifying, but also incredibly fun.
Lastly, when booking your boat, do your research. I had a roommate who booked what he thought was a sailboat tour, and ended up sleeping in a swag on an army base in the middle of the ocean overnight, and brought back to shore the next day. Not at all what he was after. Makes for a good story though!
If you didn’t go snorkeling and scuba diving in the Whitsundays (shame on you, you should have!) Then here is your chance! Cairns is one of the main outlets to the iconic Great Barrier Reef. Now, don’t just swim out in the ocean hoping to find the reef. You will get eaten by a crocodile. There’s a reason Cairns doesn’t boast any manicured beaches. And that is because no one dares to go into the water. If you want to see the reef, then book a day tour. You’ll notice that you will sail many miles (or leagues, whatever) out into the ocean before they allow you to get off the boat. There are sharks in this water, but you’re not very likely to come across a Great White or any other scary sharks. The water is too warm for them. And even so, when you are scuba diving, submerged in the water, they can see that you’re not food. Don’t pass up an opportunity of scuba because you’re scared of sharks, because more likely than not you won’t see them.
Had enough of the ocean? Then book a day trip to the Daintree Forest, an ancient rainforest; or the Tablelands. I only had time (and money) for once, so I decided to go with the Tablelands. Like most tours, it consisted of a lot of swimming and hiking. I even learned how to play the Didgeridoo! The last stop on our tour was to a natural waterslide deep in the forest. We had a blast riding on each others backs, and sliding down in trains. And making fools of ourselves flopping up onto the slippery rocks to make our way up the slide again!
If you have enough energy, the night life here is wonderful. There’s a night market, flush with food and knick knacks of all sorts to meet your late night cravings. There’s a ton of bars and clubs, many of which offer drink specials and backpacker discounts.
There are tons of hostels to choose from, since Cairns is one of the bigger towns on the North East. I stayed at Gilligans, which is great if you like to party. I was starting to get burned out at this point, but I still had enough party in me to enjoy my time. Gilligans has a bar downstairs, renowned for it’s wet t-shirt contests and chaotic parties. You can hear the base from throughout the entire hostel, so if you want to get any sleep, don’t stay here. For a more relaxing experience, I have heard good things about the Lucky Duck.