From Melbourne I flew up to Cairns and then took a one hour transfer to the tourist town of Port Douglas. For anyone visiting the region who is not sure of the best place to stay, think about what activities you’re likely to do.
Cairns – The main city and gateway to the region. Perfect if you’re a backpacker – there is a choice of cheap accommodation from dorms to apartment style. If you want nightlife and drinking until the early hours then this is the place for you. On the other hand, most of the big 5* chains are represented here: Pullman, Shangri La, Hilton etc so if you prefer big chain hotels then this is ideal. The downside is that there is no beach to speak of (people talk about the lagoon but really it’s just a public outdoor pool).
Palm Cove/Northern Beaches – There are several small towns around 20 minutes north of Cairns which would be good for beach lovers who don’t want to transfer too far. Think low key and quiet, though they have more of a local feel. Trinity Beach is great for families and most accommodation is apartment style. Palm Cove is quite upmarket, mainly 4-5* resorts and apartments.
Port Douglas – A compact town set on Four Mile Beach. There are a couple of big resorts out of town (Sheraton, Pullman, etc) but most accommodation in town is owner-operated giving a more personal vibe. Macrossan Street is the hub – choice of restaurants, bars, supermarkets and shopping. Reef tours depart from the marina in town and you can be in the rainforest in less than an hour.
I stayed at the 4.5* Shantara Resort & Spa on Davidson St, just a 2 minute walk to Macrossan St. My apartment was a good size with full kitchen and free access to laundry facilities. March is still classed as rainy season so the town was still quite quiet with a few businesses closed until Easter weekend.
The highlight of my time here was a day trip to Cape Tribulation, Daintree and Mossman provided by Down Under Tours.
Pick up was a civilised 8.20am in a comfortable 4WD vehicle (this tour has departures from Cairns, Palm Cove etc but these will be up to an hour and a half earlier) and it was a leisurely drive with commentary up to the Daintree River. We had morning tea here and took a one hour cruise along the Daintree River whilst our tour guide took the ferry to meet us at the end. Usually on these cruises you can spot a crocodile or two but as we were at the height of wet season they were all the water. We did see a snake, quite a few birds, and our guide was very knowledgeable about the mangrove ecosystem and the history of the area.
Once on the other side of the river it was a short drive up to Alexandra Lookout – the view above was taken in misty conditions but it shows the Daintree River flowing out to the Coral Sea.
As lunches on group tours go, this was one of the best. We stopped off at Noah Creek, right in the heart of the World Heritage listed Daintree rainforest. There was a short walking trail along the side of the creek before we reached the BBQ area. There was steak, sausages and fish, all cooked fresh (we didn’t have any vegetarians in our group but all dietary requirements can be catered for), plus a range of salads and sauces.
From Noah Creek we weren’t far from our most northerly stop of the day: Cape Tribulation. This headland was named by James Cook after he encountered a number of issues in the area. Although the beach is spectacular it is home to crocodiles and also box jellyfish during the wet season so not really for swimming!
Our last stop of the day was at Mossman Gorge. We drove back south, taking the cable ferry across the river and back into civilisation. We stopped at the visitor centre first, a new development that aims to provide an authentic indigenous experience. The traditional owners of the gorge are the Kuku Yulanji people and we had a short welcome ceremony and talk. After afternoon tea in the café (this is a great place to buy local produce such as tea and honey) we took a shuttle bus into the gorge itself, around a 5 minute drive. Once there we took a short walk on one of the rainforest trails and ended up by the edge of the Mossman River. Currents are strong and although it can be ok for stronger swimmers, on this particular day we had been advised not to swim (due to the high water level), though as usual there were a few people out in the water.
From here it was an short drive back into Port Douglas. I’d definitely recommend this day tour. You could self-drive it as well but for anyone actually interested in the rainforest flora and fauna, and the history of the area, I don’t think you’d have anywhere near the same experience.