North Queensland is a fabulous tropical playground, with so much to see and explore you couldn’t fit it into a lifetime
When you land at Cairns International Airport, the heat and humidity hits you immediately. It’s like walking into a sauna, and the air-conditioned taxi ride to our hotel was a blessed relief. I learnt that the residents own very few shoes, as they tend to rot in these conditions.
The Shangri-La hotel, which overlooks Marlin Marina and the surrounding mountains, is only a 10-minute ride from the airport. It is a great base for exploring the town and perfect for arranging trips out to all the attractions the area has to offer. I spent my first morning strolling around Cairns, which has an incredibly laidback atmosphere in comparison to Sydney, where I had been visiting family.
There are tour operators all along the pier as well as in town, so organising the trips you want to do is very easy. My first outing was a 20-minute drive up to Cairns Tropical Zoo, to get acquainted with the local wildlife.
I had already decided on a day trip to Kuranda to experience a real rainforest, and it was everything I had imagined. The Skyrail cable takes you on a five-mile journey over the Barron Falls and sweeps through the air hundreds of feet above the ancient trees. Looking down on the “salties” – the region’s lethal salt water crocodiles - waiting in the river below is a little disconcerting. I hadn’t noticed them until a helpful fellow passenger pointed them out.
Once in the village there is the Wildlife Experience, with a huge collection of animals, butterflies and birds, including the giant cassowary. It must have been about my height, as I could look it in the eye. Then I visited the Koala Gardens to cuddle a koala and have a photograph taken as a souvenir. I also enjoyed a lively display of the dance and hunting culture of the region’s indigenous Tjapukai aboriginal people.
Shopping in Kuranda is a must. The village is home to many artists and craftspeople, and the market and shops sell the beautiful products they create. When the heat and excitement become too much there is great eating to be had along Coondoo Street and the surrounding side streets. Frogs restaurant in Coondoo Street was built in 1923 and is great for oysters and burgers made from the delicious white flesh of the baramundi fish.
Another way to see the wooded wilderness is on a 4x4 safari into the Daintree rain forest, skidding through glistening red mud and splashing through creeks. Australians love to tell tales about their lethal wildlife and our guide, who looked like Crocodile Dundee’s cousin, was no exception, shinning 20 feet up strangler fig roots and showing off scars where a barbed creeper cut his arm to the bone when it yanked him off his trail bike. I managed to avoid the leeches that drop from the trees but did discover I’m rubbish at throwing a boomerang.
The lava tubes at Undara, near Mount Sunrise, are vast tunnels carved out by ancient volcanic action. The coach takes four hours to get there, and passes through mile after mile of outback dotted with huge termite mounds. The area’s abundant wildlife includes wallabies, kangaroos, lizards, birds and thousands of bats. I stayed overnight at the Lava Lodge in a beautifully refurbished 100-year-old railway carriage. At dusk we gathered at the mouth of the tubes. This is when thousands of microbats emerge and it is an incredible sight. As they swarm out in search of food, snakes hang from the trees striking out to catch them as they fly past.
If long drives are not your idea of relaxation you can take a balloon flight over the Outback. This gave me a very different view of the arid scenery, gliding through the clear blue sky above the Atherton tablelands, watching the soaring firehawks and looking down on a landscape dotted with small towns and cattle stations.
In contrast, my husband took a flight out to the historic town of Chillagoe, famous for its limestone caves decorated with Aboriginal art. If you’re feeling adventurous why not hire a car and explore the area independently.
Then there’s the Great Barrier Reef. I took a boat trip to the Frankland Islands and swam with shoals of beautiful blue and white rays. Then we settled on a palm-shaded beach of white sand for the most fantastic barbie. I tucked into more big fat fresh prawns than I have seen in my life, as a family of sea eagles swooped and soared above us.
Another early morning trip was to a rainforest station with its own wildlife collection, including a 17-foot saltie penned up after acquiring a taste for dogs. As I breakfasted on the station terrace, the hillside opposite glowed with every imaginable shade of green in the early morning light. A ragged mist drifted through the treetops, while kingfishers and a large cormorant patrolled the lake below. It was hard for a city girl to believe it was all really there in front of me. There aren’t many better ways to start the day.
After all this activity it was time for relaxation. North of Cairns there is a chain of beaches and I moved on to one of the best, Trinity Beach, staying at the Coral Sands Resort. The beach here is a truly beautiful crescent of palm-lined sand between two rocky headlands. There are a range of eateries and the food is as fantastic as is the scenery. Try kangaroo or feast on fresh baramundi. Fruit is abundant. I defy anyone not to fall in love with mango with every meal and there is a wonderful range of wines the Aussies reckon are too good to export.