You’ve been in Australia for five months now, and you’ve finally saved enough to travel the east coast. It’s cool that you didn’t plan ahead and bring enough money to start off with. And hey, Melbourne is an awesome place to spend the entire summer, don’t feel bad about all those hot beach days spent in a call center where your boss yells at you for not trying to get money from a guy literally holding his dying son’s hand. That’s all in the past. Now it’s time for sandy shores, crazy adventure, sexy foreigners, and lots and lots of goon.
You may want to do it in a camper van, if you really haven’t saved enough to make it all the way. But then you have to deal with showering in truck stop sinks and the fact that nobody’s been laid in a camper van since your parents got curious on that trip to the Grand Canyon where you had to sleep in the tent fifty feet away.
Hostels are where it’s at. They’re big, they’re social, and when you factor in the price of both gas and camping spots, it’s not altogether that much more expensive than the camping option anyway. But given the metric fuckton of options on the Australian east coast (it’s a whole country’s worth of shoreline, after all), you don’t want to waste your time in a miserable place. Here’s some good options (click the name to go to that hostel’s website).
From $22/night for a 10 bed dorm
So you’re starting in Cairns and working your way down. It’s gonna set the tone for your entire trip, so why settle for a hostel that literally makes you feel like you’re in a mental asylum? Instead, stay at Gilligan’s. It’s Cairns’ centerpiece, its magnum opus, its shining star. The hostel is more like an actual hotel, with a gigantic pool (and waterfall), a full bar and nightclub, and a kitchen and common room on every floor. The beds are massive, more like doubles than twins, so if you’re bringing somebody home after a raucous night out, you can roll over and sleep comfortably without ever needing to spoon. But who turns down a spoon?
Cairns itself is one of the largest cities you’ll stop in on the east coast, but it’s still relatively small, and most of the places you’ll be visiting (the wharf, the lagoon, the night markets, etc) are still in a two block radius, of which Gilligan’s is at the center. All the other interesting parts of tropical Queensland are outside the city limits, and all tours will just pick you up right outside the hostel. As far as nightlife is concerned, there are really only three bars backpackers go to: the Woolshed, PJ O’Briens, and Gilligan’s. Gilligan’s is the largest and most everybody winds up there at some point – and guests get in free before eleven. So it’s easy enough to just run downstairs at seven, get the stamp, and go back up to continue drinking goon in your room. Just get back downstairs in time for the concert, or the jelly wrestling, or the free shots. There’s a lot going on.
Some downsides: you’re not really allowed to drink goon in the rooms (as at any hostel with a licensed bar), but this rule is said with a wink on check-in and its too big to really check each room at night. Just don’t play the music too loud. Internet is expensive and kind of shitty, as it is over most of Australia, and if you’re doing it right, you’re not spending too much time on your computer anyway.
From $24/night for a six bed dorm
Mission Beach is a pretty unassuming town, just a couple of hours south of Cairns. Really, the only reason people go is to do extreme sports nearby – skydiving, white water rafting in the Tully Gorge, or scuba diving the Reef. Most of the attractions can actually be done from Cairns with a little more driving involved. The bus stop is literally a gas station marked by a giant, fading Cassowary. That’s literally what it’s called on the ticket. By The Giant Cassowary.
Some may take this to mean that there’s no reason to visit, but that’s not true. Staying in Cairns can get tiresome, and if there’s one thing deathly to your travel enthusiasm, it’s routine. Mission Beach is a new town, and if you’re gonna be getting active all day, it’s nice to stay somewhere that doesn’t require you to pound goon all night. Mission Beach is quiet, cheap, and gorgeous with the jungle.
Jackaroo hostel is your best bet. While Gilligan’s is more like a hotel, with long halls and multiple floors, Jackaroo is small. It’s organized around the common room, with all dorms opening onto the massive floor covered in comfy couches, big tables, and an open kitchen. There’s free unlimited WiFi, a rarity in Australia and worth the price on its own, considering you’ll be staying in the hostel most of the time. The backyard has a big pool, but its best feature is the giant yard with a projector movie screen where, on warm nights, everybody can gather and hang out. Combine that with the free wine they give out on Friday nights, and Jackaroo becomes the perfect place to enjoy a chilled out weekend on your way down the coast.
