From kicking up red dust in an outback cattle muster to floating above the Great Barrier Reef, tucking into the freshest coastal cuisine and tracking dingoes on a rainforest-covered sandbank, explore the very best of Australia's Sunshine State.

Noosa: Best for food
They arrive before dawn. A solitary car pulls up, then two, then a dozen. With cloth bags tucked under arms and torches clasped in hands, a troupe of eager gourmands makes its way along the edge of a suburban football ground to an unassuming string of tarpaulin-covered stalls – the Noosa Farmers’ Market.

Torchlight reveals plump strawberries neatly piled beside crates of forest-green avocados the size of gourds, perky starfruit, and passionfruits like cricket balls. While stallholders rush to put the finishing touches to their displays, mangoes are squeezed by expert customers’ fingers, tight-skinned grapes are popped in to mouths, and pineapples are turned upside down to be sniffed – the only way to measure their sweetness. Beyond the fruit, fresh artisan breads, cheeses and exotic concoctions such as ‘golden kiwi sweet chilli sauce’ or ‘lychee balsamic vinegar’ are in high demand.

By the time the sun is out and the main crowds arrive, the early risers are finished, settling down for a flat white coffee and a free-range egg and bacon roll. ‘People love their food around here, so most of the very best stuff is gone early,’ says one customer with several shopping bags at his feet. ‘At times it’s like the January sales, or the start of a horse race.’ He grins widely. ‘We are all very nice to each other, of course. But it’s competitive.’

The small coastal district of Noosa, with its golden beaches and laid-back hippy roots, may seem an unlikely candidate as Queensland’s unofficial culinary capital, but its location between the fresh seafood of the coast and the farm goods from the surrounding hills has seen the town gain a reputation that draws visitors from all over the country.

Across Noosa, cafés and restaurants trumpet their local goods, from Cedar Street halloumi – made by a former jazz musician in nearby Maleny – to fresh Clandestino coffee, roasted on the edge of town. On the Noosa Heads shorefront, the clink and clatter of plates and cutlery can be heard over the crash of the waves and shrieks of gambolling, wet-haired children. Berardo’s Bistro on the Beach is full of diners enjoying delicately flavoured Noosa spanner crab and Mooloolaba prawns plucked from waters up the coast.

Local cooking teacher Gail Rast holds regular classes on how to perfect what she calls ‘the essential Queensland arts’ of barbecuing and cooking seafood. ‘The diversity of produce you can get in this part of the world is amazing,’ she says, tucking into her cuttlefish salad. ‘And Noosa people really care about where their food comes from, which means we have great relationships with the growers and producers, and they in turn have a strong market for their goods and can keep their businesses going. It works out rather well for everyone.’

Further info
The Noosa Farmers’ Market takes place every Sunday. Gail Rast hosts half-day cooking classes and guided market tours (cooking class from £80, tours from £60 for a group of up to four).

Where to eat
Berardo’s Bistro on the Beach shows off the best of Noosa’s culinary tastes, from barramundi fish and chips to local cuttlefish (mains from £15).

Where to stay
Upmarket Hastings Street is home to the beachfront hotel Netanya Noosa (rooms from £250). A more economical option is to stay further inland at Verano Resort, near the Noosa River and Lake Weyba. It offers stylish, open-plan apartments with balconies (self-catering rooms from £85).

Fraser Island: Best for wild nature
Two fishermen stand ankle-deep in the foamy surf, a straight golden line of beach stretching almost to the horizon either side of them. A dingo – Australia’s honey-coloured wild dog – wanders along nearby, his form doubled in the reflection of the wet sand beneath his paws. In the distance, the outer fringe of a vast tropical rainforest waves in the breeze.

It seems a perfect scene of natural tranquillity, but the waters sloshing around these fishermen’s bare legs are infested with six-foot tiger sharks that have been known to chase fish all the way to the shallows and launch themselves, snapping wildly, onto the sand. In the right conditions, the rainforest, with its thick stands of eucalypts, can quickly burst into flames. And, while dingoes are largely harmless, they have been known to attack humans and even kill. This may look like a gentle tropical paradise, but this is Fraser Island – as wild and unpredictable as it is beautiful – and it commands respect.

At more than 80 miles in length, the island is the world’s largest sandbank, and it teems with life. The skies are filled with birds, from the darting form of the delightfully named spangled drongo to the white-bellied sea eagle that rides the breeze on wings spanning two metres. The waves conceal whales, dolphins and sea turtles, and the western beaches are covered with armies of blue-backed soldier crabs that rear up on their hind legs and flee in panic at the approach of a human foot. Emerging occasionally from the brush are wallabies, echidnas, possums and palm-sized sugar gliders.

There are also some creatures of the less cuddly variety. ‘We have six of the world’s ten deadliest snakes,’ local photographer Peter Meyer says cheerfully, with a hint of pride that’s common to Australians when talking about things that might kill you. ‘Not to mention the spiders – the Fraser Island funnel-web is the deadliest spider in the world. But they’re unlikely to hurt you if you don’t disturb them, and it’s very rare for people to be bitten.’ He gives a chuckle. ‘The thing I’m most afraid of is the ants,’ he says. ‘We’ve got an inch-long bull ant here that will rip your leg off.’

