By Roger Allnutt
Stretching about 1,500 miles along the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef (there are in fact about 2,900 individual reefs, 300 coral cays and 900 islands) is one of Australia’s premier tourist icons and a ‘must see’ for any visitor.
Cairns is a perfect place from which to explore the many and varied attractions of north Queensland. It is handy for cruises for sightseeing, fishing or snorkeling, is close to offshore islands and the starting point for trips south to Innisfail, inland to the Atherton tableland and north along the coast to Port Douglas and further on to the Daintree and beyond.
Within the city limits the Cairns Museum has many interesting exhibits covering the highlights of yesteryear. A number of excellent galleries sell aboriginal art while St Monica’s Cathedral has 24 unusual stained glass window of ‘creation’ themes.
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is a must. Here you can learn about indigenous culture unique to the Far North of Queensland and witness didgeridoo playing, art shows, dance shows, learn about bush food and medicine, hunting and weapon demonstrations and spear and boomerang throwing.
Two major attractions from near Tjapukai lead to the quaint village of Kuranda. The Kuranda Scenic Railway winds up from the station at Freshwater with great views of the Barron River Falls, spectacular after heavy rain. I prefer the peace and quiet of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway (pictured, left) which glides effortlessly above the rain forest canopy. Stunning views over the rain forest, juxtaposed with two stops where you can get off and take walks along boardwalks for views of the falls or to learn about the various giant trees including a huge kauri pine.
Kuranda is a typical tourist market village with plenty of craft and souvenir shops including lovely didgeridoos in one gallery (pictured below). There are also plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars.
Of course the main attraction for many visitors is a trip out to the reef and a number of companies (Sunlover, Raging Thunder e.t.c.) offer day and half-day tours. An old favorite is the short trip out to Green Island where you can relax on the sandy beaches, and view the reef by snorkeling, glass-bottom boat or semi-submarine.
My favorite option is the longer trip south along the coast by the fast Fitzroy Flyer to Fitzroy Island. You can spend just a day or luxuriate for a longer stay at the excellent resort. Comfortable rooms are available and there are also a few cabins and even an area for camping. Snorkel along the beach, go sea kayaking, walk to Nudey Beach (it was a nudist beach when I visited 10 years ago but no more), take a walk to the lighthouse or if you’re looking for something more strenuous, climb to the island summit.
In 2011 the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre was reopened following a huge increase in turtle strandings after Cyclone Yasi. Sea debris, mainly plastic items ingested by the turtles, causes devastating consequences for the health and even life of these massive creatures, and the educational tour was a chilling reminder of our thoughtless lifestyle by which many items are discarded in the ocean.
Backing the coast behind Cairns, the Great Dividing Range provides a barrier to the lovely Atherton Tableland. There are many extinct volcanic crater lakes dotting the region. Mareeba used to be the center of one of Australia’s major tobacco growing areas but since that product became politically incorrect there has been diversification into sugar cane, coffee, tea, macadamias and tropical fruits. Skybury and Jaques Coffee Plantations are both worth a visit, as is Nerada tea plantation. Another lovely attraction is Mareeba Wetlands, especially to see the storks.
The historic village of Herberton is fascinating, Yungaburra is a heritage-listed village virtually unchanged since the early days of the 20th century. The Lake Eacham Hotel is a fine old world pub, and you can admire the architecture of the old buildings by a stroll around the village. Only a couple of miles away is a real wonder of nature, the Curtain Fig Tree, hundreds of long roots of a strangler fig, which have completely ‘killed’ the original host tree, falling like a giant curtain.
Only 30 years ago Port Douglas, about 40 miles north of Cairns, was a typical sleepy coastal fishing village. Nowadays it is another hub for visits to the Great Barrier Reef. For example Quicksilver Cruises have day trips out to Agincourt Reef, a ribbon reef about 25 miles offshore and close to the Continental Shelf. At the offshore pontoon most visitors take the opportunity to snorkel in the warm water among the many species of brightly colored fish, dolphins, sea urchins, starfish and turtles as well as sponges, marine worms and pretty plants like sea anemones clinging to the coral.
Sailing and dive cruises and fishing cruises (including for marlin) are also available. Scenic helicopter flights over the reef are also a great way to savour the grandeur and scale of the reef.
An iconic shopping opportunity occurs each Sunday when local markets (pictured, left) are held close to the marina. Stalls sell everything from clothing to furniture, jewelry to books as well as a range of local produce and arts and crafts.
In the same area, check out the historic lighthouse, old courthouse and lovely St Mary’s Church by the Sea. The old Central Hotel dates from 1878. For something different take a ride on the Bally Hooley Steam Railway, a 2-foot narrow gauge heritage railway operating a 2 ½-mile line from the Marina Mirage to Saint Crispin’s Station. It takes just over one hour for a return trip.
At the junction of the highway from Cairns turning into Port Douglas is the excellent Wildlife Habitat, home to more than 100 species of native rain forest wildlife including cassowaries, brightly plumed parrots and cockatoos, kookaburras, numerous waders such as brolga, stork and egrets as well as kangaroos, koalas and crocodiles. A great option is to join the ‘breakfast with the birds’ experience where birds sit on your shoulder as you dine on a sumptuous breakfast.
North of Port Douglas the highway leads to the busy town of Mossman and Mossman Gorge (pictured, right) about 3 miles further inland. From the visitors center take the shuttle bus to the start of a short walk up the gorge on excellent paths leading to views of the waters of the river tumbling over huge boulders. Along the highway you pass many sugar plantations and it is interesting to see the narrow gauge railway lines winding through the area with carriages ready to transport ripe cane to local mills.
Further north you come to the Daintree River over which a ferry can take your vehicle to explore the wonders of Cape Tribulation and on to Cooktown; very much a 4WD section especially in the rainy season. A different but longer highway is an alternative for a visit to Cooktown.
The Daintree River is famous for its cruises to see the saltwater crocodiles either gliding deceptively just below the surface or sunning themselves on river banks. I was fortunate to see two males ‘fighting’ in the river near a female on a small sandbar. (Pictured, left: a crocodile attacks wild pig on the banks of the Daintree River.) A number of cruise companies operate cruises of about one hour; Daintree River Cruises is a good option.
There are many accommodation options in Port Douglas from the luxurious Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas edging Four Mile Beach (it has a testing 18-hole golf course) and Ramada Wyndham Resort to apartment-style complexes. Silky Oaks Lodge near Mossman is top- of-the-range luxury. Cairns has a very wide range of options.
Getting there: There are many international flights from Los Angeles to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with direct flights to Cairns. Coach companies run regular services between the Cairns and Port Douglas. Many resort hotels provide shuttle services between the airport/Cairns city center and their property. Regular bus services operate within Port Douglas covering the town, hotels and attractions.