Road trip planner: The Whitsundays to Cairns in 10 days
With places like the Whitsundays and Cairns at our fingertips, it’s so easy to drop your pin in one place to soak up a single destination holiday. But if you’re looking for a little variety between famous vacation spots, some of the biggest Queensland joys are in the smallest places.
The only way to find them? Plan a road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns.
The 622km of coastline between the two holiday favourites is packed with unique experiences that ooze of Queensland spirit, and half the fun is uncovering them. From the world’s best beach and the second-most-irreplaceable natural environment in the world, to a living organism that can be seen from space, and every little treasure you happen upon in between – there’s plenty of moments and memories to collect through the top-third of the state.
With a car or campervan, this guide, 10 days, and a pre-downloaded playlist (service can be a bit patchy for your tunes), you’ll be connecting the dots of your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns faster than you can say ‘I spy’.
Day 1: Go large at Hamilton Island
Your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns adventure begins on Australia’s biggest island resort playground, Hamilton Island. Flights from all major cities connect into Hamilton Island and will have you landing right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.
Check into accommodation at the Reef View Hotel, for a second-to-none view across the Pacific Ocean. Call this home for two nights and settle into a few days of by-the-sea living – a place to pause and appreciate the neighbouring untouched islands and Whitsunday waters.
Spend the day getting acquainted with any one of the four pools at the resort. The Main Pool at Catseye Beach is a hot favourite with visitors, with its own swim-up bar to lap up some holiday luxury before you hit the road in days to come.
The best way to get around the island is by golf buggy – something Hamilton Island is quite famous for – a token treat for holiday makers of all ages. So swap your two feet for four wheels and explore the hilly retreat.
Make your way to One Tree Hill – a sunset spot with a 360 degree view, and toast to the first night of many to come, overlooking the beautiful pacific.
Read a little more about maximising your time on Hamilton Island.
Day 2: Sink into holiday mode at Whitehaven Beach
Under an hour away by boat from Australia’s most acclaimed beach, it would be rude not to pop in for the day. Whitehaven Beach is a hands-down must see while in the Whitsunday Islands, so head over to a tour desk on Hamilton Island and they’ll secure you a spot on their half day cruise and swimming adventure.
Expect 7km of pristine beach, topped with fine silica sand that’s cool underfoot and untouched by development or civilisation. The white sands are famous for not holding heat, so you don’t have to dance on your toes from the water to your towel.
After a round of frisbee by the water, take a walk up the coastline to Hill Inlet for a squiz at the natural swirl of white sand and blue water as the tide changes.
It’s important to leave this natural wonder as untouched as you found it, with no shops, bins or amenities, everyone who visits plays a role in keeping Whitehaven and its wildlife picture perfect.
Day 3: Home to the much-loved mango
From Hamilton Island, set your compass west and head back to the mainland to continue your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns. Golf buggy your way to the Hamilton Island Marina where you can catch an early-morning transfer with Cruise Whitsundays over to Airlie Beach.
Lap up the cruise across to the Port of Airlie and be greeted by palm trees and hilly streetscapes stretching across Mt. Whitsundays. From here there are plenty of ways to explore Airlie and the rest of tropical Queensland, but we’d highly recommend grabbing a campervan so you can town-hop with ease and park your home where ever the view takes your fancy (within reason – check out local parking and camping laws before you pull up).
Swap the backpacker capital for the mango capital and drive 80km north to visit Bowen. A small town with big photo opportunities and an even bigger mango. Tick an Aussie icon off your list and grab a photo with The Big Mango, one of many fascinatingly ‘big’ things of the world.
Bowen’s secluded beaches are one of the many treats you’ll enjoy about the city, so secluded that you only have to share with locals who are in the know. Better still, this little coastal town is humble in its development with no big chains of hotels or motels, so you can reverse your campervan right up onto the waterfront and end your day with sunset views.
Watching the sun fall from Horseshoe Bay is a must while you’re touring the township. Bowen’s most iconic beach is framed by granite outcrops, with dinner and drinks only a few steps away at the licensed Horseshoe Bay Café and Beach Bar.
If you fancy a bed, settle in for the evening at Horseshoe Bay Resort – you can’t miss the brightly coloured huts and small-town beach vibes.
Before you hit the next leg of your journey, mosey over to La Sorelle ‘The Sisters’ Café, a local eatery and florist that’s made a splash in the Bowen dining scene. Florist out the front, and café out the back, this gem is what Instagram feed dreams are made of and has plenty of options for vegetarians if you’re on the hunt for plant-based options.
Day 4: Head north to Magnetic Island
After your morning feed, do yourself a favour and stock up on La Sorelle’s famous Bowen mango fudge (road trip snacks), and continue your Whitsundays to Cairns road trip north. After only two and a half hours you’ll find yourself at South Townsville ready to drive straight onto the Fantasea car ferry to island hop once again on the east coast’s famous Magnetic Island. (The rate for standard vehicles includes the driver and up to four passengers.)
Granite boulders, eucalyptus forests and Australia’s most northern Koala population are just the beginning on this Great Barrier Reef island. Cruise the roads and discover where the rock wallabies enjoy the sunset, the Forts Walk and (another) Horseshoe Bay.
There’s plenty of way to become more acquainted with Maggie Island, one of the east coast’s favourite spots to become one with nature.
Day 5: Soak in the best of Magnetic Island
With so much to explore, two days on (affectionately named) Maggie Island is barely enough to scratch the surface.