Peter has lived on Fraser Island for 17 years, his skin browned by years spent capturing images of its forests, towering dunes, ice-blue inland lakes and mangroves – yet he claims he is far from knowing all of the island’s secrets. ‘Fraser is one of the few places on Earth where you can walk off the path for one minute and be standing in a spot so remote and secluded that you can be reasonably sure no human has ever set foot there.’

He negotiates his SUV through the bush over a winding, deeply rutted track of dried mud, then climbs on foot to his favourite spot on the island – a broad dune of sand punctured with the abstract skeletons of trees, surrounded by rainforest and views out to the Coral Sea beyond. ‘I’ve never seen anyone else up here,’ he says. ‘Never even seen any footprints that weren’t my own. That gives you a tremendous sense of freedom, and that’s something I always try to capture in my photography – but photos can never really convey what it feels like to be up here.’

After a long moment, he turns and tramps his way back down the dune, seemingly entirely at home in this wild landscape – but still watching carefully where he puts his feet.

Further info
Kingfisher Bay Resort
organises guided tours of the island (tours from £100).

Where to stay and eat
Accommodation at the King Fisher Bay Resort ranges from simply furnished rooms with native-wood balconies and views over the wallum wetlands, to whole designer houses, complete with veranda and barbecue. The stylish Seabelle restaurant has a seasonally changing menu inspired by the indigenous Butchulla tribe, which includes crocodile and emu steaks (rooms from £120).

Whitsundays: Best for beaches
The Whitsunday archipelago is made up of 74 islands, and several of them are spread out in the sea below like mossy rocks set on an azure blue quilt. Pilot David Macfarlane gently drops one wing of his tiny 12-seater seaplane and wheels around the northernmost point of Whitsunday Island. ‘Here it comes,’ he says through the crackle of the on-board speakers. The island’s soft green hills suddenly part and a broad estuary is revealed, an impossibly scenic tidal river with overlapping swirls of sand and sea meandering off into the distance in shades from glassy green to sky blue and deepest jade.

The plane swoops past several times to allow all of the passengers to take in the view, then slowly descends and skips like a stone over the surface of the water, coming to a stop at a curved bay of palest aquamarine, closely bordered by a thick brush of bright-green spinifex and casuarina trees. In the distance, a raucous group of kids is playing beach cricket and others are venturing into the waves, each clearly visible in the astonishingly translucent water.

This is Whitehaven, considered one of the greatest beaches in the world. The secret is in the sand. It’s the brightest white – almost blindingly so on a sunny day like this one – and is 98 per cent silica, which makes it talcum-powder fine and so reflective that, no matter how blisteringly hot the sun, it is always cool to the touch. There are a few people sitting quietly rubbing their feet in the sand. ‘It exfoliates your skin like a pedicure,’ says one lady, sounding mildly dreamy under her enormous sombrerostyle sun hat. ‘And I just cleaned my jewellery with it, too.’

The purity of the sand has led to conspiracy theories among locals. Legend has it that, in the ’70s, shady US government visitors turned up under cover of night and purloined sacks of the stuff to make the high-tech glass lenses for Nasa’s Hubble telescope.

‘The only way to get to the beach is to fly or sail in on a day trip,’ says David from his perch on one of the plane’s great floats. ‘So there are never very many people here, and occasionally you get the whole beach to yourself.’

He squints down the beach, admiringly. ‘It’s so beautiful, sometimes you can’t believe it has not been Photoshopped,’ he says. ‘I’ll never get tired of that view.’

Further information
Air Whitsunday has daily flights departing from the airport near Airlie Beach – the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands – and allows for time spent on Whitehaven Beach (£155).

Where to eat
Inspired by traditional sailor’s food, the cheerful Fish D’Vine, located on the main street of Airlie Beach, specialises in two key ingredients: seafood and rum. Diners can choose from a display of freshly caught fish and a wall of 280 rums. Special-recipe Mojito cocktails and beer-battered fish and chips are the house specialities (mains from £12; cocktails from £7).

Where to stay
Watching the sun set from a hotel balcony is a treat, but at the Coral Sea Resort you can have the decadent choice of seeing the spectacle from the comfort of your very own hammock or deck spa. Located on the tip of Airlie Beach’s western peninsula, the hotel looks out over bobbing white boats and aquamarine bays on two sides, and the nautical theme continues inside, with polished timber and boating prints on the walls (rooms from £150).

Port Douglas: Best for snorkelling and diving
With a sloshing, spluttering sound, six heads emerge from the water in unison, each adorned with snorkels and masks. ‘Did you see it?’ asks one. ‘I’m sure I did. Look again.’ Then down they go, to peer at the vast, colourful world of coral and sea life just a few feet below them, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

This is just a tiny section of the mighty Great Barrier Reef, which covers 135,000 square miles – an area significantly larger than Britain – along the Queensland coast, supporting thousands of species of fish, sea turtles, sharks and whales, with corals in 400 varieties.

