A vast north-eastern state more than seven times the size of the UK, covering more than a quarter of Australia’s total expanse, Queensland is a great place for family holidays – you can visit one of the world’s best conservation zoos, venture into the rainforest (or skim over it on a cableway) and experience one of the wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Beautiful one day, perfect the next: this is the mantra of all proud Queenslanders. Its sub-tropical and tropical beaches hold a hypnotic allure: the sand is white and fine, the softest you could imagine, and the beaches are spotlessly clean and child-friendly. The less developed Queensland – her tropical rainforests, the far north cane-fields and hidden eco-resorts, the dead-pan country towns where you feel like an extra in Crocodile Dundee (or worse, Wolf Creek) – reveal a side to Australia, to life even, you may never have known.
Things to do with kids in Queensland
Discover the Gold Coast. Go to one or all of the ‘worlds’: Seaworld, Movieworld and Dreamworld – the kids will love them, and you may too. Seaworld is all things oceanic – you can kiss feed seals and more. Movieworld unwraps the magic of film-making, showcasing special effects and allowing you to shake hands with Marilyn Monroe, or Bugs Bunny if you prefer. Dreamworld has hand-reared tigers, plus rollercoasters and lots of fun rides. Less known is the Currumbin Bird Sanctuary, a beautiful place set in coastal bush-land right next to the beach, about 15 minutes south of Surfers Paradise. Rainbow-coloured birds eat from your hands or perch on your head, and a small train takes you around the park, with stops to feed wallabies and kangaroos and see shows with swooping eagles and owls. It’s not at all tacky or commercialised – just a gentle homage to the wildlife of Australia.
But the Gold Coast is more than the sum of its theme-parks. Once poo-pooed as crass and aggressively commercial, it has matured over the years and has some more eclectic takes on its old tricks: shopping is now more than just the contrast of Prada for the Japanese and joke T-shirts for everyone else, with boutiques by some of Australia’s best independent designers. Once considered terribly unsophisticated, the Gold Coast has injected a real cosmopolitan atmosphere into places such as Broadbeach and Main Beach, with bustling eateries and artisan bakeries, European delis and organic foodstores. The millions of Italians and Greeks who migrated here after the Second World War have contributed to the essential nature of life, bringing the ethos of food as celebration, a way of connecting a community. This lifestyle marries so well with the sun: think outdoor cafés, seasonal food markets, beach-side BBQs. The beach is truly amazing, stretching some 70km, but it’s unfortunately backed by towering apartment buildings that cast their ominous shadow across the sand by the afternoon. These same towers glitter at night, resembling some alluring metropolis. The nightclubs and bars attract all sorts: this is no sleepy seaside town but also no rat race, with life ambling at more of a flip-flop pace.
Explore the Gold Coast Hinterland just inland from the beach, both beautiful and ecologically diverse. Swim in beautiful rock pools such as Natural Bridge in Springbrook National Park, take exotic but easy rainforest walks, eat in quaint cafés serving Devonshire (cream) tea, and shop for local pottery or magic crystals. The air is rich and damp and packed with vital greenness.
Avoid Brisbane – not a city to rival Sydney or Melbourne, with only a man-made beach flanked by a highway. If you’re here killing time awaiting a flight, visit the Botanical Gardens and take a boat-trip along the Brizzie River.
Do use Brisbane as a launch-pad for places such as North Stradbroke Island (‘Straddie’), a beautiful sand island only a ferry-ride away. Families are best catered for at the Stradbroke Island Tourist Park, with villas, cabins and camping facilities. Scuba-dive, beachcomb and listen to the hum of the Australian bush as you cook beans on toast and open a Four X. It’s a chilled two-day retreat if you’re winding your way up the coast of Queensland and need a rest from the endless highway before hitting say, Noosa and the Sunshine Coast, or, even further, Cairns.
