3 days/3 nights in North Queensland – Cairns, Port Douglas, Daintree, Great Barrier Reef

The next portion of our Australian vacation was in Queensland. We flew north to Cairns on Jetstar and took a beautiful 1 hour drive to Port Douglas, where we spent the next 3 nights. A friend of mine had advised us to stay in Port Douglas rather than Cairns which ended up being fantastic advice. Port Douglas is a charming little vacation town and has so much more character than the larger city of Cairns. My friend had recommended that we spend 3 days in Port Douglas: 1 for diving, 1 for the rainforest, and 1 to relax and enjoy Port Douglas. It worked out perfectly for us and I recommend doing the same on your visit to Port Douglas.

Arriving at the Cairns airport to be greeted by a cassowary!
Arriving at the Cairns airport to be greeted by a cassowary!

What to do:

Diving/snorkeling

Presumably, you are going to spend at least one day diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, one of the natural wonders of the world. If you haven’t planned this portion ahead of time, it’s quite easy to go to one of the many diving centers in “downtown” Port Douglas and book a trip with one of the various companies. However, if you need to dive on a specific day or want to be guaranteed a certain number of dives, I highly recommend booking online in advance. We weren’t able to do all 3 dives in a day because there weren’t 3 available until after our departure date. The staff was very helpful in directing us toward a boat and company that would meet our needs. Because we aren’t scuba certified, we wanted to go on a ship that offered Intro dives as well as snorkeling and ended up going with Poseidon, which visits 3 spectacular reef sites at the Agincourt ribbon reefs in the outer GBR.

On the Poseidon boat post-snorkeling and diving
On the Poseidon boat post-snorkeling and diving

I can’t say enough positive things about Poseidon. The crew was professional and informative and the experienced divers really made us feel comfortable with our first scuba experience. For intro divers, our instructor descended with us (they have a max of two divers with an instructor on intro dives) and pointed out sealife and guided us through the dive after we showed we had mastered the diving skills.

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The crew also had a “marine biologist” on board that answered questions and talked to guests about the aquatic life that we may have seen underwater. The trip took a full day from 8:15am to about 4:15pm. We left in the morning and during our 1.5 hour trip out to the reef, we ate breakfast, were led through a safety briefing, and were given equipment. Once we were out there, we were able to jump right in and get started! Although it was Australia’s winter, the water wasn’t terribly cold, but I would still recommend wearing a wetsuit.

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Another perk of going with Poseidon is that the company holds one of only three permits to swim with dwarf minke whales (usually seen between May and August). Even though we were there at the right time, unfortunately, we didn’t see the whales. However, we did see an abundance of beautiful aquatic life, such as sea turtles, sharks, sea slugs, and myriad colorful fish. After 3 dives/snorkels, we had a filling tropical buffet lunch and reef interpretation talk while we were on the ride back to shore. Also, if you don’t have an underwater camera, you don’t have to worry because one of the crew members with Poseidon is a professional photographer who takes photos that you can buy at the end of the day.

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Rainforest

The Daintree Rainforest is an incredibly beautiful part of the country. Before planning the trip, I’m not sure that I knew that Australia contained such a large area of rainforest, but I learned that it is the largest continuous area of tropical rainforest on the continent. Even though the area makes up less than 1% of the country, it contains 90% of Australia’s bat and butterfly species and 7% of bird species. The area also contains many beautiful, but deadly (to other trees) strangler fig trees.

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In front of a strangler fig

There is a lot to explore in the Daintree Rainforest. One of the highlights for us was visiting the Mossman Gorge. We hiked a few miles and swam in a few secluded swimming areas that we found. It was the perfect way to cool off and spend a relaxing day. The area near Mossman Gorge is also home to the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people and you can opt to take a forest walk with some of the aboriginals and learn about their history.

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Rainforest canopy
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Mossman Gorge
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Alex on the Rex Creek suspension bridge
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Swimming in the Mossman Gorge
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Bush turkey!
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Chilly, but so much fun!

