Port Douglas resides in an enviable meeting place of the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, a locale where the weather is warm all year round … even when it rains.
There are few places in Australia that can boast immediate access to two World Heritage Areas, or as many touring options, whether it’s hiking in pristine mountains, snorkelling in one of the great wonders of the world, embarking on a cultural journey, retracing the steps of our early explorers, getting up close to wildlife or just chilling out and indulging in the local food scene.
There’s a common thread in all these activities; they rely on the natural environment.
So it’s no wonder that the operators and tourism boards promoting them have a vested interest in protecting that environment and ensuring it is kept as pristine as possible.
There is an emphasis in this tropical pocket on conservation, education, community participation and offering ways to explore the region without stressing its resources.
It’s a recipe for record tourist numbers. But, despite these very best of eco-friendly intentions, Port Douglas has been swamped with a run of bad luck of late.
The Tropical North Queensland wet was particularly saturating this year, especially over the Christmas and New Year periods. And, further south, the Townsville region suffered devastating floods. The overall effect has been a dampening of spirits for potential visitors.
But Port Douglas is not flooded, the roads are not closed and the town is very much open for business. That’s the message local tourist operators are trying to spread across Australia. The Port, as the locals like to call it, is ready to welcome the cavalry of caravanners and campers to save the day.
Here are some suggestions for an action-packed holiday that will be adventurous for you but also help to preserve the environment.
KICK UP AT CARNIVALE
As if the reef, the rainforest and balmy days aren’t enough... But, if you do want an event to kickstart it all, Carnivale is the perfect festival to do just that.
The annual three-day event will kick off on May 24 with the Longest Lunch in Rex Smeal Park and the silver and sunshine-themed street parade.
The rest of the weekend will be filled with family fun on the beach, twilight cruises, pool parties, a Seafood Extravaganza, the Spiegeltent cabaret and circus show, and indie rock group Eskimo Joe headlining Saturday night’s entertainment.
CRUISE THE REEF
The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space but a 1.5-hour catamaran trip with Quicksilver is all it takes to get from Port Douglas to Agincourt Reef at the very edge of the continental shelf.
There are so many ways to experience this natural wonder of the world from the floating pontoon. Take the plunge and snorkel among the fish and turtles. Don an Ocean Walker diver’s helmet and walk the underwater plank or go scuba diving for an even closer look at the endemic marine life. If you don’t want to get wet, an underwater observatory and the semi-submersible subs will make you feel like you’re in amongst all the action, or perhaps take a helicopter ride for a bird’s-eye view of the coastline. Quicksilver has the highest Ecotourism Accreditation, Climate Action Innovator Certification as well its own Reef Biosearch environmental division, so a team of marine biologists is at hand to answer any questions.
EXPERIENCE THE RAINFOREST
Lush, green and teeming with wildlife, Mossman Gorge is part of the Daintree National Park. You can hike the gorge on your own and, depending on how fast the Mossman River is flowing, swim in a rock pool to cool off.
However, take a Ngadiku (nar-di-gul) Dreamtime Walk in the gorge with a local Kuku Yalanji guide and you’ll learn the hidden secrets of this ancient landscape. Indigenous guides such as ‘Skip’, who have grown up in the area, share their home and their culture while also protecting it.
A smoking ceremony wards off any bad spirits before you step out on a journey along private tracks, stopping at culturally significant sites and avoiding others while learning why that is so. You might even meet one of the old ancestors who still look after the gorge today.
Did you know Mossman Gorge is more than 135 million years old and that it is the last remnant of the oldest surviving rainforest in the world? Have you heard of the Wait a While tree? If you get caught in it, you have to wait a while to get free…. You’ll get lessons in finding water, catching fish using leaves and so much more with a local guide.
WHAT THE CROC?
You don’t want to see these salty characters in unexpected places, so here are a few suggestions on how to stay safe while getting up close and personal.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is just 25 minutes from Port Douglas, and will surprise, shock and probably scare you. The wildlife on display ranges from cassowaries to turtles and saltwater crocodiles. Massive crocs. Unbelievably huge crocs. Some are in enclosures, others are in Hartley’s Lagoon where a cruise will get you right in amongst them. Hartley’s is an eco tourism-accredited park built on a 10ha World Heritage location as a showcase for ecotourism and environmental sustainability.
CRUISE THE WILD SIDE
If you want to meet crocs in the wild, try the Crocodile Express Daintree River Cruises. These tours operate from the Daintree Village and just before the ferry crossing. It’s a tranquil cruise up the river with guides telling you all about the flora and fauna and life in the Daintree.
Throughout the cruise, you’ll be on the lookout for reptiles, rare birds, flying foxes, butterflies and, of course, the estuarine or saltwater crocs. If you see a croc (and you usually do) it’s a bonus. There is no feeding to encourage the crocs. Buy one cruise and get the second free. And ask about the Croc Pass for free return cruise visits.
