Rainforest to Reef: Cairns to Port Douglas travel guide

Slow your roll and check out all the amazing tropical attractions, unique towns and interesting things to do when you’re driving from Cairns to Port Douglas. It’s not far but you’re in for a fun time.


Aerial view of pontoon, catamaran and surrounding reef, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Although Cairns doesn’t rate on the size scale, its northern neighbour is an even more laidback alternative. Resorts are slung along Four Mile Beach, but there are gorgeous holiday apartments right in Port Douglas if you want to stay centrally. It’s not a bad idea – the town has plenty of characterful places for a sundowner, including the famous and fabulous Court House Hotel. Anyone who knows North Queensland will be aware Cairns and Port Douglas are only 70 kilometres apart, but you can stretch that the journey with detours to Kuranda and Palm Cove. Be sure to stop at Rex Lookout for a 180-degree panoramic view of the Coral Sea.


A saltwater crocodile emerges vertically from the water in front of a boat to feed from a pole near Cairns

Spy some of the north’s snappier residents when crossing bridges – slow down and look on the river banks. Get up close in a safe environment at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Cruise the lagoon while the saltwater crocs are being fed then explore the rest of the park. There are cassowaries, kangaroos, koalas, wombats and lots of other reptiles. There’s even a chance to feed a huge crocodile yourself during a private tour.


  1. When you open the dictionary to ‘relaxed’ there’s a little photograph of Palm Cove as the description. (Well, there should be.) Walk the stylish coastal village’s esplanade, kayak to Double Island, take a yoga class or find yourself a spot in the shade of a centuries-old paperbark tree and catch up on your reading. Foodies should book a table at Nu Nu Restaurant, acclaimed for its excellent tropical cuisine and relaxed beachfront dining.

  2. The town of Kuranda has more than enough attractions to keep you entertained overnight. There’s the famous Skyrail over the rainforest, and a real arts and crafts village vibe, best explored at its two markets. There’s also Birdworld, the Koala Gardens and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary for those who want to get close to wildlife.

  3. On a detour to Kuranda, stop at Barron Falls (Din Din). If it’s been raining, the 250-metre cascades are at their peak, with huge amounts water crashing down and the cliffs often covered in a mist. At other times, it’s still impressive with the water dividing off into separate streams as it rushes down the rock face.

  4. Port Douglas is described as the town where the rainforest meets the reef. To get a very different view of the former, join a River Magic SUP tour with Windswell. You’ll paddle upstream beneath the canopy of the Daintree Rainforest, while the guide points out the sounds of insects and birds as you move along.

  5. Don’t miss one of the great northern experiences: spending a day on the Great Barrier Reef. There are plenty of options – maybe you’re a diver, perhaps you want to add a scenic helicopter ride – but Quicksilver is a popular option. Head to the outer reef and spend the day snorkelling off a pontoon, diving or checking out the world underwater from the semi-submersible.


Cassowary House

Want to spend extra time in Kuranda? Cassowary House is a small, family-run spot with just two units and a cottage. Birdwatchers will love it here. It’s surrounded by greenery, alive with fruit doves, fairy wrens, parrots, riflebirds and more. Cassowaries visit almost daily.

Imagine Drift Palm Cove

To revel in the peace and quiet of the town, check in to a contemporary apartment at beachfront Imagine Drift Palm Cove. You can walk into town, so choose this spot to enjoy everything Palm Cove has to offer or make this a base for exploring the region.

Villa San Michele

To get close to the action, book one of Villa San Michele’s Mediterranean-styled apartments right on Macrossan Street in Port Douglas. You’re also within walking distance to Four Mile Beach and the Reef Marina.


Couple walking through palm trees to a beach, Palm Cove, Far North Queensland

Book your car before you leave then pick it up at the Apex Car Rental hub at Cairns Airport as soon as you get here. Nothing could be easier. Cairns and Port Douglas are linked by the Captain Cook Highway. Drive straight through and it will only take you an hour or so, but take your time and detour to other villages and attractions to fill a day or more.


Three people stand on a rocky cliff surrounded by bushland, Cooktown, Far North Queensland

Strike out on the inland route and follow the Mulligan Highway for three hours towards Cooktown, at the mouth of the Endeavour River. (The coastal route is shorter and more scenic, but takes longer and requires a 4WD.) As well as being the place where Captain James Cook and his crew spent weeks when the Endeavour hit the reef in June 1770, this area has a rich Indigenous history – join Culture Connect to visit rock art sites. You can go on croc cruises, try your hand at catching dinner on a fishing charter or just explore the history of the town.