Friday, April 19, 2024

The Great Green Way: a seven-day drive down the coast of tropical north Queensland

The tropical tourist destinations of Australia are once again alive, but the atmosphere is calmer without international tourists. Looking up…

By Chan , in Travel , at March 20, 2024

The tropical tourist destinations of Australia are once again alive, but the atmosphere is calmer without international tourists.

Looking up from the Kuranda Riverboat Cruise deck, I can see empty gondolas floating over the waterway as they prepare for an influx of Australian visitors.

This tourism-dependent area of Queensland, which was on life support throughout the Covid Crisis, is now lurching into action.

I came at the beginning of the rainy season to see if this area, which is more popular as a winter retreat, can lure Australians back to their backyard.

The trip is a one-way journey. I will arrive in Cairns and then head north along the Captain Cook Highway, which is one of Australia’s most beautiful stretches of roads. The remainder of the journey will take you all the way to Townsville along the Great Green Way, a route through rainforests.

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Day 1: Cairns

When I arrived in Cairns, my first stop was a new hotel named Flynn. This hotel is trying to change Cairns’ image from a cheap backpacker destination to an upscale one.

Although the large outdoor bar was empty, I could hear the buskers playing on the Esplanade, which made me feel that the hotel was still a good choice.

Stay: Flynn Riley and Bailey, three new five-star properties in the Crystalbrook Collection, are available for as little as $215 per night.

Eat: Salt House is an upscale mod-Oz restaurant that uses tropical ingredients, such as fresh reef fish and mango pannacotta. Roti Shack offers excellent West Indian food on the go.

Day 2: North to Port Douglas

Driving Time: Direct driving time is 1 hour and 10 minutes, detour 1 hour and 40 minutes via Kuranda.

Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tour. The Mandingalbay Yindinji, who won the native title in the area, have big plans for a floating pontoon with observation towers. From the boat, the view of the pyramids, stingrays, and crocodiles is stunning.

The highlight of the ecotour is the Food and Medicine Trail. My guides, Dale and Vince, patiently explain every detail. The facts about the native ingredients are endless, from the Davidson plum that is so famous on MasterChef to wild ginger or soap substitutes. I was worried that there would be a test, but instead, I received a fresh package of damper.

Kuranda is a small town north of Cairns that offers views of Barron Falls or the tranquil waters of a riverboat cruise.

Stay: Thala Beach Eco Resort is a replanted former cane farm starting at $299 per night. Airbnbs are available in large numbers for those on a budget.

Day 3: Out on the reef and Cape Tribulation

The Great Barrier Reef is still one of the most popular attractions in the region, even though rumors of its bleaching struggles are not exaggerated. I am privileged to be able to see it, but also apprehensive that this may be the last chance.

It’s time to dive in after a few days of land. I joined Sailaway for a small-group snorkeling tour that was partially staffed with marine biologists. Mackay Reef is an Instagram-worthy sand island in the middle of the ocean. Under the waves, I find the rainbow parrotfish excreting sand to create the white, bright islet.

When we returned to the boat, we saw four blue-spotted stingrays.

I walked out of the room midway through a presentation on the marine life in the reef for some fresh air but lost my lunch when we returned.

It’s as if nothing ever happened. After the tour, when I relaxed at a pub with my fellow travelers, I realized I wasn’t alone.

Drink: Hemingway’s Brewery. Right on the dock in Port Douglas for a beer once I recover my land legs.

Zinc restaurant and bar in Port Douglas. The fried baby squid I had was so generous that I almost couldn’t eat the fluffy lamb gnocchi.

Day 4: Port Douglas – Mission Beach


The lorikeets squawk, and the orange-footed shrub fowl scratches through the leaves near the base of the treehouse-inspired cabin.

In the time I left before my drive to the airport, I explored Thala’s grounds, where the native trees that were planted 30 years ago are now blending back into the canopy at Pebbly Beach and Oak Beach.

The 1.5km Lacey Creek loop in the nearby Djiru National Park was tranquil and full of butterflies.

Mission Beach advertises itself as an active lifestyle destination where you can ride horses or bikes on the solid sand. Although my taste is more flop-and-drop, I did manage to take a few steps outside the resort and sunbathe near the nets that allow you to swim year-round despite the presence of stingers.

Don’t Miss The Babinda Boulders. The rock pools provided a great way to cool off despite the dry weather at the start of the wet season.

Castaways Resort offers three-star rooms starting at $134 and four-star rooms starting at $200.

Day 5: Mission Beach – Paluma


The Cassowary Coast has not lived up to its name yet, so I decided to try my luck early in the morning on a walk off the beaten path to capture this elusive bird.

I should have skipped the Cardwell Spa Pool. It was a bit thirsty without heavy rain on my first visit, but the arrival of the Wet may have changed that. The slow, winding road to Paluma, a logging town in the north of the state, was an adventure.

We set off at dusk from Hidden Valley Cabins on a platypus Safari. After 20 minutes of examining every bubble and ripple, the monotremes finally delivered, first with the tentative bill, then furry-backed, and finally dramatic diving back into the water.

The peace of the previous night was broken only in the morning by the views from the top of the ridge walk.

Stay at Hidden Valley Cabins. Starting at $89, this eco-retreat is off-grid and solar-powered.

Day 6: Paluma – Townsville


The cool shade of Paluma was a welcome relief from the heat before I headed to Townsville. It had earned its nickname, Brownsville, when I visited.

Townsville, another excellent launching point for the Great Barrier Reef, is adding a built attraction, the Museum of Underwater Art.

The Siren is not submerged, despite its name. I spent my afternoon at the Strand, rereading the scuba manual and stocking up on nausea pills.

Stay: Grand Hotel and Apartments Townsville, with rooms starting at $130. Located right in the heart of the Ross Creek restaurant district.

Day 7: Magnetic Island

Ferry Time: 25 Minutes

A text message sent in the early morning shattered my hopes for a second trip to the reef. I needed a backup plan because of the sunny skies and fierce winds onshore. Consider a longer stay to avoid disappointment if the underwater greenhouse sculpture is on your list of must-sees.

Instead of a long ferry ride, I chose to visit Magnetic Island. I did this with one of the colorful jeeps provided by MI Rentals.

There are koalas to be found on the Fort Walk, but the Bungalow Bay Koala Village is a good alternative.

After hiking up to Hawkings Point Lookout, I visited the many beaches, from the nudist to the social.

The Covid-hardened Year 12s who were enjoying their schoolies and exchanging tips on which party was the most promising, it was a great afternoon to bring a speaker.

Driving destinations and quality are growing in the far north of Queensland as restrictions begin to be lifted, allowing Brisbanites, and now interstate tourists, to return. Tourists have traded sailing in Croatia or honeymooning on Bali for road trips and reef adventures.

When Australia reopens, international visitors will surely flood back. But for now, Australian guests can take advantage of the calm.