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From Cairns: a 14 day trip to the reef, rainforest, Top End and Red Centre

Take an epic adventure to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, Kakadu National Park and Uluru.

By Sheriden Rhodes

What to expect

  • Walk through the world's oldest rainforest
  • Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
  • Dine under the stars at Uluru

Fast facts

  • Time: 14 days
  • Distance: 5,739 kilometres (3,566 miles) 
  • Transport: plane, car and boat
  • Nearest major city: Cairns
  • Price: $$$$

Immerse yourself in Australia's incredibly varied landscapes in this 14 day itinerary that includes four World Heritage areas: the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, Kakadu National Park and the mighty Uluru.

Day 1: Cairns

Cairns Esplanade, Cairns, Queensland

Welcome to sunny Cairns, gateway to the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest in tropical Far North Queensland. Pick up a rental car and drive to Cairns city centre, just 10 minutes south of the airport. After reviving with an excellent Australian coffee at Caffiend, a small café tucked away in a city arcade, it's a short stroll to the exotic Rusty’s produce market, where you can sample some of Australia's exotic tropical fruit. After exploring Cairns, drive to Palm Cove, about 30 minutes north, and check in to your low-rise accommodation on the esplanade, fringed with palms and melaleucas. Take a stroll along the long sweep of white sand opposite your accommodation, before dining on spectacular Modern Australian cuisine at the renowned Nu Nu

Day 2: Palm Cove and Kuranda

Kuranda Scenic Railway, Cairns, Queensland

After breakfast in your hotel, it's a 15 minute drive (or you can arrange a transfer) from Palm Cove to Freshwater railway station to board the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, a beautifully scenic experience that winds through Barron Gorge National Park, past plunging valleys, gushing waterfalls, and through 15 tunnels. On arrival at the charming Kuranda station, you can tuck in to Devonshire tea and look around the market stalls. From here, head back to Freshwater by train. Alternatively, return via the Skyrail, a 7 1/2 kilometre (4.6 mile) cableway that zooms over the rainforest canopy. Be sure to sit in one the glass-floored gondolas for an extra special view of the World Heritage-listed rainforest below. You can alight at stops along the way, including  Red Peak Station, where you can stroll the 175 metre (574 foot) boardwalk, gazing up at the towering kauri pines, before descending back to sea level, taking in expansive views of the Coral Sea, Cairns city and the lush Cairns Highlands. Then drive, or take your transfer, back to Palm Cove.

Day 3: Palm Cove to Port Douglas

Captain Cook Highway, Palm Cove, Queensland

Today head north for the coastal enclave of Port Douglas via the Captain Cook Highway, one of Australia’s most beautiful coastal drives. The drive takes just 40 minutes but along the way you'll cruise past rainforest on one side, and a palm-fringed coastline, with its deserted beaches and shimmering turquoise waters, on the other. Stop at the Rex Lookout, just after the town of Wangetti, for spectacular views of the area. There are several excellent places to stay in Port Douglas, including resorts by international brands and boutique locally owned accommodation. Check into your hotel and watch one of the town's famous sunsets with a sundowner at the Court House Hotel's upstairs bar. It's on Macrossan Street, the town's bustling main strip.

Day 4: Port Douglas

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, Queensland

Wildlife Habitat, a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of town in Port Douglas, is one of Australia's best places to encounter native flora and fauna. Arrive at 8am for breakfast with the birds. After a wonderful spread of tropical fruit, pancakes and cereal you'll get the chance to hold a black cockatoo, a bird renowned for its friendly nature and intelligence. Take your time wandering around the sanctuary, where you can also feed wallabies, explore the Cassowary Walk and hold a koala, before taking the 15 minute stroll to Four Mile Beach. Today is the day to soak up the Port Douglas atmosphere. Browse the boutiques along Macrossan Street and stop for a lazy lunch at quirky hotel-resort, QT Port Douglas. Book ahead for dinner tonight. Port Douglas is home to a handful of wonderful restaurants, such as elegant fine diner Harrisons.

Day 5: Great Barrier Reef

Quicksilver Cruises, Port Douglas, Queensland

Today you're heading out to the Great Barrier Reef, so fuel up with breakfast at Betty’s Bohemian Café in Port Douglas's main strip Macrossan Street. From here it's an an eight minute walk to the Reef Marina in Wharf Street, where tour operator Quicksilver is located. Here you'll board the Quicksilver boat and motor out to the Great Barrier Reef, where you can swim, snorkel or simply admire one of the natural wonders of the world through the boat's glass bottom. You'll return to the marina at about 7.30pm, just in time to freshen up and enjoy dinner with your feet in the sand at the Beach Shack.

Day 6: Cairns to Mossman

Silky Oaks Lodge, Mossman, Queensland

Today you'll leave Port Douglas for the friendly town of Mossman, passing through sugarcane fields on the 30 minute scenic drive north. Once there, stop for brunch at the Junction Café with its great coffee and generous dishes, such as coconut quinoa porridge. From here it's a five minute drive to your accommodation, the renowned Silky Oaks Lodge, with its sublime waterholes fed by the Mossman River, riverfront villas and acclaimed in-house restaurant. (Alternative accommodation is also available in the town of Mossman.) In the afternoon join the Walker brothers, Linc and Brandon, at nearby Cooya Beach (a 15 minute drive from the lodge), and hunt for mud crabs, mussels and fish before feasting on your catch of the day on the beach. The Walker brothers are members of the local Aboriginal group, the Kuku Yalanji people, and will share some fascinating insights into their local culture.

