Short and Sweet: Cairns to Daintree Rainforest Road Trip

A woman stopped on a boardwalk in the midst of a rainforest setting, Cape Tribulation, North Queensland

When you think you’ve seen it all, there’s still the Daintree. It’s where two World Heritage Sites, the rainforest and the reef, meet and the opportunities to explore both seem almost endless.

There is really only one way to explore the incredible Daintree Rainforest on your own timetable, and that’s on a self-drive tour. Chris and I have already booked our Apex rental car, so it’s ready to pick up as soon as we get to the arrivals hall at Cairns Airport. Before you know it, we’re off on a three-day adventure that will take us to both reef and rainforest.

Coastal Connection: Cairns to Port Douglas

port douglas beach

Chris and I arrive on an early flight so we have time to get to Port Douglas, just over an hour away, before lunch. Why? Because we found out about a short snorkelling tour in the afternoon.

We check in with Reef Sprinter and, in just 15 minutes, we’re at the Low Isles. And it’s a patch of underwater magic. The coral is colourful and the vividly hued fish dart in the front of our faces. Chris dives down to point out a huge clam. And there are turtles, too – we see a couple before we even get off the boat. We’re only out here for 90 minutes, but it’s the perfect way to start our trip.

Port Douglas is a popular option for people ready to explore the Daintree because there are so many beautiful resorts and options for after-hours fun. We’re keen to get closer to the wilderness, but have decided to hang around overnight because we’ve heard about a unique experience. A driver picks us up from the hotel to take us to Flames of the Forest. At this secret location, guests gather beneath a fairy-lit canopy of trees for champagne and canapes before moving to communal tables under a huge open-sided structure by a creek. We take a seat with people from all over the country for a four-course feast of tropical flavours, from tiger prawns to coconut panna cotta. There’s also storytelling and music from Indigenous brothers, Gary and Skip. It’s a night like none we’ve ever experienced.

Into the Forest: Port Douglas to Daintree

A couple standing on a lookout platform with an outlook of lush rainforest, Daintree Discovery Centre, North Queensland

There’s the temptation to think the word wilderness equals vast distances, but in this part of the world it’s not true. From Port Douglas it only takes us half an hour to get to the Mossman Gorge Centre. It offers walks, both self-guided and with Kuku Yalanji rangers, that reveal a little more about the land and those who’ve lived on it for thousands of years. There’s also a gallery as well as a cafe where you can order dishes created using local produce and bush foods.

As a bit of a companion piece to yesterday’s adventures, we’re meeting the folks from Back Country Bliss in Mossman this afternoon and joining a group for the river drift snorkelling adventure. We lower ourselves into the crystal clear freshwater and let the water slowly pull us downstream. There are so many different types of fish – the guide tells us about 30 live in this part of the river – and we see a turtle slowly move to avoid our trajectory. Occasionally I take off my mask, turn onto my back and stare into the canopy. Above me I spot the bright blue flash of a Ulysses butterfly and a kingfisher that stares back. We’ve been told platypus like these conditions. Alas, they are elusive critters and we aren’t lucky enough to see one. It’s a completely different experience to snorkelling the ocean, but no less engrossing. In fact, for anyone scared of the sea, this may be the perfect compromise.

Daintree is only half an hour from Mossman and we arrive well before night falls.

Northern Exposure: Daintree to Cape Tribulation

Aerial view of two people on a boardwalk in the rainforest, Daintree, North Queensland

We already know the Daintree Rainforest is the oldest on this planet and is also incredibly diverse, but we decide to find out a bit more by heading to the Daintree Discovery Centre. We walk high through the canopy on the aerial walkways and look for wild cassowaries. Eventually we spot one with chicks. We find out the bird is the male of the species – he incubates the eggs and watches over the offspring for up to nine months before sending them off into the world.

The last thing you expect to find in the jungle is a farm producing cold, creamy goodness, but it’s exactly what you get at Daintree Ice Cream Company. We go for a stroll through the lush orchard of organically grown fruits then it’s time to try them out. The flavours change all the time, depending on which fruits are in season, but I can’t resist coconut, and it’s incredibly creamy and delicious. The proof, as they say, is definitely in the pudding.

The rest of the day we drive to Cape Tribulation and enjoy the remote beaches and shady rainforest. We were looking for a north star on this road trip and we definitely found it.