Great Beach Drive, Sunshine Coast, Queensland: The new great ocean road

Victoria's Great Ocean Road gets all the fame, but there's a new Aussie ocean drive that's just as spectacular.

Great drives are everywhere these days, with almost every region that's looking to drive tourists their way dreaming up routes and adding a "great" to them, along with some capital letters and a theme – Great Ocean Road, Great Alpine Way, Great Southern Touring Route, Great Green Way, Great Inland Way, or just because we do things differently in NSW, Grand Pacific Drive. Queensland's Sunshine Coast has recently launched the Great Beach Drive, a new coastal touring route linking more than 200 kilometres of existing beach roads between Noosa and Hervey Bay on the Sunshine Coast. What makes this seaside road trip a little different from the rest, though, is that most of this route really does involve driving on the beach, rather than beside it.

We've based ourselves at the township of Rainbow Beach, about 70 kilometres north of Noosa via the Great Beach Drive, which is just about the most scenic way imaginable to get there. Access is via the car ferry at Tewantin and then onto Teewah Beach, which extends some 50 or so sandy wave-washed kilometres to Double Island Point, past one of the best stretches of beach-front camping in the country. There's a track that cuts across the point to skirt the edge of a large tidal lake and then along Rainbow Beach's famous, although slightly misnamed, coloured sands – they are actually sandy cliffs coloured by iron oxides in, if you believe the locals, 72 different shades of red, yellow, orange, ochre and rust.

There's no line markings or overtaking lanes, in fact there's not even a track, but it is actually a designated road. It may look just like a beach and feel just like a beach, with waves and dunes and freshwater creeks that seep across the sand to trickle out to sea, but like any other highway in the country the usual road rules apply, including speed limits – 80km/hour on the beach, 50km/h along beach camping areas.  

A bonus for those in a hurry is that the beach drive knocks about an hour off the travel time from Noosa to Rainbow Beach compared to taking the Bruce Highway, which has to make it one of Australia's best shortcuts. 

But with scenery this special it's not a road trip you want to do in a rush – it really is all about the journey rather than the destination on this drive. There are also a whole lot of other hazards that you normally don't have to worry about too much on a freeway, like kids building sandcastles and teenagers sunbaking in the middle of the road, fishermen walking backwards into the traffic as they reel in their catch and pensioners digging for pipis oblivious to any oncoming 4WDs, tents pitched right beside the track and vehicles parked pretty much anywhere their owners feel like it. Forget timing your drive to beat rush hour, on the Great Beach Drive it's the tide, not traffic tailbacks you have to worry about – the notorious Mudlo Rocks just south of Rainbow Beach township is famous for wrecking an average of 40 4WDs each year, their drivers left stranded by a combination of soft sand and rapidly rising seawater. 

But don't let any of this put you off – as long as you follow a few common sense rules – it's 4WD only, lower your tyre pressures, check the tides before you go and if you've never driven on sand before get some lessons – it's an easy drive. The only really tricky bits are the sometimes soft and bumpy sand ramps that lead on and off the beach. If you don't have a 4WD or are nervous about driving on the beach you can always let a local do the driving and join a Surf & Sand Safari 4WD tour.

Our timing is spot on: mid-week, mid-winter, which means there are only a handful of others on the beach – on a summer holiday weekend there can sometimes be almost as much traffic on the beach as on the Bruce Highway.  Mid-winter is also whale season, and we were treated to a 15-minute display of breaching, blowing, head slapping and spyhopping from two humpback whales, one with a calf, from our afternoon tea vantage point beside the lighthouse at Double Island Point – a special spot only accessible on a tour with Surf & Sand Safaris, which has permission to drive to the top of the headland. If you've driven yourself you can still visit the iron lighthouse built in 1884, but you'll have to slug it up the steep track on foot. 

The tides are against us and rather than run the risk of becoming another rock toll statistic we leave the beach at Freshwater camping area and wind our way along the sandy roller-coaster track over the vegetated dunes back towards Rainbow Beach township through the rainforest, past stands of satinay turpentine, kauri, strangler figs and dense pockets of piccabeen palms. 

The Great Beach Drive continues north along Rainbow Beach to Inskip Point, where you can catch the barge across to Fraser Island for yet more sand-under-the-wheels motoring, but we opt instead for a different kind of horsepower, the four-legged rather than four-wheeled kind, on a two-hour horse ride along the beach, where the thrill of riding our steeds into the surf and cantering along the water's edge is almost as good as the freedom we had experienced the day before driving along an empty beach.

