Queensland travel guide and things to do: The best of the Sunshine state

Beware: we're going into dangerous territory here. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to explain to you the great state of Queensland. It's to capture what it really means to call yourself a Queenslander, to reveal the nuance and the beauty of the Queensland spirit. And most importantly, it's to tell you where in this amazing state true Queenslanders like to go for a holiday.

By way of admission and explanation, I am a Queenslander. I spent the first 25 years of my life in Queensland, in various rural towns and larger cities. I have spent countless holidays, both as a child and as an adult, exploring the further reaches of the Sunshine State. I know this place. I know these people.

I appreciate Queensland's vastness – this is a landmass almost the size of Mexico, with more islands than Thailand – full of contrast and contradiction. Yes, this is the home of outsized characters like Bob Katter and Steve Irwin, but also the more considered likes of Geoffrey Rush and Quentin Bryce. Queensland is the state that invented Bundy Rum, but also gave us the world's first cancer vaccine. It is Holden utes and B&S balls, but it is also fine-dining restaurants and world-class cultural facilities.

The people of Queensland can be many things, but to me they're always friendly, always welcoming, always laidback. There's an easy charm that I miss when I'm not there, and that I revel in when I am. Queensland is a firm handshake, a big smile, an offer to give you a hand.

It's a fantastic place, and it's finally open once again to visitors from interstate. To celebrate, I'm going to lift the lid on a few local secrets. This is where Queenslanders go for their holidays. It's where I used to go when I was a kid, and where I plan to take my own children. This is the best of a great state.

CARNARVON GORGE

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(handout image supplied by Tourism and Events Queensland for use in Traveller, no syndication) 
cr: Tourism and Events Queensland

Hiking in Carnarvon Gorge. Photo: Jesse Lindemann

THE LOWDOWN

This is a truly spectacular natural rock formation in the heart of Central Queensland, an area home to endemic plants and 173 species of birds, a place that deserves far more recognition than it receives.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

Carnarvon National Park is remote – the nearest regional centre is Roma, three hours away, and that's a town of only 7000 people. What that means is Carnarvon is untouched and uncrowded, a perfect place to get away from it all. There are great camping facilities here, and plenty of accessible hikes.

SEE + DO

You're here to camp and to commune with nature, which can be done via a site at the hike-in, hike-out Big Bend camping area. See millennia-old Indigenous rock art, painted by the Bidjara and Karingbal people on sandstone overhangs. Hike deep into the side gorges and relax under sheer cliffs by the natural pool near the campsite.

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INSIDER TIP

During Easter and the June-July and September-October school holidays, the Carnarvon Gorge camping area – which has vehicular access, meaning no long hikes with tired kids – is open.

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Carnarvon Gorge is a nine-hour drive from Brisbane, 7.5 hours from Rockhampton, or eight hours from Longreach. Book campsites in advance at www.qld.gov.au/camping

AGNES WATER

THE LOWDOWN

Agnes and the neighbouring Town of 1770 are quiet coastal hamlets about halfway between Gladstone and Bundaberg, and are ideal for families looking for an affordable beachside idyll.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

Because – back in the day at least – no one else used to know about Agnes Water. When I was at school we would go on holiday to Agnes from Gladstone and see … everyone from Gladstone. And that was it. These days others have caught on to the high-quality surfing, kayaking, camping, hiking and beach-bumming on offer.

SEE + DO

Don't miss a wander along the Paperbark Forest Boardwalk, 400 metres of planks and stepping stones in Reedy Creek Reserve; or learn about the Gooreng Gooreng people at Eurimbula National Park. There's also whale watching from July to October, turtles nesting in November and December, and surfing, fishing, paddle-boarding and kayaking year-round.

INSIDER TIP

Escape the crowds – plus find a great spot to throw a line in – at Chinamans Beach, an unpatrolled stretch a few minutes' drive down the coast from Agnes.

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Agnes Water is six hours' drive north of Brisbane, or about 1.5 hours south of Gladstone. There's a range of accommodation available, from camping to glamping to resorts and private villas. See visitagnes1770.com.au

THE GRANITE BELT

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(handout image supplied by Tourism and Events Queensland for use in Traveller, no syndication) 
cr: Tourism and Events QueenslandGirraween National Park - Granite belt

Girraween National Park.  Photo: Reuben Nutt

THE LOWDOWN

The highlands of far southern Queensland have always been attractive to nature-seekers. Now they're a wine-lover's paradise as well.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

The Granite Belt, an area of the Great Dividing Range centred around the town of Stanthorpe, offers something most of Queensland does not: reliably cool weather. It's also home to Girraween National Park, and has become Queensland's premier wine region.

