Tropical Temptation: a road trip from Cairns to Port Douglas

A woman swims below the ocean’s surface with a number of coral bommies and many small fish, near Cairns, North Queensland

This is the part of Queensland where the rainforest meets the reef. On their road trip from Cairns, Chris and Sarah discover there’s plenty to explore – waterfalls, mountain villages and Indigenous culture – on the way to Port Douglas.

We’re about to leave the last of Queensland’s cities behind and head to a part of the state where it’s all about wilderness and water. After we arrived at Cairns Airport, we headed straight for the Apex rental desk and collected our prebooked car before spending a couple of days checking out the city. There’s tonnes to do here: walking among marine life at the Cairns Aquarium, taking a reef tour with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel and its Indigenous rangers, and relaxing beneath the palm trees by the lagoon on Cairns Esplanade. But now Chris is itching to get out and about, so we’re heading towards Port Douglas. It only takes about an hour in the car if you go straight through, but we’re going to take detours and explore a few of the more interesting places along the way, giving ourselves a couple of days to get there.

Sky-high Selection: Cairns to Kuranda

Cable cars travelling over rainforest and Barron Falls near Kuranda, North Queensland

Set high in the mountains, the beautiful village of Kuranda offers a cool change from Cairns, both as a retreat from high temperatures and because it is a slightly hippie haven tucked into the trees, despite it being only 30 kilometres away. Or course, we have to do the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Flying over the rainforest is mesmerising, but you don’t get the full impact until you glide over the top of Barron Falls (Din Din to the local Djabuganydji people). It’s absolutely spectacular.

Everyone in Cairns had told us to go to Frogs Restaurant for lunch (its outside deck is a popular spot for water dragons), and we’re never ones to argue about good food. I have beautiful barramundi and chips and Chris tries the bush tucker plate of roo, emu and croc served as little starters. And they’re right: croc does taste a bit like chicken, and the water dragons come right up to the table to see if they can catch a crumb.

For anyone who doesn’t mind a spot of shopping (I definitely have my hand up), Kuranda has two great markets – the Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets and the Heritage Markets – each one filled with locally made clothing, jewellery, arts and crafts, as well as great food and fresh juices. Then it’s time to immerse ourselves in beauty, so spend some time in the aviary at the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. All the beautiful critters are there, including the electric blue Ulysses butterfly.

Beach Bound: Kuranda to Port Douglas

Couple standing in front of a parked car at an ocean lookout in Far North Queensland

Back down the mountain, we follow the Captain Cook Highway from Cairn’s northern beaches towards Palm Cove. For some reason, I’d always thought of this small village as a bit exclusive. Sure, there are plenty of boutiques, cafes and restaurants arranged in colourfully painted buildings along the esplanade, but it’s also incredibly peaceful. Huge palm trees and melaleucas – thought to be 500 years old – shade the street and the beachfront. Luckily we’ve got our swimsuits on because there is a huge, netted swimming enclosure on the beach here where we cool off.

On the road again, we pass the entrance for Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, but instead head for Hartleys Creek Falls. It’s an almost four-kilometre walk, most of it uphill, from the car park, but the rewards are excellent. The water drops about 16 metres into a deep, inky black pool that’s incredibly refreshing after the hour-long trek. And there are definitely no crocs.

We’ve got one more stop before Port Douglas: Rex Lookout. The road gradually rises out of Palm Cove and at the top of the hill is a spot to stop and take in the view. It’s spectacular, particularly since we arrived quite late in the day and the sunset colours were starting to emerge, with views out over the Coral Sea to islands in the distance.

Indigenous Adventures: Port Douglas to Mossman

Four people stand on rocks beside a rushing stream in the rainforest in Far North Queensland

Chris has been keen to learn a bit more about Indigenous culture on this trip, so we’ve decided to take advantage of having the rental car and head to Mossman, just north of Port Douglas. First we stop by Janbal Gallery where Brian ‘Binna’ Swindley practices his art and leads workshops for others. “Because we’re rainforest people, dots mean rain,” he tells us as we work, explaining that every element of Indigenous art has a meaning.

He takes regular walks into the rainforest and dives on the reef for inspiration. “I respect the Dreamtime stories of my people,” he tells us, “but I also make my own art.”

Armed with our amateur-hour paintings, we head to the Mossman Gorge Centre, and join a Dreamtime Walk, where the guide describes more about the Kuku Yalanji way of life. We learn about bush food, find out how people use plants for medicine, and discover the special relationship the Indigenous people here have with the forest. It’s a new way of looking at the world around us, and one we should all know about.