Nudey Beach, Fitzroy Island

We go troppo in Cairns

Lazing on Four Mile Beach, my sarong spread among scattered palm fronds, I scan the turquoise shoreline in search of anyone who might disprove my theory. In this sea of tranquillity, an endless, white-sand beach bordered by bush almond trees and the deep blue, every joyful body splashing in the shallows, every peaceful soul floating beyond the breakers and every blissed-out traveller lounging on the sand confirms my hunch that sunshine makes people happy.

Science would back me up, but in Port Douglas — Far North Queensland’s most idyllic beach holiday retreat — the evidence is smiling right back at me. With the long wet long gone, and the north’s season of sunshine in full swing, I’m on a mini-break from nearby Cairns, eager to join the wintertime crowd of frazzled souls warming up and unwinding on a tropical cocktail of lazy beach sessions, sunset seafood dinners and soothing island escapes.

Port Douglas has come a long way since its sleepy days as a far-flung fishing village. Despite all the great cuisine and comfortable beds on offer, this tiny headland sandwiched between Four Mile Beach and Dickson Inlet harbours a seriously laidback undertow. There’s a dizzying choice of places to wine and dine and an exhausting menu of activities to fill any escape: catamaran cruises to coral-fringed islands, 4WD adventures to rainforested waterholes and croccy cruises up wild reaches of the Daintree River.

Undine Cay fuels incredible memories that are bound to linger with you long after the bill has been forgotten.

With closer proximity to snorkelling and dive sites on the outer Great Barrier Reef that see far less visitation than those near Cairns, Port Douglas is an ideal launch pad for serious divers and adventurous snorkelers. Quicksilver seems to dominate the daytrip fleet, but there are smaller vessels offering more intimate, customised diving, sailing and fishing trips, too.

For a big splurge and a special underwater experience, a yacht charter to distant Undine Cay delivers you to a tiny rise of sand that all but disappears with the rising tide. Cirqued by vibrant coral gardens and frequented by a stunning procession of green sea turtles, reef sharks and luminescent fish, Undine Cay fuels incredible memories that are bound to linger with you long after the bill has been forgotten.

Rainforest spa, Daintree
Credit: David Bristow

More affordable but equally recommended is a day trip to Low Isles, a wild cluster of white sand and coral sprouting coconut palms and flourishing fringing reefs. Here, I slip on my snorkelling gear and kick away from the beach, my shallow dives dividing a jazzy parade of dazzling fish. So still is the old green sea turtle I float over that I almost don’t notice it — unlike the black-tipped reef shark that senses me in a flash and darts suddenly away, out of sight.

After a few whirlwind days underwater, I dry out and discover a dozen fun romps on land, too, beginning with a wander around Port Douglas’s weekend markets. Drifting from stall to stall, devouring soursop ice-cream and ice-cold chocolate-coated bananas, I pick up irresistible tropical goodies: barely-there silk sarongs hand-painted in wild tropical themes, luxurious Davidson plum moisturiser, Daintree tea and dried mango.

Cape Tribulation may have wreaked havoc for Captain Cook … but it’s been a source of immense pleasure for forest-lovers ever since.

Because it’s Sunday, the nearby Ballyhooley Railway is in full steam, mustering trainspotters with its piercing whistle for a historical jaunt along 100-year-old tracks. It’s a cheap thrill at just $10 a head but, en route to the station, I’m waylaid by a session with a local massage therapist and, afterwards, a sunset cocktail on the shady decks of The Tin Shed, a bar with arguably the best waterfront views in town.

Port Douglas is famous for being the kind of place where you can indulge your five-star appetite with sand on your feet, and the long strip of eateries along Macrossan Street eagerly serve the casually dressed holiday crowd. There’s no doubt that Port Douglas is a fun, adventurous and indulgent kind of town, but you can reconnect, too, at beginner-friendly Deep Yoga Studio that even welcomes kids (under-fives are free). For genuine quietude, head north into the more remote, rainforested wilds of Daintree National Park.

