Australia | A guide to visiting Tropical North Queensland

by kimberley
Where the Rainforest meets the Reef, Tropical North Queensland is home to both the worlds oldest living rainforest and the worlds largest coral reef. Add in stretches of gold sanded beaches and gorgeous weather; welcome to paradise!
When to Visit

Tropical North Queensland tends to be hot all year round but is split into two seasons:

  • Dry season – runs between May and October;
  • Wet season – runs between November and April.

Whilst there is a risk of storms and cyclones in the wet season, do not let this deter you from going. The locals informed us that this is when the rainforest is at its finest and sea temperatures are warm. In fact, we visited in February and it didn’t rain once. Additionally, as this is considered off season, you will find it much quieter and accommodation prices will be significantly cheaper.

However, with warm waters comes stinger season which generally coincides with the wet season. Popular beaches will install stinger nets with designated areas for swimming. Alternatively, it is advised that you must wear a Lycra stinger suit to protect yourself when in the water. During stinger season, tour operators to the Great Barrier Reef will provide these. They aren’t the most attractive but they are better than receiving a nasty, nasty sting which could be fatal!

Where to Stay 

It is very likely that you will arrive into Cairns Airport when visiting Tropical North Queensland.

Cairns
Cairns isn’t a particularly large town but offers plenty of accommodation and restaurants, as well as acting as a main hub for various day trips to the surrounding areas/tour boats going to the Great Barrier Reef. There are no beaches in Cairns but they do have a free lido with changing rooms and lockers if you need to cool off.

If you are staying for more than a few days, I’d recommend renting a car and staying in one the towns north of Cairns e.g. Port Douglas. The road from Cairns to Port Douglas (Captain Cook Highway/Great Barrier Reef drive) will only take you an hour, but is one of the most scenic drives in Australia which shouldn’t be missed.

Two of my favourite stopping points along the way were Palm Cove (a picturesque beach resort with palm trees dotted all along the beach) and Rex Lookout (provides a fantastic view of the coastline and the rugged mountains in the distance).

Port Douglas 

If you’re looking for the ultimate tropical retreat, then Port Douglas is definitely the place to be. This luxury yet quaint coastal town, completely stole my heart. Picture beautifully landscaped streets dotted with palm trees, boutique shops, cafes and restaurants; all just minutes away from the most pristine Four Mile Beach. It is also the perfect base for visiting the Daintree Rainforest or the Great Barrier Reef, with many tour providers departing directly from the town and the harbour.

I’m a sucker for ‘key west’ style buildings, so when we arrived at our accommodation, Garrick House, I was over the moon! For self-catering apartments, I really recommend this family owned and run business. The owners were super friendly/helpful and our lovely two bedroom apartment made us feel right at home with everything we needed.

Trips and Excursions 
1. Great Barrier Reef
You cannot visit Tropical North Queensland without snorkelling/diving at the Great Barrier Reef (what is left of it anyway…). There are many tour operators to choose from, each differing between the  number and specific reefs they visit, number of passengers on board, whether they have their own pontoon, whether they are more family friendly etc.
 
We chose to go with Wavelength as they are dedicated to small group snorkelling only, and I can really recommend them. They have marine biologists on board who gave us excellent talks about conservation, marine wildlife and how to get the most out of your day. The day consisted of stopping at 3 different reefs (skippers choice on the day) and they also provided a vegetarian lunch.
 
One thing to be wary of is that you may see the impact of coral bleaching. Whilst devastating, I think that seeing the impact through my own eyes was so important; it becomes more than just something you hear about or read in the news. It’s real. Nevertheless, we still saw plenty of colourful fish, jellyfish, sting rays and a shark!

2. Mossman Gorge/Daintree Rainforest 

If you fancy taking a walk through the worlds oldest rainforest, complete with flowing streams and waterfalls, then Mossman Gorge is a great place to go; and it’s only a 20 minute drive from Port Douglas or an hour and 15 minutes from Cairns. If you don’t have your own car, there are daily tours/shuttles which will take you there and back.

You can only go as far as parking at the Mossman Gorge Centre. You will then need to take a paid shuttle bus to the centre of the gorge itself. These run daily and depart every 15 minutes. Updated prices and details can be found here

The Rainforest Circuit Track at the gorge is 2.4km and it took us about an hour. On the day we visited, they advised against swimming in the Mossman River due to the currents. So, when we came across Wurrmbu Creek about 3/4 around the track, it was a godsend! The water was so refreshing after a very hot and humid walk. 

3. Daintree River

The Daintree River boasts incredible scenery, rich wildlife and is home to the infamous saltwater crocodile (or salties as the locals call them). River cruises will take you along the river, mainly with the hope that you will get to spot a crocodile in their natural habitat. 

However, I think your experience largely depends on multiple factors e.g. the time of year you visit and the time of day. Unfortunately from our experience, the providers weren’t exactly honest with us about the chances of seeing a croc until they took our money.. Apparently, it is only when the temperatures drop that the crocs are likely to sit out on the banks. Otherwise, they will lurk in the river and are incredibly difficult to spot. Subsequently, on a particularly hot day in February when the sun was at its hottest, we weren’t able to see any. 

4. Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat

The Wildlife Habitat allows you to get up close and personal with a a variety of Australian animals.  Highlights include the stereotypical holding of a koala bear, feeding kangaroos and wallabies, parading around with colourful birds on your arms and watching the feeding of some pretty HUGE crocodiles (not for the squeamish!). They have one of the largest kept in captivity in the world!

If you have any questions at all, drop me a comment! 🙂
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