10 DAYS IN // Driving from Brisbane to Sydney

Australia is a big, big country.  We spent ten days driving from Brisbane to Sydney. For our Brisbane blog click here,  It’s 915 km and if you want to drive it all at once, it will take around 10-11 hours, depending on roadworks.

Some general observations:

  • Cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, as in the UK.
  • Australian police are hot on speeding traffic. Use cruise control to regulate your speed.  But a slight note of caution.  My car at home sticks to the limit set on cruise control, irrespective of hills.  The car we hired in Australia, although set at 100 km/h, would exceed this when going downhill, and guess where the police speed traps were?
  • The M1/A1 from Brisbane to Sydney is mainly dual carriageway and, in comparison to UK motorways, fairly empty.
Typical view along the East Coast

The Route

Most people drive this route the other way, from Sydney to Brisbane. We chose to go from the North to the South as we had never been to Brisbane before and wanted to be extra fresh to explore the city.  A long time ago I lived in Sydney so wanted to end the trip there.

The next thing to decide is what vehicle you need.  As there were two of us and we were not camping, we simply wanted a reliable car to get us from A to B and rented an Astra from Avis.

Our itinerary was as follows:  Brisbane, Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Port Stephens and then Potts Point in Sydney.

Driving from Brisbane to Byron Bay is relatively simple.  After crossing the beautiful Story Bridge in Brisbane, follow signs to the Gold Coast via the M3 and M1. Once on the M1 you will eventually see signs for Byron Bay.  If you take the M3 – M1 route on the Pacific Highway it will take you around 2 hours.

That’s not what we did.  We thought we would see what Surfers Paradise was like.  Is it Blackpool by the sea with surf?  We travelled down the M1 until we saw signs for Surfers and then headed to the coast, finding Northcliffe Surf Life Saving Club where we stopped for a coffee.  We both needed to show ID to get in as they had a bank of ubiquitous pokies which are age restricted (there was also a $20 Surf and Turf lunch special).  We then tried very hard to keep as close to the coast as possible and managed to do so down to Tweed Heads where we crossed the border from Queensland to New South Wales. My overriding feeling was that the beaches were absolutely beautiful, good surf and not too crowded.  Some areas e.g. Palm Beach, Coolangatta and Tweed Heads had a good feeling; although there were high rise buildings, they did not seem to be as claustrophobic as those on Surfers Paradise.  Parts of Surfers Paradise were, quite frankly, ugly.  Albeit with great beaches and surf.

From Byron Bay we took the M1 South.  There is significant roadwork happening on this stretch of the highway and many areas of 40, 60 and 80 km/h limits. We took a side trip to Yamba to have lunch.  Yamba is larger than we thought and we made our way to the Pacific Hotel, a recommendation from one of the crew at The Byron. The scenery was simply spectacular and our lunch was special.  From Yamba, we drove to Coffs Harbour.  Both legs took us a little over an hour driving.  The highway south of Yamba was good and had few roadwork speed restrictions.

From Coffs Harbour it’s a simple drive to Port Macquarie and if you do not take a detour it will take under 2 hours.  We took advice from the owner of the gloriously named Happy Frog Café in Coffs, who suggested that South West Rocks and Trial Bay Gaol would be a good place to stop on the way.  Both are easy to find and South West Rocks is a nice town with lots of places facing the ocean to take a break.  The history of the Gaol is interesting, alas we could not get there as a triathlon was taking place and the roads around it were closed.

From Port Macquarie to Port Stephens is a very easy drive of 2 ½ hours with a stop for fuel.  The only problem we had was that Port Stephens was not signposted from the A1. Nelson’s Bay was signposted, so follow these signs.

Port Stephens to Sydney was a simple journey.  Significant roadwork around Newcastle was taking place; however once on the M1 it was a nice drive.  We encountered two separate police radar traps so beware!  We used maps on my iPhone to get to our hotel and it was relatively straightforward.

Magnificent 7 // Driving from Brisbane to Sydney

There are many coves, beaches, inlets, towns, lighthouses and plenty of rugged scenery that we were unable to explore.

Our seven favourites were:

1. Greet the new day at Byron Bay lighthouse or most Easterly Point

2. Explore Byron Bay beach and town

3. Marvel at the work of Port Macquarie’s koala sanctuary

4. Stomp and sup and be amazed at Bago vineyard5.

5. Take a walk through Sea Acres Rainforest

6. View dolphins and ride a boom net in Nelson’s Bay

7. Detour off the main road and stop at a country town.

Getting there –

Australia is not the furthest country from the UK, but it’s pretty close!  We flew Emirates. It took just over 6 hours to Dubai; after an hour or so re-fuelling stop, it was a further 13½ hours to Brisbane. Read our Brisbane blog here.  The flights were all good and on time.

