A weekend introducing ourselves to the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, exploring the rainforest and looking out for crocodiles. Port Douglas – 2 nights
Getting to Cairns isn’t exactly a quick trip from Perth – we Jetstar to Brisbane on the midnight horror, before arriving incredibly tired in Cairns on our connecting flight the following morning.
We picked up a hire car, set our smartphone directions and headed towards Port Douglas – a one hour drive from Cairns Airport. On the way we passed the turnoffs to Cairns’ northern beaches, and decided to stop at Palm Cove for a late lunch and a walk. It was a good choice – Nu Nu was our spot for a light lunch of small plates, many of which had an Asian influence and were full of fresh, tropical flavours.
Onward to Port Douglas – the drive full of natural beauty as the road hugs the coast and passes through some scenic countryside before reaching the turnoff.
We were staying near Four Mile Beach at the Lotus Boutique Apartments. These were quirky, self contained apartments, which would have been good for a longer stay as they were spacious and well equipped. Slightly odd was the outdoor toilet and some walls not reaching the ceiling, but none of that bothered us particularly – it was good value, well located and far better than staying in one of the dated condominiums that we have previously endured in Queensland.
The main town centre was about five minutes drive from our apartment, and we headed there to explore. Port Douglas is a small, pretty town with a pleasant main street full of shops, restaurants and bars catering well to tourists. We wandered around and looked for a good spot for dinner.
We settled on the Combined Clubs Restaurant – otherwise known as the Tin Shed. Nothing flash but right on the waterfront, the restaurant attracts a big crowd. Though very busy on a Saturday night, we were warmly welcomed and quickly ushered to a table when one became available. Seafood was great value and very fresh – we ordered a bucket of prawns and barramundi with chips. Both arrived in abundant quantities, and we managed to eat our way through all of it.
The next morning we had arranged our reef sailing experience with Synergy Reef Sailing – a small group snorkeling expedition. A free pick up was included in the Port Douglas area and with our group on board we headed to the Port Douglas Marina where our catamaran and crew was waiting with a light breakfast snack.
With just eleven other passengers on board, the experience is very personalized and it was relaxing to set sail for the reef, heading out of the marina, past Low Isles and finally dropping anchor near (not on!) the reef. The sailing was half the fun – we were able to sit on the front nets and deck and generally laze about.
When we arrived at the reef, after a quick briefing and scout around, we were ready. From the boat it didn’t quite look like the idyllic, calm turquoise water of nature photographic journals – the water wasn’t especially calm, with waves breaking a short distance away, and from above the reef looked like a murky brown smear under the water.
With some trepidation, the first snorkelers hit the water and made for the reef. Thankfully the water was quite warm, and as we got closer – it was clear what all the fuss is about. The reef is truly extraordinary. The section we visited was remarkably shallow – between about one and six metres below the water and visibility was great. This meant very little effort was required - we could bobble over the top and just be mesmerized by the incredible diversity of coral, fish and other sea life. We saw giant clams, colonies of clown fish and coral of every description.
Back on board, our captain Graeme was already cooking up our lunch feast on the barbeque. One of the highlights of the day – the fresh offerings just kept coming out – with chicken and fish, salads, fruit, dessert and cheese platter keeping up with the appetites worked up in the water.
After lunch Hannah took us on a guided tour of the reef – and managed to find two friendly sea cucumbers to show us, before we headed back to Port Douglas, under sail for part of the journey.
Despite having eaten plenty on board, we went out for dinner close to our hotel to The Beach Shack, a great local restaurant with beach sand on the floor and a relaxed vibe.
The following day was our drive to Cape Tribulation. As it is only about a 90 minute drive from Port Douglas (2.5hrs from Cairns) – and not wanting to miss visiting Kuranda – we had to backtrack towards Cairns to catch the historic train that runs up to the village.
It is possible to drive to Kuranda – but this would miss what is a unique and historic journey and an appreciation of the feat of engineering and hard work that was the construction of the railway in the 1880s.
We joined the first train of the day from Freshwater station at 8.50am – though it is possible to begin in Cairns City itself at 8.30am. The train winds its way through the outer suburbs of Cairns, through sugar cane fields and climbs into rainforested mountains with great views back across the Coral Sea and stops at spectacular waterfalls along the way.
The whole journey takes about 2 hours before the train pulls into Kuranda station – from where it is a short walk to the main street of the town.
Kuranda is an arty, cute village with a number of small markets and lots of shops. Offerings are eclectic and bohemian – as my kaftan and bead purchases will attest.
One lovely little nook worth searching out is a small creperie using local ingredients – Petit Café, where we shared divine savoury and sweet crepes. The coffee was also great.
