If you find yourself in Australia, a trip up the east coast is a must.
It's one of those once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list trips that even gets locals on-board, but many don't make it all the way up to Port Douglas, and I can tell you right now, they're missing out.
It's not like the rest of Australia. I've done my fair share of Australian road trips between Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and the Gold Coast, so I have a pretty good sense of the size of the country, and the huge differences between the cities, the mountains, the country towns, and the desert, but I found driving from Sydney to Port Douglas to be a surprisingly eye-opening experience – North Queensland is so different from the rest of the east coast, it could almost be it's own country.
Port Douglas sits right in the middle of the North Queensland region, and it's relatively out of the way. The only way to get there is by coach from Cairns, or by car, but it's home to a vibrantly-tropical ecosystem, calm waters, mangroves, jellyfish, crocodiles, rainforests, and reefs – there's no reason not to go. The beaches are pristine and relatively flat with misty mountains in the distance, the locals are impossibly relaxed and (there's literally no other word for it) cheerful, and there's loads of stuff to do!
Having said that, swimming in the ocean should not be on your list of stuff to do. Unlike the southern coastlines of Australia, and you can't just jump in to the water in these parts. I really hate perpetuating the idea that Australia is full of things that want to kill you, but up here, it's kind of true.
Crocodiles and many different species of lethal jellyfish and stingrays infest these waters, and going in to an area without a swimming net is a pretty big risk, but have no fear! They won't bother you if you obey the signs and stick to the sand (unless there are crocodiles...then I advise you to get off the sand).
If you're looking for some adventure, trek it up to Flagstaff hill and marvel at Australia’s coastline, spend all your money on a helicopter and gawp from above, snorkel the reef, or climb through the rainforest.
If you’re not in to action, book yourself in to a resort (I stayed at By The Sea and loved it, but there are hostels for backpackers as well) and spend your days munching on seafood, sipping cocktails, floating in pools, and walking along the beach, dodging the water.
Whatever your budget, Port Douglas has something for you.
the Great Barrier Reef
Australia has a natural reef the size of Italy – it’s all sorts of crazy-colourful, and currently in mortal peril (thanks to a few politicians), so you might want to do that soon. There are loads of tours that leave from Port Douglas, and they’re not cheap, but I really urge you to splash out on an environmentally-friendly one run by marine biologists, such as Wavelength. They’ll take you snorkeling (the water isn’t deep enough for diving) around three of the reefs, give you food, and you’ll have an excellent and educational day – they also have excellent reviews on Trip Advisor.
Tip: Book in advance.
Eat. A lot.
After a long day of snorkeling, you're going to be pretty hungry, and there are restaurants and cafes to suit all budgets. I was there over Christmas and went to On The Inlet, and I can't recommend it enough. Almost all seating is on a wide deck suspended on stilts, so it extends out over the water giving almost everyone a view of the mangroves. Slightly pricier than your average Port Douglas restaurant, but it's definitely worth splashing out if it's a special occasion, or if you just like making it rain.
Tip: Book for a spot in the far corner on balcony – this seat has the best view in the establishment, and was the first and only time I saw a crocodile.
Hang at the pub
While there are a few bars and pubs to choose from, I recommend the Ironbar. This place is nice and spacious with great vibes, beers on tap, a beer garden, pool tables, and it's slap-bang in the middle of town. Locals drink here, tourists make friends here, and it's an all-round cheery place to be.
Tip:They also have themed parties and events, often featuring live music. Check out their website and get on that.
Don't drive around town.
It can be tempting to drive because Port Douglas is so tropical (wet and hot), but unless you’re staying miles away from town, there’s no need to drive anywhere. Port Douglas is just small enough so you can get everywhere on foot, and I know I keep saying it, but it’s really beautiful and you’ll miss it in the car.
Tip: If you don’t like rain, bring an umbrella. Even if it’s sunny, bring an umbrella.
The Daintree Rainforest
The Daintree Rainforest is one of the oldest-surviving rainforests in the world (more than 135 million-years-old), and is one of the most diverse with over 3,000 species of plants, one-third of Australia’s frogs, and a host of rare turtles, butterflies, reptiles, marsupials, birds, and more. It a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the only place in the world where two world heritage sites collide.
Tip: There are lots of groups that do tours, but as with the reef, I strongly recommend you choose one that’s eco-friendly.
Four Mile Beach
You can’t swim in it, but Four Mile Beach is worth a visit. Beaches up north are pretty different to the ones around Sydney, Melbourne, and the Gold Coast – the tide goes out a long way leaving a vast expanse of sand, but Four Mile Beach isn’t like that. Cut off from the main road by trees, the beach looks on to misty hills, a bit like a Thai beach. The water is relatively still compared the south, the humidity is high, and electric-green plants are everywhere, and the stillness is unusual for the Australian coast.
Tip: If you go in the morning when the tide’s up, you can make use of the swimming net without getting eaten by, oh I don't know, everything.
Image Attribution: By Samuel Sharpe under CC licensing.