By Chris West
Senior Travel Consultant at Travel Nation
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'My favourite place is North Queensland. It has for a naturalist everything. It has amazing rainforest which is quite unlike any other rainforest in the world. Not only does it have that but down on the coast, it has the Great Barrier Reef. On top of that there's terrific wine and food, so that's the place for me.'
- Sir David Attenborough
If it's good enough for Sir David Attenborough, it's good enough for us. Earlier this year, we set off on a 3-month family adventure with our two girls, aged 6 and 7. During the trip, we stayed around the Cairns area of North Queensland for 8 nights. What a fantastic place to visit! It’s incredibly family-friendly, so brilliant if you’re travelling with kids, but it really does have something for everyone.
We visited in July, during the Australian winter, which is actually the better time to visit this region. This is the dry season, with temperatures hovering around the mid-20s. Perfect! From the end of December until March, it is the monsoon season, so the weather will be very hot, humid, and wet, with some roads potentially being flooded.
We hired a car for the week to give us more flexibility and allow us to travel between a few destinations. From Cairns airport, we headed 45 minutes along the very scenic Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas.
We had a great two-bedroom apartment at San Michele Villas in the centre of town and a short walk to the stunning Four Mile Beach. The property has two pools, large self-contained apartments so perfect for families or large groups and an excellent location.
We thought it was a great base from which to explore two of the world heritage sites that make this region so spectacular – The Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest.
Our first day was all about the reef and involved a bumpy but exciting 2-hour Quicksilver boat trip to the Outer Reef.
We pulled up to a permanent pontoon that offered several different ways to explore the reef. There was an underwater walkway, semi-submersible boat trips and snorkelling where we saw huge wrasse and trevally fish being fed around us.
It was a choppy day, so we didn’t spend too long snorkelling in the water, but this didn’t matter because there are so many ways to explore.
This day trip was perfect for our two children, aged 6 and 7. They really enjoyed the semi-submersible trips, which allowed us to see a large area of the reef, with giant clams, a whole rainbow of fish, turtles, and many soft and hard corals.
To cap it off, we surprised the girls with a 30-minute helicopter trip back to town. This was absolutely amazing and I highly recommend it. The girls loved seeing the reef, and a glimpse of the enormous rainforest, from above.
The next day, we set off into the Wet Tropics Rainforest. Covering 8940 square kilometres, it is larger than Germany, Samoa and Puerto Rico! It was a long and busy day because we packed a huge amount into the trip.
We started with the Kuranda Skyrail, soaring over the rainforest in a 7.5km long cable car. We had a couple of short walks at scenic stop-offs, one to see beautiful Barron Falls, and then visited the lovely butterfly sanctuary in Kuranda.
Next, we took a short bus ride to the Rainforestation Centre, where we took an army duck amphibious vehicle tour over the forest tracks and into the lake. This was followed by a quick lunch and a trip to the Kuranda Wildlife Park.
Generally, we are not fans of zoos and parks like this, but it did allow us to see kangaroos hopping all around us. The girls absolutely loved seeing a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch. We also saw wombats, crocodiles, koalas, snakes, lizards, cassowaries, dingos and more, so it’s well worth a visit.
After, we watched an aboriginal dance show followed by a didgeridoo and spear-throwing demonstration. We all attempted to throw a boomerang, with mixed results, but it was a lot of fun. To end the day, we took a 90-minute scenic train ride back down towards Cairns.
This spectacular train route is an engineering marvel, and we were surrounded by beautiful scenery as we descended from the mountains. After a final transfer, we were back at our hotel. We were suitably all knackered but loved every minute of the day.
The next day, we took things at a more leisurely pace and relaxed around the pool after some geocaching (which is great when you're travelling with kids). We also took a trip to visit the famous Four Mile Beach, easily one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Curving gently along the Port Douglas beachfront, its golden sands give way to perfectly clear waters, while palm trees sway in the breeze. Heaven!
The following day, we left Port Douglas behind us and set off for our second location. We travelled two hours further north by road to Cape Tribulation in the Daintree National Park, the oldest continuously surviving rainforest in the world.
