The drive between Brisbane and Sydney is a vastly different prospect from what it was just a few years ago.
After what seems like an eternity, the upgrades to the Pacific Highway are finally complete and the route is now a motorway for almost the entire journey.
Following the coast between the two-state capitals, the Pacific Highway (M1/A1 route) is not only the quickest way to drive between Brisbane and Sydney but arguably the more scenic option as well.
With the upgrades, the Pacific Highway now bypasses almost all the towns that used to line the route, Coffs Harbour being the notable exception. Making the trip significantly quicker than it used to be, at least 1-2 hours faster.
Now while the majority of towns have been bypassed, there is still plenty to discover between the two cities. Especially if you are willing to make a couple of short detours, which you’ll have plenty of time to do now that the trip is so much quicker.
Having made the road trip between Brisbane and Sydney a significant number of times, both before the upgrades and since, I know there is plenty to discover along the route, which we’ll dive into very shortly.
Just one thing to note. The Pacific Highway is still susceptible to bushfires and floods, although the recent improvements have made floods less of an issue. So it’s also worth keeping in mind that the New England Highway is a very good alternative route between Sydney and Brisbane.
Along the Pacific Highway route, the drive between Brisbane and Sydney is a little over 900 km
Now that the upgrades to the Pacific Highway have been completed, the drive between Brisbane and Syndey will take you about 9 hours.
The drive between Brisbane and Sydney is now straightforward; the entire route is now dual carriageway. A couple of short sections through both Newcastle and Coffs Harbour do have traffic lights which can also slow things down a little when the traffic is heavy. But a very simple drive.
Every major stop I’ll highlight in this blog post will have a service station as well as a number of other services. Now that most of the major towns have been bypassed by the Pacific Highway, in most instances, a quick detour might be required. That said, more service stations are being built along the new route.
Yes. You can quite easily complete the drive between Brisbane and Sydney in a single day.
On the drive along the Pacific Highway, Coffs Harbour marks roughly the halfway point between Brisbane and Sydney.
The Pacific Highway route travels about 900km between North Sydney, NSW and Brisbane, Queensland. Although it is officially known as the Pacific Motorway once it crosses the Queensland/New South Wales border.
With all of that out of the way, here are my tips for the best places to stop along the Pacific Highway (M1/A1) between Brisbane and Sydney.
Let’s start this out with Brisbane, just in case you are making the trip in the reverse direction and it’s your first time in the Queensland capital.
Getting out of the city is relatively straightforward. The motorway network in and out of the city is really well interlinked so no matter where you are starting the trip you can easily link up and make your way onto the M1 for the trip down to the Gold Coast.
Gold Coast, Queensland
If you are from Queensland, you’ve probably visited the Gold Coast any number of times, so this is probably more of a stop if you are travelling in the opposite direction.
The ever-popular tourist hotspot of Surfers Paradise isn’t too far of a detour off the M1, in fact, if you are making the trip from Sydney, there is a very high likelihood that the Gold Coast is your ultimate destination.
In saying that, and having spent a significant amount of time on the Gold Coast recently, I’ve put together a comprehensive guide about the Gold Coast that you might want to check out also.
However, if you are heading down from Brisbane, the Gold Coast (as well as Tweed Heads just on the other side of the New South Wales border) does present several good opportunities to stop and refuel both your car and yourself without detouring too far off the M1 as well.
The number of service stations and fast-food restaurants that line the M1 section of the Pacific Motorway well before you cross the border, particularly around Yatala and Nerang, make for ideal for a quick stop if you are trying to complete the trip in a hurry, or just want to give yourself more time to explore some of the sites in NSW further down the road.
Byron Bay, NSW
Did you know that Byron Bay is the most easterly point of mainland Australia? More specifically Byron Bay Lighthouse.
If you leave Brisbane early enough (it’s about a 2-hour drive) you could arrive at Byron Bay Lighthouse just in time to see the sunrise with a short detour off the Pacific Highway.
