It may not be one of Australia’s most renowned regions, but Queensland’s Sunshine Coast is well worth a visit. Spanning from Caloundra up to Great Sandy National Park, it’s delightfully low on tourists (except for Noosa), boasts reasonably warm winters (think 70F/20C), and offers both beaches and mountains. Does it get any better?
I readily admit that the Sunshine Coast was never high on my Australian travel radar. It doesn’t really host any of the super-popular touristic hotspots that one might normally plan a trip around, so for the past couple years I’d been busy crossing everything else off my Aussie to-travel-to list.
Now that I’ve had a chance to explore this part of Australia, I feel kinda silly for ignoring it for so long. The Sunshine Coast is a downright pleasant, relaxing, and beautiful place to be, and the fact that it’s not very popular only adds to its allure.
Noosa National Park.
I think the Sunshine Coast is best done as a 4-day road trip. Sure, you could spend more or less time there than that, travel by bus, or base yourself in one spot – but I’m hoping I can convince you otherwise in this post.
I flew into Brisbane and began my road trip from there, but you could also fly to the Sunshine Coast airport in Marcoola which is right in the center of the region. I’d recommend starting in Brisbane because flights tend to be much cheaper into Brisbane airport, and because it’s super close to the start of the Sunshine Coast so you won’t be wasting much time in getting to/from the region. Brisbane to Noosa is about a 90 minute drive, while Marcoola to Noosa is about a 35 minute drive – so it’s mercifully not a driving-heavy road trip.
Glass House Mountains.
Day 1: Brisbane to Noosa
Day 1 is all about exploring the beaches of the Sunshine Coast.
The beaches here aren’t at all glitzy like Bondi or Surfers Paradise; they’re insanely chilled out and have a very “local” feel to them. You’re far more likely to see families rather than tourists enjoying the Sunshine Coast beaches.
Here are a few worth mentioning along the way:
Caloundra is the first beach town you’ll hit if you start your Sunshine Coast road trip from the south.
Kings Beach in Caloundra was named the best beach in Queensland by Surf Life Saving Queensland, so you could do worse than enjoying the rock pools and calm waters here on a nice sunny day (which, honestly, is just about every single day of the year in this neck of the woods). There’s also a boardwalk that runs for 25km along the waterfront from Caloundra to Mooloolaba if you fancy a leisurely coastal walk.
Bullcock Beach in Caloundra, with Bribie Island and the Glass House Mountains in the distance.
Bribie Island is just off the coast and visible from Caloundra. The Pumicestone Passage separates the two land masses and is an ace spot to explore by kayak, jet ski, or paddle board (all of which you can rent from Bill’s Boat Hire).
Coolum’s another chilled out beach town on the Sunshine Coast. Especially of interest is Mount Coolum, where there’s a very popular 800m walk up to the summit yielding fantastic views of the coastline and surrounds (2 hours return).
We stopped for lunch at Little Boat Espresso in Marcoola. It felt like something straight out of Byron Bay and/or created specifically for Instagram. Needless to say, I enjoyed the hell out of it and my coffee.
Marcoola itself seemed to be super sleepy to me, with a near-empty beach up for grabs.
First thing’s first: this town’s name is pronounced moo-LOO-luh-bah, not moo-loo-LAH-bah (my Aussie road trip buddy thoroughly enjoyed making fun of me for that one, oops!).
Mooloolaba is one of the larger towns on the Sunshine Coast. Personally, I don’t think it hosts the best beaches; I DO, however, think it makes for a great spot from which to catch the sunset. Head up to Point Cartwright Lighthouse and either stake out a sunset spot from up there, or walk through Beacon Lighthouse Reserve and down to the rocky beach. From either place you’ll be able to watch the sun go down over the Mooloolah River.
Day 2: Noosa
Ah, Noosa. You could easily dedicate an entire trip to this place, that’s how much there is to see and do here.
For the purposes of this Sunshine Coast roadtrip though, I’m going to narrow it down to just the best things to do in Noosa which can easily be accomplished in one day.
Noosa Heads is the main township in the Noosa region (Noosaville is another), and is where you’ll find loads of nice cafes and boutiques. If you’re in the mood for more of a lazy morning, you can sit down for brunch in town and then walk it off with some shopping or a frolic through Pelican Beach Park along the scenic Noosa River. Hit up Grind Cafe for a takeaway coffee for your river walk – we loved the coffee there!
Alternatively, for a more active morning you could hire a boat or stand-up paddle board from one of the many vendors along the river.
Whatever you do, be sure to drive up to Laguna Lookout in Noosa Heads to watch the sunset. The view over the river and beach are absolutely sensational, even better if it’s a killer sunset.
Noosa National Park
If you’re a fellow beach bitch, I’d recommend spending as much time as possible in Noosa National Park. It is just BEAUTIFUL.