Looping back to the railway station was a scenic rainforest walk along the river and we made our way back. Rather than catch the train back, we used our pre-purchased tickets to take the much quicker, but equally spectacular cable car back to the Caravonica Skyrail terminal in Cairns. The cable car also allows you to stop and wander around for scenic views of waterfalls. Once back at the terminal a connecting bus took us back to Freshwater Station so we could collect our vehicle and carry on to Cape Tribulation.
Our drive to Cape Tribulation was one of the prettiest I have ever been on, as we headed through sugar cane country towards the Daintree ferry crossing.
After our vehicle was transferred across the crocodile infested Daintree river – things got pretty remote, pretty quickly. We were traveling through the Daintree National Park – known for dense rainforest, heavy rain and crocs.
We were staying just outside the township of Cape Tribulation – a further 50 minute drive from the vehicle ferry – and although there was the odd sign to town here and a farm there along the way, whatever they were pointing to was basically engulfed by rainforest.
With evening approaching, we managed to find our accommodation – Cape Tribulation Sanctuary – at the top of a very steep driveway. The Sanctuary is basically a large and beautiful house – which we had all to ourselves. With an enormous deck overlooking the rainforest and Coral Sea, it was a gorgeous spot to hang out.
When I say that we had the place all to ourselves – there is a caveat. Critters. This part of the world has lots of them and a particularly clever one was helping itself to our fruit bowl each night – even though it was covered with a net. Likewise there are warnings to keep your bags zipped up – lest you take home one of the locals!
As we headed out to find dinner we saw a few more – the first was a person walking down the middle of the road, miles from anywhere in the dark…the second was a snake that we thought we ran over but when we turned around we could see no evidence of the slithering yellow thing.
Slightly unnerved, and only able to find one restaurant open at PK’s Jungle Village – the local backpackers – we settled on a pasta meal and a game of pool before turning in for the evening.
The next day we had thought of doing another half-day reef experience with Ocean Safaris – however they were kind enough to warn us that the conditions were expected to be quite rough and it would not be for everyone. We decided that was a sign to stay on land and do some exploring instead – but thought it was great that Ocean Safaris took passenger safety and comfort seriously.
Instead, we drove almost all the way back to the vehicle ferry for a view from the lookout point and rainforest walk experience at the Daintree Discovery Centre. The Discovery Centre has a boardwalk and tower and explains the plants and animals of the rainforest - we have done similar things before so this didn’t rock our world exactly.
We took the turn toward Cow Bay – a township and also a lovely beach. Alas no swimming – saltwater crocs frequent these beaches. Thankfully we didn’t see any, but we didn’t exactly linger.
Our sustenance along the way was a couple of icecream stops – with locally made, tropical flavours.
Our morning was rounded out with Daintree Wilderness Cruises. Cruise makes it sound a bit grand – this was basically croc-spotting in a tinnie, but no matter – it was good fun, our guide was excellent and there were crocs galore – we spotted about six reasonably sized females guarding their territory along Cooper Creek – some in the water beside us and some sunning themselves on the creek bank. We even saw a tiny baby croc.
We kept heading back toward Cape Tribulation – the beach at Cape Trib is lovely for a walk, especially when the tide is out. We also explored some apparently croc-free fresh water holes around the town.
Our afternoon activity was a tour and fruit tasting at the Cape Tribulation Exotic Fruit Farm. Our guide gave us an introduction to this remarkable enterprise which was started 25 years ago and the owners have travelled the world looking for fruits that grow well in the climate experienced in Cape Trib. The main commercial crop of the farm is mangosteens, but tourists get to try around ten different seasonal fruits grown on the farm. We tried amazing flavours like Soursop and Rollinia – variants of the custard apple but very different in taste.
We spent our final night in the tropics enjoying delicious barramundi at Whet restaurant, near our accommodation. With a lovely deck lit by firelight and surrounded by the dripping rainforest – it was a fitting end to our brief journey, before driving back to Cairns the following morning via Mossman Gorge.
Side trips to Mossman Gorge and Cairns – full day Mossman Gorge is a little out of the town of the same name and an easy day trip from Port Douglas or Cairns. The tourist centre at the entrance to the gorge is a striking building run by the Kuku Yalanji people – the traditional owners of the area. There are tours by indigenous guides and we wished we had time for one. We did however, jump on the electric bus which runs tourists to the gorge and wandered around this beautiful spot before taking a dip in the chilly, clear waters that run through the gorge.
In Cairns we had the rest of the afternoon to enjoy the sights to take in the sights – we made our way to the lovely Botanical Gardens which has a great café, and explore the next door Tanks Art Centre. Housed in former water tanks – these old tanks are great spaces for an art gallery. We then headed to the Cairns Esplanade, where folks were enjoying the man-made ‘Lagoon’ and the restaurants and shopping on the waterfront.
The airport is less than 20 minutes driving from Cairns – so it was very convenient to leave it as late as we could before dropping our hire car off for our homeward flight.