When it comes to first-hand experience about exploring our own backyard, we always turn to Anthony Ham. One of Melbourne's most sought after travel & nature writers, Anthony has been published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Travel Africa, Wild Travel, Wanderlust and Lonely Planet Traveller. As a regular contributor on the sassind blog, Anthony's knowledge will undoubtedly inspire us to travel around our own beautiful country.
When the world finally returns to normal, few domestic Australian destinations are worthy of the big travel dreams that we all hatched while under lockdown. Queensland’s Far North is an exception.
Combining two Unesco World Heritage-listed natural wonders – the world’s oldest rainforest and the largest coral reef system on earth – Far North Queensland in general, and the area around Port Douglas in particular, is filled with drama. Here, rainforests truly do meet the reef, kept separate in places only by a ribbon of sand, often deserted.
Of all towns in Far North Queensland, Port Douglas makes the most sense for exploring the region’s natural attractions. It’s also an appealing destination in its own right. Inhabiting its own natural peninsula, Port or PD as it’s known by its friends is bypassed by the main highway, yet close to everything. The road into town is fringed with palm trees and elegant resorts, the main street, Macrossan Street, is lined with classy boutiques and restaurants, and Four Mile Beach seems to go on forever; head up Flagstaff Hill for views that take in this perfect arc of beach, and beyond to rainforest-clad hills. Back down in the town, at the foot of the hill, Anzac Park is the scene for an artsy Sunday market, watched over by the white-timbered church, St Mary’s By the Sea.
Port can be agreeable, even charming. But the comings and goings from the marina point to something larger than the town itself – some of the best trips out onto the Great Barrier Reef leave from here. In fact, many of the snorkelling and diving tours that operate out of Cairns actually involve a bus trip here for a Port Douglas departure.
The outer reef, called Agincourt Reef or the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs, is the main drawcard. Every day of the year, boats ferry snorkellers and divers out to these reefs, close to where the coral falls suddenly away into the deep ocean off the continental shelf. Take a full-day trip with three to five hours spent snorkelling amid an astonishing array of colourful marine life – if you’ve never snorkelled before, this is an experience that you’ll never forget. Some trips out to Agincourt operate from a large floating pontoon, others take you to three different sites for off-boat snorkelling. Also possible are half-day excursions to the idyllic Low Isles where you can watch for turtles and reef sharks.
Back on land, the rainforest possibilities are endless. Mossman Gorge, just 23km northwest of Port Douglas, is a fine introduction, both to the land and to its custodians. From the Mossman Gorge Centre, the Kuku-Yalanji Dreamtime Gorge Walk involves a stirring walk into the rainforest under the care of an indigenous guide – enjoy a smoking ceremony of welcome, marvel at the strangler vines and dense tangle of tall trees, and learn about medicinal plants. Just as venturing beneath the surface of the water out on the reef is like entering another world, so too is rainforest an ecosystem unto itself, offering respite from the world and its noise.
Elsewhere, take a croc or birdwatching tour along the Daintree River, then cross the river by ferry for one of northern Australia’s most beautiful drives, all the way to Cape Tribulation, one of Australia’s most beautiful beaches; sadly the waters are off-limits as crocs are known to lurk in the shallows, but long walks along isolated stretches of sand with dense palms and forest crowding close go some way towards compensating. Along the way to Cape Trib, watch for charismatic cassowaries and tree kangaroos, climb to the rainforest canopy at the Daintree Discovery Centre, hike the Mount Sorrow Ridge Walk, then stop for a tropical-fruit treat at the Daintree Ice Cream Company.
The rainforest theme continues at Kuranda, south of Port Douglas and close to the northern outskirts of Cairns. Operating since 1891, the Kuranda Scenic Railway climbs 34km through the forest to the artsy markets of high-altitude Kuranda. The return via the splendid Skyrail, one of the world’s longest gondola cable-car trajectories, looks down on the rainforest in all its glory from above. Not far away, the Atherton Tablelands is home to pretty villages, accommodation of the boutique and bespoke variety, and some of Queensland’s best wildlife possibilities.
BEST REEF TRIPS
Quicksilver One of the larger operators to Agincourt Reef from Port Douglas, with their own pontoon, diving lessons, and even a mini-submarine.
Poseidon Luxury catamarans make possible full-day snorkelling and diving trips to the outer reef.
Tropical Journeys Snorkelling and diving tours to various reef sites aboard fast-moving catamarans.
Wavelength Small-group snorkelling with a focus on reef protection and education.
BEST WILDLIFE TOURS
BEST INDIGENOUS ENCOUNTERS
Peppers Beach Club Spa One of the best places to stay in Port Douglas with a fabulous pool, stylish apartments, and a reputable spa.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve Feeling like your own tropical hideaway, Thala Beach eco-retreat has upmarket bungalows and its own private beach.
Daintree Ecolodge & Spa Expect designer rooms with Asian accents, a fine spa, and a stunning restaurant using local produce, in Daintree village.
Daintree Wilderness Lodge North of the Daintree River, these wood-floored cabins lie enveloped in the rainforest.