Looking for a destination which is literally overrun with natural wonders and packed full of awesome adventures, yet still so relaxed you can ignore the lot and bliss out in a world-class spa?
Then Tropical North Queensland is your go-to getaway, with its stunning landscapes, unforgettable adventures and relaxed vibe. Whether you follow the sun-kissed coast from Mission Beach through Cairns and Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation or head inland to the mountains of the Atherton Tablelands and the lush Daintree to the north, you’ll find a breathtaking photo opportunity around every bend and plenty of reasons to revisit this unique region.
You can choose your own adventure in the tropical north with rainforest hiking, white water rafting, parasailing, kayaking, hot air ballooning, helicopter flights and diving and much more all located within an easy (and scenic) driving radius. After all, this is the only place on earth where the rainforest reaches down to meet the reef, making it the perfect jumping off point for either an amazing 4WD trek through pristine wilderness or a snorkelling safari through World Heritage-listed waters. The magnificence of the Great Barrier Reef is an easy hop from vibrant coastal towns such as Cairns, just as the Daintree’s renowned ‘living museum’ of towering forests and native flora and fauna has been made (sustainably) accessible to visitors.
Related article: 48 Hours in Cairns
Tropical North Queensland is also rich in more indulgent pleasures ... spa devotees should make a beeline for Palm Cove and Port Douglas where the ‘spa capital of Australia’ tag is well deserved. You can also treat your tastebuds, as tropical pampering is complemented by culinary class at the smorgasbord of luxury resort/ spas in the area. Couples will love the ‘best of both worlds’ balance between natural wonders and sophisticated wining, dining and boutique shopping.
To discover one of the region’s best-kept secrets, head an hour inland from Cairns to the romantic rural retreats and charming townships of the Atherton Tablelands (also called the Cairns Highlands), elevated 1000 metres above sea level. This is the place for spotting ancient volcanic craters, sampling gourmet delights such as local coffee, getting airborne at ballooning hot spot Mareeba, and visiting the nearby rainforest village of Kuranda. Or venture further inland to the wild open spaces, ochre hues and frontier towns of the Tropical Savannah, the perfect spot for uninterrupted star gazing.
In the Air
Ballooning, Atherton Tablelands
Thanks to its stable and reliable weather conditions, Mareeba in the Atherton Tablelands is Australia’s ballooning capital. See shooting stars aplenty as you prepare for your early morning take-off and enjoy the sunrise as you float gently over the wide open spaces of the picturesque local area. Hot Air offers a range of fabulous packages with inclusions such as Champagne hot breakfast, luxury transfers, and breakfast on the beach at Palm Cove.
Taking off from the Cairns Helipad and ascending over the city of Cairns, there is a myriad of flights available. Whether soaring along the rainforest coastline, Green Island, over the outer reef or combining flights with other reef and island tours, there is sure to be something for everyone.
Skydiving, Mission Beach
For some super-charged excitement try a tandem skydive. Freefall from 14,000 feet at 200km/hour for a full 60 seconds before landing in a scenic drop-zone on beautiful Mission Beach. And to relieve some of the stress beforehand enjoy the ‘flight to the height’ over the spectacular scenery of pristine tropical rainforest and the famous Great Barrier Reef. Skydive Mission Beach.
On the Land
Paronella Park Castle and Gardens, Mena Creek
When Spanish-born Jose Paronella emigrated to Australia in 1913, his vision and ambition eventually gave birth to a magnificent Spanish castle. Built in the 1930s amidst the rainforest, beside a gentle creek and cascading waterfall, Jose’s castle was later developed into a park, open to visitors. The park gained National Trust listing in 1997, and has since been constantly winning awards. Easy access from Cairns, Mission Beach, Townsville and Tablelands.