Where we stayed –

In Byron Bay we stayed at The Byron, Byron Bay.  Slightly out of town in a magnificent rainforest setting, this is luxury living. The soundtrack you hear most of the time comes from the birds and insects in the forest. Well-appointed units, a little style over substance, but gorgeous nonetheless. Recommended.

We only stayed in Coffs Harbour for 1 night at the IBIS budget. Being positive, the bed was comfortable and Wifi worked.  There are better places to stay.

Our three-night stay in Port Macquarie was at Rydges.  Fabulous location.  Try and get a balcony room with a sea view.  There is an underground car park (additional cost). Very nice hotel, excellent large rooms, a little impersonal.  A downside is that everything costs extra, water, car parking, breakfast etc.  I really do not understand this.  The rooms are not cheap and I would sooner pay a little more on the room rate rather than extra for water in the room, decent coffee at breakfast on top of the cost for breakfast, etc.

In Port Stephens we stayed at The Anchorage. Beautiful, luxurious rooms. The rooms are not as functional, in terms of storage etc, as those at the hotels we stayed at in Brisbane, Byron or Port Macquarie, but they are beautiful, reminiscent of a house share I had in the Hamptons in Long Island a lifetime ago.

To Eat and Drink –

Rather than list all the restaurants we went to, here are some of our favourites:

Byron Bay – The Mez Club is a Moroccan-style eatery situated across the road from Woolies. Good food at excellent prices.  Extensive cocktail list.

Fishheads is by Main Beach in Byron Bay.  There is a restaurant and on the side they do Fish and Chip takeaways.  It was wonderful to eat alfreso looking at the sunset, listening to live music on the beach.  Bliss.

Yamba –  Pacific Hotel has a jaw-dropping vista.  The lunch we had was the best we had in Australia; tempura soft shell crab with mango salsa.  Divine.

Coffs Harbour; Happy Frog café.  We loved the ethos of this café; the coffee and banana bread were good too.

Our favourite coffee house on the East Coast in Coffs Harbour

Port Macquarie; LV on Clarence.   Very much the same vibe as the Happy Frog in Coffs Harbour.  Breakfasts and lunches their speciality.

Ridgey Didge Pies is a tiny shop front.  Loved the sign and the pies were good too!

The sign drew me in!

Port Stephens: Rock Lobster at the main marina. Terrific service.  Good prices.  Huge servings.

To note –

Sea – The power of the rip tides and waves is awesome.  Never swim in an unpatrolled area.  The various surf life savings clubs do a brilliant job and will patrol a designated area.  Only swim there!  It is easy to be dumped by a wave and end up needing treatment.

Weather –  The sun is hot.  On the coast you do not feel it so much owing to the sea breeze.  But it is there.  Be aware and apply sunscreen repeatedly.  Better still, go and grab a snack or drink or have a siesta from 1200 to 1500.

Mosquitoes –  There are lots of them and they will bite you. Insect repellent helps, but they will always find a spot you didn’t reach with the spray.

When the sun goes down – If you are going to do the sunrise viewing at Byron, it can be a sweaty affair.  Once there you will cool down quickly and it can get a little chilly as you wait for the sun to rise.  Similarly, at the beach at night, it is fab sitting listening to live music after sunset.  If the wind gets up, you may need a light top.

Driving in Byron Bay – yes there are pavements. However, there seems to be no great delineation between the roads and pavements.  People simply walk from one to the other without looking up.  ‘Phones, headphones, chatting in a group, whatever, no need to check traffic, the cars will stop for you.  In complete darkness we saw a skateboarder nonchalantly propelling himself (headphones in) up the main street.  Yes, the cars did stop for him!

Restaurants in Port Macquarie close early.  The majority around our hotel closed at 9 pm. The staff want to go home so get in early and finish on time!

E-way tag.  It is important to be able to drive through the toll booths in Sydney without stopping.  Make sure your rental car is fitted with a tag.  You will get billed later, but it will make life so much easier.

 Change of clothes – on long haul flights I take a change of clothes and if at all possible shower after a long leg.  At Dubai airport on the return leg it felt so good to shower, shave and change.

Magnificent 7

1. Byron Bay lighthouse at sunrise

Byron Bay at sunrise
Byron Bay at sunrise

This requires an early start!  We left out hotel at 5.10 am and drove to the car park at Clarke’s Beach.  You can park here free until 9 am.  There are closer car parks, however they fill up quickly and early. We then took the boardwalk up the hill.  Just after Captain Cook’s car park (about 200 yards further up the hill) there is a road to the left, Brooke Drive.  You can either continue straight up the hill on the boardwalk by the road.  It will take you no more than 30 minutes to get to the lighthouse.  Alternatively, you can turn left down Brooke, and follow the signs on the walking track to the Lighthouse/Easterly Point.  This will take around 50-60 minutes and it is steep in places, but ever so pretty.  We took the road up and came down the walking track on the way back as we figured the scenery would be nicer in the daylight!

