Our Four-Day Itinerary to Tropical North Queensland
The last time I set foot in Tropical North Queensland, I was twenty-three, a backpacker and I had barely any money with me. I stayed at hostels out of necessity, and eating out in restaurants was definitely not something I could afford. All of the money that I had, I spent on trips visiting the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest. All things considered, I did quite well at the time. I even made it to Cape Tribulation. But for some reason, I totally missed out on Port Douglas and Palm Cove.
Fifteen years later, I figured it was time to revisit this part of Australia, but this time as a non-backpacker. So when one day I came across cheap Jetstar flights from Melbourne, I couldn’t resist! We were off to spend four days in the sun.
Finding a cheap flight sometimes means getting the first flight out on the day. In our case, it was the 6.10 am flight. Living an hour away from the airport, this meant a 3.45 am wake up call. But since we arrived in Cairns by 8.30 am, it also meant we had the whole day in front of us to start exploring. So after picking up our rental car, that’s exactly what we did. We headed out to explore.
The Great Barrier Reef Drive
Captain Cook Highway (also known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive) winds its way up the coast, from Cairns all the way to Cape Tribulation. This spectacular drive is the best in Tropical North Queensland. It offers some amazing coastline scenery, dividing two World Heritage areas; on one side you have the Wet Tropics rainforest and to the east the Great Barrier Reef.
While on this trip we didn’t have time to go as far north as Cape Tribulation, we did make it to the Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest. Although not without stopping a few times for photos along the way!
Our first destination was Mossman Gorge. Mossman Gorge is about an hour’s drive from Cairns, at the southern end of the Daintree Rainforest. Arriving in Mossman Gorge, we had two options for getting to the heart of the gorge. We could pay $9.50 for the shuttle bus to take us directly there or walk two kilometres up the narrow road. We opted for the shuttle, not only because the park recommends it, but also because after a couple of hours in Tropical North Queensland we were already struggling with the heat and humidity!
Once at the gorge there is a walking circuit, divided into four tracks. You can either choose some of the shorter walks or as we did, walk the entire length (about 3.5 kilometres in total). Yes, we were still hot at the end of it, but it was an easy walk. You walk through lush vegetation, passing a variety of interesting trees, and we even spotted a lot of birdlife.
Mossman Gorge also has swimming holes, which are the perfect spot for a refreshing swim following the walk. Stupidly we listened to the sign at the visitor centre which indicated a high danger if swimming, due to fast flowing water, and we left our bathers behind. Needless to say, we regretted that decision, especially given that the water was calm, crystal clear, and very inviting. Many people were enjoying a lovely, refreshing swim there. Don’t make that mistake. Take your bathers with you, and make a careful judgement of the water conditions once you get there!
After leaving Mossman Gorge, we drove 20km south to the resort town of Port Douglas. Port Douglas is a very popular place to stay in Tropical North Queensland (unless you’re a backpacker!), because of its famous four-mile long white sand beach. It’s a great beach for a stroll, but like all the beaches in Tropical North Queensland there is always the risk of stingers (from November to May), and even worse crocodiles in the water.
Yes, I am not kidding, salt-water crocodiles are seen in the waters off the coast! Although attacks aren’t that common, it pays to be careful. You may survive a stinger bite but a crocodile bite is a whole different story! However, if you really fancy a swim there is a fenced off safe swimming enclosure which has no stingers or crocs and has a lifeguard.
The main street of Port Douglas (Macrossan Street) is a great spot for some retail therapy. You can also take lunch at one of the many restaurants and cafes.
After such a busy day, we were looking forward to checking into our hotel and relaxing for a while. We chose Palm Cove as our base, not only because it was close to everywhere we were visiting, but because after seeing so many amazing photos of it on Instagram, I knew it was where I wanted to stay. Palm Cove is thirty-five minutes from Port Douglas, and twenty-five from Cairns, so it’s a perfect spot for exploring the main attractions of Tropical North Queensland. Just like Port Douglas, it has a stunning white sand beach that is lined with palm trees. This provides the perfect setting for sunrise! It also has a safe swimming enclosure, for avoiding the stingers and crocs. Palm Cove was a little slice of heaven, and we were very happy with our choice.
Sunrise in Palm Cove
As I mentioned earlier, Palm Cove is the perfect place to watch the sunrise, so I couldn’t miss it. It was so peaceful and delightful. Apart from a handful of other, early rising photography buffs, I had the sunrise all to myself. Walking along the beach, watching the sun rise above the water was a great start of the day. So much so that my body woke me up just in time, every morning of our trip. I didn’t even have to set the alarm!
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
At 9 am we checked in at the Skyrail station in Smithfield, for a fun morning gliding over the rainforest. The Skyrail takes you over Barron National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage listed Wet Tropics rainforest. It stops at Red Peak Station where you can take a boardwalk stroll inside the rainforest, and at Barron Falls station for a great view of the waterfalls. The last stop is the quaint little village of Kuranda.
The village of Kuranda is set right in the middle of the rainforest and it’s a popular day trip from Cairns. Once there, we had a long list of things to do. Kuranda is home to world famous markets, a butterfly sanctuary, a bird aviary, a koala park and many art galleries. It’s a great little village to spend a few hours checking out.