From $84/3 night tour
On the way down the East Coast, you’ll wind up visiting a lot of beaches. Like, a shitload of beaches. And eventually, they’ll start to feel the same, because there’s only so many times you can spend a day basking in the sun and the night drinking in the hostel bar. It’s just so… first world. Everybody reminisces about their time traveling through Southeast Asia, eating weird food, going to full moon parties, and driving around on shitty little motorbikes. Magnetic Island is your chance to rebottle that lightning.
An island roughly thirty minutes by ferry (at a distance you could walk in, like, twenty, seriously, what the fuck was up with that), Magnetic Island is a tropical paradise the likes of which you haven’t seen since passing out naked on the beach in Koh Phangan. Big palm trees hang over white sand beaches barricaded by giant boulders and blue water. The island is perfect for renting a motorbike and going an adventure to find some rock wallabies to feed and maybe catch a sunset from the top of the viewpoint.
Base knows that Magnetic Island is a little microcosm of Asia right in Australia. So it plays it up. Every month, it hosts a Full Moon Party (the one on Halloween is huge), and while it’s no rival to the one on Haad Rin, because you can’t fall back on bribing the police, it’s a fitting substitute. Because it’s an island, there aren’t a whole lot of options for going out at night, but Base has backpacker nights every night with Boozy Bingo and more games to keep you entertained. And when you’re ready to go to bed, it’s just a quick stumble along the path to your ocean view bungalow.
Because it’s an island, most stays there are usually booked as part of a tour. Two nights is plenty, but consider doing three just to have two full days to split between relaxing on the beach and exploring the roadways. And like Gilligan’s, the internet is slow, expensive, and only works in the main area. But it’s an island. Checking in on Facebook doesn’t make it any more tropical.
From $25/night for a 16 bed dorm
For some reason, whenever people come to California, they want to visit Laguna Beach. Obviously that reason comes with a catchy Phantom Planet intro song, but the reality that greets them is a wealthy town without a whole lot to actually see on a budget. I never understood it until I got to Noosa. It’s the same deal – quiet town, lots of older couples in Tommy Bahama who probably lock their doors if they hear even a Macklemore song from the car next to them.
But unless you stop at Rainbow Beach, Noosa is the gateway to Fraser Island, which is single-handedly the strangest and coolest trip I’ve done in Australia. I’ll write about it next, in fact. It’s also the gateway to the Noosa Everglades, the Australia Zoo (home of Steve Irwin, RIP), and an important stop before hitting Brisbane. Nomads, one of the biggest hostels in town, is located right between the beach and the town and has its own bar and pool.
Nomads is actually a huge hostel chain, like Base. This means that there’s always a reliable quality to it, and it has an attached travel desk to book a lot of the tours you’re looking for (albeit at pretty steep prices – don’t be afraid to look elsewhere). Just be careful about drinking on the premises. They take that seriously, and it can be a huge fine.
From $23/night for an 8 bed dorm
Let me start by saying that, yeah, weed is still illegal in Australia. Like, imprisoned or deported illegal. But for some reason, Byron Bay just doesn’t give a shit about your laws, man. The whole city is stuck in the ’60s, and you can’t walk down the sidewalk without a hippy with dreads to his hips asking you to jam out on that sweet ukulele. You have a ukulele now. They give them to you when you enter the city limits.
So Arts Factory just makes sense. It started decades ago as an arts village, the kind that graffitis “the Earth without Art is just Eh” on the wall and then sits down to smoke a joint about it. If Nomads (you remember them from Noosa, right?) hadn’t bought it out, they’d probably still be burning one down there. But now, it’s a full hotel, with luxury Tipis to sleep in, because what says “peaceful and respectful hippie” like a little cultural appropriation? The grounds are surrounded by stagnant ponds with lots of beautiful flora, and if you feel like staying close to it you can get a campsite for a big discount (camping equipment not included). There’s a massive kitchen and pool, and the hippies sell their art on the side.
Unlike most places in Australia, you can actually bring your own alcohol to drink, and most people do so in the common area. But, like I said, it’s a hippie place. Most people are self-medicated on some downers, so if you want to get nuts on some goon, you’re probably gonna have to save the enthusiasm for the bars. They still have big backpacker events (like wet t-shirt contests), but it’s so opposed to the rest of Byron’s ethos that you might as well just try something new while you’re there. Try kayaking with whales. Don’t try getting eaten by sharks. But those are obviously just suggestions.