With a population that clings to the coast but embraces the Outback for its icons, Queensland is a vast and sprawling amalgam of stunning scenery, fantastic yarns, and eccentric personalities. Its most famous attraction is the Great Barrier Reef -- but that is by no means the only thing worth seeing in an area that's two and a half times the size of Texas.

White sandy beaches grace almost the entire coastline, and a string of islands and coral reefs dangles just offshore. At the southern end, Gold Coast beaches and theme parks keep tourists happy. In the north, from Townsville to Cape York, the rainforest teems with flora and fauna.

Brisbane is the state capital, a former penal colony that today brims with style. While Brisbane boasts world-class theater, shopping, markets, art galleries, and restaurants, it retains the relaxed warmth of a country town.

Less than an hour's drive south of Brisbane is the Gold Coast "glitter strip," with its 35km (22 miles) of surf and sandy beaches. North of Brisbane lies the aptly named Sunshine Coast -- more sandy beaches, crystal-clear waters, and rolling mountains dotted with villages.

Don't miss the wild beauty of the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island. Each year, from August to October, humpback whales frolic in the waters between Fraser Island and Hervey Bay. If you're in the area at this time, you won't want to miss the opportunity to experience the whales firsthand.

As you travel north, you enter a land where islands, rainforest, mountains, and rivers unite. Green sugar cane fields are everywhere -- Mackay is the largest sugar-producing region in Australia. This attractive city has its own beach, and the harbor and Airlie Beach to the north are departure points for cruises to the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands. Along this coast, you'll be tempted by one tropical island after another until you hit the cluster of 74 that makes up the Whitsunday and Cumberland groups.

The Whitsundays are on the same latitude as Tahiti, and for my money are equally lovely. The idyllic island group is laced with coral reefs rising out of calm, blue waters teeming with colorful fish -- warm enough for swimming year-round.

North of the Whitsundays are Dunk Island and the rainforest settlement of Mission Beach -- a perfect illustration of the contrasts in Tropical North Queensland. Townsville boasts 320 days of sunshine a year and marks the start of the Great Green Way -- an area of lush natural beauty on the way to Cairns.

Then you come to Cairns, with rainforest hills and villages to explore and a harbor full of boats waiting to take you to the Reef. Cairns is a good base, but savvy travelers head an hour north to the village of Port Douglas.

A visit to Queensland would not be complete without at least one trip into the Outback. You can head west from Rockhampton, to discover the heart of Queensland at Longreach, Barcaldine, and Winton, or from Townsville to the mining town of Mount Isa. From Cairns, the Gulf Savannah region is rich in welcoming small towns.