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

Paul Karp
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: John Crux/Alamy</span>
Photograph: John Crux/Alamy

The Kuranda Skyrail is closed, I am told repeatedly from the moment I land in Cairns for my tropical north Queensland adventure.

But looking up from the deck of the Kuranda riverboat cruise – above shallows populated by hungry turtles and riverbanks crowded with hundreds of species of trees – I see the empty gondolas gliding over the waterway in preparation for an influx of Australian visitors.

With borders reopened, closed and opening again, this tourism-dependent region of Queensland, on life support during the Covid crisis, is lurching back into action.

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I’ve come at the start of rainy season to see how this region, more famous as a winter getaway, will lure Australians to their own backyard.

I’m taking a one-way trip, arriving in Cairns, then heading north to Port Douglas along the Captain Cook Highway – known for being one of Australia’s prettiest stretches of road. The rest of the drive will run all the way south to Townsville, along a rainforested route called the Great Green Way.

Day 1: Cairns

Arriving in Cairns, my first stop is a new hotel called Flynn, which is bidding to transform Cairns from its cheap and cheerful backpacker image into an upmarket destination.

The large outdoor bar feels very empty without crowds packed in for an evening cocktail or rosé, but I did hear buskers on the Esplanade from my balcony, so the accommodation still struck the right chord for me.

Stay: Flynn, Riley and Bailey are the three new five-star hotels in the Crystalbrook collection, with rates start from $215 a night.

Eat: Salt House, an upscale mod Oz restaurant using tropical ingredients such as fresh fish from the reef, and mango panna cotta for dessert. Or for something cheaper, The Roti Shack has excellent on-the-go West Indian food.

Day 2: north to Port Douglas

Driving time: 1 hour 10 minutes direct, 1 hour 40 minutes to detour via Kuranda.

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Across the inlet in the Trinity Forest Reserve, I took the Mandingalbay Ancient Indigenous Tour. After a successful native title claim, the Mandingalbay Yidinji have grand plans to showcase the area with a floating pontoon and observation towers. The view of the pyramid, stingray and crocodile land formations from the boat is already charming.

On the three-hour ecotour, the highlight is the food and medicine trail. Every detail is patiently explained by my guides Dale and Vince. All the same, facts pile up about native ingredients from the MasterChef-famous Davidson plum to wild ginger and substitutes for soap. I began to worry there might be a test at the end, but was pleasantly surprised instead by fresh damper.

Don’t miss: Kuranda, a town tucked north of Cairns offering views of Barron Falls, or the calmer waters of the riverboat cruise.

Stay: Thala Beach Eco Resort, a revegetated former cane farm from $299 per night. For more budget-conscious options, there are large numbers of Airbnbs in the area.

Day 3: out on the reef to Cape Tribulation

Though rumours of its bleaching travails aren’t exaggerated, the Great Barrier Reef remains one of the region’s biggest draw cards. I feel privileged to witness it, but apprehensive about whether this is a closing window.

After a few days on land, it’s time I dived in. I set out with Sailaway on a small group snorkelling tour, partially staffed by marine biologists. We strike out across the turquoise to Mackay Reef, an Instagram-ready sand cay that sits in the middle of the ocean. Beneath the waves, I discover one of its architects: a rainbow parrot fish in the act of excreting the sand that gathers up to form the bright, white islet.

I experience a small surge of pride at being the first to glimpse a bluespotted stingray, but we met about four by the time we made it back to the boat.

Onboard I absent myself midway through the presentation about the marine life of the reef to get some fresh air, but still manage to lose my lunch on the return journey.

Expertly assisted by the crew, it is as if it never happened. Relaxing at the pub with tourmates afterwards, I realise I wasn’t the only one.

Drink: Hemingway’s Brewery, right on the dock at Port Douglas, for a brew once I regain my land legs.

Eat: Zinc restaurant and bar in Port Douglas; the fried baby squid was so generous I almost didn’t have room for fluffy lamb gnocchi.

Day 4: Port Douglas to Mission Beach

Driving time: three hours.

