We loved our time in Tropical North Queensland and could have easily spent longer than two weeks exploring the region. Although we are only a four hour flight away, this part of Australia feels a world away from home.
This was our first holiday outside of Western Australia with bub in tow. We were a bit apprehensive at the thought of taking an 8 month old on a red eye flight, especially when she’d been out of sorts all day. But she was an angel, so much so a guy commented as we were disembarking that she was the best behaved baby he’d ever been on a flight with, his kids included. Aww shucks.
As we disembarked the plane, the lush green hills and warm humid air in Cairns reminded us instantly of Asia, particularly around Moni in Flores. Except the sprawling rice paddies that are normally seen at the foothills had been replaced by fields of sugar cane.
Anyway, here’s what we got up to:
Cairns & Surrounds (3 nights)
The Great Barrier Reef – there are so many options when it comes to visiting one of Australia’s top tourist attractions. We opted for a full day tour with Reef Magic as they visit the outer reef and are child friendly. They are also one of the last locally and family owned companies offering tours to the reef. After an enjoyable 90 minute ferry ride we arrived at the Marine World pontoon which featured an underwater viewing area and a children’s swimming enclosure. The water turned out to be too cold for Miss C to swim but she still enjoyed watching fish swim by in the viewing area. There are heaps of additional activity options such as diving, glass bottom boat and helicopter rides for an extra cost but we just stuck to snorkeling. It was a beautiful sunny day which meant we had great clarity. The snorkeling itself was good but nothing we hadn’t seen before, in fact if I’m being honest we’ve probably seen better coral and fish in places like Thailand and Indonesia. But with the GBR being the size of Italy or Japan I don’t think we can judge the reef’s offerings on this experience alone. If you’re not travelling with young kids I’d say go with a smaller operator that takes you even further out of cairns but for us this was perfect. I managed to spot Nemo and Niall got to meet Wally, the resident grouper fish. Tickets were $210 per adult, infants free. This included wetsuit hire, snorkeling equipment, morning and afternoon tea, and a delicious buffet lunch.
Kuranda – this is one of those cases where it’s more about the journey than the destination. We were lucky enough to grab window seats on the scenic railway after leaving things to the last minute (make a reservation guys). As the name suggests the 90 minute ride up through the rainforest and past Barron Falls was indeed scenic.
Kuranda, the “the village in the rainforest”, is super touristy and we didn’t spend long looking around, mainly because we had to catch the 12:30 pm cable car back down to Freshwater Station as it was the only time slot still available when we bought our tickets. As it turns out this ended up being a blessing in disguise as the two stations on the way down were pretty deserted so we could look around at our own pace and jump back on without lining up. But back to Kuranda.. we wandered about the two markets, making sure to pick up some dried mango (yum!) and took Miss C to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary ($20 per adult, under 4’s free). She loved watching the butterflies flutter around and one even landed on her head! We weren’t quick enough to get a picture though. Niall and I had just as much fun laughing at the sanctuary’s choice of promo model, a teenage girl who looks absolutely disgusted at having a butterfly on her, seriously worst choice of marketing material, look it up for a laugh. The 7.5 km Skyrail back down took roughly 90 minutes as well, including walking around the rainforest boardwalks and viewing platforms. The sweeping views of the rainforest and coast were impressive but not as impressive as the effort that went into protecting the rainforest during its construction. The towers were placed in existing gaps in the canopy, top soil and seedlings removed for re-introduction later, footings built by hand with picks, and most equipment carried in and out each day by the workers except for the big stuff which was hoisted in by helicopters. Crazy stuff! Overall it certainly wasn’t a cheap day out but it was definitely worth it.
The Esplanade – there’s not much of a beach in Cairns so most people hang out at the Esplanade’s pool which has been designed to make you feel like you’re at the beach anyway. There are lifeguards on duty and BBQ facilities if you want to make a day of it. Miss C wasn’t impressed with the temperature of the water but none of the other kids seemed to care.
Palm Cove – approximately 40 minutes north of Cairns lies this gorgeous, albeit touristy, beach-side town. We only stopped in for a picnic on the beach but there are plenty of accommodation and food options if you wanted to stay a while.
