Queensland's far north is famous for the Great Barrier Reef – the world's largest living structure – but there's much more to the region than that. Here's how to enjoy its many delights on a budget.
By Katrina Lobley
If you think Tropical North Queensland and its world-class natural sights and postcard-perfect islands are out of reach, it's time to think again. Those who are travelling on a budget can easily find affordable day trips to the reef, clear swimming holes tucked within magnificent rainforests, free thrills along the Cairns waterfront and koalas aplenty on an island just off Townsville.
Be dazzled by Whitehaven Beach
Whitehaven Beach is a 7 kilometre (4 mile) sweep of dazzling white beach, made of fine, white sand that's 96 per cent pure silica. You'll find it on Whitsunday Island, the largest of the 74 islands in the Whitsunday group. Whitsunday Island is totally uninhabited, but there are plenty of day trips you can take from the town of Airlie Beach and from the nearby popular holiday spot, Hamilton Island. Many of these tours also include snorkelling time so you can admire the technicolour underwater world up close. Day trips from Ocean Rafting cost AUD$149.
Take a day trip to Green Island
One of the Great Barrier Reef's most accessible islands is Green Island, a coral cay 17 nautical miles off Cairns that's blessed with a winning trifecta of rainforest, reef and white sandy beaches. Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises offers three departures daily so passengers can enjoy this 15 hectare (37 acre) paradise at their leisure. Once you arrive, choose your next pleasure: stroll the rainforest boardwalks, view pretty coral gardens through a glass-bottom boat, go eyeball to eyeball with colourful fish when snorkelling in the clear waters or visit Marineland to see live crocodiles. Entry-level half day and full day tours (AUD$90) include a choice of snorkelling gear or a glass-bottom boat tour.
Spot a koala on Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island lies just off the coast from Townsville, Tropical North Queensland’s biggest city. Many Townsville residents treat Magnetic Island as though it's an outer suburb because it's only a 20 minute ferry ride away. The island is a great place to see koalas in the wild – it’s estimated there are at least 800 koalas in the island’s gum trees. The Forts walk, in the island's east, offers the best chance of spotting koalas. The Fantasea Cruising Magnetic ferry costs AUD$13 each way.
Explore the region's biggest city
Townsville is Queensland's largest regional city, with a vibrant nightlife thanks to its many university students. Base yourself at Rambutan, a “glampacker” resort boasting a rooftop pool and bar along with dormitories, hotel rooms and self-contained villas. Dorm beds start from AUD$25 per night. For a bird's-eye view over the city and Magnetic Island, climb one of the trails leading to the summit of Castle Hill, a 286 metre (938 feet) high, pink granite monolith.
Take the leap in Cairns
Thrillseekers can take the plunge from a purpose-built, 50 metre (55 yard) high tower tucked into the rainforest just north of Cairns. The AJ Hackett bungy jump offers 16 jump styles – take your pick from the Swan Dive, Water Touch, Handstand, Forward Flip and more – as well as a glorious view that stretches all the way to the Great Barrier Reef. On Sundays, live bands add to the chilled-out vibe. Bungy jumps cost AUD$169.
Relax at a man-made beach
Sometimes the best things in life are free. The Cairns waterfront was completely transformed when the Cairns Esplanade Swimming Lagoon opened in 2003. The vast saltwater lagoon pool features striking fish sculptures, sandy shores, underwater benches and lifeguards who keep watch over the swimmers. If you really want to make like a local, grab some sausages from one of the nearby supermarkets and sizzle them on one of the many free electric barbecues along the foreshore.
Swim in a rainforest
Take a bus from Port Douglas (or drive if you have a car) to Mossman Gorge, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Cairns. Sitting within the World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park, this section of rainforest is both accessible and extraordinarily beautiful. Pack your swimming costume and wade into the clear waters that flow around the shaded Mossman River's smooth granite boulders. Keep an eye out, too, for the cassowary – a native Australian bird that can grow to be as tall as a human. A shuttle bus transfers visitors between the car park and the gorge (AUD$9.10 for the day).
Take time out in Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach is a beautiful beach town, snuggled up against a rugged patch of coastal rainforest, with a well deserved reputation for great nightlife. Hire a bicycle to explore Conway National Park, a magnet for magnificent birds such as emerald doves, sulphur-crested cockatoos and buff-breasted paradise kingfishers, which fly down from Papua New Guinea to nest in the park's termite mounds. Rent a bike from Fun Rentals (from AUD$10 for two hours). In Airlie Beach quench your thirst at Denman Cellars Beer Café, which stocks more than 800 types of beer.