Running for over 2500km from the New South Wales border to Australia’s northernmost tip at Cape York, Coastal Queensland contains almost everything that lures visitors to Australia. Set down in the more developed southeastern corner, the state capital Brisbane is a relaxed city with a lively social scene and good work possibilities. South between here and the border, the Gold Coast is Australia’s prime holiday destination, with a reputation founded on some of the country’s best surf – though this now takes second place to a belt of beachfront high-rises, theme parks, and the host of lively bars and nightclubs surrounding Surfers Paradise. An hour inland, the Gold Coast Hinterland’s green heights offer a chain of national parks packed with wildlife and stunning views. North of Brisbane, fruit and vegetable plantations behind the gentle Sunshine Coast benefit from rich volcanic soils and a subtropical climate, overlooked by the spiky, isolated peaks of the Glass House Mountains. Down on the coast, Noosa is a fashionable resort town with more famous surf. Beyond looms Fraser Island, whose surrounding waters afford great views of the annual whale migration and where huge wooded dunes, freshwater lakes and sculpted coloured sands form the backdrop for exciting safaris.
North of Fraser the humidity and temperature begin to rise as you head into the tropics. Though there’s still an ever-narrowing farming strip hugging the coast, the Great Dividing Range edges coastwards as it progresses north, dry at first, but gradually acquiring a green sward which culminates in the steamy, rainforest-draped scenery around Cairns. Along the way are scores of beaches, archipelagos of islands and a further wealth of national parks, some – such as Hinchinbrook Island – with superb walking trails. Those with work visas can also recharge their bank balances along the way by fruit and vegetable picking around the towns of Bundaberg, Bowen, Ayr and Innisfail. Moving north of Cairns, rainforested ranges ultimately give way to the savannah of the huge, triangular Cape York Peninsula, a sparsely populated setting for what is widely regarded as the most rugged 4WD adventure in the country.
Offshore, the tropical coast is marked by the appearance of the Great Barrier Reef, among the most extensive coral complexes in the world. The southern reaches out from Bundaberg and 1770 are peppered with sand islands or cays, while further north there’s a wealth of beautiful granite islands between the coast and reef, covered in thick pine forests and fringed in white sand – the pick of which are the Whitsundays near Airlie Beach and Magnetic Island off Townsville. Many of these islands are accessible on day-trips, though some offer everything from campsites to luxury resorts if you fancy a change of pace from tearing up and down the coast. The reef itself can be explored from boat excursions of between a few hours and several days’ duration; scuba divers are well catered for, though the best of the coral is within easy snorkelling range of the surface.
Winters are dry and pleasant throughout the region, but the summer climate (Dec–April) becomes more oppressive the further north you travel, with the possibility of cyclones bringing torrential rain and devastating storms to the entire tropical coast.
In a way, Queensland’s popularity as a holiday hot spot is surprising, as this is perhaps Australia’s most conservative state, lampooned in the past for being slow and regressive. Marked physical and social divisions remain between the densely settled, city-oriented southeastern corner and the large rural remainder, which is mostly given over to mining and farming. These divisions date back to when Brisbane was chosen as capital on Queensland’s separation from New South Wales in 1859; the city proved an unpopular choice with the northern pioneers, who felt that the government was too far away to understand, or even care about, their needs. These needs centred around the north’s sugar plantations and the use of Solomon Islanders for labour, a practice the government equated with slavery and finally banned in 1872. Ensuing demands for further separation, this time between tropical Queensland and the southeast, never bore fruit, but the remoteness of northern settlements from the capital led to local self-sufficiency, making Queensland far less homogeneous than the other eastern states.
The darker side of this conservatism has seen Queensland endure more than its fair share of extreme or simply dirty politics. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the repressive stranglehold of a strongly conservative National Party government, led by the charismatic and slippery Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen (better known as “Joh”), did nothing to enhance the state’s image. Despite a long-term Labor government since his time, state politics remain predominantly right-wing, as was seen in the late 1990s by the emergence from southeast Queensland of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party, whose shallow, racist outbursts won favour with a fair number of Australians who felt ignored by the main parties.
Change came with the new millennium, however: Labor Premier Peter Beattie served for three successive terms between 2001 and 2007 and was the first state premier to act on the Australia-wide water shortage caused by a decade of poor rainfall, by implementing water-recycling measures for domestic, industrial and agricultural use in 2007. He resigned from politics shortly afterwards, and was succeeded by his deputy, Anna Bligh, who became the State’s first elected female premier in 2009. Bligh’s calm handling of the crises caused by extreme weather events in the summer of 2010–11 attracted widespread praise.