Unlike some of our SE Asia blog posts (exhibit a) this trip was not all about the food. Australia is expensive so we packed lunches and cooked dinner most days. That said, when we heard about a boat serving up fresh seafood on board we just had to check it out. The Prawn Star (pun totally intended) is located at the marina near the Shangri-La to the left of the boat terminal. We enjoyed a large platter of Moreton Bay bugs and prawns for $50- so delicious!!
Cairns Holiday Park – we had intended to campervan around TNQ but it was way hotter and humid at night than we had anticipated. Not wanting to loose sleep worrying about Miss C dehydrating overnight we scrapped that plan pretty quickly (like, we lasted one night!) and upgraded to a delightful little cabin which was $61 pn. I cannot recommend Cairns Holiday Park enough, it’s close to town, has good facilities and the staff are lovely. Miss C even got to touch her first snake one evening when the camp put on a free sausage sizzle for families staying there.
The Tablelands (3 nights)
We decided to take the Gillies Highway which winds (and we do not use this term loosely) through the Gillies ranges. It’s a scenic drive and if you roll the windows down you’ll feel as though your listening to one of those meditation CD’s. But if you’re prone to motion sickness this probably isn’t the route for you, going via Kuranda and Mareeba would be a much wiser choice.
Curtain Fig Tree – just outside Yungaburra this fascinating tree is worth pulling over for. So the sign tell us, a small seed would have deposited itself into a branch of the host tree and over time its roots searched downwards encircling and strangling the tree in the process. The host tree then fell onto another tree creating the curtain like appearance.
Volcanic Crater Lakes – Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine were both created by volcanic activity, and if you’re short on time we’d recommend you skip the latter, unless you’re really in the mood for tea and scones which you can munch on at the lakeside teahouse. Lake Eacham by comparison was buzzing with families and backpackers BBQ’ing (themselves and food) and cooling off in the lake.
Lake Tinnaroo- known for its Barra fishing, Lake Tinnaroo provided a lovely backdrop for Niall’s cousin and his fiance to get married in a lovely ceremony (the main reason for our holiday in Cairns). There are also plenty of opportunities for walking, kayaking and fishing, but if you’re short of time we’d say give it a miss.
We stayed at the Tinnaroo Lake Resort which has self-contained apartments. Pretty standard stuff. Wifi only near the restaurant and pool.
Port Douglas (5 nights)
Further north of Cairns, Port Douglas can be reached via the Great Barrier Reef drive. The 70 minute winding journey is simply amazing, offering sweeping ocean views most of the way.
Four Mile Beach – do you love long walks along the beach? Then this is the beach for you. The picturesque four mile beach also has a designated swimming spot where you can enjoy a dip without too much worry.
Lookouts – there are two lookouts in town, one which can be accessed from the north end of Four Mile Beach and another from town. You can walk both but we opted to drive up to the one closer to town. Miss C is getting heavy y’all.
Yoga on the beach – a husband and wife duo run yoga sessions on the beach every morning at 8 am for $15. It’s a pretty easy one hour class located just south of the deck chairs.
Mossman Gorge- this was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. A 20 minute drive north of Port Douglas lies the Mossman Gorge Centre which is proudly operated by 90% Aboriginal staff. We paid the extra $62 each for the Dreamtime Gorge Walk which turned out to be a great idea. Our guide was fantastic, taking us through the rainforest sharing his culture and history along the way. We were treated to a smoking ceremony, paint making demonstration, didgeridoo performance and damper with tea. An hour and a half whizzed past. The gorge itself was also very beautiful and it was nice to see it away from the crowds. You can catch the shuttle to the main part of the gorge for a dip afterwards if you fancy.
Lady Douglas – as we followed a whole heap of seniors down the ramp to the boat we started questioning whether a ride on this iconic boat was such a good idea but soon enough a few more families joined us and we were off on our 90 minute cruise up around the Dickson Inlet. It didn’t take long for us to realise we’d made the right choice jumping on, Lucas provided a great commentary that was both informative and hilarious. Plus we were lucky enough to see two crocs, one of which was just a bubba. $35 pp, infants free.
Sunday Markets – Located at Anzac Park from 8 am-2 pm each Sunday the Port Douglas markets are your typical Australian weekend market full of fresh fruit and veg, crafts, food stalls and knickknacks.