We love a good road trip, so here are a few ideas for you to consider when exploring the region around Port Douglas.
Cooktown offers a solid dose of Australian history. It’s best known for its connection to explorer Captain James Cook who took shelter on the beaches after his ship, the Endeavour, came to grief on coral reefs. He spent 48 days in Cooktown while the Endeavour was repaired. The James Cook Historical Museum has a great collection of Captain Cook memorabilia. In the 1870s, Cooktown was also the site of Australia's largest gold rush.
There are two options to reach Cooktown. The first is a 266km trip along the sealed Mulligan Highway or 188km on the Coastal Road, which includes the 4WD Bloomfield Track from Cape Tribulation.
If you go inland, stop at the Lion’s Den Hotel and the Black Mountains — made of 250-million-year-old lava deposits.
Mareeba is an hour’s drive from Port Douglas via the Mossman / Mt Molloy road and is the perfect spot to launch any number of Tablelands day trips. Freshwater lakes, gin distilleries, coffee plantations, massive fig trees, a mango winery, the waterfall circuit … so much to explore, so little time. Here is just one suggested itinerary for the day.
Mareeba: Grab a coffee at the Skybury Coffee ‘hole in the wall’ in the main street. Bring your own mug or Keep Cup to avoid disposable and non-biodegradable coffee cups. (If we had more time, a visit to the Skybury plantation would have been on the list of must-sees.) Drive towards Atherton. It's the fruit bowl of Queensland so the view is a passing parade of mangos, bananas, paw paws, potatoes, avocadoes, macadamia nuts, coffee and papaya.
Mt Uncle Distillery: There is so much more to do with all that local produce than just eat it. Mark Watkins turns his crops into delicious rum, gin, whiskey and liqueurs. Mark is an environmental scientist who started distilling at the tender age of 16. He studied wine science in Melbourne then turned his natural flare for all things alcohol into award-winning recipes. Drop in for a tasting paddle, lessons in how his drinks are made and amusing tales about how they were discovered and named.
Lake Eachem: This is a popular picnic spot and it’s easy to see why — how often do you get to swim in a vivid blue freshwater volcanic lake? It also has birdwatching, canoeing, BBQs, a grass ‘beach’ and a 3km lake circuit track for walking or cycling. Part of the Crater Lakes National Park, it is replenished only by rain water. So no crocs! More info: https://parks.des.qld.gov.au/parks/lake-eacham/about
Gallo Dairyland cheese and chocolate factory: Come for the cheese and chocolate tasting, stay for a few hours to see how the cheese is made, watch the afternoon milking and let the kids go wild in the animal nursery. And then there's lunch because once you’ve had a taste, you will want the full cheese platter.
Curtain Fig Tree: Just outside the small town of Yungaburra is the Curtain Fig Tree, thought to be one of the largest trees in tropical north Queensland. It’s a 15m tall curtain of thick vines. How did it get there? It is believed to have started growing about 500 years ago. The strangler grew on a host tree which was leaning at a 45-degree angle against another tree. As the vine grew, it covered — and killed — both trees.
GREAT BARRIER REEF
This 140km drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation takes you from the city to the jungle – with Port Douglas conveniently located about half way. With so much to see, it’s best to break it into two adventures.
Port Douglas to Cairns: This windy 67km drive rivals the Great Ocean Road for spectacular views. It weaves past resorts, coconut plantations and mangrove outcrops, through patches of forest and hugs the coastline with plenty of stops to soak in views of the Coral Sea.
Rex Lookout is a must for pics looking south at Wangetti Beach. You may get lucky with hang gliders taking off from the lookout. The road crosses through Ellis Beach and offers turn-offs to all the Northern Beaches of Cairns such as Palm Cove, Trinity Beach and Yorkey’s Knob — all worth a visit.
At Cairns you can swim like a local at Crystal Cascades or in the lagoon along the Esplanade. Zoom into the casino for an adrenalin-pumped zipline over Goliath (the resident croc) or take the SkyRail cable car or Scenic Railway to Kuranda.
Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation: A 45-minute drive north of Port Douglas, through cane fields and the Daintree Rainforest, will lead you to Cape Tribulation — the furthermost town you can reach by car along the coast without needing a 4WD.
The road detours left to Daintree Village where you can pick up the first of the Crocodile Express cruises on the Daintree River. Turn right towards the ferry to the second Crocodile Express cruise location. Once over the cable ferry, you’re in the heart of the rainforest. This is cassowary country so slow down and stop at one of the boardwalks to venture into the forest.
Once you get to the Cape, check out the tree-top Jungle Safari and the beautiful beaches (while keeping an eye out for crocs). If you have a 4WD, you can head up to Cooktown on the Bloomfield Track.