The Kuranda Scenic Railway
Instead of taking the Skyrail, the alternative way of getting back to Cairns is the Kuranda Scenic Railway. This railway winds its way down through the rainforest and rugged mountains, stopping at Barron Falls lookout and passing through fifteen hand-dug tunnels, and across thirty-seven towering bridges. It was a great way to see the rainforest from a different perspective. It was also a nice, relaxing ride after we’d spent four hours exploring Kuranda. We exited at Freshwater Station, and a shuttle bus transferred us to the Skyrail Smithfield station where our car was parked. Arriving home we were both exhausted from such an action-packed day!
Click here to read more about our Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway Tour
Out to the Great Barrier Reef
We couldn’t visit Tropical North Queensland without taking a day-trip out to the reef. So we headed out for a full day cruise on the outer Great Barrier Reef with Passions Of Paradise. Their catamaran left the Cairns Marina at 8 am and took just over two hours to reach our first stop, Hasting Reef. After some snorkelling time at Hastings Reef, we moved across to Norman Reef, our second snorkelling spot. Around mid-afternoon, we began to make our way back to the Cairns Marina.
When I visited the Great Barrier Reef fifteen years ago, it was an amazing experience for me. I had never snorkelled before, and seeing all of the beautiful coral and fish made a long-lasting impression on me. Since then, snorkelling has become one of my favourite things to do.
The second time around, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard and read many times that the outer reef was no longer what it used to be. The coral actually looked much better than I expected. It appeared relatively healthy. However, the fish life was not as abundant as I expected. But we did see Wally the Maori Wrasse, so that kept me happy!
All in all, it was a very enjoyable day, and we were once again exhausted at the end of it. We returned to the Marina at 5 o’clock and made our way back to Palm Cove.
Walk around Palm Cove
After a delicious breakfast at the Chill Cafe on the Esplanade, we took a long walk on Palm Cove’s white sandy beach to try and burn off some of those calories. It’s a beautiful long sandy beach, so it definitely did the trick!
After our walk, we paid a visit to the fishermen on the pier to see them in action. On this particular day, they didn’t seem to be having much luck but they were enjoying themselves. It would be hard not to in such a beautiful setting!
Being that it was our last day and that we were flying out at 5 pm, we decided to spend our last day in Cairns. Our first stop was the Cairns Esplanade. The Cairns Esplanade has a three-kilometre long boardwalk along the foreshore, and although we only walked half of it, we really enjoyed the views and the people watching. A lot of locals run or walk along it as their daily exercise, and there are playgrounds for the young ones. We saw some pelicans hanging out nearby.
The main attraction of the Esplanade is the swimming lagoon. Because Cairns does not have a beach, the city came up with an idea. They built an artificial, sand edged, 4800-square-metre saltwater pool on the reclaimed foreshore. What a great idea! And the best part is, there are no crocodiles or stingers, and it is lifeguard patrolled.
Our last stop on this trip was the Cairns Botanical Gardens. The gardens are very well maintained, with plenty of shaded areas, which was great in the middle of the afternoon when it was rather hot! They have a few walking trails which take you through a rainforest, mangroves, a bamboo grove, past a variety of tropical plants, and down freshwater and saltwater lakes. It was a great place to wander around for a couple of hours, and it was five minutes drive from the Cairns airport. A perfect last stop!
Sadly we had to return to Melbourne, but we had a fabulous time re-exploring Tropical North Queensland. We won’t be waiting another fifteen years to head back up there! Four days was definitely not long enough, but we were glad we managed to fit so much into that timeframe. A bit more relaxation time would, of course, have been very welcome!
Where to stay in Tropical North Queensland?
Choosing where to stay while in Tropical North Queensland is a tough decision. It really all depends on your preferences and budget. The three main places are Cairns, Palm Cove or Port Douglas.
If you are on a low budget or a backpacker look no further. Cairns will be your best option as it has many hostels and cheaper accommodation available. There are no beaches other than the artificial lagoon but it has the biggest selection of places to eat, bars etc.. It’s also the closest to Cairns airport.
If you are a couple looking for peace and quiet with a great vibe, Palm Cove would be the best choice. Palm Cove is small, not too busy (especially during the week), picturesque and it has affordable accommodations, lots of restaurants and cafes and it’s only about twenty minutes to the airport. It’s a great choice for honeymooners. Bear in mind, you will need to do your supermarket shopping in Cairns or in Springfield as the places selling supplies are tiny and expensive.
Port Douglas is bigger than Palm Cove and more upmarket. It has a great selection of resorts and many restaurants although don’t expect it to be cheap. It’s the best place for families and the closest to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation. It’s an hour drive from Cairns but as I mentioned earlier the drive is spectacular so it’s a real treat!
We stayed at the Paradise on the Beach in Palm Cove and it was a perfect spot, really convenient location, across from the beach and next to bars, cafes and restaurants. It was quiet and our studio was quite roomy with a balcony and a kitchenette. Rooms start from $145 a night so it is quite affordable. Check out the latest prices here.
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