Hemingways – we’re lovers of good food and good beer. Hemmingways offers both, with marina views to top it off. We ordered a tasting paddle to sample five of the beers on offer, our personal favourite being Pitchfork Betty’s a pale ale made from stonefruit, Galaxy hops and UK blended malts. Service was quick and the food was delicious with the sweet potato wedges being a stand out. I know, sweet potato wedges?! Just trust us on this.
Lantern fish – situated on Port Douglas’ main strip Macrossan St is this quaint streetfood-inspired eatery. Most of the menu is focused around seafood. We’re a sucker for bao and our favourite item on the menu turned out to be the soft shell crab bao which comes with a tasty chilli jam and charred pineapple topping. Is your mouth salivating yet? If we were to come back we’d try our luck and ask for the beef bao in the combo meal to be replaced with a second soft shell crab one. No harm in asking right?
The Lighthouse – if you’ve worked up a sweat walking along four mile beach why not treat yourself to a fruit smoothie at this beach-side cafe. They also serve up a decent coffee if you’re in need of a caffeine fix.
Tropic Breeze– a short stroll from the beach is this small campground. The staff here are absolutely lovely and the units are well equipped but take note, there’s no wifi if that’s a deal breaker for you. $95 pn.
Cape Tribulation (2 nights)
A further hour and three quarters north of Port Douglas sits Cape Tribulation, a much more secluded part of the state which is one of the only places in the world where the rainforest meets the reef (and world heritage listed ones at that). This was another spectacular drive, especially after the ferry crossing where you can have rainforest on one side and beach views on the other! If you’re lucky you might also spot a cassowary, we weren’t so lucky though. All we saw was this lousy sign. Just kidding, its a pretty awesome sign.
Alexandra Lookout – not long after the ferry crossing is this lookout which provides a nice view of Cape Kimberley and Snapper Island. Its a pity that some of the ferns have obstructed the view but you know world heritage site and all that…
Beaches – there are plenty of beaches between the ferry crossing and Cape Tribulation. We checked out Thornton’s and Myall, but there is also Noah and Coconut beaches. If you could swim confidently without the threat of crocs and stingers these beaches would give WA a run for its money but you can’t so…
Cape Tribulation Wilderness Cruise – speaking of crocs, we jumped aboard this cruise which is the only boat in the heart of the Daintree. The hour boat ride took us up through the mangroves of Cooper Creek where we spotted three crocs, two of which were massive males, much larger than we had seen in Port Douglas. Cruises depart three times daily just up the road from Thornton Beach. $32 ea, infants free.
Daintree Discovery Centre – aerial walkways, audio guides, a viewing tower, interpretive display centre and random dinosaurs make up the Daintree Discovery Centre. At $32 a pop (under 5’s free) we’d say give it a miss if you’ve seen the Daintree elsewhere, unless you’re really interested in learning more about the local fauna and flora (or forcing your kids to).
Marrdja Boardwalk- a far better and cheaper option is a stroll on this boardwalk which takes you through rainforest and mangroves around Oliver Creek. Judging by the amount of parking reserved for buses it’s a popular spot for tours so get there early like we did (9 am) to avoid the crowds.
Sandbar @ Cape Trib Camping – they do really good pizza! Nuff said.
Daintree Icecream Company – boasting that this is “not your typical ice cream” these guys make ice cream using tropical fruits from their orchard. They switch up the flavours daily and you can try four flavours for $6.50. On the day we visited we had Davidson plum, wattleseed, coconut and passion fruit. Yum!
CJ’s Cafe – considering its beachfront location this cafe serves up pretty good food at reasonable prices. Walk it off with a stroll along Thornton beach.
Our very cute glorified cubby house at Jungle Lodge was $90 pn. The surrounds were beautiful and we felt as though we were in the jungle as the name suggests, especially as there’s no phone coverage or wifi here. Since we left they have re-branded to Safari Lodge though, reflecting that the campground is also home of Ocean Safari who operate tours to this section of the GBR. From what we heard they spotted plenty of turtles while we were there. Although the grounds had a nice pool and communal kitchen if we were to come back we’d probably camp at Cape Tribulation Camping who have a great set up and family feel (plus a good beer selection which always helps).
Suffice to say we’ve had a great time in Tropical North Queensland. Miss C has turned out to be an awesome little traveler, thank goodness! In fact I think I’m going to struggle to entertain her when we get home, it really seems like she’s loving life over here. Lucky for all of us we’ve got plenty more in the pipeline. Next up Melbourne.