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Another highlight was taking the Daintree Ferry across the Daintree River to drive through the rainforest. We stopped at Mount Alexandra Lookout, which offers views of the Daintree River estuary, Snapper Island, and the Coral Sea.

We got a kick out of our GPS knowing we were on the ferry
We got a kick out of our GPS knowing we were on the ferry
Taking the ferry across the Daintree River
Taking the ferry across the Daintree River
Daintree River
Daintree River

There are several short hikes in the area and we took a 3km walk on the Jindalba Rainforest trail. The walk was mostly on boardwalk, but crossed creeks and featured beautiful scenery.

Jindalba Rainforest walk
Jindalba Rainforest walk
Jindalba Rainforest walk
Jindalba Rainforest walk
Cassowary crossing
Cassowary crossing

After getting back to the car, we spent the rest of the afternoon at Cow Bay Beach. Although there are signs on the road for Cow Bay Beach, the beach is a ways down the road and was quite isolated. We nearly had the beach to ourselves and it was quite breathtaking to take in our surroundings while feeling like we were on a deserted tropical beach.

Cow Bay Beach
Cow Bay Beach
Where the Daintree River meets the Coral Sea
Where the Daintree River meets the Coral Sea
Sand art
Sand art

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Port Douglas town

In Port Douglas
In Port Douglas

On a day when you aren’t diving or exploring the Daintree rainforest, the town of Port Douglas has a lot to offer. Not only are the restaurants fantastic (which we will get to), but there is a lot to see as well. Take a short drive (or steep walk) up to Flagstaff Hill Lookout where you can get a great view of the nearby beaches.

Flagstaff Hill Lookout
Flagstaff Hill Lookout

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Spend the morning getting some sunshine or taking a walk down Four Mile Beach. It is also a great place for a sunset stroll.

Four Mile Beach
Four Mile Beach

Pick up some souvenirs at the unique shops in town. My favorite was Pebble, which offers organic gifts, homewares, and accessories. Everything is locally sourced or Australian made. I love unique gift and homeware shops generally, but I particularly loved the natural, seaside, relaxed feel of Pebble. I picked up a delicious-smelling candle to take home, which I am slowly savoring because it takes me right back to Port Douglas every time I burn it.

Drive to Cairns airport

Since you’ll probably be flying in and out of Cairns, give yourself a little extra time to stop at the incredibly beautiful roadside beaches along the drive. We probably stopped three or four times at deserted beaches with phenomenal views.

One of the beautiful views from a roadside pitstop
One of the beautiful views from a roadside pitstop

Funny story: one of the places we stopped was Ellis Beach, where we went for a short stroll to take some pictures. At one point, I turned around and saw a naked man walking into the woods. It was a little odd, but I didn’t think too much of it. A few minutes later we came upon another man who was tanning naked and quickly put on his swim trunks when he saw us approaching. At this point, I had a sneaking suspicion that this was a nude beach, but I still wasn’t too surprised. A few minutes after that, we noticed a large group of men, all nude, frolicking in the distance and decided it might be best to turn around. Later, we googled the beach and it turns out Ellis Beach is a well-known nude beach for gay men who call themselves the Cairns Sun Boys. Who knew? Not us, that’s for sure!!

Walking down Ellis Beach (before our encounter with the Cairns Sun Boys)
Walking down Ellis Beach (before our encounter with the Cairns Sun Boys)

If you’re up for an adventure, there is also a great stop with several paragliding companies. We didn’t have time to try it, but we enjoyed watching all of the paragliders in the sky!

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Once you get to Cairns, if you still have a little time, stop at the Cairns Botanical Gardens for a nice shaded walk amongst the trees and flowers where you can follow an interpretive trail along the path to learn about the local flora. In the gardens, we happened upon a wedding, which brings me to another funny story. The wedding only had about 50 guests, but there were another 25 or so Asian tourists sitting a few yards back and taking pictures of the whole thing. Talk about wedding crashers!

