Classic road trip series: The Ultimate North Queensland Road Trip

Do you dream of packing up the car and heading off on a road trip to explore beautiful beaches, lush green rain forests and stunning tropical islands? Well that’s exactly what I did with Choice Hotels Australia! Starting my journey in Mackay, I mapped out my ultimate North Queensland road trip that would take me on to Townsville and then Cairns. A week of non-stop tropical fun in the sun and staying in comfort at Choice Hotels properties along the way.


1. Mackay

The first leg of my ultimate NQ road trip began in Mackay. It’s well known as the sugar capital of Australia with the region producing more than a third of Australia’s sugar cane but did you know it’s also the perfect place to unwind and get back to nature?

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With a time frame of seven days for the road trip, I allowed the first two days to explore Mackay. Fortunately, you don’t need to travel too far to see the very best natural attractions in Mackay and the two Choice properties I stayed at were in great locations to do this. Waking up to sensational sunrise views over the marina and the Coral Sea, this was the perfect way to start the trip and you can even see Keswick Island from your balcony! Keswick is a great day trip and there’s a couple of options to get there, either by small plane or boat from the marina.

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2. Keswick

The flight to Keswick is spectacular and you get a fantastic view of not only Keswick but its neighbouring island St Bees as well. During the winter months you might even be lucky enough to spot whales as they make their migration north. It’s a great day out with excellent snorkelling right at the end of the runway and on the other side of the island Basil Bay is perfect for a beach picnic. I’d recommend hiring one of their golf buggies so you can easily explore the island. As there aren’t many people on Keswick – it feels like a private island just for you!

After a big day exploring Keswick, the next stop was the Comfort Resort Blue Pacific at the northern beaches of Mackay. Lush tropical gardens set right on Black’s Beach make this a very relaxing resort. You can wake up each morning, step out of your room and onto the beach and of an evening there’s a top Chinese restaurant within walking distance that’s a local favourite.

The second day in Mackay was all about exploring rainforests and waterfalls. Around an hour west of Mackay, you will find Eungella and Finch Hatton which are part of Australia’s largest continuous stretch of sub-tropical rainforest. The two best waterfalls here are Araluen and the Wheel of Fire. If you’re visiting during summer, it’s a popular swimming hole and a great place for a refreshing dip (so don’t forget to wear your swimmers underneath your clothes!).

3. Cape Hillsborough

The next morning, I was on the road bright and early to catch sunrise at what I think would have to be the most Australian sunrise experience ever, sunrise with kangaroos and wallabies on the beach at Cape Hillsborough. The roos and wallabies come down to the beach each morning to feed and quite often they’ll hop right up to you and even pose for a photo! Such an unforgettable experience.

Wild wallabies on the beach at cape Hillsborough silhouetted at sunrise

4. Townsville

From here I waved goodbye to Mackay and it’s a 4 hour drive to Townsville. I had the pleasure of staying at the Clarion Hotel Townsville which is located right in the heart of the city. The perfect spot to drop your bags off (and rest your head on their soft pillows!) and explore the best of Townsville. Within a 10 minute radius of the Clarion Hotel Townsville you can be soaking up the views from the top of Castle Hill, going for a swim along the Strand at the rock pool or learning all about the Great Barrier Reef at the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world, Reef HQ.

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5. Magnetic Island

An absolute must do and an icon of the Townsville region is Magnetic Island, which can be seen from Castle Hill and the Strand. It’s a 20-minute ferry ride to Maggie and I spent a full day over there beach hopping around the island and snorkelling the fringing reefs just close to shore. You can even hire a mini moke to scoot around the island- which is so much fun.

After two nights in Townsville it was then onto Cairns, but not before stopping off on the way to Wallaman Falls which is Australia’s tallest single drop waterfall. The views from the carpark are good but I recommend doing the hike to the base of the falls, it’s approximately a 2 hour return journey and you’re rewarded with the remarkable sight of the waterfall through the rainforest canopy.


6. Cairns

Stopping off at the falls when heading north from Townsville is such a worthwhile experience. After having spent the morning exploring Wallaman, I arrived into Cairns in the mid afternoon and checked into the Comfort Inn Cairns City. I loved my time here so much that I actually extended my stay by another night. It’s nice and close to the Esplanade and Lagoon and most tour operators also offer a pick-up service right to the front door.

My first two days in the Cairns region were filled with island day trips to Fitzroy Island and the Frankland Islands. Each have their own unique experiences. Fitzroy Island has a turtle rehabilitation centre and the famous Nudey Beach whilst the Frankland Islands are a marine and national park with fantastic snorkelling around the fringing reefs.

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7. Palm Cove

After a fun couple of days exploring the islands around Cairns, I had just enough time to tick off two other bucket list experiences. The first was to catch a sunrise at the iconic palm tree lined beach at Palm Cove. Here the palms come right down to the water line and it’s like a postcard perfect tropical landscape. I spent the morning here before heading inland to chase waterfalls around the waterfall circuit in the Atherton Tablelands. The most popular waterfall here is Millaa Millaa and as it’s one of the most photographed waterfalls in Australia, I just had to get my camera out!

With those experiences completed this brought to an end my Choice Hotels ultimate North Queensland road trip. There’s a huge amount to see in this part of Australia, so it’s important to get a good night’s rest- which is why I’m glad I stayed at the comfortable Choice Hotels along the way. This trip was everything I’d hoped it would be and more with plenty of fun in the sun, so much sun in fact that I now have tan lines on my feet from wearing thongs all day long!

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Words and images by Mark Fitz