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Exploring the exotic natural wonderland of reefs and rainforests on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Drive

By Glenn Harris on 17th December 2019

Australia is a fascinating destination with so many varied experiences that tourists are sure to be spoiled for choice. One of its many standout treasures is the Great Barrier Reef which is 2200 kilometers long, the size of the United Kingdom, and the most ecologically diverse system in the world.

As incredible as the Great Barrier Reef may be, the Tropical North Queensland region is far from a one trick pony. Along the coastline is the Daintree Rainforest which dates back over 165 million years, making it the oldest rainforest in the world.

An ideal way to experience both of these unbelievable UNESCO World Heritage sites is to take the Great Barrier Reef Drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. The Great Barrier Reef Drive is a self-drive sightseeing route that originates in Cairns, passes through Port Douglas and Mossman and terminates in Cape Tribulation.

Although the actual drive is less than three hours, there are endless places to see and explore along the way. Guests will want to stop at the many viewing points to snap a few pictures or just sit and take in the unsurpassed natural beauty before them of dramatic rocky coastlines, idyllic beaches and thick dense forests.

Cairns

An ideal journey would last at least a week and would begin in Cairns which is where the international airport is located. Cairns is a small city with a mix of Victorian era structures and modern buildings with plenty of shopping and dining options. Visitors will want to stay at one of the town’s most swanky and hip hotels, the Riley, Crystal Brook Collection.

Hartleys Crocodile Adventures

After overnighting in Cairns the first stop will be Hartleys Crocodile Adventures which is a nature park filled with animal attractions, interactive shows, exhibits and nature walks. Guests explore the lagoons and wetlands of the park by boat tour as the guide points out crocodiles, birds and other wildlife.

By foot there are extensive walking trails to see animal exhibits, interact with kangaroos, and visitors can even enter a bird aviary with birds of prey. Entertainment and educational shows take place throughout the day from the snake handlers and the brave staff member who actually gets in the water with a mammoth crocodile while it jumps out of the water to snatch its meal from his hands.

Port Douglas

From there, explorers will have a late lunch in Port Douglas. The quaint seaside Cape Cod-like town has low rise condos, well-to-do residents and holiday travellers seeking a relaxing tropical lifestyle.

There’s one main street that runs through the town where you’ll find tony designer boutiques, swimwear shops and lovely al fresco bistros to explore. After a long lunch dining, head to the Four-Mile Beach for a stroll along the wide open sandy shore. Just before dusk wander over to the Anzac Park and settle in amongst the coconut palm trees to take in the stunning sunset views.

Silky Oaks

A short inland drive from Port Douglas is the Mossman River Gorge and your home for the second night of the journey, the Silky Oaks Lodge.

The lodge offers 40 well-appointed stand-alone cabins overlooking the Mossman River, and the Treehouse Restaurant, which is regarded as one of the top in the area, serving inspired and innovative nouveau Australian cuisine. The luxury lodge offers an ideal rainforest stay for romantic couples with activities from jungle walks and chasing waterfalls to swimming in the river’s refreshing cool water pools.

Low Isles Sailaway

The day begins early with a return to Port Douglas for the first barrier reef adventure. The Great Barrier Reef is an undersea patchwork of brilliant coral formations in a kaleidoscope of colourful fish and undersea creatures. During your visit you’ll want to visit the reef at least two times, if not more, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy this unbelievable spectacle of nature.

Low Isles Sailaway is a luxury catamaran that takes a limited number of adult guests for a day of snorkelling and glass-bottom boat sightseeing with some beach time as well. The catamaran sets sail to the Low Isles – protected small sand islands surrounded by 22 hectares of coral formations – where you’ll see green sea turtles, massive centuries-old clams, all manner of colourful reef fish, and even small and harmless blacktip sharks. A delicious lunch of seafood, sandwiches and salads is followed by a gentle sail back to shore while lazing about on the catamaran’s trampoline, and is nothing less than an utterly wonderful day at sea.

The Daintree Ecolodge

After the scuba adventure, guests will stay in the Daintree Ecolodge which is an idyllic abode to stay while being immersed in the natural beauty of the area. The lodge offers 15 stand-alone cabins located high above the rainforest. These cabins are set on stilts and provide a bird’s eve view of the forest below, filled with dense jungles, babbling brooks and a wide variety of birds.

The cabins are uber comfortable, well furnished with a large comfortable bed, bathroom with shower and a wet bar with a refrigerator and coffee and tea. Guests will enjoy the relaxing environment especially in the screened-in furnished terrace and with a glass of wine in the evening after a day exploring the forest.

Around the lodge, the setting could not be more beautiful with a pond, while a short trek away is a gorgeous waterfall and viewing platform. The Daintree Ecolodge is a full-service boutique hotel with a rainforest spa and pool as well. The main lodge is expansive with a great room and a long well-stocked bar ideal for gathering with other guests.

The Julaymba Restaurant is their gourmet restaurant offering organic and seasonal local cuisine, served al fresco on the terrace and overlooking the beautiful natural pool and grounds. While staying at the Daintree Ecolodge, couples will want to venture off on their own into the rainforest perhaps to a hidden waterfall and dine on a gourmet picnic prepared by the restaurant and filled with all types of freshly made goodies and artisanal snacks.