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We round off the day with a late afternoon walk across Carlo Sandblow, a massive slow-moving sand dune that towers over Rainbow Beach and is one of the largest piles of wind-blown sand on the Queensland coast. With views of Rainbow Beach and the coloured sands in one direction, across to Fraser Island and west to Tin Can Bay on the other, it's hard to imagine a better spot to watch the sun go down – or come up, depending on the time of day you get there. 

To do the full Great Beach Drive all the way to Fraser Island and beyond to Hervey Bay and back to Tin Can Bay, on the other side of the Great Sandy Strait to Rainbow Beach, you really need between three and five days. I don't quite have that much time to spare, so I circle back to Brisbane via the Mary Valley and the Glass House Mountains, through the very pretty townships of Kenilworth (don't drive through town without stopping to stock up on artisan cheese at the worker-owned cheese factory) and Maleny, where a couple of hours somehow disappears while browsing the eclectic collection of bookstores, vintage clothing, antiques, art galleries and hippy-trippy co-operative stores – the town of 6000 has the second-highest number of co-ops in the world (second only to Mondragon in Spain) including the Up Front Club, a co-operative cafe, bar and music club that dishes up organic food made from fruit and vegies grown in local backyards and gardens and is a great spot for lunch. 

The Great Ocean Road may get all the fame and glory, but as far as coastal drives go, Queensland's Great Beach Drive is about as close as you can get to the sea in with four wheels without getting wet.  Beats the Bruce Highway any day.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

 The Great Beach Drive stretches approximately 325km from the north shore of Noosa (via the Noosa North Shore car ferry at Tewantin) to Fraser Island (via the barge at Inskip Point) and loops back to Tin Can Bay via Hervey Bay and Maryborough – Rainbow Beach is roughly 70km north of Noosa if you drive along the beach. Closest airport to Noosa and Rainbow Beach is the Sunshine Coast airport at Marcoola (153km south of Rainbow Beach via the Bruce Highway, 30km south of Noosa) – Jetstar and Virgin have regular daily flights from Sydney or Melbourne. Allow two and a half hours if driving from Brisbane.

STAYING THERE Perched high on the hill beside Carlo Sandblow, most of the apartments at Rainbow Ocean Palms Resort have spectacular views across Rainbow Beach and beyond to Fraser Island. From $210 per night, mid week. www.rainbowoceanpalms.com.au 

DRIVING TIPS The Great Beach Drive is 4WD only. Avoid driving on the beach two hours either side of high tide.  Permits to drive the beach are required and available from nprsr.qld.gov.au or call 13 74 68. It's very popular on weekends and summer holidays – go mid-week to beat the crowds.  

TOURING THERE Surf and Sand Safaris run half-day 4WD tours of the Great Beach Drive and include a visit to Double Island Point Lighthouse. $75 per adult; surfandsandsafaris.com.au. Horse riding on the beach from $120 per person; rainbowbeachhorserides.com.au. Food tasting and cultural tours of Rainbow Beach start at $65. www.cooloolaecotours.com.au 

MORE INFORMATION www.australiasnaturecoast.comwww.visitsunshinecoast.com.au 

FIVE OTHER GREAT AUSTRALIAN SEASIDE DRIVES

GREAT OCEAN ROAD Australia's most famous coastal road trip snakes 250km along the rugged south-western Victorian coastline between Torquay and Warrnambool and features the most photographed rock stacks in the world, the Twelve Apostles.

GREAT OCEAN DRIVE not to be confused with its similar-sounding Victorian cousin, this lovely little 38km loop near Esperance in south-west WA offers glorious ocean views the entire way.

GRAND PACIFIC DRIVE a highlight of this 100km drive between Sydney and Wollongong is the cantilevered Sea Cliff Bridge that curves around the cliffs 50 metres out to sea south of Stanwell Park.

BOWMAN SCENIC DRIVE a short but dramatic coastal drive that sweeps around the beaches and dunes south of Beachport about halfway between Adelaide and the Victorian border.

CAPTAIN COOK HIGHWAY the warmest of our five seaside drives, the Captain Cook Highway from Cairns to Port Douglas hugs the coastline as the rainforest spills down the mountain side to meet the sea.  

The writer was a guest of Sunshine Coast Destination Ltd

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