The Capricorn Coast stretches from Brisbane to Cairns and is one of the most popular travel routes for tourists across the whole country – it’s the gateway to the dreamy Whitsunday Islands, the world renowned Great Barrier Reef, tropical rainforest escapes, and epic 4WD adventures on Fraser Island. What’s not to love? Well, if you’ve got the money – go for it! But, if you’re budget conscious backpackers like us, you might be feeling the pinch if you plan to do all of the above. So here’s my list of alternative places to visit, while making sure you can experience all the beauty, wonder, and diversity of Queensland, without breaking the bank.
Keppel Island Getaways
One of the huge attractions in Queensland is the Whitsunday Islands – quite possibly one of the most picturesque destinations in the world – with crystal clear waters and pristine white sand, this stunning collection of islands are truly Instagram-worthy. But how much are you willing to pay for a slice of paradise and some Insta likes? Day trip cruise packages will set you back around $200 pp (minimum), and if you want to stay the night back on the mainland, you can add at least $25 on top of that for a hostel or caravan park. There is an option to camp on the island (tents only) – which means you just have to pay for a permit ($6 pp) + a return ferry ticket ($107) or water-taxi ($65-$160 pp depending on which island) – so if you have camping gear, this could be a slightly cheaper option.
We weighed up our options and decided that a boozy, overpriced party boat wasn’t really the most desirable option for us, but we still wanted a taste of island life – without the price-tag and drunk backpackers. That’s when we discovered Great Keppel Island – and now, it’s somewhere that will always have a special place in our hearts!
Sure, Great Keppel Island might lack the glamour and allure of the Whitsundays, but I like to think of it as the distant uncle: a bit rough around the edges, but full of surprises and good stories. If you want to try find the real meaning of the over-used phrase and “get away from it all” – GKI is a good place to do so. It doesn’t pull in the same level of tourists as the Whitsundays, which is great for those who do decide to visit as it = lower prices and empty beaches, while maintaining the same laid-back lifestyle and idyllic location. (N.B. We did visit during May, so I imagine the island does get busier during peak-season).
A return ferry to GKI will set you back just $45 pp – that’s less than half the price of a return ferry to Whitsundays – and you can spend the day exploring the 17 secluded beaches, snorkelling the Southern Great Barrier Reef or drinking Pina Coladas to your heart’s content. We decided to stay the night at Great Keppel Island Holiday Village in one of their “decked tents” (you can bring your own and camp there for £25), as the AMAZING owner, Geoff, throws in snorkelling gear for free during your stay. When we arrived, we slipped our shoes off and stepped right onto the beach. Geoff was there waiting to pick us up – he told us to jump on the back of his car and he would drop us off at our accommodation. The GKI Holiday Village is admittedly a little dated in some respects, but the 60s style linen and the old hippie bookshelf, I think, all add to the charm of this place. GKI used to be a huge party island, it’s famous tagline being “get wrecked”, with Aussies and tourists flocking from all over to spend a few weeks or months working and/or partying there. Geoff was full of stories for us about the island’s heyday, and explained how the village has evolved from a party hotspot for young people in the 70s/80s to a quaint, laid-back community for people of all ages today.
The island’s main resort shut down about 10 years ago, but the building still remains there –uninhabited – due to lease disputes and unfinalised plans for a new resort, which gives the island quite a spooky touch… All in all, GKI may have lost its wild side, but lots of little things – from the old nightclub entrance to the old-school locals – give the island an air of nostalgia. We absolutely loved walking around and exploring the secluded beaches off the beaten path, snorkelling with sea turtles and just generally soaking up the atmosphere (whatever you may make of it!) With proposals for a casino, an airport and a golf-course on the island, who knows what might become of it in a few years’ time? I would highly recommend anyone travelling this section of Australia to give GKI a visit to experience a place that feels stuck in time, and all the better for it.
I want to recommend Townsville for two reasons: firstly, there’s a fantastic, affordable, resort-style hostel called Rambutan (complete with rooftop pool/bar + lounge); secondly, there are lots of really great cafes, bars, and restaurants with some unbelievable mid-week specials on – but there just weren’t enough tourists there! Normally, we like to avoid tourist hot-spots, but we felt like Townsville had so much potential to be a lively and bustling city, but it just lacked that atmosphere. (Maybe Townsville does get busy on weekends and peak-season, but we were there during the week in May!) Still – $2 tacos and a rooftop pool stole our hearts! We stayed in our car at the hostel and had access to all the facilities, but unfortunately van/car sleeping is no longer allowed L their room rates are still pretty good though!
A few of my “must-dos” if you’re in Townsville:
- Take a walk down The Strand under the tropical palm trees and enjoy the glorious ocean views (but don’t even think about going in the water – it’s full of stingers – so stick to the pool!) Don’t forget to grab an ice-cream for the perfect stroll. There was also a really cool looking mini waterpark, but I think it’s for children only (and the lucky mums/dads!)
- Dust off your active wear and join the rest of Townsville in tackling Castle Hill! There are lots of different routes you can take, but the most common one is called the “Goat Track” and should take you about 1 hour. It’s pretty steep, but it’s over quickly – just push through, and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views at the top (and there’s a water fountain – you’ll need that!)
- Check out the newly established Courtyard area for some amazing specials – 2 for 1 pizza, $10 tapas and $2 tacos to name a few! It was definitely the most happening place on a Tuesday night, with students and locals crawling out from the woodworks for a few drinks and a bite to eat. There’s also a really great (quite hidden until you spot it!) piece of street art on the back wall.
Beaches at Bowen
You could be forgiven for driving right past the small town of Bowen – but you would be making a big mistake! We found one of the nicest swimming spots here in the whole of Australia – crystal clear water, squeaky white sand and (almost!) empty beaches! Check out Horseshoe or Rose Bay for a refreshing mid-drive dip. There were paddleboards for hire at Rose Bay and plenty of space to chill out for a while. There was also a lively looking weekend market full of local produce and arts/crafts.
Best of the Rest
- An essential stopover in Maryborough for all Disney fans– where P.L Travers, author of Mary Poppins, was born. There’s a life-size statue of Mary Poppins on the main street (she’s pretty tiny!)
- Mackay is a small historical town (south of Airlie Beach) which has several art-deco style buildings and some beautiful beaches. I liked Mackay because this is when it really starts feeling ite tropical on the drive north…
- Alkoomi Adventure Farm (south of Rockhampton) – a fantastic camping spot for only $5pp – complete with friendly dogs, 2 beautiful horses (available for riding), free-range chickens and a lovely location! The kitchen area is stocked with board games for you to enjoy. You can buy free-range eggs and/or a BBQ pack (steak + sausages) for $5!
- Once we got to Innisfail, we decided to head inland to the Atherton Tablelands and up north to Cooktown before snorkelling on the reef – but this all deserves a separate post!
I hope these suggestions are useful, interesting and cheaper alternatives to the mainstream stopovers for anyone travelling this long but rewarding drive! Enjoy 🙂