River Drift Snorkeling

The next morning guests will venture in to the Mossman River Gorge which is an area filled with beautiful rainforest rivers and pristine jungles. Back Country Bliss Adventures takes small groups on a River Drift Snorkeling adventure through the crystal clear waters of the Mossman River. The adventure ranges from thrilling rafting through fast paced rapids to tranquil stretches of slowly drifting, while looking up at the canopy of trees and listening to the sounds of the river and forest birds. This is a wonderful way to explore the Daintree Rainforest where you can expect to see turtles and river fish below and exotic birds, butterflies and forest creatures above.

Daintree Boatman Nature Tours

After an exhilarating excursion into refreshing waters of the Mossman River, guests will take to another river adventure into the Daintree River.

The Daintree Rainforest is the land of the crocodile where the Daintree Boatman Nature Tours takes guests on a sunset river cruise offering an ideal opportunity to see and photograph the Daintree’s abundant wildlife at close range. The two-hour exploration goes deep into the recesses of the river and tributaries to spot the abundant wildlife and countless species of birds, snakes and, of course, crocodiles.

Daintree Discovery Center

After a second night at the Daintree Ecolodge, guests will then head north on the Great Barrier Reef Drive and take the tranquil 15-minute ferry ride over the Daintree River and enter deeper into the rainforest. Sir David Attenborough remarked on the Daintree Rainforest as “the most extraordinary place on Earth.”

James Cameron was so enthralled with its beauty that it became his real-life place of fantasy and the inspiration behind his epic film, Avatar. The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest is home to an incredible collection of wildlife, flora and fauna that are found nowhere else in the world, including the rarest of birds, the Southern Cassowary. The pristine tropical forest is botanically fascinating, awash with fern gardens, suspended epiphytes, twisted vines and majestic giant rainforest trees, all of which compete for life-giving sunlight.

The first stop is the Daintree Discovery Center which is a nationally awarded tourism destination that provides a foundation for understating the historical, environmental and global significance of the rainforest. There are several walkways including ground level boardwalks, a sky walk rising 36 feet above ground and 75 feet viewing platform, which allows visitors to see the rainforest from the ground as well as up close and from above. This is an ideal way to understand what the rainforest really is as well as understanding the origins of the most ancient of world’s rainforests.

Cape Tribulation

The journey’s end is at Cape Tribulation which is a sleepy crossroads village of a few eateries, campsites and country stores. Its main attraction is a cinematic cove and wide stretches of beach that curve for miles around the bay. Surrounding the calm waters of the bay is the dense jungle of the Daintree which ends at the beach.

To explore the area, guests will stay at the aptly named eco-luxe lodge, Mist at Cape Tribulation. With only three independent lodges nestled in eight acres in the rainforest with views of the bay, the accommodations are set on elevated pavilions with all the creature comforts needed, as well as wide outdoor decks to take in the natural beauty of the area.

Back to Cairns

The return trip to Cairns will begin early to allow for the must-have photo stops along the way. Visitors will find Cairns to be a fascinating town with a mix of old and new buildings with roads lined with shoppes that range from bargain dollar stores to renowned luxury brands and fashion boutiques.

There are also countless pubs and party spots that cater to the droves of young tourists that come for the barrier reef during the day and party to the wee hours of the morning. Cairns is on a calm bay and makes a great place for a seaside stroll with plenty of parks and green areas. in addition to this is the Esplanade Lagoon, which is a lake sized saltwater pool and sandy inland beach with free access, and is located right in the centre of town.

Riley, the Crystalbrook Collection

While in Cairns, visitors will stay in Riley, the Crystalbrook Collection. The hotel has become an icon of Cairns with an 18 floor glass cylindrical tower that permeates the skyline along the shoreline. The hotel’s location is also the epicenter of Cairns along the Esplanade which is filled with alfresco cafes, bars and tourist shoppes. The Riley is posh and swanky, with gorgeous rooms overlooking the bay as well as several dining options and a rooftop bar that overlooks the city.

Quick Silver

After an early morning rise, guests will head for their second adventure into the barrier reef. One of the top reef tour companies is Quick Silver that has been doing reef tours for over 30 years and has access to exclusive sites that are assured not to be crowded.

This is a full day experience offering three dives sites with trained staff and reef guides who cater to all levels of guests, from first time snorkelers to experienced PADI certified scuba divers. The Discover Dive offers first time scuba divers instructions by a certified instructor and then it’s in the water for an experience of a lifetime. Divers descend 30 feet deep alongside colourful coral walls and formations of the continental shelf while coming face to face with a varied marine life including colourful parrot fish, massive clams and sea turtles.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

On the last full day of the Great Barrier Reef Drive experience, explorers will head to the nearby Skyrail Rainforest Cableway which is a four and a half mile cable ride that takes guests soaring high above the rainforest with several stops along the way, terminating in the quaint tourist village of Kuranda.

The bird’s eye views are stunning from high over the verdant beauty of the rainforest. Along the way, the tram has two stops for a guided forest walk and then the gorgeous Instagram-perfect view of the Baron Gorge with a stunning waterfall that cascades 850 feet down to its precipitous end below.

The cable ride terminates at Kuranda Village, a small village that is easy to walk around to visit the tourist shops, various cafes and attractions. The city was once an aboriginal settlement and has since been transformed with the hippies of the 60 and 70s which have added a creative bohemian vibe.

With this your amazing adventure will draw to an end. The Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Drive offers a region spoiled for choice with natural beauty, sights to see and unforgettable experiences both in the sea and ashore.