SEE + DO

Take the chance to check out a few of those wineries and appreciate their quality: Heritage Estate, Boireann, Tobin Wines and Bent Road Estate are all doing great things. Three national parks, Girraween, Bald Rock and Boonoo Boonoo, are remarkable for their rock formations and abundant flora and fauna and are well worth exploring,

INSIDER TIP

The name Girraween means "place of flowers" in the Darug language, and you will appreciate the reason for that if you visit in September or October to see the incredible displays of wildflowers.

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Stanthorpe, the heart of the Granite Belt, is a three-hour drive south-west of Brisbane. See southerndownsandgranitebelt.com.au

NORTH STRADBROKE ISLAND

THE LOWDOWN

The island affectionately known as "Straddie" – or "Minjerribah" to the Quandamooka people – has long been a coastal holiday playground for south-east Queensland's urban dwellers.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

Straddie has all the things a holiday maker could dream of: surf beaches, quiet coastal villages, brushes with native wildlife, campsites, four-wheel drive tracks, snorkelling and scuba-diving spots, and a relaxed vibe.

SEE + DO

If you can surf, head to Point Lookout and hope the swell is up. If you can scuba-dive, head out on a boat from the same spot (whale-watching cruises also run from here in June to October). Others can hit Straddie's cycling and walking tracks, or just hang out on hot sand.

INSIDER TIP

Plan to take your car across on the barge to get the best out of Straddie – there's plenty to explore here and having your own wheels will allow access to it all.

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Ferries to North Stradbroke Island leave from Cleveland, on the outskirts of Brisbane, hourly. On the island there are hotels, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds. stradbrokeisland.com

LADY ELLIOT ISLAND

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Ben Groundwater and family in Queensland (Lady Elliot Island)(image supplied by journalist for use in Traveller, no syndication)

Ben Groundwater and family on Lady Elliot Island. 

THE LOWDOWN

This seemingly humble coral cay off the coast of central Queensland is actually one of the best places to experience the true splendour of the Great Barrier Reef.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

There are plenty of ways to see the reef in Queensland, from day trips on power boats to ultra-luxury resort islands to budget-friendly party joints, but Lady Elliot is perfection: affordable and charming, with the focus firmly on the surrounding reef and its incredible array of marine life.

SEE + DO

You come to Lady Elliot to dive and snorkel, to see manta rays gliding by, to spot leopard sharks and loggerhead turtles, to tackle legendary dive sites like the Blowhole and Anchor Bommie. The snorkelling straight off the beach is also spectacular.

INSIDER TIP

Dive or snorkel here from May to October and you have a reasonable chance of spotting whales while you're in the water – a thrill that will stay with you forever.

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Lady Elliot Island is accessible by plane from Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Accommodation is basic but comfortable, with units or glamping tents available. See ladyelliot.com.au

THE SCENIC RIM

THE LOWDOWN

This vast stretch of land to the west of the Gold Coast encompasses spectacular and unique high-altitude landscapes, part of the Mununjali language area.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

Though the cat is now out of the bag – Lonely Planet recently named the Scenic Rim one of its "Best in Travel for 2022" – this is still a relatively quiet and incredibly beautiful area, perfect for nature enthusiasts who will find a slew of World Heritage-listed landscapes.

SEE + DO

The show-stopper is Lamington National Park, with its Gondwana Rainforests clinging to mountainous terrain. Leave time, however, to explore Tamborine National Park, with its waterfalls and glow-worm caves. Or hike one of the many peaks in Mount Barney National Park, and enjoy a little luxury at Binna Burra Lodge.

INSIDER TIP

Experience the big-ticket attractions, sure – but also, include a few more low-key experiences in your itinerary, such as a counter meal at the Canungra Hotel (canungrahotel.com.au).

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The Scenic Rim begins less than an hour's drive west of the Gold Coast. Accommodation ranges from luxury retreats and lodges to farm stays, cottages and B&Bs. See visitscenicrim.com.au

MAGNETIC ISLAND

Snorkelling with a Master Reef Guide in Florence Bay - Magnetic Island
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(handout image supplied by Tourism and Events Queensland for use in Traveller, no syndication) 
cr: Tourism and Events Queensland

Snorkelling in Florence Bay, Magnetic Island. Photo: Reuben Nutt

THE LOWDOWN

Say it quietly, but "Maggie" is a slice of the Whitsundays without the Whitsundays price tag – or the crowds. It's a lovely island just 20 minutes by ferry from Townsville.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

See above: gorgeous island scenery at an accessible price, without the hordes of tourists. Maggie, traditional home of the Wulgurukaba people, is a local favourite in far north Queensland, known for its laidback lifestyle, its white-sand beaches, its access to high-quality dive sites, and its long list of accessible, family-friendly activities.

