Queensland: The Sunshine State offers a taste of sun, sea, sand - and the Outback

Australia's most diverse territory has it all
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The Independent Travel

Where do I begin?

With boundless desert plains, tropical rainforests and 2,585km of the world's most inviting coastline packed into an area seven times as big as the UK, Australia's second-largest state (after Western Australia) has much to offer. Besides the chance to explore the Great Barrier Reef, you can satisfy a thirst for adventure with opportunities to go deep-sea fishing in the Pacific, white-water rafting on the Tully River, or track the rare flightless cassowary. In the tropical north is Cairns: a lively town that embraces backpackers.

Queensland's often overlooked capital, Brisbane, is a good starting point for visitors. It's a city that values the great outdoors, so start your trip with a stroll around the parklands and man-made lagoon at South Bank, then savour the views from Mount Coot-tha, a stone's throw away. Finally, cruise the snaking Brisbane River on the speedy CityCat catamarans (00 61 7 3215 5000; translink.com.au). Fares start from A$2.40 (£1.30).

This month saw the opening of The 6th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art (00 61 7 3840 7303; qag.qld.gov.au), which is open weekdays 10am-5pm and weekends 9am-5pm. Entrance to the gallery is free but some exhibitions have an admission charge.

Paradise for surfers?

The brash resort of Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast owes much of its appeal to a piece of inspired marketing on the part of local entrepreneur Jim Cavill, who scrapped the town's previous name of Elston in 1925. Today, "Surfers" is Australia's favourite beach resort, known for its cluster of theme parks and futuristic skyline (which includes Australia's tallest building: the 78-storey Q1). On a clear day it's possible to see neighbouring state New South Wales from the Q-Deck observatory (00 61 7 5582 2700; qdeck.com.au). Open Sunday-Thursday 9am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 9am-midnight. Admission A$19 (£11).

Many agree that the area's best surfing can actually be found at neighbouring Burleigh Heads which, thanks to its rounded headland and stiff south-easterly winds, offers superb conditions.

North of Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast is the Gold Coast's laid-back, bohemian cousin. Small villages and exquisite resort towns, such as upmarket Noosa, are dotted along this picturesque 37km-long stretch of shore. Outdoor cafés and good surf add to the charm of sleepy Mooloolaba, while in Noosa it's paddle surfing – like regular surfing only with a long, wooden oar – that has proved popular recently.

If you crave a lazy beach break, try Mission Beach, a slither of land that is flanked by the Coral Sea and the rolling Djarawong Hills. This pretty, banana-shaped beach lined with good restaurants and a wide choice of accommodation options is a great spot to recharge.

Sail the high seas?

Captain Cook probably wished he'd packed his swimming trunks when he cruised among the Whitsunday Islands back in 1770. There are resorts on only eight of the 74 forested islands that make up this archipelago. Boats of all shapes and sizes – from modern catamarans to elegant schooners – skim these turquoise waters, and competition among operators is fierce in the gateway town of Airlie Beach: last-minute bookings often bring big savings.

Australian Tall Ship Cruises (00 61 7 4946 5932; australian tallships.com) has a fleet of three vessels and offers live-aboard voyages of either three or six days. Trips include plenty of snorkelling stops and the chance to feel the white sand of Whitehaven Beach between your toes.

More island life?

While Queensland has several offshore sand islands, the wildlife and unique geology of Fraser Island make it a must-see. Formed by sediment swept up the coast by the wind and waves over hundreds of thousands of years, Fraser Island – which measures 123km long and 22km at its widest point – is the world's largest sand island.

It's a place where sub-tropical rainforests soar from giant shifting sand dunes and dingoes roam wild. Separated from the mainland by the Great Sandy Strait, Fraser Island is accessible by ferry from Hervey Bay. A return crossing (50 minutes each way) with Fraser Island Barges (00 61 7 419 9300; fraserislandbarges.com.au) costs from A$36 (£20). Accommodation options vary from Kingfisher Bay (00 61 7 4120 3333; kingfisherbay.com), which won the inaugural Steve Irwin award for eco-tourism, to an extensive collection of campsites.

From the high rocky outcrop of Indian Head, dolphins, turtles, stingrays and whales can be seen in the cobalt water below. But, however tempting, it's not advisable to swim here due to dangerous rip tides and a high concentration of tiger sharks. Instead make do with the 100 freshwater lakes; Lake McKenzie, ringed by lean blackbutt trees and banksias wildflowers, gets most people's vote. Or enjoy a soak in the fizzing Champagne Pools: shallow volcanic rock pools fed by the ocean.