I wake to the squawky serenade of lorikeets and orange-footed scrub fowl scratching through the leaves at the base of my treehouse-inspired cabin.

With a bit of free time before my drive, I explore the grounds of Thala, where native trees have had 30 years to blend back into the canopy of the beachside rainforest at Pebbly and Oak beaches.

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There are plenty of leg-stretching opportunities on the drive to Mission Beach – the 1.5km Lacey Creek circuit in nearby Djiru national park was calm and rich with butterflies.

Mission Beach bills itself is an active lifestyle destination, where you can ride bikes or even horses on the solid sand. My taste is a bit more flop and drop, but I do manage a few steps out of the resort to sunbake near the nets, which let you swim year-round despite the presence of stingers.

Don’t miss: Babinda Boulders, the rock pools offered an ideal opportunity to cool down, despite the dry start to the wet season.

Stay: Castaways Resort, three star rooms from $134, four star from $200.

Day 5: Mission Beach to Paluma

Driving time: 3 hours.

The Cassowary Coast had not lived up to its name so far, so I thought I’d try my luck on an early morning walk off-the-beaten track to catch the elusive bird.

In retrospect, I should’ve skipped the Cardwell Spa Pool. Without heavy rain, it was looking more than a little thirsty on my visit – though the late arrival of the Wet has likely changed that since. On the plus side, the slow winding road up to the logging town of Paluma was an adventure in itself.

From Hidden Valley Cabins, we set out at dusk on a platypus safari. After a testing 20 minutes scrutinising every bubble and ripple in the creek, the monotremes eventually delivered first with tentative bills, then furry backs and finally dramatic dives back into the water.

After a blissful period without mobile reception, the peace was only breached in the morning from the heights of the ridge walk, by which time the view easily overwhelmed the tug of social media.

Stay: Hidden Valley Cabins, from$89, an off-grid solar-powered eco retreat that forces relaxation on you with its friendly hosts.

Day 6: Paluma to Townsville

Driving time: 2 hours.

Rainforest walks in shady Paluma made for a nice relief from heat, before descending into Townsville, which was earning its nickname of Brownsville when I visited.

Townsville is another great launching point for the Great Barrier Reef, and the city is trying to add a built attraction to the natural one, in the form of the Museum of Underwater Art.

Despite its name, the first sculpture, the Siren, is above water at the Strand – where I spent the afternoon rereading my scuba manual, stocking up on seasickness pills and visiting the aquarium.

Stay: Grand Hotel and Apartments Townsville, with rooms from $130, sits right in the middle of the restaurant district, on the south bank of the Ross Creek.

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Don’t miss: Juliette’s Gelateria on the Strand.

Day 7: Magnetic Island

Ferry time: 25 minutes.

An early morning text message cruelled hopes of a second reef trip. Sunny skies but fierce onshore winds left me needing a plan B. If the underwater greenhouse sculpture at MOUA is a must-see on your trip, consider a longer stay in Townsville to avoid disappointment.

A short ferry ride away I visited Magnetic Island instead, which I explored with one of the colourful jeeps from MI Rentals.

Koalas in a wildlife park on Magnetic Island
Koalas in a wildlife park on Magnetic Island. Photograph: travelstock44/Alamy

The Fort Walk yielded sightings of koalas in the wild, but there’s always the Bungalow Bay Koala Village as a fallback guarantee of making new furry or scaly friends.

After trekking up to Hawkings Point Lookout, I tried the beaches which range from the secluded nudist variety to the more social.

It was a good afternoon to pack a speaker, especially for the Covid-hardened year 12s enjoying schoolies, trading tips about whose party held the most promise.

As restrictions peel back, allowing first Brisbanites and now interstate visitors to return, driving destinations and the quality end of the market are being rejuvenated in far-north Queensland, with tourists trading sailing in Croatia or honeymooning in Bali for road trips and reef adventures.

International visitors are sure to flood back when Australia reopens – but for now, it may be the perfect time for Australian guests to take advantage of the calm.