Australia is a big place and one of the great beauties of travelling here is discovering new and different places to go. After all, with so much space, why go where everyone else goes?
Take Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Have you heard of it? No? Not surprising really. We never knew it existed either, until researching our Christmas/New Year family trip to Queensland’s Hervey Bay and the Fraser Coast.
I love discovering places like that; ones that surprise you and aren’t overrun by tourists. We had friends visiting the Gold Coast at the same time. They told us they waited 1½ hours for one of the rides at a top theme park. Not the way I want to spend my precious holiday and family time! Here are some tips on top things to do in Hervey Bay and the Fraser Coast – including beautiful Lady Elliot Island and of course – Fraser Island.
Our first few days in Queensland were spent on the Sunshine Coast, an hour or so north of Brisbane. We visited the SEA LIFE Aquarium, Australia Zoo, Eumundi Markets, and enjoyed lots of swimming and water activities. My young son made new friends and a pen pal along the way. We stayed a week and still have plenty more to see on our next visit.
Next we jumped into a hire car and headed up the coast towards Hervey Bay. It’s roughly a three-hour drive. With three generations travelling together, the local advice was to break up the trip with lunch at Tin Can Bay – and to watch out for brumbies on the back roads (we did see one!). There are stories of wild dolphins who are regular visitors to Tin Can Bay. The most common one tells of a fisherman and other locals nurturing an injured dolphin. The dolphin decided to stay, and even brought friends into the bay. We didn’t see them, but we had great fish and chips at the Snack Shack.
The best surprise was discovering the masses of soldier crabs on the beach. They looked like marbles with legs, scurrying en masse, disappearing and reappearing as if by magic! It was intriguing and hilarious. Shared belly laughs like that are great, especially when you’re travelling with your parents and your children. It can sometimes feel like you are the meat in the sandwich. You did the research; you booked the hotels; your name is on the hire car; it feels like it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone has a good time! Relax! It’s your holiday too. And a destination like Hervey Bay really does offer something to keep everyone happy, as we soon discovered.
World renowned for whale watching from late July to November, this is a destination that’s absolutely made for families at any time of the year. Things to do in Hervey Bay include a free water park, playgrounds, markets, cafes, bars, and cycling, walking tracks along the grassy, shady esplanade and showers, benches and eating areas. Bikes are available for hire. The pier is nearly 900m long and has a resident pelican perched on one of the lights. We enjoyed watching the schools of fish swimming in the calm water below.
On arrival we settled in to our accommodation at the Arlia Sands Apartments – very central and only a minute’s walk to Shelley Beach. Hervey Bay is a quite spread out, with long beaches and concentrated activity and entertainment precincts at either end. I booked more than three months ahead and many places were full, so plan well ahead if you will be travelling at peak times.
It can be overwhelming in the face of lots of options for accommodation and tours. Our experience was that spending a little extra for comfort with both did pay off. It is very hot and humid during summer, and we really appreciated the comfortable rooms and air-conditioning. Our accommodation also had a refreshing pool and a couple of BBQ areas, where we met other families, many of whom were repeat visitors – some from their own pieces of coastal paradise like Coffs Harbour.
We had decided before leaving home that we would indulge in a scenic flight and day tour to Lady Elliot Island. The flight time from Hervey Bay is 40 minutes. If flying in small planes makes you nervous, you can drive further north to Bundaberg for a shorter flight. A day trip is great, but I did have a bit of ‘sleep-over envy’ of those staying on the island. The options for overnight visits range from eco cabins to two bedroom suites. There are also lots of additional activities available to overnight guests, including possibly seeing nesting or hatching turtles, a kids’ ranger program, and witnessing amazing sunsets and sunrises.
You can walk around the whole island in about 45 minutes and there is only one operator for tours and accommodation – the Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort. The staff are cheerful, friendly, passionate and know their stuff. Lady Elliot Island is made completely of coral, cemented together with bird poo! The guano (bird poo) was once mined but the island is now a protected green zone.
We snorkelled off the beach and from a boat. For those not keen on entering the deeper water, the boats are glass bottomed, so you are still able to view the reef. The staff were supportive and encouraging to those who were less confident. We saw loads of fish, as well as turtles and manta rays. The island has been named one of the top five places in the world to dive with manta rays, according to PADI.
Back on the island, and when the tide is out you’re able to walk through shallow water across parts of the reef to spot sea stars, sea cucumbers, fish, octopus and fish. Staff who are marine biologists guide these walks, or you can head off on your own.
A reminder to be conscientious with sun protection! Consider using a rashie as sunscreen can be damaging to the coral and ineffective during and after periods in the water. Stinger suits, while not very glamorous (and not needed here for stinger protection), do provide great sun protection. Reef shoes are required at all times (from the moment you step off the plane you are standing on coral) and are available to borrow. We took our own, which is recommended during peak season.
Our tour included a tasty buffet lunch, and shower and locker facilities are available. All in all, it was an absolutely amazing day.
Our next big adventure was to explore Fraser Island – one of the top things to do in Hervey Bay.
Travelling with older parents and a young child, I took the advice of locals who persuaded me to upgrade from an overnight tour on Fraser Island to a premium one day tour, followed by a second day on the island via boat. Fraser Island is 123 kilometres long and a fascinating natural environment, but it is 4WD only. The roads are rough, and longer tours can see you spending more time in a vehicle than out of it. Our tour with Fraser Explorer Tours took us to all the significant sites, including pristine Lake McKenzie. The whole island is World Heritage-listed. It’s the world’s largest sand island and the only place where rainforest grows on sand. The silica sand here is unique; very fine, white and cool to walk on.
Despite the warnings prior to the tour about interacting with the island’s famous dingoes, we actually didn’t even notice until the end of the day that we hadn’t seen any, so enthralled were we by what we did see and our driver’s fascinating and entertaining stories. There’s an option to take a flight from the famous beach highway over the island (depending on weather conditions), and to stay on the island longer and catch a later ferry back.
The Remote Fraser Island One Day Tour via catamaran with Tasman Venture Tours the following day was another real highlight for us all. We visited parts of the island only accessible by boat (where we could then go ashore on amphibious zodiacs). The day had the perfect balance between food, relaxation, and activities. We snorkelled (stinger suits were required and provided), canoed along the coastline and up mangrove creeks, swam in freshwater creeks, climbed a sand dune, and enjoyed a high-speed tow behind the zodiac on an inflatable seat. Even my parents had a go! It was a wonderful way to celebrate the end of the year together, topped off back in Hervey Bay with New Year’s Eve fireworks on the beach.
All in all Hervey Bay and the Fraser Coast offer the perfect southern Queensland family getaway without the big crowds. We’re back at home, ignoring the unpacking and washing, and already planning our next Aussie journey of discovery.
Karen Darling is a freelance writer based in Adelaide.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Hervey Bay and the Fraser Coast? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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