I know that can be quite a bit of a stretch for a lot of people, especially in the summer when the sunrises extremely early, but in the winter it can be a much more reasonable prospect. And as you can see from the above photo, worth the extra effort.
Just keep in mind that seeing the sunrise at Byron Bay Lighthouse is quite popular, particularly with photographers. It’s also worth noting that the parking along Lighthouse Rd is quite limited with the top carpark (if you’ve already visited the lighthouse during the day you’ll know what I’m referring to) closed until well after sunrise.
So if seeing the sunrise is a priority, especially if you want to tick it off the bucket list, just make sure you give yourself a bit of extra buffer to find a parking spot and then make the 10 to 15-minute walk to the top of the lighthouse from car parking areas that are open.
Beyond the sunrise and lighthouse, Byron Bay is also known for its cafes and extremely laid-back lifestyle with plenty of good local options if you are taking a casual start to your morning (or afternoon).
In fact, Byron Bay is quite a popular tourist destination in its own right. While you are in the area, you might also want to check out Crystal Castle in the hinterland just outside of Byron.
Home to the two of the tallest crystals on earth (according to its website), this unique attraction fits in with the almost hippy-like vibe that Byron Bay is famous for. The natural healing/calming aspect of Crystal Castle is kinda lost on me personally but the different crystals, particularly the large amethyst cave is quite impressive to witness first-hand.
Are you on the hunt to tick off seeing all of the big things around Australia? Ballina’s Big Prawn used to be a staple of the drive between Brisbane and Sydney and a major feature of the Pacific Highway route.
Now that Ballina has been bypassed through the upgrades of the Pacific Highway, the Big Prawn experience is quite different from what it used to be and you will now need to make a quick detour off the highway to see it.
The Big Prawn used to sit on top of a major service station with a couple of local restaurants. It was quite a popular stop between the two cities.
These days it has changed quite a bit. The Big Prawn is still in the same location, but now that the highway bypasses the town, all the service stations and restaurants have moved closer to the centre of town. Leaving iconic roadside attraction now alongside a large Bunnings hardware store as the former section of the highway is redeveloped.
That all said, Ballina still makes for an excellent quick stop off the Pacific Highway just to see the Big Prawn if you haven’t seen it before. Just use the second Ballina exit (if you are heading southbound) to make the detour as short as possible.
If you have the time, and looking to explore some more of the unique attractions that the Pacific Highway has to offer, also keep an eye out for Macadamia Castle between Byron Bay and Ballina.
This farm-turned theme park is another popular attraction that has also been bypassed in the upgrades to the Pacific Highway but is still easily accessible with a quick detour off the main road.
The castle itself is free to enter and a great place to stock up on its famous macadamia products, while the cafe is a very popular option for a unique quick stop.
If you are travelling with kids and plan on breaking the drive up over a couple of days, the animal and other attractions inside the park can be a great distraction from the time spent in the car, and are not too expensive.
If you don’t feel like straying too far from the highway but need a quick stop, there is a newly completed BP service station with a Wild Bean Cafe, McDonald’s, and KFC at the southernmost Ballina exit. You will need to exit the highway to find it if you are heading southbound, it’s far more obvious and easily accessible for those heading northbound.
Coffs Harbour, NSW
Another couple of hours down the Pacific Highway, Coffs Harbour marks the halfway point (roughly) of the trip between Brisbane and Sydney.
Known for its iconic Big Banana, Coffs Harbour is one of only a couple of towns not bypassed in the upgrade of the Pacific Highway, with the multilane road taking you straight through the heart of the regional city.
This makes Coffs Harbour an ideal spot to stop no matter if you are just looking to have a quick break, or if you want to split the drive evenly over two days.
The Big Banana isn’t just a single structure; it’s a whole tourist precinct that has been set up specifically to cater to the large number of people who make the road trip up and down the Pacific Highway each year.
