Far North Queensland's best beaches

Catherine Lawson — 4 October 2017

Australians have a huge love affair with beaches, quite possibly because we can lay claim to some of the most pristine curls of crushed quartz on the planet.

The beaches provide the opportunity to camp close by and none will disappoint those who journey north to dig their toes into these palm-fringed tropical beauties.

Nudey Beach, Fitzroy Island

Jump aboard a fast ferry out of Cairns and you can be spreading your beach towel on Nudey Beach within the hour. Contrary to its titillating name, this stunning arch of coral and shells rarely sees a show of flesh, with most visitors donning their wetsuits and sun shirts to spend hours exploring the shallow coral gardens that hug the shore.  

Great colourful bombies rise up at low tide, luring snorkellers to join an endless procession of luminescent parrotfish and wrasse, and glide with green sea turtles over staghorn and plate coral peppered with vibrant clams and Christmas tree worms.

Boasting an eco-friendly resort, the laidback Foxy’s beach bar and a beachfront campground with affordable sites, this tropical isle is relaxation central. The 600m walk to Nudey Beach takes about 20 minutes along a path that separates the rainforest from the reef, and climbs to a stunning granite lookout over an opal blue sea. 

Elsewhere on this rainforest national park island, trails follow fluttering butterflies into the Secret Garden, and climb to the island’s summit for grand Coral Sea views. Snorkel off Bird Rock at the northern end of Welcome Beach, or paddle a kayak to Little Fitzroy Island.

Ellis Beach, Cairns

North of Palm Cove, the Captain Cook Highway winds its way to Port Douglas along a skinny strip of road carved between steep cliffs and the sea. This might well be Queensland’s most scenic coastal drive and just as Cairns finally fades in the rear view mirror, Ellis Beach looms into view, fringed by towering paperbark trees and coconut palms.

Up the road, hang-gliders launch themselves into the abyss from Rex Lookout, drifting south above Wangetti Beach, which is home to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Further north there are lovely stretches of sand at Oak and Thala beaches where you might spot dolphins and turtles just offshore. Keep an eye out for crocs amongst the mangroves at the Mowbray River crossing, a popular fishing spot.

Resort Beach, Lizard Island

Home to Australia’s most spectacularly located fly-in national park camp, the cream of Queensland’s tropical isles will blow your mind with its step-off-the-sand coral reefs and 24 beaches. Honeymooners dominate the scene at Resort Beach, but pay upwards of $1500 a night for the privilege.

Jump north to the baby-blue waters of Watsons Bay and you’ll discover a more inclusive scene where you can mingle with yachties and campers on the sand, float with green sea turtles above the giant Clam Garden, and spook moray eels, reef sharks and octopus along the bay’s northern edge. 

Campers pay just $6.15 per night for their basic but beautiful beachfront sites. There are picnic tables, a toilet, free gas barbecue, tarp poles and a bore water tap a short walk away. Bushwalking trails criss-cross the island, leading to the extraordinary Blue Lagoon, while scale sloping granite slabs take you to the 359-metre high Cooks Lookout (the 2.25km return trip takes about two hours).

There are a couple of obstacles to a stay on Lizard Island. The return flights cost $670 per person from Cairns and once you land, you have to carry all your gear just over a kilometre to camp. However, the snorkelling, wildlife watching, and sunset drinks at the resort’s Marlin Bar make for a very special getaway.

Myall Beach, Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation may have wreaked havoc for Captain Cook when the Endeavour ran aground on an offshore reef back in 1770, but it’s been a source of immense pleasure for forest-lovers ever since. Shadowed by misty mountains and protecting world heritage-listed crocodile and cassowary habitat, Cape Tribulation severs two stellar sweeps of sand.

Most travellers seem content to spend their time on the easily accessible northern beach, strolling along the 400m trail to a viewpoint looking north. But if you cross over the rainforest of Cape Tribulation and continue south, you’ll discover magical Myall Beach. This easy trail through a rainforest popular with iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies is exceptional at dawn, and you might just plant the first footsteps on the sand.

Bounded to the west by the McDowall Range and to the east by the Great Barrier Reef, the Cape Tribulation section of Daintree National Park contains the world’s oldest living rainforests. Most of the planet’s 19 primitive plant species thrive here. A singular national park campground at Noah Beach, 8km south of Cape Tribulation, provides snug beachfront sites with basic facilities to suit camper trailers and small rigs.

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas

The famously firm Four Mile Beach not only provides one of the most scenic bike rides in the north, this endless, white sand beach is bordered by bush almond trees and the deep blue water is a great place to swim. A fringe of casuarinas throws plenty of shade, and there are picnic shelters and barbecues and a conveniently located ice-cream shop across the road. Head to the beachfront surf lifesaving club to sate appetites in between dips (sandy feet are de rigueur), or enjoy a sundowner on the deck. 

Catamaran cruises to coral-fringed Low Isles top the list, along with outer reef dive trips and croc-spotting cruises up wild reaches of the Daintree River. Don’t miss a wander around the weekend markets or a cheap trip aboard the historic Bally Hooley Railway.

Frangipani Beach (Pajinka), Cape York

For Cape York pilgrims, standing on the tip of Australia provides a much-anticipated climax to a long and dusty adventure. Once you tackle the 32 corrugated kilometres north of Bamaga, the walk to the tip is an easy one. It climbs Mount Bremer’s low-lying spine of rock to reach a lookout over York and Eborac Islands, before dropping down to that much-photographed sign at the end of Australia.

The leisurely stroll takes around 15-20 minutes, after which most travellers seem content to snap a few photographs, retrace their steps and drive away. But that big, curling bay to the west of the tip just begs to be explored and with a magical free beachfront camp right on its edge, you can tell your friends you watched the sun set and rise over the top of Australia. 

On our May visit we parked our small rig right on the edge of Frangipani’s wide, shallow bay, and watched Torresian pigeons feeding in the treetops and bright blue solider crabs chasing the retreating tide. Free camping at Frangipani Bay is included as part of your Jardine River ferry fee, and there are forested nooks tucked behind the bay too, just follow the tracks off the main road that lead towards the beach. 

The full feature appeared in Caravan World #565. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month! 


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David Bristow