They say the early bird catches the worm, but they also make a mean bruschetta. Pop by this local café favourite and fuel up on The Early Bird’s breakfast favourites before a day of beach activities. Plan a stop at Horseshoe Bay Ranch where you can go horse-riding across the beach and through the waters, and in the evening, take the last ferry off the island for the cheapest way to see the sunset from the water. The crossing promises quite the spectacle behind the shadow of Castle Hill.
Arrive in town and make the most of Australia’s first flashpackers, Rambutan Resort, right on Townsville’s main drag, Flinders Street. If you’re in a van, they’ll even let you park it undercover with full access to their facilities for a small fee.
Of course, if you have more time – don’t forget to check out how to explore Townsville in a weekend.
Day 6: Fall for Queensland’s natural water features
The next leg of your Whitsundays to Cairns road trip has you discover one of Queensland’s waterfall greats, Wallaman Falls. Enjoy sugar cane views during your trip from Townsville to Girringun National Park, right up until you start the accent to Wallaman,
You’ll know you’ve arrived when you hear the unmistakable sounds of water hitting the rocks beneath them – a constant cloud of mist reveals the full force of Queensland’s tallest single-drop waterfall.
If the timing’s right, you’ll be able to spot the iconic rainbow that reflects through the falls, most vibrant in the early morning and late hours of the day. One of many small Queensland joys you can’t capture on camera. Soak it up.
The best seat in the house sits at the bottom of the falls, so take the Djyinda (pronounced ‘Yin-da’) walk to the bottom of the gorge and base of the falls. Things get steep and slippery towards the end, this this walk isn’t accessible to everyone, a moderate amount of hiking experience is recommended.
If you’re in a campervan, pull up for the night here. Wallaman Falls camping area is adjacent to Stony Creek and promises the best views and convenience to the famous falls. Amenities like gas barbeques, picnic tables, shelter sheds, water and cold showers make this national park camping experience a notch above the rest.
If you’re travelling in a car, head costal to Ingham for a taste of little Italy in the tropics.
Day 7: Waterfalls to water sports
If Wallaman Falls whet your appetite for water adventure, set your sights towards Tully for the next step of your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns. Famous for its World Heritage-listed landscapes, the town welcomes you with a 300m waterfall, responsible for the Tully River rapids.
Join Raging Thunder for an adventure down their Grade 3 & 4 rapid courses. Lunch is included with a side of scenery (vegetarian options available). If you’re expecting a bub or have a medical condition that doesn’t take kindly to adrenaline, best to sit this one out and enjoy the views from two feet instead.
For more information on the Wet Tropics, don’t miss this post.
And where to rest your head after all this adventuring? We’d recommend heading north up to Atherton Tablelands to spend the night. Yungaburra is the epicentre of the Tablelands and guarantees you can leave your car at home and wander to your dinner plans.
Day 8: Cutlery at the ready at the Atherton Tablelands
But if adventure is more your thing, strap your hiking boots on and follow the falls for a whole day of exploring a beautiful section of North Queensland that can only be uncovered by foot. This post has you covered with the best falls in the area, all achievable to visit in a day trip.
Ellinja, Zillie and Milla Milla are popular walks, all close together and best suited to those with little hiking experience. But if you’re looking for a challenge there are longer drops like Nandroya Falls which take closer to an hour to find.
On your journey, be sure to pop into a heritage-listed natural wonder, the Curtain Tree Fig to see one of the largest trees in Tropical North Queensland.
Overnight: Curtain Fig Tree Motel
Day 9: Rock hop through North Queensland
The next days of your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns bear no shortage of waterfalls, the wettest parts of Australia are at the mercy of which way you turn your steering wheel. We’d recommend your trip further north takes you past Josephine Falls and Babinda Boulders for more crystal waters to ogle at.
Josephine Falls is Queensland’s favourite natural waterslide, and there’s no shortage of fans who’ll be there to show you the way to slide down the mossy granite to the waters below. The safest way down is on your bottom, to be sure you and this natural wonder both remain unharmed.
Babinda Boulders are as beautiful as they are spiritual – a home to crystal water, prehistoric volcanic rock, and an Aboriginal legend that holds great significance for local Aboriginal peoples. Look it up before you go and listen deeply to hear the legendary cries of Oolana across the boulders.
The boardwalk is the best vantage point for the waters, and while you can swim around the picnic areas, this is one area you’ll be sure to follow all the signs and recommendations.
A little further north arrive at tropical capital, Cairns – the final destination in your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns. It’s got a relaxed vibe without the sleepy mentality and is famous for its linear streets and hospitality. If you’re looking to make your way around the restaurant scene, you won’t be turned away if you roll in after eight, giving you time to soak up the day and live up the night.
If you’ve not been before, here’s a guide for first-timers.
Day 10: Reward your journey with the reef
The wonder of the world and the goal post for your road trip from Whitsundays to Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef is a must-see if you’ve made it all this way. Reward yourself with a day on the ocean and pop down to the marina to book in your trip to the outer reef.
The options are plenty, but if you’re bamboozled by which boat to choose, check out this blog post. Plan your day best by how long you’d like to spend cruising, and if you’re struggling to pick one, we’d recommend a comprehensive day trip like Reef Magic Cruises or Sunlover Reef Cruises, who station themselves at an outer reef pontoon and are famous for offering a little of everything for your day out.
Or, if your budget has got the better of you on this trip while dining and drinking yours savings account, don’t dismiss these (almost) free things to do.
Where to from here?
If your annual leave isn’t calling you home, why not extend your trip with:
- These day trips from Cairns;
- A visit to the Undara Lava Tubes;
- The Pacific Coast Way from Cairns to Brisbane; or
- The ultimate bucket list adventure – Cairns to the ‘Tip’.