East Coast vs. West Coast: Which is the Best Australian Road Trip?

The Nobbies, Melbourne, Australia
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From relaxing on Queensland’s beaches to exploring the Pilbara, there are few countries in the world that offer such diverse landscapes and natural wonder as Australia. Its sheer size can be daunting and is possibly why so many of us often utter the phrase: “I really need to see more of our own backyard.”

Our island nation has more than 34,000km of coastline and when you’re travelling here from afar, it’s impossible to see all of it in one go. So when it comes to choosing a road trip, just where do you go? Let’s weigh up the east and west… 

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East Coast Road Trip Options

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You can string all of these drives together for one epic adventure from the south-east of Australia to the north, or pick one or two smaller journeys if you have time constraints to consider.

Great Ocean Road

Let’s start with one of Australia’s most iconic drives; the Great Ocean Road. In itself, the journey isn’t far, just 243km across the south of Victoria. If you start in Allansford and head east you’ll end up in Torquay, just south of Geelong and outside of Melbourne. The trip snakes along sheer limestone cliffs and past the iconic Twelve Apostles as well as the famous surfing mecca Bells Beach and quaint towns such as Lorne, Cape Otway and Warrnambool.

Melbourne to Sydney

When making your way between our two largest capital cities, Melbourne and Sydney, a great starting point is Phillip Island. Home to Little Penguins, incredible lookouts over Bass Strait and the MotoGP each year, it’s a tiny little hub of spectacular activity.

As a tourist to the region, Nick Van Der Plight was so impressed with the area that he decided to relocate his family to Phillip Island. “The entire Bass Coast region is simply breathtaking,” Nick says. “It has rugged coastline, gorgeous countryside and friendly locals, plus Melbourne is only 90 minutes away. What more could you ask for?”

Back on the mainland, you’ll journey northeast through the Gippsland Lakes with Lakes Entrance, a perfect place to stop and pull out your fishing rod. Continuing 45 minutes north you will come across the Buchan Caves, created over thousands of years by underground rivers cutting through the limestone rock.

Now it’s time to venture into New South Wales… The trip from Eden to Sydney is rather lovely and takes in glorious small coastal towns along the way, including Bega, Batemans Bay, Ulladulla and Kiama. Each is worth a stop and a little exploring will turn up hidden gems in the form of little shops as well as pretty picnic spots and ocean vistas. If you need the best accommodation along the way, Trip Advisor offers the best Hotel Deals. 

You’ll come through the industrial city of Wollongong via the Grand Pacific Drive. Be sure to program into your GPS the Sea Cliff Bridge and take the scenic route to Sydney’s south, sandwiched between sheer cliff face and the Pacific Ocean. Keep an eye out for the designated park and lookout spots.

Heading North to Brisbane

Due to a number of bypasses, the Pacific Highway from Sydney to Brisbane isn’t especially scenic and avoids many towns. If you want to see some of the coastal villages, such as Forster, Port Macquarie and South West Rocks you’ll need to turn off the highway. Forster and neighbouring Tuncurry are certainly worth the effort with their stunning beaches, lakes and summits that show off the rugged coastline.

The scenery picks up again around Ballina with lovely riverside towns that offer antique stores, ice-cream parlours, picnic stops and gorgeous green countryside. The picture outside your window only improves as you make your way through the state’s far north and over the mountains outside sleepy Byron Bay and on to the Tweed Heads area before hitting the Gold Coast and Queensland.

This entire region is a major tourist hub with everything to offer from the famous beaches to stunning hinterland including Mount Warning, Lamington National Park and Mount Tamborine. Plan to spend at least a couple of days here soaking in the sun, checking out the theme parks and exploring the local attractions.

Queensland is dotted with an array of terrific cities and towns with a stunning coastline. But if you stick to the Pacific Highway you’re not going to see a great deal of it until you get to the far north.

The Great Green Way takes you along 410km of coastline from Townsville to Cairns past cane fields and banana plantations. You’ll transition from forest to beach - each home to a host of wildlife, birds and butterflies. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Golden Gumboot in Tully.

Of course, you can go further north right to the tip of the Cape York Peninsula, but Port Douglas is about as far as most tourists venture. Further north becomes less tourist-focused and more rugged, so heading to the tip is not for the faint-hearted!

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West Coast Road Trip Options

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It may be Australia’s largest state, but due to its distance from the more populated east coast, Western Australia is often forgotten about when it comes to travel destinations. However, those who have taken on the challenge will tell you it’s well worth it.

Albany to Shark Bay

Australia’s South West has plenty to offer with a host of little towns between Albany and WA’s capital city Perth. You can take the more direct route between the two cities (420km) or hug the coastline and stop off at historic sites, galleries and of course, the Margaret River wine region.

Travelling 430km north of Perth on the Brand Highway is Geraldton, where you can spoil yourself with some of the freshest seafood you’ve ever tasted. You’ll also want to pay your respects at the HMAS Sydney II Memorial, which commemorates 645 lives lost during WWII and offers incredible views across the Indian Ocean.

Just a short drive from Geraldton (and still on the coastline), you’ll find the stunning Kalbarri National Park. Here you can capture some of Australia’s most beautiful rocky landscapes, including Natures Window.

Another half-day’s drive will see you cruise to the World Heritage Listed Shark Bay region, offering an array of water activities and home of the famously friendly Monkey Mia dolphins.

Exploring Ningaloo Reef

Keeping to the coast, it’s time to veer off the main highway for a breathtaking look at one of the longest fringing reefs in the world. In parts as close as 300 metres from the sandy beaches it fringes, Ningaloo Reef is a major attraction for divers and houses hundreds of species of fish and coral, along with other stunning marine life.

As someone who spent eight months driving all over Australia, Ben describes this part of Western Australia as one of the biggest highlights: “Coral Bay, Monkey Mia, Exmouth and diving on Ningaloo Reef were all terrific spots that left me with a lifetime of great stories and memories,” he shares.

By now you’re a decent 1,200km from Perth, but you’re still only half way up the WA coastline. Many will tell you to head straight from Ningaloo to Broome, bypassing Port Headland along the way.

But, if you’re keen to break up your trip and want to check out some of the world’s most ancient natural landscapes, the Pilbara has plenty to offer. From vast, flat landscapes to hidden gorges, you’re bound to find yourself having a spiritual moment at some stage. If you need great affordable accommodation along the way, Trip Advisor offers the best Hotel Deals.  This region is also home to the famed "Red Dog."

Pilbara to Broome

From red dirt roads to spectacular turquoise water and camel rides along the famous Cable Beach, Broome is definitely a uniquely Aussie town to put on the bucket list. You’ll want to set aside a few days of your road trip to explore this eclectic region, which is the gateway to the equally stunning Kimberley region.

Broome is where your coastal drive will end, but if your bum and driving arms are able to stay in the car for a few more days, heading east through the Kimberley and on to Darwin would be an incredible way to complete your exploration of Australia’s west coast.

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Which is Best – East or West?

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Both road trips offer an incredible adventure, but when it comes down to it, those who have done it will often tell you to choose the west over the east. Save the east coast for shorter summer holidays when you return to Australia, and sink into an adventure unlike anything you’ll experience anywhere else in the world.

If you’re setting aside a month or two to get behind the wheel and traverse our incredible country, the best place to start would be Albany or Perth, although even if you only have a week or two, you can design an itinerary to suit. The truth is, unless you live there, you’re not likely to see WA otherwise, so consider making Australia’s west your next vacation destination. 

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