Photo courtesy of Tourism Australia

David Whitley pits Byron Bay against the Gold Coast

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To go all the way to Australia and not hit the beaches the country is so famous for would be a shameful omission.

There are plenty to choose from, but those around the Gold Coast in southern Queensland, and Byron Bay in northern New South Wales, have the magic ingredients: good weather (swimming’s feasible in the winter), excellent surf and plenty of things to do, as well as easy accessibility.

The Gold Coast is an hour from Brisbane airport, and Byron Bay two hours. Both, of course, make logical stops on a longer East Coast driving holiday.But the two have very different characters.

The Gold Coast is Australia’s Florida – an action-packed, brash world of high-rise resorts and theme parks, as well as a few quieter little secrets outside of the main haunts.

Byron Bay is more relaxed – it’s where the backpacker trail meets surf culture and the hippy movement. It’s man-made thrills versus natural chills, skyscrapers versus earth mothers.

Irrespective of personal preference, the miles and miles of white sand are world class in both.

The Gold Coast

What to do: “I’m bored,” is a cry you’re unlikely to hear on the Gold Coast. It is the theme park capital of Australia, with each park having its own niche.

Dreamworld is the one with all the big thrill rides – day passes cost £33 – while Warner Bros Movie World (from £50) is stronger on storytelling and shows.

If it’s hot, the giant slides and pools of the Wet‘n’Wild water park, where admission costs £33, should prove rather irresistible.

Water is a key feature of the Gold Coast – and not just the sea. Meandering rivers create hundreds of islets, which can be explored on Jetboat Extreme’s stunt-pulling jetboat for £35.

Jet Ski Safaris also offers the chance to ride along the coast of South Stradbroke Island for 25 miles on a £52 jetski tour, with enough guides to allow everyone to go at their own pace.

Between May and November, humpback whales pass along the coast on their way to and from their breeding grounds further north. Whales In Paradise runs three-hour cruises, costing £52, which offer guaranteed sightings.

If the daredevilry bug hasn’t quite been shaken off, then there’s the opportunity to do the £38 SkyPoint Climb at the top of the Q1 tower – Australia’s highest residential building. Clipped onto the building exterior via a harness, vertigo-battling climbers can look out over the beaches from 270 metres up.

A change of pace is generally needed after a few days on the Gold Coast, and that’s where the gorgeously green hinterland comes in.

Tamborine Mountain is dotted with galleries, fudge shops and wineries, while the Tamborine Rainforest Skywalk takes you through the thick rainforest canopy for £10.

Where to stay: The vast bulk of Gold Coast accommodation is in apartment towers, but Soul Surfers Paradise pulls off the concept far more spectacularly than most.

The dazzling white apartments come fully equipped (including washer-dryers), and have a dream-living showroom feel. But level three is extraordinary – essentially a private landscaped parkland in the sky. One-bedroom apartments start from £191.

Daring to be different, QT Gold Coast goes for a gloriously fun blend of Californian surf chic and Miami-style hip bars and restaurants.

Expect bikini fashion shots screen-printed on the lift mirrors, cocktail recipes in the rooms and plenty of high-energy colour. Rooms cost from £120.

In the more surfing-orientated Coolangatta area, Komune has a sociable, hostel-style vibe – there are beanbags around the pool and a tiki shack bar – but with private rooms. They have high quality furnishings for the price, and all have ocean view balconies. Rooms cost from £66.

Great Aussie Beach Off Byron

Byron Bay

What to do: Byron is delightfully, strollably small. It doesn’t take long wandering past the organic cafes, surfwear stores and independent boutiques to reach one of the beaches.

A walk along the sand to the photogenic lighthouse on the Cape Byron headland – the most easterly point on the Australian mainland – is practically obligatory.

Keep an eye out for pods of dolphins swimming close to the shore on the way. Humpback whales are often spotted breaching between May and October, too.

To get closer to the dolphins, a sea kayaking tour is the best bet. Cape Byron Kayaks runs £38 tours that also include a paddle battle through the breaking waves and snorkelling with turtles.

The abundant aquatic life makes Byron a good spot for divers as well. The Julian Rocks are the hotspot, and the Byron Bay Dive Centre offers introductory courses that culminate in a dive there for £88.

Numerous beaches, facing in different directions, means there’s usually one with good surf. There are plenty of surf schools willing to teach beginners the basics, and the small group, three-and-a-half hour lessons with Black Dog Surfing cost £33.

For landlubbers rather than sandlubbers, the forest-covered hinterland is a big part of the area’s appeal.

Mountain Bike Tours runs full-day two-wheeled adventures through the mud, puddles and gum trees for £69. The ride starts off at the improbably pretty Minyon Falls, and it’s worth keeping an eye out for sleepy koalas en route.

The most novel option for exploring the region, however, takes place at night. Vision Walks has military night vision goggles and takes newly super-sighted visitors into the Nightcap National Park after dark to spot pademelons, bandicoots and other cute Aussie critters. The tours cost £55.

Where to stay: The Byron at Byron is the top choice for those wanting a luxurious resort-style getaway in a rainforest setting, but without being too isolated from the town. The restaurant there is regarded as the best in the area too. Entry-level suites start at £182 a night.

The Atlantic is less plush, but captures the Byron spirit neatly. Three beach cottages have been done up splendidly and split into separate rooms with an airy Mediterranean-meets-Miami whitewashed look.

Look out for comically ugly but strangely cute water dragons sunning themselves on the boardwalks in the grounds. Low season rates start at £94.

There are plenty of apartment options, and while the Byron Bay Side Motel is solidly decent rather than spectacular, the location is central and with prices starting at £69, it’s a bargain.