Into the forest

Cape Tribulation may have wreaked havoc for Captain Cook when he holed the Endeavour on an offshore reef back in 1770, but it’s been a source of immense pleasure for forest-lovers ever since. Across the Daintree River, a winding, 35km-long scenic drive to Cape Tribulation leads through World Heritage-listed crocodile and cassowary habitat: misty mountain-clad forests carved with dazzling, aquamarine streams that spill out onto long, sweeping arcs of sand.

A nature-lover’s day trip might include stops at the Daintree Discovery Centre where you can scale a 23-metre-high tower into the jungle canopy, Cow Bay for a swim, and Cafe on Sea at Thornton Beach, where you can work off your lunch by beachcombing south to the mouth of croccy Cooper Creek. Look west as you walk towards the often-clouded summit of Thornton Peak or Wundu (1375m), reputedly one of the wettest spots in Australia and home to the Thornton Peak melomys and the rare Bennett’s tree-kangaroo.

Sampling tropical fruit ice-cream is an irresistible part of any Daintree visit, and ice-creamery Floravilla’s tempting ices are made with local Mungalli Creek biodynamic dairy products. Don’t miss a swim with jungle perch in the waterhole beside Mason’s Store or a short stroll along either the Jindalba Boardwalk (1.3km) or Marrdja’s brilliant 1.2km-long interpretive trail that leads through lowland rainforest to the mangroves that surround Noah and Oliver Creeks. At Cape Tribulation itself, iridescent blue Ulysses butterflies accompany walkers on the easy trail that crosses to Myall Beach, a magical sunrise viewing spot.

For a tropical-island fling with off-the-beach snorkelling, rainforested walking trails and the chance to swing in a hammock with a cocktail in hand, it’s hard to beat Fitzroy Island.

Increased traveller demand for eco-accredited retreats with a holistic approach to the health and wellbeing of guests has meant several Daintree sanctuaries now team their luxuriously appointed bungalows with organic menus, meditation classes and spa treatments that incorporate Indigenous rainforest remedies and age-old practices.

Top picks include Cow Bay’s Daintree Wilderness Lodge, where stilted cabins linked by private walkways come with sunroofs that bring the natural world into very close proximity. This small-scale operation’s advanced eco-accreditation and its mostly organic, locally sourced breakfasts included in the price make it an appealing choice for around AU$300 a night.

Beautiful beaches Cairns to Cape Tribulation
Credit: David Bristow

However, if starting your day in meditation, enjoying healing Ayurvedic spa treatments and a sunset yoga class in a purpose-built rainforest temple is your idea of bliss, then a stint at Prema Shanti might be the yoga holiday you’re looking for. There are swimming holes close by and all group classes are included in the surprisingly affordable daily rate (from AU$90 twin share).

For solitude-seeking couples or families, Halwyn is a holiday rental with a difference, set on three secluded acres of rainforest a short drive south of Cape Tribulation. What makes this AU$400-a-night property unique is the secluded waterfall and creek that not only fills a private swimming hole but also provides hydro-electricity to power the spacious, split-level pole home.

Budget options include the rainforest safari huts at Crocodylus Village, flashpacker-friendly PK’s for close proximity to Cape Tribulation and Daintree National Park’s Noah Beach campground where you can bed down on the sand for just AU$5.75 a night.

Coastal cruising

From Port Douglas, the Captain Cook Highway hugs a skinny strip of bitumen carved between steep cliffs and the sea, following a coconut-palm-fringed coastline that stretches 60km south to Cairns. Past Thala Beach Resort and Turtle Cove (a gay- and lesbian-friendly holiday favourite), I pull over at Rex Lookout to watch a pair of hang-gliders launch themselves into the abyss, spiralling slowly upwards and away over Wangetti Beach.

At the bottom of the hill, I watch estuarine crocodiles jumping for their chicken breakfasts on cue and handfeed otherwise elusive cassowaries at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, and grab a coffee and a quick dip at picturesque, palm-fringed Ellis Beach.

