The air route between Melbourne and Sydney is Australia’s busiest, and the world’s fourth-most hectic.
For many, driving between the two capitals is a better option.
Luckily, the drive has never been easier or safer, especially on one route: The Hume Freeway can be tackled in one day, without stopping at a single traffic light.
But if you take the coastal alternative, along the Princes Highway, you can spend two or more weeks dawdling between beautiful seaside and hinterland towns. We tried both roads to compare.
Hume Highway: 878 kilometres
Estimated driving time: 9 hours 35 minutes
Actual drive time: 10 hours, plus one overnight stop
This is the road to take if you’re in a hurry. Most of it is divided highway with a speed limit of 110km/h, and there is not a traffic light along it.
It can be comfortably done in a long day with two experienced drivers, but is more pleasant broken with one overnight stop.
The downside is a lack of charming accommodation at the halfway mark. And barrier works in 2018 mean you’ll hit quite a few roadworks slowdowns in Victoria if travelling mid-week.
That said, one of Australia’s worst drives has become one of our best. Says Peter Khoury of NSW motoring organisation the NRMA: “It’s been completely upgraded, the government has spent billions of dollars on it.”
As a result, he says, you’ll bypass town traffic and not have to slow in areas such as school zones.
It’s a smooth ride, with plenty of roadside rest-stops, few unwanted interruptions, and high safety standards. It’s also Australia’s second-busiest inter-capital road, beaten by Brisbane to Sydney.
Great places to stop for a rest: Benalla, Euroa, Beechworth (Victoria); Albury, Jugiong, Goulburn (NSW) and Canberra (ACT).
Best overnight stops: Beechworth, Albury, Canberra
Where to eat: Fowles Wines, Bank Street Pizza, Avenel; Benalla Art Gallery cafe, Benalla; Seven Creeks Hotel, Euroa; The Provenance (for a splurge), Beechworth (all Victoria)
Hapi (hipster dumpling bar), River Deck (riverside breakfast and lunch), Albury; Long Track Pantry, Jugiong; Barneys of Bookham for burgers, Bookham; The Roses Cafe, Goulburn and Yass (all NSW)
Where to sleep: “Coming north, a lot of people like to break the journey in Canberra,” Khoury says. The city has abundant restaurants and attractions, and is easy to get in and out of.
In Victoria, Beechworth has plentiful and great accommodation, such as The Villa and Provenance. On the border in Albury, try friendly and comfortable Waverley Bed and Breakfast or the modern Quest Apartments.
Princes/M1 Highway: 1029 kilometres
Estimated drive time: 12 hours 47 minutes
Actual drive time: 15 hours, plus two overnight stops
It’s full of twists and turns, there are lots of campers and caravans, and in parts of Victoria it feels like there are roadworks speed limits every few kilometres.
The Princes Highway might be only a hundred or so kilometres longer than the Hume route, but they’re hard kilometres for drivers and passengers.
“It’s not a comfortable drive,” Khoury says. “You have to drive through little towns, through school zones, with constantly varying speed limits.”
But there’s a big payoff – some of the most beautiful spots in Australia are on, or just off, the road.
Khoury notes there’s an abundance of spectacular coastal scenery along the route.
You could easily turn the drive into a two-week holiday by pulling into every sleepy cove, national park and fishing village along the way. In our experience, three days and two nights will get you to Sydney having seen some lovely sights but glad to be out of the car. You’re unlikely to regret taking longer, you’re crazy to try it any more quickly
A tip: Savvy south-coast NSW locals tell us that, when driving to Sydney, they take the Picton turnoff at Wollongong, then onto the M5, to avoid the suburban stop-start of Highway 1/Pacific Highway south of Sydney. It’s a longer route, but with far fewer annoying interruptions.
Great places to stop for a rest: Bairnsdale, Lakes Entrance, Orbost, (Victoria); Eden, Merimbula, Mollymook, Milton, Bega, Tathra, Kiama (NSW).
Best overnight stops: Lakes Entrance, Tathra, Bermagui, Mollymook.
Where to eat: In Victoria, By Jorg at Narkoojee Winery is an appealing Italian restaurant overlooking the vines and tucked away on an undemanding detour inland, north of Traralgon at Glengarry, 165 kilometres from Melbourne.
In NSW, Mollymook has upmarket options in the glitzy Bannister’s Rooftop Bar and Grill, and the more elegant and leisurely Rick Stein. Detour inland a little to Milton, and you’ll find farm-to-table restaurant St Isidore. If you’ve no time for languid lunching, try Milk Haus for top-notch coffee and light meals. In Bermagui, perch at the Fishermens Wharf for fish and chips at Blue Wave Seafood. Lovely Kiama is a good spot to take a breather before tackling Sydney traffic – there’s good coffee, food and sea views from Milk and Honey.
Where to sleep: East of Lakes Entrance (which has abundant and quality accommodation), there’s little Lake Tyers Beach, where The Seaside Apartment Airbnb below an art teacher’s home is luxurious, secluded, self-contained and you can fall asleep to the waves crashing onto the beach just across the dunes. Enjoy local steak or seafood with beautiful waterway views at the Waterwheel Tavern.
At Eden, Cocora Cottage is a charming traditional bed and breakfast in an historic house with great views over the bay from a shared deck. There are two ensuite bedrooms, inviting lounges, and a terrific cooked breakfast.
Hume vs Princes: The verdict
We’ll leave it to an expert, Peter Khoury of the NRMA: “The whole of the Princes Highway is one big tourist destination.
“But if you want to get from point A to point B quickly, there’s no contest: The Hume is superior, it’s just been completely upgraded and is a much safer road.”