There’s a pretty well-worn backpacker route that runs from Southeast Asia all the way down to New Zealand. Its spine is the east coast of Australia, from maybe as far north as Darwin to as far south as Adelaide, but definitely from Cairns down to at least Sydney. There’s a reason visitors favor this part of the continent. Perth is gorgeous but geographically isolated; Uluru is finally closed as a tourist attraction, a thing it never should have become in the first place. But that eastern coast is stuffed with back-to-back wonders; many of them famous, others less so. And one in particular that might be the most famous -- whether you know its name or not:
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Whitehaven is famous for a specific and undeniable reason: It has the whitest sand of any beach in the world, composed of 98% pure silica. I’ve been there once and, four years later, can still see the afterimage burned into my retinas. Whitehaven is only accessible by boat or seaplane, so this is something you’ll have to join a tour group for rather than visiting independently. The water is shallow and warm and bright, and you wade through it alongside little lemon shark pups, squinting against a blinding stretch of white in every direction.
Whitehaven is just one part (albeit the most iconic one) of the larger Whitsundays, a collection of 74 remote islands nestled between the coastline and the Great Barrier Reef. If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing the reef in person, or have a newly burning desire to see it before it becomes a pile of Styrofoam, this is where you should go.
God this was fun. Fraser is another one for which you’ll need to join a tour, unless you happen to have your own car with serious 4WD. But Fraser Island group tours will place you in such a car and let you all take turns driving, which on my particular trip involved two minor accidents (NOT while I was driving), a medium amount of road rage, and a lot of stress, but the greatest possible amount of fun. You’ll drive through shallow water along the beach, camp overnight, cook, drink, float down a river, and negotiate outhouses guarded by plate-sized spiders. Also, dingoes! Dingos live on Fraser Island. I should have led with that. You can see dingos here.
Sunshine Coast is just south of Fraser Island and contains a succession of dreamy beaches and national parks. You can splash into swimming holes hidden in the rainforest of Kondalilla National park; walk barefoot along Sunshine beach; and wander to the edge of the mesmerizing Mooloolaba Spit.
Noosa is one of the towns you’ll find along the Sunshine Coast. The main beach is a long-time favorite among surfers and a must-see for anyone passing through the region. Noosa National Park is enchanting in its own right, but has the added bonus of being a great place to see some koalas, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Continuing our journey down the coast, we next come to Queensland's capitol city, which sits on the Brisbane River. Brisbane is often overlooked by tourists in favor of the more fashionable Sydney and Melbourne, but at the very least you should take a day and stop at Streets Beach -- the only inner-city beach in the country. Also, Brisbane is an excellent location to befriend some more koalas.
Below Brisbane lies the Gold Coast, where you’ll find long, long stretches of pristine beaches and all the good surfing sports you could ever ask for. There’s an abundance of hikable rainforest here too, but don’t leave right away once you’ve finished getting into nature -- the city is known for its nightlife, too.
Below the Gold Coast we next come to Byron Bay. Lots of stops along this route get deservedly hyped up as surfing spots, but Byron Bay is the full experience -- a town that lives and breathes surf culture. It has all the charm of a (comparatively) smaller town, and yet you still get all the backpacking standbys: cafes, beachside bars, snorkeling, and even scuba diving and whale watching if that’s what you’re after. MORE:The best scuba diving destinations around the world
One of the most iconic beaches anywhere -- not just Australia, but anywhere in the world. A few miles from downtown Sydney, Bondi is… massive. You can surf, you can swim, you can stay on land admiring the suspiciously endless parade of hot people walking past. Make sure to visit during the weekend to browse the beach markets, where you can get your lunch (and souvenirs) from scores of local vendors.
Blue Mountains National Park
Just inland from Sydney lies Blue Mountains National Park, and first off it’s important to know that this is a choice destination for spotting kangaroos. But Blue Mountains National Park is worth visiting largely because it looks like something out of Avatar. It’s also home to an adventure theme park where you can ride the world’s steepest passenger railway, or walk along a skyway suspended in the rainforest canopy. MORE:Here’s an Australian golf course with 300 resident kangaroos