What's that lurking offshore?

The coast's other heavyweight attraction is the Great Barrier Reef. The statistics speak for themselves: it's longer than the Great Wall of China; half the area of Texas; the largest living structure visible from space (according to the Australian Institute of Marine Science); and home to 1,500 species of marine fish and 500 forms of seaweed.

Given all this, it's perhaps not surprising that the Great Barrier Reef is the world's diving hub, an iridescent playground for fans of snorkelling and scuba. A million people visited last year, but despite the influx, it is possible to have it all to yourself. The Fantasea Reefsleep package (00 61 7 4967 5455; fantasea.com.au), complete with an underwater chamber for night-time viewing of the reef, gives guests a memorable night out at sea long after the daytrippers have returned to the mainland. Prices start at A$460 (£252) per person including an overnight stay, equipment, two dives and meals.

My own piece of paradise, please.

Look no further than Double Island – but it will cost you. Located off the coast of Palm Cove and on the same latitude as Fiji, Double Island is favoured by celebrities such as Keanu Reeves, who reportedly hired all of this exclusive retreat. (The resort's fitness centre has since been christened the Keanu Gym.)

To stay in one of the 20 luxurious bungalows still requires a Hollywood budget. Rented out as a private island getaway, prices start from A$17,500 (£9,600) per night for groups between two and 10. Each villa boasts a bathroom of Australian chillagoe marble, private plunge pool and dedicated butler service. Guests are invited to "surrender modern-day conveniences" – though, curiously, Wi-Fi is available.

Anything away from the water?

Bordering Brisbane are the patchwork plains of the Darling Downs. Flanked V C by the Bunya Mountains and dotted with farming communities and charming hamlets, the idyllic Downs have much to offer the passing traveller.

The quaint streets of Toowoomba and Pittsworth, fringed with lilac jacaranda trees come October, are lined with immaculate Victorian mansions, antique shops and old-fashioned pubs. The colonial Bull and Barley Inn (00 61 7 4696 1235; bullandbarleyinn.com.au) in Cambooya has been a local favourite since 1902. Stop by and sink a pint of Castlemaine XXXX, Queensland's favourite brew, with the friendly regulars.

North of the Downs you'll find the Capricorn Hinterland (named after the tropical latitude), a region of sweeping cattle ranches and towering sandstone cliffs marked with ancient Aboriginal rock art. Some of the finest examples of these indigenous drawings can be found at Carnarvon National Park. Most of the 2,000 carvings, ochre sketches and handprints of the Bidjara people date back 3,500 years, but the stencil art in Kenniff Cave is thought to be among the oldest in Australia, around 18,000 years old.

I fancy a stroll

A recent A$16.5m (£9m) initiative by the Queensland government (epa.qld.gov.au) has created six new walking trails with another four to follow next year. One of the new routes is the 64km Mackay Highlands trail that follows the Broken River through the fertile Pioneer Valley. The fragrant eucalyptus woodlands and forests of native Alexandra palms and tulip oak trees showcase Queenland's diverse flora.

Elsewhere, the trail to the summit of Queensland's highest mountain is another good option. It's a demanding 16km, two-day walk through the dense rainforest, rocky outcrops and boulder fields of Wooroonooran National Park to the top of Bartle Frere (5,321ft), which lies within the Bellenden Ker mountain range near Cairns. The views along the way of the pastoral Atherton Tablelands are worth the effort. But note: this region is the wettest in Queensland, so the summit can be shrouded in cloud.

Any animal magic?

Much of Australia's unique wildlife can be seen, cuddled and fed at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary (00 61 7 3378 1366; koala.net) near Brisbane. The first and largest of its kind, Lone Pine has been caring for these iconic marsupials since 1927. Loss of habitat has caused a decline in the koala population and the US Endangered Species list currently declares them as "threatened", though some believe the koalas are flourishing. Lone Pine is also home to Tasmanian devils, wombats and kangaroos and wallabies, which can be hand-fed. Open 8.30am-5pm daily, admission A$28 (£15.50).

Meanwhile, Moreton Bay is frequented by pods of humpback whales that visit the area to rest and feed their young from June through to November. Brisbane Whale Watching (00 61 7 3880 0477; brisbanewhalewatching.com.au) an operator that runs trips around the bay, is so confident of spotting them during the season, that sightings come with a guarantee. A portion of your A$135 (£74) ticket goes towards ongoing whale research.