Of course, you have to take the typical tourist photo in front of the Big Banana, but also stop in to check out the cafe and restaurant, for at the very least a decent coffee if not a full meal.
Beyond that, the Big Banana complex offers a banana-themed gift shop, ice skating, 4D ride simulator, mini-golf, laser tag, tobogganing and water park.
That all said, Coffs Harbour has plenty more to offer than just the Big Banana, in fact, the whole Coffs Coast region is a destination in its own right.
Another good quick stop while you are in Coffs Harbour, is The Clog Barn. This little slice of The Netherlands in regional NSW offers a variety of Dutch experiences I haven’t been able to find outside of Europe.
You can sample iconic Dutch foods, check out a miniature Dutch village and see the traditional Dutch wooden footwear, clogs, made. The Clog Barn is a very different experience from your usual road trip stops anywhere in Australia.
If you have more time, and/or planning on staying in Coffs Harbour for a day (or more) then I would also suggest visiting the Dolphin Marine Conservation Park.
This park is a mini Sea World and has operated under a number of different names over its time including Pet Porpoise Pool and Dolphin Marine Magic, but its main focus is its conservation efforts.
Inside you will discover more about these efforts as well as see the dolphins, sea lions, little blue penguins, green sea turtles, freshwater turtles, and a variety of local fish species that call the park home.
I would also strongly recommend that if you are planning on staying in Coffs Harbour for a day or more, that you take the time to explore the aptly named Waterfall Way between the Pacific Highway and the New England Highway.
If you are short on time, the Dorrigo National Park is the closest part of the route to Coffs Harbour and home to a number of stunning waterfalls.
My personal pick, if you only have time to see one, is Crystal Shower Falls which is about an hour’s drive outside of Coffs Harbour.
Crystal Shower Falls is located at the bottom of a stunning walking trail that is a fantastic opportunity to stretch your legs and get some fresh air after a full day in the car.
The trail takes you along an impressive suspension bridge that gives you an amazing view of the front of the falls. But the real drawcard is the walking trail underneath the falls.
There are plenty more waterfalls to discover in the seven national parks that reside along the Waterfall Way, but Crystal Shower Falls is a good place to start.
If you do plan on staying in Coffs Harbour, I also have a couple of recommendations on places to stay:
- Ramada Resort by Wyndham Coffs Harbour – Modern suite and apartment-style accommodation, ideal for longer stays in Coffs Harbour.
- BreakFree Aanuka Beach Resort – Right on the beach, this is an ideal option if you are looking for a much more relaxed stay while you are in the area, with an onsite spa and other resort facilities.
- Aquajet Motel – A good comfortable cheaper option, just off the highway and within easy walking distance of the shops and restaurants along the highway.
- Bentleigh Motor Inn – Located right on the Pacific Highway, a great option for a quick overnight stop if you need to get back on the road first thing in the morning.
- BIG4 Park Beach Holiday Park – An ideal option if you are travelling with the family with a good mix of options and attractions for the kids.
Once you leave Coffs Harbour there aren’t many major stops on the Pacific Highway until you arrive in Newcastle, so these next couple of recommendations do require a little detour.
With that in mind, you might want to at least stop into one of any number of restaurants and service stations for a quick meal and some fuel if you are really pressed for time. There are a good number of options as you both approach and just before you leave Coffs Harbour as well.
Kempsey was another of the major stops along the old Pacific Highway route prior to it being bypassed with the upgrade. However, there is still a good reason to make the diversion off the new road.
The town was the birthplace of country music star Slim Dusty, known worldwide for his iconic hit “A Pub With No Beer”.
The Slim Dusty Museum in the heart of Kempsey celebrates the singers’ life, offering a fantastic insight into a career that spanned six decades. Making the town well worth the detour for any country music fan, or anyone who has a keen interest in Australian pop culture.
If the museum really piqued your interest in Slim Dusty’s life, his childhood home is also worth a quick visit while you are in the area. The heritage-listed Homewood can be found in the village of Bellbrook, just outside of Kempsey.
