Drive from Cairns to Townsville via Cooktown, through World Heritage-listed reef and rainforests to golden Outback savannah, taking in tropical Queensland at its finest.
By Alissa Jenkins
What to expect
- Snorkel around the world-renowned Great Barrier Reef
- Walk through the ancient Daintree Rainforest to Mossman Gorge
- See the world’s largest collection of prehistoric rock art in Laura
- Time: 14 days
- Distance: 2,000 kilometres (1,243 miles)
- Transport: car
- Nearest major city: Cairns
- Price: $$$
Loop around lush Far North Queensland from Cairns, gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, up to Cooktown, rich with indigenous and early European history and down to Townsville, to explore ancient rainforests, fruit plantations, gold mining towns and secluded hideaways along the way.
Day 1: Cairns to Port Douglas
After breakfast at Caffiend, one of many hip cafés along Grafton Street in Cairns, drive 68 kilometres (42 miles) north towards Port Douglas. Fifteen minutes out of Cairns, exit the Captain Cook Highway at Smithfield to take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for an incredible 90 minute ride over World Heritage-listed rainforest. Hop off Skyrail at the Kuranda terminal, stretch your legs with a stroll around the charming village of Kuranda and then board the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway for the 60 minute return trip to Smithfield. Back on the road, drive beside a golden chain of beaches to affluent Palm Cove. Hungry travellers should head to Palm Cove's award-winning Nu Nu Restaurant, which showcases Queensland seafood with a subtle Asian twist and serves lunch until 4pm. Continuing along the Cook Highway, stop halfway at Rex Lookout for magical views over the Coral Sea beaches, before reaching Port Douglas. Peruse the chic boutiques along Macrossan Street before a sunset stroll along the white sands of Four Mile Beach up to Flagstaff Hill Lookout. For a fun beachfront stay, QT Port Douglas promises one and two bedroom villas that are contemporary and quirky.
Day 2: Port Douglas
Spend the day on board a snorkelling and diving cruise off world-renowned natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef. There are several local operators such as Calypso Reef Cruises, Quicksilver Cruises and Wavelength, each offering daily tours from Reef Marina in Port Douglas. Whichever you choose, you can expect a memorable introduction to the world’s largest coral reef, home to more than 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays, plus hundreds of stunning islands with sun-soaked beaches. Underneath the water’s surface though, is a kaleidoscope of coral and other aquatic life including tropical fish, dolphins, manta rays, sea turtles and giant clams, which you can swim with. After a day on the water, wine and dine amid a tropical garden at well-known Nautilus Restaurant.
Day 3: Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation
Continue north for one and a half hours along Cape Tribulation Road and explore the region’s other icon, the Daintree National Park, home to the majestic Mossman Gorge. Meander through the ancient forest along the Rainforest Circuit Track, which begins at Rex Creek bridge and entails a two and a half kilometre (one and a half mile) loop with incredible views. Then book in for an afternoon Daintree River cruise through mangrove estuaries and past tropical birds and crocodiles, before continuing the drive for another hour or so to Cape Tribulation. Check into Cape Trib Beach House for the night which is set on seven acres (2.8 hectares). Here you can swim in the resort pool, get a massage on the private beach, feast at the on-site restaurant and bar and attend nightly bonfires on the beach.
Day 4: Cape Tribulation to Cooktown
Wake up with a 45 minute walk to Cape Tribulation lookout on Cape Tribulation Beach, right next to the resort. Next, drive north for an hour to see the sacred Bloomfield (Wujal Wujal) Falls with a guide, and learn about the cultural significance of this area for Aborigines. Watch out for crocodiles though, they’ve been known to sunbake on the nearby rocks. Venture into Black Mountain National Park and see the imposing mountain range of black granite boulders, stacked precariously on top of another, defying gravity. Then continue north on the Mulligan Highway for 20 minutes to historic Cooktown, and climb to the top of Grassy Hill in the town centre for a breathtaking view. Rest for the night at the four-star Sovereign Resort Hotel.
Day 5: Cooktown to Mareeba
Visit James Cook Museum, housed in a stunning 19th century former convent, for a look into Cooktown’s remarkable history. Then 4WD west for one and a half hours to the community of Laura for a guided tour of Quinkan Galleries, the world’s largest collection of prehistoric rock art. Begin the journey south again via the Palmer River Roadhouse for a late lunch and here also see rare mining memorabilia from the 1870s gold rush. Then finish the drive in Mareeba on the Atherton Tableland in time for the Reserve Twilight Safari, an experience for guests staying at the rustic Jabiru Safari Lodge. It's the best way to see the region's abundant birdlife, home to nearly half of Australia’s 750 bird species.
Day 6: Mareeba to Ravenshoe
After breakfast at Australia’s oldest coffee plantation, Skybury, spend the morning on a tasting tour of Mareeba’s many roadside stalls, orchards and plantations. Afterwards, drive 140 kilometres (87 miles) west to the limestone Chillagoe Caves which you can explore independently or with a guide. Detour to Hallorans Hill Conservation Park and walk 40 minutes to the top of extinct volcano Hallorans Hill to see the tableland’s unique mosaic landscape and geological formations. Finish the day in Ravenshoe, Queensland’s highest town and spend the night at Ravenshoe Hotel.
