The Sydney-to-Cairns trail is a backpacker’s rite of passage, a 2,500km roadtrip via a string of coastal honeypots, known as much for its bars and nightlife as the scenery en route.

But there is another way. As the crowds cluster at many of the same spots, go inland, offshore and obscure to find an alternative drive.

Setting off from Sydney

Many ignore the slice of New South Wales just north of Sydney in a dash for Coffs Harbour or Byron Bay. But better to take it slow. Just 3.5 hours from the city limits, stop off for sandboarding at Worimi Conservation Lands - 35km of golden, shifting dunes - and the deserted beaches of Tomaree National Park (One Mile Beach for surfing; Samurai for stripping - it is a nudist beach).

A short hop north, Myall Lakes National Park is the place to canoe and bird-spot, to watch Seal Rocks' pungent residents and to sleep in a lighthouse. You can also rent the former lighthouse keeper's cottages at Sugarloaf Point.

Despite its popularity, do not bypass laidback Byron Bay - but neither should you spend all your time in the beach bars and cafés. Nearby Julian Rocks, a tropical/temperate-mix dive site, attracts manta rays, turtles, dolphins and weird-looking wobbegong sharks - and makes an interesting (if slightly chillier) counterpoint to dives on the Great Barrier Reef further north.

Getting off the Gold Coast

Surfers Paradise really is not - unless you like your waves backed by high-rise hotels (which, counterproductively, shade the beach from the afternoon sun). Instead delve inland for night walks to glowworm caves in Springbrook National Park, and bush hikes through Australia's largest remaining subtropical rainforest at Lamington National Park.

For an alternative take on Queensland's capital, Brisbane, take a dusk riverboat trip to Indooroopilly Island (6km from the city centre) to witness flying foxes take wing in their thousands.

Fraser Island, the world's biggest sand island, is lots of fun but firmly on the coastal crawl. For a quieter offshore getaway continue north to Great Keppel Island, off Yeppoon. The main resort here closed in 2008, leaving a fraction of the tourist beds - and thus the pristine beaches empty and the bush untramped.

Reef with a difference

Though it seems perverse to turn your back on the Great Barrier Reef, divert inland at Mackay for Eungella National Park. Follow one of the walking trails through this mountainous tract of rainforest, stopping for a swim at the Wheel of Fire Falls. Keep a lookout for platypus in Broken River - they are frequently seen, especially at dawn and dusk, May to August.

Back on the coast the masses gather at Airlie Beach for boat cruises around the Whitsunday Islands. Use this as a departure point for a longer sail to the outer reef, where a three- or four-night trip on a liveaboard boat will avoid the crowds and give you access to unspoilt dive sites.

Coming into Cairns

Find real bush solitude on Hinchinbrook Island, a 50-minute boat ride from Cardwell. Only 40 people at a time are allowed on the island's Thorsborne Trail - a 32km, three- to five-day wilderness hike - so you are guaranteed a bit of peace. You will need to be self-sufficient: there are no shops, indeed no nothing, en route - just unspoilt forests, streams to ford (watch out for crocs) and broad beaches a-scuttle with hundreds of crabs.

Finally, take the round-about route into Cairns, leaving the main A1 road to swing inland through the Atherton Tablelands. This is Queensland at its most green, and a breath of fresh air from the muggy lowlands. Dip into the Millaa Millaa Falls, spot turtles in Lake Eacham and travel back to 1910 in the time-warp village of Yungaburra - the perfect preparation for rejoining the boisterous, bustling 21st century in Cairns.

Need to know: For more information, maps and route planning, see Tourism New South Wales and Tourism Queensland.

The article 'Australia’s alternative East Coast road trip' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.