Wedding crashers in the Cairns Botanical Gardens
Wedding crashers in the Cairns Botanical Gardens

Where to eat/drink:

Port Douglas has no shortage of great restaurants and bars and I would say that we ate some of my favorite food on the entire trip there. There was so much fresh seafood and I enjoyed every meal we ate.

For a quick lunch, don’t miss Mocka’s Pies. It is an institution for Australian meat pies and everything is incredibly delicious and filling. What to order: Crocodile, kangaroo, and steak pies.

Another great spot for lunch is The Little Larder. The Little Larder brings new meaning to the sandwich, making unique flavor combinations with high quality ingredients. What to order: Tiger Prawn or Bahn Mi sandie.

When you are in the Daintree Rainforest, stop for ice cream at Floravilla Ice Cream near Cow Bay Beach. The ice cream is made with organic ingredients and no preservatives or artificial colors or flavors. Flavors range from your traditional flavors to exotic fruits. I had Iron Bark Honey which was just the perfect amount of creamy with a light sweetness. It might be the best ice cream I’ve ever had, and my mouth is watering just thinking about it! What to order: Iron Bark Honey, clearly.

Floravilla Ice Cream
Floravilla Ice Cream

For dinner, you must eat at the Port Douglas Yacht Club (Spinnakers) which serves fresh caught fish in a casual setting at affordable prices. What to order: If it’s in season, order the barramundi. Barramundi is a buttery seabass and is eco-friendly and very popular in Australia and Asia.

Dinner at the Yacht Club
Dinner at the Yacht Club

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Another great option for dinner is On the Inlet which also features fresh caught fish and great views of the sunset over the Coral Sea. Make sure to look at the sundown menu for great deals. We ordered tacos and coronas for only $10 AUD each (unheard of in our experience in Australia). They also serve buckets of prawns during the sundown menu. Don’t forget to look for George the Grouper, the 250 kg (550 lb) grouper that regularly visits for dinner around 5 p.m. What to order: something from the sundown menu.

Outside of On the Inlet
Outside of On the Inlet

The Tin Shed is a great location for drinks and appetizers. There is a huge deck with beautiful views of the sunset and boats in the harbor.

Sunset from Tin Shed
Sunset from Tin Shed

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If you want to try something other than seafood, Seabean is an excellent tapas restaurant with authentic Spanish food and drinks. What to order: Garlic prawn, queso manchego and poached fig.

For a night out, have a local beer at Ironbar and enjoy the famous cane toad races with Duncan every night for $5 (plus bets) at 8:30p.m. It is such a fun experience and Duncan will have you rolling on the floor laughing!

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The famous Duncan and his cane toad races
The famous Duncan and his cane toad races

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Where to stay:

We stayed at the Bay Villas Resort which was a short walk both to town and to the Four Mile Beach. The resort has spacious 1,2, and 3 bedroom apartments complete with kitchenettes. The staff was very helpful with questions about the area and the resort rents beach towels for a small fee. The grounds also feature a pool and bbq areas. It was a great place to stay for a few days and I would definitely recommend it.

Check back soon for a post about Brisbane! As always, thanks for reading!

RECAP
Eat/Drink
Mocka’s Pies, 9/34 Grant St, Port Douglas QLD 4877
The Little Larder, 48 Macrossan St, Port Douglas QLD 4877
Floravilla Ice Cream, 335 Cape Tribulation Rd, Cow Bay QLD 4873
Spinnakers at Port Douglas Yacht Club, 1 Spinnaker Close, Port Douglas QLD 4873
On the Inlet, 3 Inlet Rd, Port Douglas QLD 4877
Tin Shed, 7 Ashford Ave, Port Douglas QLD 4877
Seabean3/28 Wharf St, Port Douglas QLD 4877
Ironbar, 5 Macrossan St, Port Douglas QLD 4877

Do
Dive with Poseidon, The Reef Marina, 44 Wharf Street, Port Douglas QLD 4877
Mossman Gorge
Cow Bay Beach

Stay
Bay Villas Resort, 51-53 Davidson St, Port Douglas QLD 4877

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