Are you ready to explore Queensland on a self-drive?
Australia is pretty much impossible to cover in one trip alone. After six holidays down under and a year spent living in Australia, Steve Yates from our Kuoni at John Lewis Oxford Street store heads to the Sunshine Coast for the first time, ready to explore Queensland on a self-drive.
Australia is vast. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many times over the years and I still feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. For this trip, I decide to head north east to Queensland and see what the Southern Barrier Reef area has to offer.
We fly from Sydney up to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast Airport and pick up our hire car, an automatic which comes with unlimited miles, insurance and a co-pilot kit supplied by Kuoni’s representative in a handy backpack. It features a GPS, driving instructions, a road atlas, city maps and discount offers for local attractions. I don’t drive, so I act as co-pilot for the adventure ahead.
Australians drive on the same side of the road as the UK and, in comparison, there is a lot less traffic than we’re used to back home, so we set off to our first stop in Noosa. We choose to have lunch at a local institution called Sails Restaurant Noosa with its 180-degree views of Laguna Bay. It has a fantastic beachfront location at the end of stylish Hastings Street and an award-winning wine list. Drinking a beer and gazing at the surfers, we really feel like we've arrived in Australia. After finishing our meal, we decide to visit Noosa National Park next door and enjoy its coastal walk, which takes us along headlands to smaller, quiet beaches, and through lovely forests. Our home for the night is Ivory Palms Resort, a ten minute drive away in Noosaville, which has self-catering apartments, plus villas and apartments that are great for families.
After an amazingly good breakfast (Australia does have world-class coffee), we leave Noosa and drive to Hervey Bay. From July to early November, this is the best place in the world to see humpback whales and we have lunch at Enzo’s On The Beach, with a prime location right by the sand. The beach is sweeping and very wide at low tide; and I love watching the little crabs going about their business filtering sand and creating amazing shapes.
We drive to River Heads to catch the ferry to Kingfisher Bay Resort on famous Fraser Island. It’s a passenger ferry and the roads can be quite challenging on the island, so the resort recommends you leave your hire car in the secure car park at the ferry port, opposite River Heads Mainland Reception. Check in at reception and they will give you a secure pin number to gain access to the parking.
Arriving was exciting as the island is shrouded in dense forest and we step into the large and grand lobby area of the resort. This eco-resort has wooden boardwalks so as not to intrude on the environment and our room is rustic and feels like a cabin. People come here for the 4x4 tours, walking trails, stargazing and bush tucker talks – and we are excited for the day to come as we sit and have sundowners by the pontoon.
We’ve booked the resort’s Beauty Spots Tour with an expert ranger so we can see the best of Fraser Island and set off in our full-size 4x4 bus, heading through entertainingly bumpy sand roads shrouded in forest. The driver is also an excellent guide, explaining everything about the history of the Island, as well as the flora and fauna. Our first stop is a real highlight – Lake McKenzie. This freshwater lake is an oasis in the middle of the jungle, with pure white beaches that match any in the Caribbean.
We head deeper inland to the start of the Pile Valley trail, a lovely scenic walk following a cool river's course, and pass through prehistoric groves of ferns, creepers and enormous eucalyptus trees. We are collected at the trail's end and taken to the most famous part of the island – the spectacular 75 Mile Beach. Most of the east coast of Fraser is taken up by this long, wide and straight stretch of sand and the first moment we emerge from the forest and have the beach rolling for miles either side of us is one not to be forgotten.
The beach is also a road, perhaps the most beautiful on Earth, so we have a scenic drive along it and watch the huge waves crashing. We are also offered an optional scenic flight and I would be crazy to turn this down! Our light aircraft zooms off the beach and we truly get a sense of scale from the air, as the beach is so long we can't see the end. Flying inland reveals countless acres of dense forest, with just a thin criss-crossing network of sand roads.
Waving goodbye to Fraser Island, we get the ferry back to the mainland and drive north to the small inland town of Bundaberg for an amazing lunch at Indulge Café and a visit to the Bundaberg Rum Distillery. Here we have an interesting tour of the working factory, including tasting and blending our own rums. I’d recommend the banana and toffee flavours.
Next we head to the coast and our home for the night, Manta Bagara Resort, which is a fantastic, modern and stylish apartment option just five minutes’ walk from downtown Bagara, where there are restaurants and shops. After a simple chip shop dinner, we head to Mon Repos Conservation Area, the most famous and accessible turtle rookery in Australia. We are taken onto the beach by a guide to observe a turtle laying eggs. Strict protocol has to be followed so as not to disturb the laying loggerhead turtle, and we are able to watch for around 45 minutes as she lays her clutch and finally returns to the sea.
Our room is simple and just a few steps from the beach. It feels like we have stepped back in time, with an unusual no room key policy, no TVs or Wi-Fi in your room and limited to no phone signal. This is ultimate escapism! We wander through the dense green trees along wide sand paths and find the island is home to thousands of noddy terns and wedge-tailed shearwaters that emit a cacophony of eerie wailing to find their burrow and nesting chicks. This will be an enduring memory of Heron Island!
As the sun rises in the morning, I can’t wait to test out the snorkelling. I find lots of coral housing lovely reef fish, spot two reef sharks and an enormous stingray on the seabed that's at least one and a half metres wide. It scoots off in a cloud of sand when I get close. Alongside the jetty, I see a beautiful cowtail stingray half buried in the sand. I spot another just in front, then another and another. I realise there are perhaps 50 stingrays resting in the vicinity, including the giant shovelnose ray, which at two and a half metres long is a lot bigger than me! Later, I go out for a scuba dive and see the biggest whitetip reef sharks I've ever seen!
After a few days, we head back to the mainland and Gladstone Airport for the first of our flights home. I am so sad to say goodbye to Australia once again. I’m also extremely glad we have business class flights booked with Qantas from Melbourne to Heathrow. The flatbed ensures I have the best night’s sleep and it really is the perfect end to a wonderful trip.
Steve Yates is an Africa Expert at our John Lewis Oxford Street store. Book an appointment with him here.