Kuranda Village, Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Close to Cairns is Kuranda Village – a quaint little township in the rainforest where both the Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Train journeys terminate, making it convenient to combine these two attractions in one day trip. The train takes a spectacular journey through unsurpassed views of World Heritage rainforest, steep ravines and picturesque waterfalls, and the Skyrail experience provides a very different view as you glide just metres above the rainforest canopy and enjoy panoramic views of the Coral Sea. Kuranda Village is famous for arts and crafts and indigenous artifacts and the excellent attractions of the Butterfly Sanctuary, Koala Gardens, Birdworld and the Aviary. Both the Original Kuranda Markets and the Heritage Markets are open daily. Tropical Horizons Tours have a range of trips available.
The high elevation rainforests of the Atherton and Southern Tablelands are vastly different to coastal rainforest surrounding Cairns, just an hour’s drive away. You’ll find the spectacular waterfalls - Millaa Millaa, Mungalli and Mena Creek, the mirror-like waters of Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham formed by volcanic craters, 1000-year-old kauri trees and the Ma Mu Rainforest Canopy Walkway and Tower. From viewing platforms and towers perched high in the Ma Mu rainforest, the views take in the majesty of the North Johnstone River and the primeval spectacle of this remote, prehistoric wilderness. For day tours, visit Tropical Horizon Tours.
Johnstone River Crocodile Park, Mission Beach
Here you’ll find hundreds of crocodiles, including freshwater crocodiles and American alligators. The oldest resident croc is 90-year-old Johnny, and also on display is a five-metre monster called Gregory. To learn more about these creatures take the educational tour, which explains how crocodiles breed and survive and how to conserve the species. You can also visit kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes and cassowaries.
Daintree, Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge
Access via Port Douglas, this is a beautiful and remote area at the tip of North Queensland. Explore the rainforest and amazing landscapes of the Daintree and discover the unique wilderness area of the World Heritage-listed rainforests of Cape Tribulation and the mysterious Mossman Gorge. Cruise the mighty Daintree River (the domain of the estuarine crocodile), admire its special wildlife and mangrove-lined riverbanks. The award-winning Daintree Rainforest Aerial Walkway and Canopy Tower allows people of all ages easy access to all parts of the rainforest. Stroll along idyllic Cape Tribulation Beach to the Kulki Lookout and observe where two of the world’s natural wonders converge - the rainforest gives way to white sand and fringing coral reef! For a range of Daintree/Cape Tribulation adventures visit Tropical Horizon Tours.
Related article: Cruising Tropical Queensland's Whitsunday Islands
On the Water
Snorkelling and Diving, Great Barrier Reef
Colours seem richer and more vibrant in Tropical North Queensland - the verdant green of the rainforest, the gemstone aqua of the ocean, the vivid blue of the sky ... and then there’s the reef. If above the water is kaleidoscopic, underneath is saturated colour on an enormous scale; a shimmering, waving, darting sensory overload.
Whether you dive or snorkel, this is a world apart. Floating weightless in the warm salty water with the sun warming your back (sunscreen the backs of your knees!) the watery world passes underneath in a succession of snapshots you’ll re-live over and over ... vivid yellow reef fish motionless in the current, hanging in the water like flowers; parrot fish nibbling on the coral, clothed in amazing shades of purple and green; tiny electric blue flashes telling of another world within the waving arms of the colourful corals ... and that’s just snorkelling.
Further down where the divers go, the big boys of the reef gather; the potato cod and the trevally, the Maori wrasse and the groupers - the sharks are so well fed they’re not a problem! Down here the experience is more interactive - instead of looking down on the fish, you’re in amongst them, in their world, and swimming with them; it’s up close and personal.
In general, reef trips are a full day including meals, diving and snorkelling either off a pontoon, or in a couple of different locations. Depending on the weather it can be a bit rough on the way out, so it’s a good idea to start off with a full stomach and some seasickness tablets in your bag.
Getting to the Reef
Mission Beach contains the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics region and one of the best ways to experience this unique ecosystem is on a river cruise.
White Water Rafting
The mighty Tully River, located one-and-a-half hours west of Mission Beach, is regarded as one of the best rafting rivers in Australia and New Zealand and provides an action- packed experience – riding the rush of Grade 4 rapids, raft surfing, rapid swimming and rock jumping. For the more timid or first-time rafter, there is also rafting on the Barron River just outside of Cairns.