SEE + DO

For divers, take the chance to see the Museum of Underwater Art (moua.com.au). For everyone else there's snorkelling at Alma Bay, a great walk up to the Forts, rock wallabies to check out at Geoffrey Bay, and cane toad races at the Arcadia Hotel.

INSIDER TIP

Take your car across on the ferry to Magnetic Island to ensure you get the most out of a short stay.

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Maggie is a 40-minute ferry ride from Townsville, which itself is about a two-hour flight from Brisbane. November to April here is stinger season, and ocean swimming is advised only on netted beaches. See townsvillenorthqueensland.com.au

PORT DOUGLAS

Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas for a story on Victorians flocking to the area
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Four Mile Beach,  Port Douglas.

THE LOWDOWN

The quieter alternative to Cairns, Port Douglas is a great base for adventure, providing access to two of Australia's biggest natural drawcards: the Daintree and the reef.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

Though Port Douglas can't claim to be a local secret anymore, it still retains its friendly, small-town appeal. There's a great split of accommodation and dining options, from old-school and budget-friendly to seriously high-end.

SEE + DO

Get out to the reef with a classic operator such as Quicksilver (quicksilver-cruises.com), but also leave time to explore the mighty Daintree rainforest (possibly including a drive on the Bloomfield track). Visit Mossman Gorge, hang out on Four Mile Beach, and have a great meal at Salsa restaurant (salsaportdouglas.com.au).

INSIDER TIP

Spend a day up here with Juan Walker (walkaboutadventures.com.au), a local tour guide who gives visitors a crash course in Kuku Yalanji culture, including a feast of fresh-caught mudcrabs on the beach.

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Port Douglas is a spectacular one-hour drive along Captain Cook Highway from Cairns. tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au

LONGREACH

Qantas Founders Museum, dedicated to telling the story of Qantas from its early days in Outback Queensland to present day
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(handout image supplied by Tourism and Events Queensland for use in Traveller, no syndication) 
cr: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Qantas Founders Museum, Longreach. Photo: Jack Harlem

THE LOWDOWN

The heart of the Queensland Outback, Longreach is a town with history and heart, the perfect place to tap into the "real" Australia.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

Given the bulk of Queenslanders tend to settle on the coast, this is a popular destination to experience another side of Queensland life, where you can tour a working cattle station, cruise the Thomson River, and visit the School of Distance Education.

SEE + DO

You can't miss the Qantas Founders Museum and the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, two of Outback Queensland's most important cultural institutions. Leave time, too, to ride in a Cobb & Co stagecoach, see the sheep shearing at Nogo Station, and have dinner under the stars at Smithy's Outback Dinner and Show.

INSIDER TIP

Most of Longreach's best experiences are only available during the cooler months, from April to October so plan to visit within that window.

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Longreach is a 13-hour drive – or, more reasonably, a two-hour flight – north-west of Brisbane. Accommodation ranges from campsites to motels to hotels. experiencelongreach.com.au

THE SUNSHINE COAST

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(handout image supplied by Tourism and Events Queensland for use in Traveller, no syndication) 
cr: Tourism and Events QueenslandBoiling Pot, Noosa National Park

Boiling Pot, Noosa National Park. Photo: Mark Fitz

THE LOWDOWN

The clue is in the name: this area north of Brisbane is all about fun in the sun, whether that's on the beach, on the river, or up in the mountains.

WHY LOCALS LOVE IT

The "Sunny Coast" still has its locals-only vibe in the likes of Peregian and Marcoola, with endless stretches of sand and affordable accommodation, though it also caters to the upmarket crowd in Noosa, and those hoping to get away from it all in Maleny and Montville.

SEE + DO

Hit the high-end restaurants and boutiques in Noosa, take a wander through the Noosa Everglades, visit Australia Zoo, go for a swim at Mooloolaba, bag a peak in the Glasshouse Mountains, grab a drink at a craft brewery, learn the stories of the Kabi Kabi people with Saltwater Eco Tours, or go beach hopping to your summer-loving heart's content.

INSIDER TIP

Though it seems counter-intuitive, head inland to get the best of the Sunny Coast. There's wine tasting in Montville, art galleries in Maleny, and twice-weekly markets in Eumundi.

