Raging rivers, rampant rainforest, stunning snorkelling, and some of the strangest animals you’re ever likely to encounter: Tropical North Queensland is a dream destination – and you won’t have to blow your budget to see it. Book ahead for a low-cost rental from Cairns, throw the day pack in the back, and you’re good to go – but not before you’ve checked out the city’s sites, hung out with the locals, and experienced the reef-life that draws visitors from around the world.
Cairns Esplanade, just a few blocks from the city centre, is the budget traveller’s mecca. Entry to its croc- and stinger-free salt water Lagoon swimming centre is totally free, and while the pool buzzes with tourists as the day warms up, early morning is the time to get wet and watch the sun rise over the sea.
Stroll along the esplanade or out to the marina’s old wharf (where crocs can sometimes be spotted), pick up breakfast at any of the cafes lining the route, and pop into an adjacent park with a takeaway coffee and bagel. When you’re ready to catch another great freebie (and a chance to take in a few travel tips from the locals) join in with an Active Living Free Fitness class. They’re run throughout the day along the esplanade, and won’t cost you a cent. From bouldering and yoga to Pilates and Zumba, they’re a great way to wind down from your flight or set yourself up for your ‘budget Barrier’ experience.
Great Barrier Reef is Tropical North Queensland’s must-see, and Green Island is one of the most budget-friendly ways to experience it. Just a 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, Green Island is a white-sand tropical atoll – and it’s definitely on the reef. While the raft of add-on tours can add up, those in the know take their own mask and stinger suit, shake off the crowds, and make for the main jetty where the underwater life is abundant. Top tip: look under the jetty itself for the best views of fish and possible sightings of sea turtles flapping toward the shallows from their seagrass grazing.
Once you’ve tasted the sea, it’s time to hit the road for an easy half-hour drive to Port Douglas along the outrageously scenic coastal road dotted with dramatic drop-offs. Palm Cove is your half-way latte point and don’t miss Palm Cove wharf. Jutting 40 metres into the sea, it’s the perfect place to watch the locals haul in a fish or peer over the side for a restful half hour of mackerel-spotting.
To reach the steamy, tropical rainforest of the north, head to Port Douglas, gateway to World Heritage-listed Daintree National Park. Noah Beach on Cape Tribulation is your destination – but not before you’ve stocked up with fresh fruit and vegetables and a basket of baking from one of Port Douglas’s open air markets (Sundays at Market Park 8am-1pm and Wednesdays 2pm-7pm at the Reef Marina).
If you want to check out the hinterland, shop at the Saturday market at Mossman, 20 minutes out of town. The village vibe is best taken in sitting under the rain trees and watching the world go by as you listen to banjo buskers and nibble on locally grown dried mango. If the rural scene steals your heart, stay a while and mosey up Mossman Gorge where the river tumbles over granite boulders, carving out deliciously cool swimming holes.
Your trip into Daintree National Park begins with a short ferry ride across the Daintree River, 40 minutes from Port Douglas. To make the journey is to venture into a land of wild waterfalls, rushing rivers and forest-fringed beaches.
If your visit to Daintree is your first taste of wild animals, prepare to be wowed. Lace monitors are frequent visitors (don’t be tempted to feed them) and Cassowary scour the beach at low tide. Take any of the numerous forest walks in the vicinity and keep your eyes peeled for bats, birds, possums and frogs.
Leaving the pristine paradise of Daintree at the end of your stay, and abandoning the heady heat of Tropical North Queensland isn’t easy – but relax. This affordable destination is made to be enjoyed again and again!