It is remarkably light before sunrise.  But there is a wonderful feeling to see the sun poke its head over the horizon and gradually reveal itself to a packed audience armed with the latest cameras and iPhones.  A real must-do experience.  We got back to our hotel at around 8am, well and truly in the smug zone having walked over 10,000 steps before breakfast.

This is the most easterly point of Australia and is a sort of rite of passage for the backpackers who come to Byron.  Apart from the early start, we loved it.

2. Byron Bay beach and town

Byron Bay is hippie heaven. There is a good mix of ages, from ageing hippies to a few older overseas travellers and a great number of beautiful 20 somethings from Australia and around the world. There is a tranquillity to Byron; lots of people all looking happy.  The restaurants and bars are full, there is live music on the main beach during the afternoons and evenings and pretty much everywhere in Byron in the evenings. Byron is a party town with an almost horizontal laid-back vibe.

A kombi van can always be seen at Byron Bay

3. Marvel at the work of Port Macquarie koala sanctuary

This is a free tour – please make a donation when you leave – showing the brilliant work done to help preserve one of Australia’s icons.  This is not a flashy tour and there is not a huge amount to see: basically you are shown about eight or so koalas who are too badly injured to be returned to the wild. Those koalas who are being rehabilitated may be spotted in the trees, but are, understandably, kept at a distance.  The tour lasts about 30 minutes and starts at 3pm.  It is wonderful to feel the passion of the volunteers who explain the plight of the koala and the steps they are taking to help injured animals. This is not a “cuddle a koala and get a picture” place.  It is an animal hospital.  “Room service” for koalas occurs in the early morning when fresh eucalyptus leaves are put into the enclosures and the enclosures are cleaned. During the tour you may also get to see a koala or two being bottle-fed. This is a must do tour if you are in the area.

One of the rescued koalas
Donations have funded a bespoke koala ambulance

4. Stomp, sup and be amazed at the Bago vineyard

Bago Winery maze, NSW, Australia
Not what you would expect to find at a winery!

There are lots of vineyards on the way down to Sydney.  We read about the Bago winery and tried some of their wines in a Port Macquarie bar. On the Sunday we visited they were having a grape stomp which was grape fun (sorry, bad pun).  Anybody could put their name (and feet) down to join in.  There was also a jazz band playing a variety of styles from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.  Spontaneous dancing (which we joined in) broke out alongside the normal wine tastings and shared food platters. There was also a chocolate shop with tastings which was pretty busy too. It was a brilliant way to spend a 37 degree Sunday.  We didn’t go into the maze, but looking down on it, it seemed very impressive.

5. Take a walk through Sea Acres Rainforest

This is a Littoral rainforest. No, I hadn’t heard of one of these either. Basically, it’s a rainforest that is close to the sea and has a closed canopy.  There are not that many of these rainforests in Australia. It is inexpensive to enter and we really enjoyed our guided tour with Jeff, a passionate volunteer. The tour is wheelchair friendly and takes about 90 minutes on a 1.3km boardwalk.  Jeff made looking at trees and plants really interesting!  Lots of wildlife was also pointed out. I was particularly taken by the Strangler Fig Tree.  I read on TripAdvisor that some people do not think you should pay to look at nature.  I disagree, this is a special place that we are custodians of for future generations.  A small fee to help with upkeep seems fair to me. There are also some of the koalas on the Koala Sculpture trail as well. Highly recommended.

The Strangler Fig tree does what its name says, it strangles its host tree to death
A friendly face on the walk

6. View dolphins and ride a boom net in Nelson’s Bay

We only booked this up a few days in advance. It was with a company, Moonshadow, at Nelson’s Bay Marina.  A 90-minute cruise around the sea for $24 each. We saw a few dolphins, some quite close to the ship.  But what we really enjoyed was the 30 minutes or so we spent in the boom net as the ship was cruising.  Fabulous and you see dolphins from a different perspective.

There are lots of companies offering dolphin viewing cruises along the east coast.  This was the only one we tried and we thought it was fantastic value for money.  But on another day, there may not be any obliging dolphins…

7. Detour off the main road and stop at a country town

We stopped at a few towns.  We particularly liked the views at Yamba, however there seemed to be more things to see at South West Rocks.  At SWR we visited a tiny local museum and next door was an art and craft shop.  There are plenty of places to stop and look out at the ocean over a coffee or lunch.  South West Rocks also has the ruins of Trial Bay Goal.  In WW1 it became an internment camp for people of German descent who were thought to be enemy sympathisers.  There is a guided tour.

Fun fact: In Australia thongs are something you wear on your feet (flip-flops to a Brit). I asked a few Aussies what they would call the item of clothing we call a thong and was given two answers. G-string or bum floss!

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