On view today are the staghorn coral – its hard, pointed antlers growing thick and knobbly – and the maze-patterned blobs of brain coral, as well as the purple, fan-shaped ‘elephant’s ears’. Then, from the softly grasping, greenish-mauve fingers of a sea anemone, the orange-and-whitestriped clownfish made famous by Pixar Port Douglas Best for snorkelling and diving and Disney’s Finding Nemo emerges, and a silent ballet of excited slow-motion pointing begins among the snorkellers. ‘They always want to see Nemo,’ laughs John Scotese, a Chicago-born marine biologist aboard the Wavedancer catamaran floating in the waters nearby.

The boat is anchored at the Low Isles, where a small coral cay juts out above the water with a jauntily red-topped lighthouse and a shelly beach where weary snorkellers flop between sessions. It is uninhabited today, but in 1928 this small island played host to a group of British scientists as they embarked on a historic quest to complete the world’s first survey of a coral reef. According to John, no-one had really understood coral reefs before this time.

‘They discovered how these ecosystems function and gave us a lot of important knowledge that we still use today. And the reef is not an easy thing to survey,’ John says, with an arm gesture that indicates the complex network of reefs stretching from here to the edge of the continental shelf. ‘It’s an incredibly diverse world. Every day I go down there, I tend to find a new plant or animal I haven’t seen before. And if I don’t, I feel genuinely surprised.’

It’s time to leave. As a dinghy rounds up the last of the group, a green sea turtle pops up a few feet from the catamaran’s rail. It floats for a moment, its large black eyes seeming to observe proceedings with interest, then disappears just as suddenly, back to its world beneath the waves.

Further information
Quicksilver's Wavedancer visits the Low Isles daily (£100). Check water clarity forecasts, as visibility here can be poor.

Travel out to a pontoon in the Outer Reef (£140) or visit reef locations on a smaller craft (£130).

Where to eat
A local favourite is the Salsa Bar & Grill, where high-end tropical dishes are the order of the day (dinner mains from £20).

Where to stay
The Peninsula Boutique Hotel is set just a little way back from the beach, with sea views beyond the trees. Rooms are neat and stylish, with gargantuan tiled spa baths designed for a post-snorkelling soak – or you can choose to relax by the lovely shaded courtyard pool (rooms from £200).

Mount Mulligan: Best for outback
‘Block the lead! The lead!’ The call goes up from behind a dusty scrum of jostling bovine bodies, and a black-and-white short-haired collie streaks across the ground to head off the progress of a stray. It’s muster day at the Mount Mulligan station (the local name for a ranch) and half a dozen mounted stockhands are driving a motley herd of cattle down into the pastures. Helping them are three matching dogs, running a full-speed circular relay of canine discipline, their feet barely touching the ground.

The man giving the orders is ‘the boss’, Gordon Pringle, the owner of the vast Mount Mulligan estate, a whip-wielding rider in a low-brimmed Akubra hat who first learned the skills of a stockman as a child. He directs the proceedings with constant focus. Some of the bulls are ‘cleanskins’ – wild and wilful unbranded cattle born in the bush – and it’s not unknown for them to lower their horns and charge. The horses are no domesticated nags, either, having been drawn from the ranks of ‘brumbies’, or feral horses, that roam in mobs around the surrounding hills.

These dusty cattle yards are set in 70,000 acres of largely untouched bushland, in the shadow of one of Australia’s most remarkable natural structures. Mount Mulligan is a huge sandstone escarpment around ten times the size of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, that rears out of the landscape and runs for more than 11 miles along the horizon. To the local Djungan people, it is known as Ngarrabullgan, the birthplace of the Rainbow Serpent god, and is one of the most sacred sites in Australia.

Fringed with green, the rock looms over the stockmen’s bunkhouse and slowly changes from a fiery orange to a soft mauve as the sunlight begins to fade. Soon the team arrives, leaving a rising trail of dust in its wake, and a shoulder of beef is set to roast in a camp oven.

Gordon takes a seat on a broad ironbark log and stretches out after a long day in the saddle. ‘It’s not an easy life,’ he admits. ‘It’s life or death every day. But one moment you’re galloping through the bush, chasing a wild bull and tying him up like your ancestors used to, and the next you’re sitting down by a billabong, with a kind of peace and quiet you can’t imagine.’ He gestures behind him, where the mountain is reflected in a slow-moving river strewn with soft pink lotus flowers, and gives a small shrug. ‘It’s just a way of life, I guess.’

Further information
Mount Mulligan cattle musters take place from July to September. Watch from the sidelines, or get stuck in on a quad bike or horseback (from £290). Year-round activities include bush walking and fishing (free), plus horse riding, quad biking and ‘fossicking’ for gold (from £60).

Where to stay and eat
For a truly rugged outback experience, bring a tent or grab a camp bed in the Mount Mulligan campsite by the Hodgkinson River. Luxury safari tents and a camp dinner are sometimes available. Call ahead to book (camping £12, bunkhouse from £15, safari tents from £110, meals from £9).

The article 'The perfect trip: Queensland' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.