There’s an epic 5.4km-long coastal track that leads from Noosa Heads to Sunshine Beach that’s a do-not-miss. It’ll take 2-3 hours to walk one way with minimal stops, and then you can either walk back or catch a bus back to Noosa afterwards. There are a few quiet beaches along the way that tend to be popular with surfers, but they’re far less crowded than Noosa Main Beach – and a lot prettier, in my opinion.
About halfway down the track (or maybe a bit further – you can check on Google Maps), there’s a side track that leads down toward the Fairy Pools. Here you’ll have to rock scramble to find a couple of tidal pools wedged between some basalt rocks. The water in them is SO CLEAR, and you should be able to spot some coral reef growing on the rock below.
Shortly after the Fairy Pools, there’s another side track that leads down to the Devil’s Kitchen (also on Google Maps). This is a fabulous place to sit and gaze out at the churning sea below.
Devil’s Kitchen, in Noosa National Park.
It’s also worth allowing some time at Sunshine Beach at the other end of the track. Beautiful and near-empty sand for miles, it doesn’t get much better!
Day 3: Sunshine Coast Hinterland
As dreamy as the coastal part of the Sunshine Coast is, there’s actually a treasure trove of other incredible sights and experiences to be had inland as well. You probably won’t be able to fit all of the following into one day, so pick and choose depending on your interests and time available:
Try to plan your Sunshine Coast road trip so that you’re able to drive through Eumundi on a Wednesday or a Saturday, when the Eumundi Markets are held. I don’t often recommend markets as must-do activities, but WOW is this one impressive.
Whether you’re shopping for a unique gift or hungry for lunch, there are a million and one options at the Eumundi Markets. It’s far and away the largest market I’ve seen outside of Thailand, and it’s hugely popular – so much so that we had to drive a few laps around town before we found a place to park (on a WEDNESDAY).
Oh and be sure to stop next-door and grab a coffee from Humdrum Espresso. It might be the best Aussie coffee I’ve had outside of Melbourne! So good that I went back for a second flat white when I definitely didn’t need one (whoops).
Once you head inland, there’s actually quite a bit of lush forest in the Sunshine Coast where you can camp and hike.
There’s a fairly popular hike to Kondalilla Falls, probably best done in warmer months so that you can frolic in the rock pools at the end of it. The 4.7km circuit is said to take about 2.5 hours to complete.
We opted instead to do an easy stroll through Buderim Forest Park. The first 2/3 of the trail is lined with a boardwalk, and the final 1/3 is a dirt path involving a bit of rock hopping – but in sum, it’s an easy and very accessible hike, ideal if you’re not looking for anything too strenuous but want a quick hit of nature.
Scenic Views on the Blackall Range Tourist Drive
An excellent way to explore the Sunshine Coast Hinterland is to take the Blackall Range Tourist Drive (click for map) and stop along the way to take in the views of the surrounding mountains and coastline.
Gerrard’s Lookout is best at sunrise, where you can watch the sun come up from over the ocean and light up the Hinterland before you.
One Tree Hill is another really cool spot where you can glimpse the Glass House Mountains from a hill in Maleny… with a lone tree in the foreground.
Wine & Cheese Tasting
No road trip of mine and Teresa’s would be complete without some wine tasting and cheese nibbling, and sure enough we found a few places to do this in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. This region does not by any means produce the best wine in Australia, but it’s worth trying if you happen to be in the area.
Day 4: Glass House Mountains
No matter what kind of hiker you are (hardcore, casual, not-at-all), definitely carve out at least a day on your Sunshine Coast itinerary to explore the Glass House Mountains.
There are a few worthwhile lookouts just a quick walk from where you park your car, including the Tibrogargan Lookout and the Glass House Mountains Lookout Circuit.
Far more rewarding, though, is the hike to the Mt. Ngungun summit. At 2.8km return, it’s a pretty quick hike even with the 25 minute ascent to the top. Aim to take this on around sunset if you can, for some 360-degree pastel-colored sky action.
Check out the Queensland NPSR site for more hikes in the Glass House Mountains. Ngungun’s a pretty quick and easy hike, but there are other hikeable mountains that might pose more of a challenge if that’s what you’re up for.
As of June 2017 —
To reach the Sunshine Coast, you can fly into either Brisbane airport or the Sunshine Coast airport in Marcoola and rent a car for your road trip. Brisbane to Noosa is about a 90 minute drive, while Marcoola to Noosa is about a 35 minute drive.
We relied on the WikiCamps app to find cheap or free campsites along the way and ended up camping at Noosa Caravan Park, the Maleny Showgrounds, and Coochin Creek Campground (HIGHLY recommend this one – it’s in a state forest and campfires are allowed!).
Alternatively, you can book affordable Airbnbs in the Sunshine Coast. Sign up using this link and save $40 on your first booking!