Here, there are beautiful, empty, beaches surrounded by rainforests and many endemic species of flora and fauna. It is one of the most diverse and beautiful examples of Mother Nature's work.
Along the way, we stopped off at Mossman Gorge for a beautiful 3-mile walk, which I would highly recommend. Sacred to the Kuku Yalanji aboriginal tribe, the area is thickly covered with tropical rainforest and crisscrossed with rivers and natural pools. It’s only 20 minutes from Port Douglas, making it easy to combine with the journey to Cape Tribulation.
Arriving at Cape Tribulation, we felt hidden away in the middle of the rainforest, and we had genuinely reached the end of the paved road. Staying at Ferntree Rainforest lodge, we felt totally immersed in the rainforest, with fascinating wildlife, such as large Golden Orb spiders, just outside our cabin. The restaurant here was great, and we tried local dishes including kangaroo steak and crocodile.
During our stay here, we took a guided night walk, which was an absolute highlight of our trip to Queensland. We saw spiders, turtles, owls, possums, and dozens of different tropical birds sleeping in the trees. We even saw peppermint stick insects which squirt spray as a defence mechanism. The spray smells of... yes you guessed it...peppermint!
We also saw some of nature’s truly crazy stuff - glow-in-the-dark scorpions, bioluminescent fungi that cover trees and the ground to glow slightly, and sporing fungi that look like smoke. Our guide, Kane, has lived here since he was a child, and he was very knowledgeable and passionate about the region.
Apparently, the night walks are even better in the wet season (January to April), when the colours of the forest go even wilder, and the frogs come out in their hundreds.
My wife Debs took a great rainforest and beach horse-riding tour, where she spotted a crocodile named Princess Fluffy that fortunately resides on the opposite side of the creek!
Meanwhile, I made animal sand sculptures on the beach with my two daughters: a shark, a crocodile and a turtle. We also did a short daytime rainforest walk independently, but we weren’t as successful at spotting the wildlife without a guide.
On our last day, we set off on a river crocodile safari trip, seeing three crocodiles amongst the mangroves, including a 5-metre-long saltwater male. Saltwater crocodiles can grow to 7 metres and weigh 2000 kilograms, making them the largest reptile in the world. In comparison, freshwater crocs grow to 3 metres and can weigh 90 kilograms.
Crocodiles also kill over 1000 people a year worldwide (way more than sharks), so there are lots of warning signs saying don’t go near the river mouth or the water’s edge. There are also box jellyfish here at certain periods of the year, so sea swimming is definitely out of the question around Cape Tribulation.
Even the local Cassowaries, which are huge, endangered birds can be very aggressive (unfortunately, we didn’t get to see one in the wild). In addition to the poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, we felt like we were in the heart of wild Australia!
Finally, we left the rainforest and headed back to Cairns, where we stayed at Cairns Colonial Club, not far from the airport. We spent one night enjoying the hotel pool before taking an early morning flight to Alice Springs and continuing our Australia family adventure.
If you’re short on time, you can stay in Port Douglas and do a day trip up to the Daintree Rainforest. However, if you can afford to stay a little longer, I highly recommend staying in Daintree for two or three nights to really experience the rainforest.
The Great Barrier Reef is a must-see and there are several ways to experience it. Our boat trip and helicopter combination was an amazing way to get two different perspectives on the reef, so I can highly recommend it.
We loved our North Queensland family holiday. It was so diverse, seeing both the reef and the rainforest and we tried some truly amazing activities. We 100% understand why Sir David Attenborough rates it so highly. If you’re passionate about the natural world, there’s nowhere quite like it.
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Senior Travel Consultant
With his studies in Geography and Master’s degree in development behind him, Chris set off to leave pretty much no mountain unclimbed. His passion for adventure has driven him to climb both Kilimanjaro and Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal and he and his wife have also traversed Canada and all the way down through the Americas by bike! Even starting a family didn’t really slow down Team West, as they took their little daughter on a campervan road trip through the US National Parks. Chris joined Travel Nation as a round the world specialist in 2011 and is also one of our Business Class consultants. He really enjoys helping other families put together trips they’ll never forget.