On the other hand, if none of that grabbed your interest and you are in a hurry, at the South Kempsey exit there is a service station (Puma) with a couple of fast food options (McDonald’s, Subway & Red Rooster), which could serve as good comfort stop without getting too far away from the highway.
Port Macquarie, NSW
Port Macquarie is another town that is worth a quick detour off the Pacific Highway if you have the time.
A holiday town in its own right, you could take advantage of the service station just off the highway (BP) which also offers a couple of places to eat (namely McDonald’s, KFC and Subway at the time of writing this) if you are in a hurry.
However, if you are taking a more casual approach to the road trip between Brisbane and Sydney, I would strongly recommend stopping into Port Macquarie properly to explore its stunning beaches, particularly Town Beach and its painted rocks seawall.
If you are making the detour into Port Macquarie, then also take advantage of the local cafes and restaurants that the town has to offer some with stunning views out over the Hastings River. It could even be worth staying in town overnight if you are taking a really casual approach to your drive down (or up) the Pacific Highway.
Billabong Zoo is best known for its Koala breeding program and is a fantastic place to see these elusive animals in person. The zoo also offers the opportunity to see a mix of both local Australian and exotic international animals.
Meanwhile, Timbertown is a historically themed park offering a unique experience by showcasing the Gold Rush history of Australia. Very different from anything else you might find while driving around New South Wales. The artifacts are interesting, but it’s the gold panning with the chance to really find real gold that makes this experience stand out.
Taree is another option for a quick stop if only to check another of the big things off your Australian road trip list.
While the Big Oyster is probably one of the least memorable “Big Things” that Australia has to offer, it is still on the list.
Again, this is one of those icons of the road trip that has undergone a significant change over the years as the Pacific Highway has been upgraded and redirected.
It was originally built as a service station with a couple of fast-food restaurants as typical of these sorts of stops along this road trip. However these days the site has been turned into a car dealership, with the Big Oyster still sitting on top.
If that’s a little too gimmicky, it’s also worth noting that Taree is one of the last places to fuel up (and grab a quick feed) without detouring too far off the Pacific Highway before you get to Newcastle. The Caltex service station at the southernmost Taree exit also has McDonald’s, Subway, and KFC.
Newcastle, well Heatherbrae, is where the motorway section of the Pacific Highway ends and you return to suburbia. Albeit briefly before joining up with the M1 Motorway (formally the F3 Freeway) for the rest of the run down to Sydney.
Again Heatherbrae offers a couple of service stations and several fast food options which is really handy after a long stint of driving and worth a quick stop to stretch your legs before dealing with Newcastle’s traffic as you navigate your way to the Sydney Newcastle Motorway.
While you are in the neighbourhood, something unique to the area is Heatherbrae Pies, which I would recommend that you visit if you are looking for a feed.
If your trip ends in Newcastle or you looking to get out and stretch your legs properly. Both Hunter Region Botanical Gardens and Fighterworld are great options for something to do that doesn’t involve sitting in the car any longer, they are just a short detour off the Pacific Highway just before you get to Heatherbrae.
I’m in the process of putting together a more comprehensive guide to Newcastle that will be handy if you think you might want to explore more of what the city has to offer. So keep an eye out for that (I’ll add a link to this post soon).
From Newcastle, once you get onto the M1 Motorway, it’s a pretty simple drive down the Sydney and the motorway network that interlinks the city.
Just keep in mind there is only one fuel stop on the motorway (at Wyong) so it’s probably a good idea to fill up before leaving Newcastle if you’re not quite sure you’ll make it all the way to Sydney without making another stop. The M1 is quite susceptible to lengthy delays due to crashes, particularly during peak hours.
If you’d like to know more about what there is to do in Sydney once you get there, it’s another place on my list to put together a comprehensive guide. I’ll link that here once I’ve finished writing it.
If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around Australia… Check out the rest of my blog posts.