Discover the best of East Coast Australia with this list of towns to visit along the Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian coastlines.
Words by James Jackson
Sitting at the base of Cape York Peninsula in Tropical North Queensland, Cooktown is the launch pad for many adventures, but it’s also an incredibly scenic town with an unhurried vibe and plenty of history. Part of that history is emblemised in its very name, which came to be in the time after James Cook beached his ship, The Endeavour, there for repairs in 1770. This rich history is on full show at the excellent James Cook Museum, while sprinklings of its colonial roots are evident throughout the rest of the town as well. Even with endless wild coast nearby, Cape York’s four-wheel drive wilderness to the north and the Daintree on its doorstep, Cooktown holds its own as a worthwhile place to visit within the crowded adventure hub that is Far North Queensland.
Blessed with diverse natural surrounds and a charming riverside CBD, Mackay is an all-in-one traveller’s dream that somehow remains underrated. Situated at the mouth of the blue Pioneer River, the town is mid-sized and has plenty to see on foot, while further afield is a feast of natural wonders. Head to Cape Hillsborough Tourist Park to watch the sunrise with the kangaroos on the beach, venture into Pioneer Valley to gaze upon rushing waterfalls in sub-tropical rainforest and go walking and swimming in the green wilderness of Eungella National Park further inland.
Offshore is the Southern Great Barrier Reef and onshore is the Bundaberg Rum Distillery – could Bundy a more iconic Queensland town? Lying almost 400km north of Brisbane, the town is in one of the best areas for seeing nesting marine turtles up close, and the work done at the Mon Repos Turtle Centre plays a key role in assisting the survival of the endangered loggerhead turtle. A short drive south is Burrum Coast National Park too, which is home to secluded beaches and swampy wallum heath that are made accessible by excellent walking trails and 4WD tracks.
New South Wales’s north coast is so stacked with touring-town-talent that it can be hard to choose one with which to indulge yourself: Byron Bay, Pottsville, Lennox Head and all the towns in between are full of enough character and cafés to woo your inner beach hipster. However, Yamba does all that with less pretence and more serenity, giving it an authentic and distinctive atmosphere that encourages you to linger. There are specialty shops and quiet beaches aplenty here, while to the north is Bundjalung National Park and south is Yuraygir National Park – both of which offer beach driving, camping and deserted coastline.
A small village just 10km south of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell’s size belies its modern culture and variety of things to see and do. The main avenue is overflowing with upmarket cafés, restaurants and specialty shops that sit on either side of a median divider dominated by huge fig trees. This leads eastward to a sweeping beach and the green headlands of Bongil Bongil National Park, which you can explore by way of a coastal walk that skirts Sawtell Beach and Bongil Bongil Creek. Meanwhile, inland is the iconic Waterfall Way and the breathtaking ranges of the New England High Country.
These twin towns on New South Wales’s Mid North Coast are archetypal holiday destinations: relaxed, dotted with fish and chip shops (and spots to enjoy them) and plenty of accommodation where ocean noise comes standard. Separated by a bridge but joined in their amiable atmosphere, there’s no shortage of fishing spots to cast a line here, while inland are some true spectacles of nature: the Great Lakes, which are made of lakes Myall, Smiths and Wallis. Forming the eastern side of the closest lake – Lake Wallis – is Booti Booti National Park, a thin, unspoilt stretch of coastline with everything from bush camping to a caravan park at Seven Mile Beach.
Said to have the whitest sand in the world, Jervis Bay knows how to make an impression. With its curled coast sheltering its silica shores, the turquoise waters in Jervis Bay are calm, clear and brilliant, and there are myriad ways in which to enjoy them. You can while away hours and days swimming, snorkelling and paddling on any number of watercraft, or meander local markets, shopping sectors and walking trails around the area. Go camping at Green Patch in Booderee National Park for some added adventure, which forms the southern extent of the bay and as such has some of its quietest coastline to enjoy.
Nonchalantly named by James Cook as he breezed past in April of 1770, it wasn’t until the next century that Batemans Bay’s excellent position saw a sawmill, port and more spring up along the mouth of the Clyde River. Little did Cook know that Batemans Bay would today be the consummate seaside holiday village; its combination of fresh and salt water, quality seafood and small-town charm creating an atmosphere that’s instantly relaxing. Nearby is the riparian Clyde River National Park and its pocket of forest, while to the south-west is the expansive wilderness of Deua National Park’s escarpments and valleys that can be accessed by vehicle and on foot.
It’s believed that Tathra means ‘beautiful country’ in the local Aboriginal dialect; either that or ‘wild cat’. After laying eyes on this small town on the Sapphire Coast it seems it would pay to lean towards the former, but who’s to say? Even after bushfires rocked the town in March 2018 Tathra and its surrounds remain calm and scenic, its small population allowing this sleepy place to retain its core appeal. Characterised by an aged wharf that stands proudly above waters passaged by seals, fairy penguins, dolphins and the like, the bay that sweeps north from Tathra Head is well-loved by swimmers, surfers and snorkelers too. Immediately to the south is Bournda National Park and its excellent walking trails, which cross paths with numerous lagoons and lakes, while north is Mimosa Rocks National Park and its diverse system of beaches, caves, headlands and coastal heath.
Sitting between the ocean and the Gippsland Lakes, Lakes Entrance is a scenic seaside town with plenty on offer for tourers and holiday-goers. Much of the town’s façade is indeed geared for visitors – from an esplanade lined with shops and dining options to countless places to stay while in town. Naturally much of the recreation on offer is water-based, with endless hiring options and places to either engage in watersports or take a humble dip. Places to drop a line are not hard to come by either, while Lakes Entrance itself is the base for fishing fleets both large and small. With its sea air keeping the temperatures a few degrees warmer than Melbourne to the east, it’s unsurprising that Lakes Entrance remains an iconic escape for Victorians as well as those exploring East Coast Australia.