Kuranda Range above Cairns
Credit: David Bristow

Cairns itself provides a good choice of big-chain, five-star luxury and great access to the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s Palm Cove’s sweeping golden arc of sand, located 20km north of the CBD, that eclipses the competition with a relaxed beachfront of boutique hotels, sassy bars and elegant, relaxed waterfront dining. Famous for its grand strip of miraculously preserved melaleuca trees, cosmopolitan Palm Cove is an immensely pretty spot where luxurious retreats and restaurants rub shoulders with fish-and-chip eateries, a surf lifesaving club and the local caravan park.

There’s an authentic, intimate feel to this sandy strip where you can spend a morning sea-kayaking around Double Island just offshore and an afternoon indulging in exceptional spa treatments. Worth trying is the signature Mala Mayi body treatment at Peppers Beach Club, where you’re wrapped in a Mapi mud cocoon before a session of rain therapy and massage, or, if your partner is willing, the 2.5-hour-long couples’ journey at Alamanda Spa.

Coral Sea escapes

It’s the patchwork of colourful coral reefs, barely-there sand cays and idyllic, palm-fringed isles that eventually lures travellers back to Cairns and into the underwater world of blue-spotted rays, green sea turtles and hundreds of flashing-by fish. High-speed catamarans and leisurely paced sailing vessels reach popular reefs and floating pontoons in less than two hours, delivering you to day-long adventures with glass-bottom boat tours, guided snorkelling tours and diving lessons, while overnight live-aboard boats linger at sea for thrilling night dives and unparalleled quietude.

Other grand reef escapes include a stint on Green Island’s spectacular 6000-year-old coral cay, accessible by boat or helicopter and home to an opulent five-star retreat that is well worth the splurge and, for day-trippers, an aquarium where you can hold a baby crocodile and observe green and hawksbill turtles up close.

For a tropical-island fling with off-the-beach snorkelling, rainforested walking trails and the chance to swing in a hammock with a cocktail in hand, it’s hard to beat Fitzroy Island ( This hilly, rainforested, continental island with 339 hectares of national park and a single resort is a 45-minute boat ride from Cairns. Beachfront rooms overlooking Welcome Beach and a great snorkelling site at Bird Rock start from AU$175 a night in peak season. Yachties, day-trippers and honeymooners mingle at Foxy’s Bar as the sun goes down and, if you’re exploring on a budget, you can pitch a tent at the beachfront campground for a tiny AU$32 a night.

Over the Range

From high on the Kuranda Range just 20km from Cairns, Barron Falls plunges 265m, carving a path between eucalypt-covered ridgelines and lush thickets of rainforest. The falls’ wet-season guise is most impressive, but the Barron River flows year-round and getting there is especially good fun.

From Cairns, the Kuranda Scenic Railway offers a leisurely jaunt up the range, while the elevated Skyrail is a bit more thrilling, dangling you high above the treetops and leading to three hillside stations where you can get out and explore rainforested walking trails to access lookouts over Barron Falls. Both options are recommended and you can combine them into one fantastic daytrip, priced from AU$109.50 for adults (

For self-drive travellers keen to explore Kuranda, the Budaadji Canopy Walk winds through Barron Falls National Park to reach some vertigo-inducing lookouts on the very edge of the canyon. About 10km away at Speewah Campground, more secluded walking trails allow you to explore the forest and a compact camp provides good facilities at a bargain price.

Back in Cairns, overlooking the vibrant tidal mudflats of Trinity Bay, the esplanade’s lagoon and parklands are studded with outdoor art creations — most noticeably, the five woven flying fish sculptures created by Torres Strait artist, Brian Robinson. There are sheltered picnic areas with free barbecues and a good choice of cafes, bars and restaurants along the waterfront.

One of the coolest things you can do in Cairns is join one of the free yoga, meditation or fitness classes held on the wide wooden decks surrounding the Lagoon. On Mondays it’s Sahaja yoga meditation (7am start), Wednesdays is tai chi (7am), Pilates is on Thursdays (6.30am) and Friday is yoga day (6.30am). Mums enjoying an escape with a baby in tow can join Wednesday’s Mumbalates class — a fitness session for mothers and bubs — held near the lagoon at Fogarty Park from 9.30am.

Catherine Lawson

Catherine Lawson

Journalist, editor, author and adventurer Catherine Lawson travels full-time with photographer-partner David Bristow and their 5-year-old daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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