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The southern end of the Sunshine Coast is a little over an hour north of Brisbane. This is a great year-round destination with a mix of cool and warm climates. See visitsunshinecoast.com

PLEASE EXPLAIN

YOUR HANDY GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING QUEENSLAND (AND ITS RESIDENTS)

POLITICS

Queensland is a head-scratcher, an infamously politically conservative state – home to Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and formerly Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen – which has also had a left-leaning Labor government for 17 of the last 22 years, and was the first Australian state to elect a female premier.

HISTORY

Most estimates place the beginning of human habitation in Queensland at about 60,000 years ago, and before colonisation it's thought more than one third of all Australia's Indigenous groups were based in what is now Queensland. This is also, however, the site of the "Frontier Wars" of the late 19th century, when an estimated 24,000 Indigenous people were killed by Queensland Native Police.

ICONS

Think of Queensland as Australia's Texas, where everything is bigger and better: we've got crocs the size of station wagons, hats you could shelter a whole family under, a sheep station that's bigger than East Timor, a pineapple the height of a five-storey building, and a giant, bronze Wally Lewis standing out the front of Lang Park.

PEOPLE

The following famous names are all from Queensland: Geoffrey Rush, Margot Robbie, Josh Thomas, Julian Assange, Ash Barty, Bill Hayden, Matt Hayden, Quentin Bryce, Courtney Act, Wally Lewis, Lincoln Lewis, Thea Astley, Benjamin Law, Steve Irwin, Bindi Irwin, and Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. So, a reasonably diverse spread.

INVENTIONS

You might think Queenslanders are a bunch of banana-bending layabouts, but the state has actually given the world its first cancer vaccine – the Human Papillomavirus Vaccine – plus multi-focal contact lenses, inflatable aircraft escape slides, scramjets, and … the pineapple peeler.

CULTURE

All right, stop scoffing. Queensland, I'm sure you know, is the state in which Waltzing Matilda was written and first performed. It's also the state that has gifted the world the Bee Gees, the Go-Betweens, Powderfinger, Christine Anu, Don Walker, the Saints, Regurgitator, Savage Garden and the Veronicas. Among others.

PASSIONS

The game of rugby league is central to the Queensland identity, particularly around State of Origin time, and it's taken far more seriously here than south of the border (you're likely to hear cries of "Queenslander!" emanating from local pubs). NRL is the most watched sport in Queensland, though the most popular for participation is far more genteel: golf.

GEOGRAPHY

Queensland is huge. Almost three times the size of France. Just a little smaller than Mexico. Within that area you have five of Australia's 13 World Heritage sites, including one of the natural wonders of the world in the Great Barrier Reef. You have five terrestrial climatic zones, and two marine climate zones. Oh, and a really big pineapple.

FIVE CLASSIC QUEENSLAND DESTINATIONS WORTH REVISITING

CAIRNS

Australia's adventure capital has had a rough time of it during the pandemic, and could use your support. And why wouldn't you want to help, when you can take day trips to the reef, ride the gondola up to Kuranda, go bungy-jumping, canyoning, fishing, hiking, or enjoy Cairns' high-quality restaurants and world-class resort facilities. tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au

BRISBANE

The state capital has something for everyone, from arts aficionados drawn by the likes of the Gallery of Modern Art, to foodies hitting the bars and restaurants of Fortitude Valley and West End, to those who appreciate classic dining venues like the Breakfast Creek Hotel and the Regatta, to families hanging out at South Bank, to shoppers trawling the boutiques of New Farm and the Valley. visitbrisbane.com.au

K'GARI

The island formerly known as Fraser – now using its original Butchulla name – is an absolute haven for holiday-makers, with four-wheel drive tracks, great campgrounds, crystal-clear lakes, endless beaches, sand dunes, native wildlife and rainforest walks. Accommodation ranges from luxury to budget-friendly. visitfrasercoast.com

THE WHITSUNDAYS

Here's another classic destination that does everything right. We have multiple island paradises here in the form of Hamilton, Hayman, Whitsunday, Long, Hook and more. We have the chance to sail calm waters with a charter or "bareboat" hire. We have poolside lounging, forest hiking, ocean diving, beachside snorkelling. tourismwhitsundays.com.au

GOLD COAST

The "Goldie" requires no introduction. You know, already, what this place is about: the beaches, the theme parks, the surf clubs, the mega-malls, the bar and restaurant strips. But don't forget the more relaxed Gold Coast, the likes of Burleigh, Palm Beach and Miami, with their markets and burgeoning food scenes and sense of artsy cool. But it's not all about the great outdoors, Visit the new Home of the Arts or HOTA (pronounced "hotter") for a welcome injection of cultural wow. destinationgoldcoast.com  hota.com.au