Noosa can be almost categorised as Brisbane these days, so much has the Sunshine Coast city become the short-break playground of Brisbanites. It’s lost a lot of its original charm: the $1 burger caff by the sea and cruisey surfie vibe. It now has a zillion trendy eateries (beware the $20 breakfasts) and swanky pool bars. But the surf is often brilliant, the beach is cornered by pristine national parks, and local surrounding towns such as Eumundi, with its eclectic Saturday market, and Maleny, home to many gourmet food producers, retain a hippy-like atmosphere, backdropped by the gorgeous Glass House Mountains. There is also a spectacular scenic drive, the Blackall Range Tourist Drive, and along the way you can take rainforest walks – short enough that the kids won’t be moaning ‘are we there yet?’ – see waterfalls, and even visit the infamous Big Pineapple Complex and take part in the Aussie tradition of having your photo taken in front of a monolithic construct in praise of produce.
Also on the Sunshine Coast, in Beerwah, is Australia Zoo, a must on family holidays, created by one of Australia’s Biggest Personalities, the late Steve Irwin. See the big crocs being fed and put fear into the hearts of your children forever. Australia Zoo is expensive, but you'll feel better knowing that the Irwins have done much as conservationists, including buying large amounts of land in Australia and internationally to help protect endangered species and halt land clearing. If you only trek around one zoo in Oz, it may as well be Australia Zoo – the kids will never forget it.
Head up to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. In the wet season up north (Nov–April), expect to see tadpoles bursting into life, bouncing on bitumen like the heavy rain itself. Eat lychees by the kilo from a side-of-the-highway stall. In the lush rainforests up here, you can see poisonous trees while blood-sucking leeches extend their slimy bodies at your passing flesh. They are relatively harmless but foul, and make a walk in the forest a thing of horror and wonder.
Cairns is a mix of tropical madness – locals can be kooky, and backpackers unravel in the humidity with lots of drinking and mayhem – and high-dollar tourism, with sparkling hotels and expensive seafood restaurants. But most importantly, Cairns is very family friendly. Many places offer free accommodation for young children, and most hotels have swimming pools with paddling sections. If you base yourself near the Cairns Esplanade, you’ll have access to the popular sheltered swimming lagoon, as well as BBQ facilities and great playgrounds for younger kids. There is also a skate-park further down the esplanade that teens will love. As you travel up the coast, past the endless fields of bright-green sugarcane fronds, or else the burnt remains of them, there are pretty and quiet beaches with family resorts such as Yorkeys Knob, where you can learn kite-surfing, and Trinity Beach with its own sheltered cove and dolphins and turtles to spot. Beaches around Cairns are unreal in their beauty.
Cricket on the beach, Great Barrier Reef
Feasting alfresco on the freshest seafood all along Queensland’s coast is a highlight of family holidays, from rock oysters, soft-shell crabs, Moreton Bay bugs (lobsters) and buckets of prawns to sushi or fish and chips.
There’s also a big emphasis here on local organic produce, including wines. In higher-end restaurants and cities, dishes are often Asian-inflected, using flavourings such as lemongrass.
Resorts offer the usual international options, including child-friendly dishes such as pizza and pasta, but your children might be intrigued enough to try native meats such as crocodile, kangaroo and emu.
And of course, barbies are a way of life here – slam on a local steak, since the inland of the state is famed for its beef cattle, and Rockhampton is no less than the ‘Beef Capital of Australia’.
When to go to Queensland
Warm, hot and hotter – okay, so there’s rarely a cardigan in sight even in winter, but sometimes you can have just a little too much sun. Ironically given 2011's devastating floods, Queensland has been in a state of drought for umpteen years, and water conservation is a high priority. June–Aug is best for family holidays in the north, as the heat can be oppressive outside these months.
Also, be warned that Oct–March in northern Queensland is the marine stinger season – box jellyfish is a lethal menace in the waters and gorgeous beaches can be spookily deserted, because though on many beaches safety nets are installed and the waters are highly monitored by local lifeguards, the critters’ slim tentacles can slip through, and stings are often fatal. All beauty seems to have a price.
It'll cost you several grand to get here, but once you're in Queensland, family holidays need not be expensive if you choose some form of self-catering accommodation – beachside apartments are in good supply.
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