What about a road trip?

The Matilda Highway is named after Australia's unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. National Route A2, as it's more properly known, provides an exceptionally pleasing drive with dramatic Outback scenery. Running from Cunnamulla to Cloncurry, it is a route through towns that have shaped modern-day Australia. Institutions such as the Flying Doctors and Qantas were conceived and nurtured in communities along this 1,706km road – and very proud they are of them, too. The town of Winton, for example, where Sir Herbert Ramsay first performed Waltzing Matilda on 6 April 1895, has a museum dedicated to Andrew "Banjo" Paterson's composition. Exhibits at the Matilda Centre (00 61 7 4657 1466; matildacentre.com.au) include a light show in the Billabong Theatrette. Open weekdays 9am-5pm and weekends 9am-3pm between Nov-March, A$19 (£11).

You'll know when you've arrived in Longreach, the small town that played a big part in establishing the national airline: the Boeing 747-200 parked outside the Qantas Founders Outback Museum (00 61 7 4658 3737; qfom.com.au) is a giveaway. Pop in for the chance to "wing walk" the Jumbo, although there's a charge of A$85 (£46) for the privilege. Open 9am-5pm daily.

In McKinlay you can spend the night at the Walkabout Creek Hotel (00 61 7 4746 8424), which enjoyed a starring role as Mick Dundee's local in Crocodile Dundee. Rooms start at A$88 (£48), excluding breakfast.

Can I experience the Outback?

Venture into central Queensland in comfort aboard the overnight Inlander train (00 61 7 3235 7322; railaustralia.com.au). Leaving tropical Townsville en route to the arid mining town of Mount Isa, the twice-weekly service, departing on Sundays and Thursdays, rattles across the Great Dividing Range before arriving at the mineral-rich community in the heart of the Outback. A one-way trip costs from A$123 (£69). Upon arrival, you can go subterranean to experience the strong mining heritage – maybe even trying your hand at operating an air-leg drill – or stay above ground and discover the collection of fossilised bones, such as those of the extinct marsupial lion and carnivorous kangaroo at the Riversleigh Fossil Field.

Lore of the land: Rock painting and hunting with Aborigines

One of Queensland's most colourful characters goes by the name of Willie Gordon. As a Nugal-warra elder known for his folklore tales, Willie leads vivid two-day tours for Adventure North Australia (00 61 7 4040 7500; adventurenorth australia.com) to Aboriginal points of cultural interest around Cooktown. Willie reveals the secrets behind the rock paintings at Hope Vale and provides an insightful glimpse into his society and their relationship with the land. Tours from A$309 (£174).

The same operator also runs night spear-fishing trips around Port Douglas under the watchful eye of the Kuku Yalanji brothers. The two siblings share their considerable knowledge of their age-old ancestral traditions while hunting for supper.

Travel Essentials: Queensland

Getting there

No airline flies direct between the UK and Queensland. The main gateway is the state capital, Brisbane, which has connections via Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and other hubs on a range of airlines. Cairns is harder to reach, with the main options being Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong, and Jetstar from Singapore.

Plenty of tour operators offer Queensland itineraries. Qantas Holidays (020-8222 9124; qantasholidays.co.uk) offers a 10-day "Taste of Queensland" trip based around Cairns. It covers visits to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, and costs £899 per person, including international flights and B&B accommodation, for travel between 16 April and 20 June 2010. Trips must be booked by 2 February.

Austravel (0800 988 4676; austravel.com) offers extensive tailor-made and escorted itineraries throughout Queensland. Its 12-day tour of the east coast, starting in Sydney and ending in Cairns, costs from £1,800 excluding flights.

Getting around

Plenty of travellers rent a car, often picking up a vehicle in Brisbane and dropping it off in Cairns, or vice versa. The broker Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; holidayautos.co.uk), offers a fortnight's rental from £300.

The main bus network is operated by Greyhound (00 61 7 4690 9950; greyhound.com.au). The main link is from Brisbane to Cairns via Townsville. It takes 31 hours and costs A$761 (£425).

By air, the state is well served by JetStar (00 61 3 9092 6500; jetstar.com), a subsidiary of Qantas, and Virgin Blue (00 61 7 3295 2284; virginblue.com.au) which operate along the coast.

More information

Queensland Tourist Board: experiencequeensland.com