Tropical North Queensland

Cairns is the main centre for Tropical North Queensland and it is a modern, cosmopolitan, colourful city. It’s an ideal base to explore the reef, rainforest and Atherton Tablelands. There are lots of attractions close to Cairns and excellent dining and nightlife. And the reef and rainforest are not far away.

The Great Barrier Reef is, of course, one of the world’s great natural wonders and can be explored above and below. Cairns Dive Adventures is a friendly, professional outfit that can organise day dives of liveaboard excursions.

The Reef, however, doesn’t just sit off the coast, you have to make an effort to get there. And, as rewarding as diving the Reef is, one of the drawbacks with diving is that you may have a limited time to explore. There’s so much accessible wonder on the reef, snorkelling can give a lot more for a lot longer. And, for those who don’t want to get wet, you can see it from underwater viewing platforms, glass-bottom boats and semi-submersibles.

There are lots of things to do and see from Cairns using a hire car or transfers provided by the operators.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is simply the world’s most beautiful rainforest experience. From Cairns, Skyrail is a gondola ride with boardwalk stops through the rainforest to Kuranda. It’s about an hour and a half one way and two and a half hours including the return.

This world first in environmental tourism takes guests over Australia’s World Heritage listed Tropical Rainforest canopy and deep into the forest. Observe, absorb and learn about one of the most botanically diverse and fascinating areas on the planet.

The multi-award winning attraction has been voted Australia’s Best Major Tourist Attraction. Skyrail offers a complete day tour adventure or it can be combined as a package with other Cairns tourist attractions.

Next door is the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park – traditional and innovative and can captivate an audience with the simple lighting of a fire. There are day tours that include demonstrations of traditional hunting, didgeridoo playing, bush tucker and dance and night tours that take guests into Dreamtime for a night of entertainment.

Also out this way is AJ Hackett Bungy – the only bungy in Australia. The leap of faith is from a man-made platform some 50m up (196 steps). This attraction was the 2011 winner of the Golden Backpacks for Best Tour & Activity in Queensland. The vibe is helped by the music pumping and the enthusiastic, friendly staff but there is also a general buzz in the air – maybe it is the pheromones and adrenalin escaping. There’s a licensed bar for those who need a hit of Dutch Courage or post leap reward and there’s perfect viewing around the pool or from the platform for non-jumpers.

For an additional five dollars, jumpers can hire a costume – Spiderman, Batman, Superman etc. I have to say that the guy in the lime green Borat mankini did absolutely nothing for me. If there had been horses present, they would have been frightened.

As well as bungy there is the Minjin Swing, the world’s fastest jungle swing, which looks gentler than bungy but managed to get a few screams from participants I witnessed.

Another fun activity can be a hot-air balloon flight. There are a number of scenic balloon options that can include champagne, breakfast. This is gentle adventure with spectacular views over the Atherton Tablelands.

The 73-kilometre drive north from Cairns to Port Douglas is a superb coastal drive. Palm Cove is on the way and has a beautiful tropical beach with a selection of good accommodation, boutiques and galleries. There are also some delightful restaurants.

Port (as the locals call Port Douglas) is becoming a bit ‘busy’ for some (it’s got a real supermarket now!), but it still feels like a delightful fishing village. Cosmopolitan Macrossan Street has lots of eating options.

In town, attractions include the Courthouse Museum in Anzac Park and the charming little church. Who needs stained glass when you can have a window showing nature’s glory? Sunday markets are held in Anzac Park. On the outskirts of town there’s the excellent Rainforest Habitat – breakfast with the wildlife is a treat.

Four Mile Beach is great for a beach walk because of the firm sand. Do obey the signs in stinger season and only swim in the fenced areas. The water may look inviting, but some of the jellyfish are barely visible to the naked eye and their stings are horrendous.

The marina is a top spot for shopping and dining. There are heaps of specialist shops and boutiques, many of them quite stylish and surprisingly ‘non-touristy’ and there’s some nice alfresco dining with the ambience of clinking masts. A nice spot for breakfast or lunch is Lure – it won 2010 and 2011 Best Restaurant/Café in north Queensland in the Restaurant Catering Awards (and was nominated for Best Breakfast).

From Port Douglas, you can take tours to the Outer Barrier Reef and the Low Isles, go horse riding or take four-wheel-drive safaris to Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park and/or Cape Tribulation. Mossman isn’t really wheelchair-friendly but there are boardwalks through the Daintree Rainforest.

I recommend taking a snorkel and mask, and braving the cold water of Mossman and creeks in Cape Tribulation to explore the freshwater fish. Best to stay in the boat up the Daintree though, because crocodiles are plentiful.

Back to the Reef and the full day cruise with Quicksilver to Agincourt Reef is excellent. It isn’t cheap but it is a day to remember – a very professional and friendly operation with fine attention to customer comfort. There is a great snorkel ‘pool’ teeming with fish large small and colourful, coral, clams and often turtles. There is an underwater viewing platform and semi-submersibles for those who want to explore without getting wet. Helicopter scenic flights are available, a very nice seafood buffet is served on the platform, morning and afternoon tea on the way out and back and the resident marine biologists really know their stuff!

There are many, many accommodation options up north. In Cairns we have chosen the the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino, Rydges Tradewinds and the Rydges Esplanade Resort. In Palm Cove we recommend the Reef House Boutique Resort & Spa.