Located a few hours’ travel south of Cairns, Mission Beach is a genuine Queensland highlight, and one of the best places in Australia for adventure travel enthusiasts, plus nature lovers and scuba divers. Mission Beach is actually a 14km string of sleepy settlements stretched over five beaches, where World Heritage-listed rainforest meets the reef, with a good selection of hotels and cheap hostels nestled amongst the trees.
Just inland is the mighty Tully River, arguably the best place in Australia to go whitewater rafting (some would say Tasmania’s Franklin River is better). Tully whitewater rafting tours can also be arranged with Cairns pick-up/drop-off, but the extra travel makes for a very long day. Tully (and nearby Innisfail), a major sugar-producing area, is also a good place for backpackers to get harvest jobs and so extend their working holiday visa for a second year.
As well as whitewater rafting, Mission Beach is one of the most popular travel destinations in Australia to do a skydive. Numerous skydive operators offer tandem jumps from 14,000ft, over a stunning dropzone that lets you view the Great Barrier Reef and Family Islands before landing on the beach.
The rainforest surrounding Mission Beach is also the best place in Australia to spot the rare and colourful cassowary, a giant blue-coloured bird not dissimilar to the emu.
You can also access the Great Barrier Reef from Mission Beach, with several tour operators offering scuba diving trips. Scuba diving is generally slightly more expensive in Mission Beach than Cairns, but the reef tends to be quieter.
Dunk Island, with a resort, huge variety of birdlife and water sports opportunities, makes for a great excursion from Mission Beach, while you can also take boat tours of the idyllic and near-deserted Family Islands, except that is for the highly exclusive celebrity-getaway that is the luxury resort on Bedarra Island.
Also nearby is Hinchinbrook Island, home to the three-day Thorsborne Trail, one of Australia’s most celebrated hiking trails.
Just an hour’s travel north of Cairns, Port Douglas is a quieter, prettier and more upmarket alternative to the madness that often takes charge in Cairns. Tourism is still king in Port Douglas, however, and designer shops, gourmet restaurants, hotels, scuba diving centres and tour operators abound. The Great Barrier Reef is much closer to the shore in Port Douglas, compared to Cairns, making it popular for fishing charters and scuba divers, as boat travel time is cut down. It is also right on the doorstep of the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, again meaning that tours can spend more time at the destination and less on travel. Other highlights include the divine (and often celebrity dotted) Four Mile Beach, plus the town’s deserved reputation as a centre of gastronomy.
Two hours travel north from Cairns is the Daintree and Cape Tribulation, a wild area of ancient rainforest, palm-fringed beaches and saltwater crocodiles. Tours are very easy to arrange from both Cairns and the nearer Port Douglas. Very popular with eco-tourists, the Daintree is the world’s oldest rainforest (over 20 times older than the Amazon) and well worth exploring. Most tours concentrate on taking a river cruise to spot crocodiles (and tree snakes) plus rainforest walks. It’s highly recommended to actually stay in the rainforest to experience a sea kayak tour or guided night walk tour. There’s plenty of accommodation, most of which is low-key and in tune with its surroundings. The main centres for hotels, cabins and rainforest retreats are Daintree Village, Mosman and Cape Tribulation, beyond which you will need a 4WD to continue.
The northern-most tip of mainland Australia, the journey to Cape York is one of Australia’s great frontier roadtrips, an experience that all fans of adventure travel should consider. However, the journey through the Daintree to Cape York and the Torres Strait is not to be taken on lightly. The best time to travel is in winter (June to October) to avoid the worst of the humidity and heavy rains. Most (far from cheap) tours, lasting one to two weeks, leave from Cairns, but there are also opportunities in Port Douglas and Cooktown. Some tours have the option of flying or sailing either there or back. You can actually do daytrip tours to Cape York from Cairns, in which you fly most of the way, but that kind of defeats the object. If you plan to travel to Cape York independently, be well prepared. The road should only be attempted by experienced 4WD drivers, with river crossings and crocodiles a feature. You’ll also need to travel with all your food, water, first aid supplies and bush camping equipment.
Holiday-makers keen for a change from the Great Barrier Reef can travel inland from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands. A highlight is daytripper favourite Kuranda, to which you can take the Kuranda Scenic Railway or a treetop cable car from Cairns. Also worth checking out are the dramatic Millaa Falls, the Undara Lava Tubes and the giant Cathedral Fig Tree. Tours, guided hikes and rainforest walks are easy to arrange either in Cairns or the Tablelands itself.
Townsville & Magnetic Island
Home to Australia’s best wreck dive and one of Queensland’s most popular holiday islands, Townsville is another east coast destination not to be overlooked. Located halfway up the Great Barrier Reef, plus surrounded by Outback and known as the ‘sunshine capital of Australia’ due to its excellent climate, Townsville is also home to a large military base and is North Queensland’s administrative centre. Most tourists, however, travel to Townsville for two reasons – to scuba dive the Yongala Wreck and to visit Magnetic Island. Crammed with national park, scuba diving opportunities, water sports, great seafood and a laidback beach lifestyle, Magnetic Island is a great place to chill out. It’s also famed for its full moon and New Year’s Eve parties. There are plenty of hotels, scuba dive companies and tour operators to be found in both Townsville and Magnetic Island.