72 Hours on the NSW North Coast

The NSW North Coast is a big place. It also happens to be a holidaymaker’s dream. No matter where you go, you’re guaranteed to strike gorgeous beaches, sheltered bays, verdant national parks, and welcoming towns and villages.

One of the best ways to explore the North Coast is by jumping in the car and hitting the Legendary Pacific Drive. This pretty stretch will take you past some of the most scenic sights the region has to offer, and there are plenty of attractions along the way. The best part is that you won’t be spending all your time in the car! In fact, a decent chunk of the drive – from Newcastle to Byron Bay – is perfectly manageable in a long weekend.

To help you on your way, we’ve created a 72-hour itinerary with the drive divided into three stages. The driving time comes in at under three hours' per day, so every course can be done in one hit or broken up to include pit stops along the way. Happy driving!

To start

Your drive starts in Newcastle, Australia’s second-oldest city. Getting here is easy – it's only a two-hour drive north of Sydney, or you can book a flight with one of the five airlines that service Newcastle Airport at Williamtown. To acquaint yourself with Newcastle, take a wander down Hunter Street Mall and its string of boutiques and studios. You’ll also walk past Newcastle Museum, located in the Honeysuckle Railway Workshops and home to temporary and permanent collections and exhibitions. Continue walking towards the ocean and arrive at Newcastle Ocean Baths. Take a dip in a refreshing pool or kick off your shoes for a stroll along the sand. To the north of the Baths is Fort Scratchley Historic Site and Nobbys Beach, one of Newcastle’s most famous stretches of sand. Stop by Nobbys Lighthouse and keep walking until you reach Newcastle Breakwall. Newcastle’s city centre is home to great eats and cool bars – look out for Rutisca, Restaurant Mason, Subo, The Edwards – so take your pick and get an early night for tomorrow’s drive.

In 72 hours

Day one: Newcastle to Port Macquarie (2 hours 43 minutes)

Goodbye Newcastle, hello Port Macquarie. This drive is made prettier by travelling through the Great Lakes region. Follow the Pacific Highway until you turn off onto The Lakes Way. Make a stop at Buladelah – just before the turn-off – to see The Grandis, the tallest known tree in NSW. It sits within Myall Lakes National Park, and there’s also a nearby picnic spot if you need a bite. The Lakes Way winds through Blueys, Boomerang and Elizabeth Beaches, plus the towns of Forster and Tuncurry. You’ll rejoin the Pacific Way just past Rainbow Flat. The highway will take you straight into Port Macquarie. For a fix of coastal driving, turn right into Harrington Road and follow into Crowdy Heads and through Crowdy Bay National Park.

Welcome to Port Macquarie. This city’s most popular drawcards are the Koala Hospital and the Billabong Koala and Wildlife Park – both are perfect for those with children in tow. Another wildlife encounter happens out in the deep blue. Whale-watching and dolphin-spotting cruises leave from the harbour; fishing charters are also available. For a hit of history, visit Port Macquarie Museum or join a walking tour to learn this city’s heritage. Naturally, time in Port Macquarie isn’t complete without hitting the beach. Take your pick from any of the city’s sandy offerings, or make tracks on the Port Macquarie coastal walk.

Day two: Port Macquarie to Coffs Harbour (2 hours)

It’s time to hit the Pacific Highway again. Much like your journey from Newcastle, the highway will take you directly into Coffs Harbour. There are plenty of reasons to detour along the way though. Crescent Head is the place to stop for a fish-and-chip lunch by the water. Keen surfers can hang 10 by catching a wave in the protected surfing reserve. South West Rocks is a small coastal town boasting fishing charters, diving centres, a historic gaol and a lighthouse that offers excellent views. Continue north to Nambucca Heads, and swing past the riverside Nambucca Boatshed and Café for a coffee, light snack or a burger.

There’s more to Coffs Harbour than the Big Banana – but it's still worth a visit, even if it’s just for the photo op. Coffs Harbour sits on the southern edge of the Solitary Islands Marine Park, home to whales, turtles and grey nurse sharks. The Solitary Island Aquarium is also a highlight. Back on the mainland, more nature encounters can be had at Coffs Harbour Butterfly House. You could also explore the Coffs Harbour Marina and Jetty area, or slip into your swimmers and find a perch on one of the world-class beaches. When hunger strikes, take your pick from a smattering of relaxed cafes, good restaurants and beachside bistros.

Day three: Coffs Harbour to Byron Bay (2 hours 55 minutes)

You’re Byron Bay bound, so bundle your crew into the car and bid adieu to Coffs Harbour. The already familiar Pacific Highway is your go-to again, and will lead you to Byron and take you through Emerald Beach and past Ballina and Newrybar. Another route will see you drive through the hinterland, which makes a scenic alternative for those happy to spend more time in the car (this course comes in at just over four hours). Grafton is famous for its jacaranda trees and historic streets, and Lismore is buzzing with artists and creatives, so make sure to check out Lismore Regional Gallery.

Byron Bay is the last stop on your North Coast road trip – though those keen to see more of the coast can continue on to Tweed Heads. Byron Bay is a magnet for sun-seekers, spa savants, go-with-the-flow travellers and those just seeking a dose of R&R. Any stay here has to start with exploring the main town and a dip at one of Byron's famous beaches. Make your way to Cape Byron Headland and Lighthouse for spectacular views. There's a maze of walking tracks in the area too; some wind along the coast, while others take you through the lush rainforest. A cluster of top-notch eateries and restaurants can be found in town and in the surrounding area – Three Blue Ducks in Byron, Harvest, Il Buco, Fig Tree Restaurant – so replenishing your energy stores is a cinch.

So what will you do now you have reached Byron Bay? Keen explorers may choose to continue motoring their way north towards Kingscliff, or those seeking a beach fix may want to hang around in Byron Bay for a couple of extra days. Whichever you choose, our collection of boutique and luxury accommodation along the NSW North Coast makes it easy to spend as much time as you like in these beautiful destinations.