Day 7: Mossman Gorge

Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park, Queensland

The Daintree is not only the world's oldest living rainforest, but was the inspiration for the movie Avatar. Today you'll visit one of the most beautiful parts of the Daintree, Mossman Gorge, 15 minutes drive from Silky Oaks Lodge. Join a Ngadiku Dreamtime walk at the incredible Mossman Gorge Centre. Learn about the natural environment, the Kuku Yalanji people, the native foods of the area (known as bush tucker) and see culturally significant sites before taking a dip in a glorious waterhole. The easy walking tour takes 1 1/2 hours.

Day 8: Mossman to Cairns, then Darwin

Mindil Beach Sunset Market, Darwin, Northern Territory

Return south to Cairns Airport and fly for 2 1/2 hours to Darwin, Australia’s northernmost city and capital of the Northern Territory. Hire a car and drive to the city, 15 minutes away, where there are hotels operated by several international chains as well as reputable local accommodation options to choose from. Check in before driving to the famed Mindil Beach Sunset Market for dinner, roughly 10 minutes from most hotels. Darwin's proximity to Asia has led to a strong Asian influence on local cuisine, and these markets (which are open in the dry season, from last Thursday in April to the last Thursday in October), by Mindil Beach, feature many food stalls with excellent Asian food and tropical fruit drinks. Watch the sun set over Mindil Beach as you eat dinner, before an early night. 

Day 9: Darwin to Litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park, Northern Territory

Many people know of Kakadu National Park, but its little sister, Litchfield National Park, is only 90 minutes drive from Darwin and offers similarly impressive landscapes, as well as arguably better swimming. Drive here yourself (or take one of the many tours, most of which depart from tour operators' offices in Darwin's central Mitchell Street). Jump into clear waterholes fed by impressive tumbling waterfalls, and admire the area's ancient sandstone escarpments weathered by the elements. There are also patches of monsoon rainforest to walk through, an "outback beach" at Wangi Falls (with free wifi and a great cafe), and fascinating magnetic termite mounds to explore, some up to two metres (6 feet 6 inches) tall. Return to Darwin for a fabulous dinner at Little Miss Korea, in Austin Lane in Darwin city centre.

Day 10: Darwin to Kakadu National Park

Yellow Water, Kakadu, Northern Territory

Back in Darwin, rise early to visit Kakadu National Park. This phenomenal dual-listed World Heritage site is home to spectacular landscapes unlike anywhere else, as well as some of the oldest rock art on earth. You can drive yourself (one hour and 40 mins from Darwin) or join a tour (departing from Darwin's Mitchell Street). Once you get to the park's entrance, it takes another hour to drive to the spectacular Yellow Water billabong (Kakadu's largest wetland), but it's a must-do. Check in to your accommodation at Cooinda Lodge, which backs onto Yellow Water, then take a sunset cruise. You'll float serenely through paperbark forests, watch a sunset over the buffalo grass to the tune of thousands of honking magpie geese, and surely spot a crocodile or three. Enjoy a great night's sleep under a canopy of trees.

Day 11: Kakadu National Park to Darwin

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu, Northern Territory

Witness Kakadu in all its glory from above, with a flight over the spectacular Jim Jim and Twin Falls. You can take a scenic flight from Jabiru Aiport in Kakadu National Park, about a 40 minute drive from Yellow Water. Afterwards, join a ranger for a guided tour of Kakadu's phenomenal ancient rock art galleries at Nourlangie (35 minutes drive from Yellow Water) and Ubirr (45 minutes past Jabiru Airport), offering an insight into thousands of years of Aboriginal culture. Return to Darwin, a 2 hour 20 minute drive from Kakadu on the Arnhem Highway. Spend the night in Darwin.

Day 12: Darwin to Alice Springs

Alice Springs, Northern Territory

The city of Alice Springs is almost exactly in the middle of Australia, and is only a two hour flight from Darwin. When you land in "the Alice" it's only a 15 minute drive from the airport to your accommodation. Leave your bags and enjoy a free day to explore the town. You can take a tour with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), an Australian institution that offers fly-in medical support to people who live in the outback. Or browse the town's shops and galleries. There's a lot of beautiful Aboriginal artwork on sale here. 

Day 13: Alice Springs to Uluru

Tali Wiru, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

After your stopover, continue on to Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock). It's a 50 minute flight from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock Airport. Hire a car or take the free 25 minute shuttle bus to Ayers Rock Resort, a large complex with several hotels, cafes and restaurants, a supermarket, a post office and more. You can see the rock from your hotel, but a 25 minute drive (or shuttle) will take you up close, so  you touch the rock and wander around its base. As the sun hits, the red rock appears to glow and change hue before your eyes. Tonight, enjoy the Tali Wiru fine dining experience, served under a starry outback sky on top of a red sand dune. Your transfer will pick you up from your hotel and return you after dinner.

Day 14: Uluru

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

Rise before dawn and join a guided, easy walk around the 10 kilometre (6 mile) base of Uluru at sunrise. Afterwards, drive to the lesser known but equally beautiful Kata Tjuta (formerly the Olgas), a World Heritage-listed cluster of enormous red boulders that are actually bigger and wider than Uluru, and more impressive, according to some. Take the easy 40 minute Walpa Gorge Walk or wander through the Valley of the Winds walk (a 7.4 kilometre, or 4.6 mile, circuit). Return to Uluru to watch the sun set from the sunset viewing platform, before enjoying dinner at one of the resort's many restaurants.

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