Day 7: Ravenshoe to Undara Volcanic National Park
Follow the Kennedy Highway for five minutes west to Millstream Falls, Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall, for a brief stop before spending the morning at Innot Hot Springs, relaxing in the therapeutic mineral waters that fill its six public pools. In the afternoon, drive two hours southwest to Undara Volcanic National Park, home to the remnants of the world’s longest lava flow from a single volcano. Allow one and a half hours for the Kalkani Crater rim walk, which takes you up the side of a volcano and offers incredible views over the lava plains and fertile pockets of rainforest. Then sleep under the stars at Undara Experience, with permanent and powered tents that house comfortable bedding.
Day 8: Undara Volcanic National Park to Charters Towers
Continue 400 kilometres south (249 miles) to the enchanting Outback town of Charters Towers, where the heritage streetscapes hark back to the boom gold rush days of the late 19th century. Spend the afternoon just outside of town at Leahton Park, home to the largest herd of pure bred Texas Longhorn cattle in Australia. Buckle up for a Texas Longhorn Wagon Tour then explore the custom saddlery shop. Afterwards, spend the evening at the historic Civic Club, play billiards on one of two 100-year-old tables and don't forget to make a booking for their famous Friday night barbecue.
Day 9: Charters Towers to Townsville
Follow the Flinders Highway east for 125 kilometres (78 miles) before detouring to Bowling Green Bay National Park, home to rugged mountains, wetlands, salt pans and mangrove forests. Walk one kilometre (0.6 miles return) to Alligator Creek lookout for a photogenic canopy-level view of the creek, before a quick dip in the nearby swimming area. Continue to Townsville in time for lunch at The Pier restaurant, which serves superb seafood with sea views to match or The Beet Bar for superfood bowls, salads and juices that celebrate local produce. Explore Reef HQ,the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium, which also features a turtle hospital, before whiling away the rest of the afternoon along the Strand, a palm-tree studded promenade with beaches, bars and restaurants. Later, indulge in some balmy nightlife on Flinders Street East at Shaw & Co or Cactus Jack’s.
Day 10: Townsville to Ingham
Follow the Bruce Highway north for about an hour before taking a break in the Mount Spec section of Paluma Range National Park. Walk to McClellands lookout for dizzying views over the islands and coastline. Cool off at nearby Little Crystal Creek before driving the remaining 45 minutes to Ingham, a sugar cane town with a distinctly Mediterranean feel thanks to the Italian and Spanish migrants who came here at the end of the 19th century to work in the cane fields. Linger over lunch at eternal favourite Casa Pasta then walk off the authentic Italian fare by joining the signposted Hinchinbrook Heritage Walk, between Ingham and neighbouring Halifax. For a fittingly European-inspired stay, Villa Veron is a charming bed and breakfast which also hosts an Italian festival every year.
Day 11: Ingham to Cardwell
Before departing Ingham, drive west of town to see Wallaman Falls, Australia's highest single drop waterfall. Then it’s a 20 minute drive to the coastal town of Lucinda where you can board a ferry to Hinchinbrook Island for the day. Australia’s largest island national park is covered in mountains, fragile heathland, tropical rainforest and mangrove fringes. An island day tour takes you down the picturesque Hinchinbrook Channel before arriving at Zoe Bay on the island’s southeastern side. From the beach landing, take a short walk through rainforest to the sparkling freshwater pool at the base of Zoe Falls, an idyllic swimming hole. On the way back to Lucinda, watch out for the six kilometre (four mile) sugar loading jetty, the longest in the Southern Hemisphere. Once back on land, drive 45 minutes north to Cardwell.
Day 12: Cardwell to Mission Beach
Pack a picnic and spend the morning exploring tropical Tully Gorge National Park. From the camping area, stroll along the Butterfly walk (it’s renowned for the Ulysses butterflies that flit along this passage between September and February) through World Heritage-listed rainforest to the gorge. Tully River is popular with whitewater rafters and you can see these thrill seekers take on the rapids from Flip Wilson lookout. Continue east for an hour to Mission Beach and check into Castaways Resort before ditching the car for a bike and cycling along the city’s foreshore, including the Ulysses Link Walking Track, past artworks depicting the area’s Aboriginal and European history.
Day 13: Mission Beach to Innisfail
Turn off Bruce Highway to visit Paronella Park, a labor of love built in 1935 by Spanish immigrant José Paronella and inspired by Catalan castles. Set on five hectares (12.4 acres) of tropical gardens beside Mena Creek, you can peruse the castle’s architecture and ingenious hydroelectric system, as well as a waterfall, gardens, museum and cafe. Then drive half an hour west to the spectacular Mamu Tropical Skywalk, featuring a 350 metre (0.2 mile) elevated walkway above the treetops. Finish the day in the bustling sugar town of Innisfail.
Day 14: Innisfail to Cairns
Drive half an hour west again into Wooroonooran National Park, home to fascinating native critters such as double-eyed fig parrots and musky rat-kangaroos, as well as Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain. Follow the signs to Henrietta Creek Campground where you'll find the beginning of the Nandroya Falls circuit. Allow four hours to complete the walk, which takes you across the ridge between Henrietta and Douglas creeks, before winding down to the spectacular, double-tiered Nandroya Falls. Take the long track back to the campground and enjoy a rainforest dip at Douglas Creek. Back on the road, continue north along the Bruce Highway to return to Cairns, gateway to the islands, rainforest and reef of Tropical North Queensland.
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