Brisbane to Byron Bay: along Australia’s Gold Coast

James Wilkinson

Travel editor and commentator

The easterly edge of Australia – centred on the Gold Coast – has been shedding its touristic image to become one of the country’s coolest coastlines. See why, with a guide to the best sights, bites, beers and hotels in Brisbane, Surfers Paradise, Carabita Beach and Byron Bay

With over 300 days of sunshine, spectacular surfing and seemingly endless stretches of golden sand, it’s easy to see why people first flocked to the Gold Coast. But, gaining a rep as a beaten track packed with people, theme parks and flashy high-rise hotels, savvy travellers soon looked elsewhere for their hit of sun, sea and sand. In recent years, though, the area that spans the southernmost point of Queensland and the top of New South Wales has been quietly getting its cool back – with everything from its art galleries to its craft breweries now rivalling the nation’s best, and a host of hip hoteliers and world-class chefs making a base on its shores.

From Sydney, it takes just an hour and a half to fly internally to Brisbane – a great way to kick off a trip – then you can work your way down by car.



Time: 1.5-hour flight from Sydney, or a 10-hour drive

Long overlooked as simply a gateway city, people would pass through Brisbane before heading north to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef, or south to Surfers Paradise. But, thanks to an influx of funding, a surge in new independent bars, breweries and eateries and a flourishing cultural scene, its now quite the destination in itself.

Stay at the Gambaro, a smart boutique hotel in the leafy, lively Paddington suburb.

Eat at the hotel’s Gambaro Seafood Restaurant – a Brisbane institution – or walk up the street to the Paddington Barracks for bustling bars and restaurants with a good crowd of locals. Elsewhere, on the Brisbane River, the buzzy South Bank area has excellent restaurants, like Stoke House, known for its locally sourced meat and fish, epic wine list and scenic sunset cocktail spot. To sample the city’s famous craft beer scene, look out for brews from Newstead Brewing Co. and Green Beacon Brewing Co.

Do catch a game. Brisbane has a huge sports scene, and it’s worth a visit to the Suncorp Stadium – home to the Reds (rugby union), Broncos (rugby league) and Roar (football). Or check out the Gabba, which hosts the Australian national and Queensland cricket teams, and the Brisbane Lions (playing what can only be described as a mix of Gaelic football, rugby union and soccer). Of the mix, the best for kids are the Reds, Lions, or the cricket.

The city’s relatively young arts scene is coming on leaps and bounds too. You’ll find performance art and open-air cinemas at South Bank, or visit the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art – deserving of its title as one of the nation’s most talked about galleries – for blockbuster exhibitions and impressive collections of contemporary and indigenous Australian art.

Surfers Paradise 

Surfers Paradise

Time: 1-hour drive south from Brisbane

The thriving town of Surfers Paradise – the entertainment and tourism jewel in the Gold Coast’s crown, and home to those famous stretches of sand – has been seen over the years as primarily a party town, but it has been steadily maturing.

Stay at the hip QT Gold Coast for coastal views, an excellent day spa, the very cool Stingray cocktail bar and an interactive open kitchen experience at the upstairs Bazaar restaurant.

Eat, too, at Helm Surfers Paradise for a casual meal and local beer right on the river; Salt Grill for a refined dining experience courtesy of star chef Luke Mangan; or try the Burleigh Brewing Company for a bottle of HEF or Duke, and the monthly ‘Brewhouse Bash’ with BBQs and music.

Do – if you dare – brave SkyPoint Climb, Australia’s tallest external building walk, 270 metres above town. You’ll want to hit the beach too. The three main ‘glamour beaches’ are Surfers Paradise, Broadbeach and Main Beach (where Surf in Paradise offers the best lessons), but if you want to avoid the crowds, head south to the quieter Tugun; to Burleigh Heads for a national park with walking trails and good picnicking options; or drive south to Coolangatta for the best surfing conditions.

Carabita Beach 

Carabita Beach

Time: 45-minute drive south from Surfers Paradise

Carabita Beach is a quiet, pretty town known for its top surf break, scenic coastal walks, swimming beaches and luxury beachside retreat Halcyon House, Australia’s coolest regional hotel.

Stay, and eat and do everything on offer, at Halycon. On top of achingly chic, idiosyncratic interiors, the boutique hotel stands out for endearing touches like free mini bars and private beachfront terraces perfect for enjoying their content on. The hotel enjoys the exceptional Paper Daisy: a bar and restaurant helmed by Noma (Copenhagen’s world-famous two Michelin starred restaurant) alumnus Ben Devlin, serving regional specialities like locally farmed crayfish. It also offers the chance to learn from one of the world’s best surfers: 11-time ASP winner Joel Parkinson gives guests one-on-one lessons when he’s in town.

Byron Bay 

Byron Bay

Time: 30-minute drive south from Carabita

Famed too for its surfing, Byron Bay is the laid back heartland of the region’s alternative scene, and a hot spot for festivals – including favourites BluesfestSplendour in the Grass, the Mullum Music Festival and the Falls Music & Arts Festival.

Stay at the tropical Byron at Byron Resort & Spa, sitting pretty in 45 acres of rainforest.

Do make time for a canopy walk or lotus garden spa treatment at the hotel, then take the shuttle into town to visit one of Byron’s many markets. Try Byron Farmer’s Market, every Thursday, or the market in the smart village of Bangalow: a must-visit, held on the fourth Sunday of every month, with performance artists and stalls stocking artisanal arts, crafts and edibles. Give yourself time to explore the quirky vintage and antiques shops in town too. And no Byron visit is complete without a trip up the Cape Byron lighthouse – the most easterly point of Australia – where you’ll get epic views up and down the coast, especially during whale watching season (June to November).

Eat everywhere – Byron has just about everything. Top picks include café-bar-restaurant the Roadhouse, the Byron Beach Café, right on the sand, and the iconic Beach Hotel pub. Finally, if you’re heading back to Sydney, it’s a 45-minute drive back north to Gold Coast Coolangatta Airport for a short domestic flight.

Try the Sydney Guide for more activities and accommodation once you’re back in town, too.

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