An Avatar-like Adventure of Rainforests and Reefs on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Drive

Nov. 25th, 2019

The Great Barrier Reef is a mandatory destination for the global explorer that ranks along with the Grand Canyon, Machu Pichu, Petra, and the Great Wall of China. As amazing as the Great Barrier Reef may be, the far northeastern reaches of Australia are blessed with more than one natural wonder. The Tropical North Queensland region is also home to the Daintree, the oldest rainforest in the world. This pristine prehistoric natural fantasyland is in fact James Cameron’s inspiration behind the movie Avatar. The forest appears as a fictional landscape of unspoiled dense jungles, gushing 400-foot high waterfalls, and an unbelievable biodiversity unlike any in the world. The ultimate way to indulge in the beauty of this region is to take the Great Barrier Reef Drive along the coast from Cairns to Cape Tribulation.

A visit to the Tropical North Queensland region deserves at least a week if not ten days to explore the reefs  and days ashore trekking through forests and rivers. The Great Barrier Reef Drive is a journey through the ideal places to stop and visit and in order to sample treasures of the region. 

The Great Barrier Reef Drive

The Great Barrier Reef Drive offers the only place in the world where two incredible World Heritage areas sit side by side – the Wet Tropics rainforests of Daintree National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World,  World Heritage Listed, and is the most ecologically diverse system in the world. This 500,000 year old marine spectacle is home to the Earth’s greatest concentration of life, including 1500 species of fish, 30 species of whales and dolphins, 50 species of birds and 3,500 species of mollusks, starfish and sea urchin. The Great Barrier Reef is actually 2900 separate coral reef systems which include 600 beautiful coral sand islands. To put it in perspective, the 1400 mile long chain is the size of the United Kingdom or half the size of Texas. 

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 Wet Tropics rainforest region which dates back over 165 million years, making it the oldest rainforest in the world. The Wet Tropics is 3500 square miles in size and is made up of a number of National Parks with its most iconic being the Daintree. 

Sir David Attenborough remarked on the Daintree Rainforest as “the most extraordinary place on Earth”. As shared, 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.  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.   

Southern Cassowary

This prehistoric jungle habitat is home to the highest variety of plants and animals found in any rainforest on the planet including its most exotic inhabitant the Southern Cassowary. The majestic birds are among the tallest in the world with their dark black feathers and blue colored neck and a casque atop their head that resembles a horn or a helmet. Sadly, they are endangered and a critical part of the rainforest ecosystem, but can still be found in the wild throughout the Daintree.

The Great Barrier Reef Drive offers a series of fascinating experiences to explore from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Although the drive itself is less than three hours, there are endless places to see along the way.  The picturesque coastal road goes through quaint villages and towns, and weaves along a coastline filled with gorgeous views of the cerulean coves, long stretches of deserted beaches and verdant green mountains. Along the way, visitors will want to stop at the many viewing points to snap a few pictures or just sit and take in the natural beauty before them

An ideal drive experience would begin in Cairns and at the comfortable and ideally located Shangri La The Marina Cairns to explore the town and nearby cafes and shoppes along the Esplanade. Day two’s first stop is at  Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures followed by arrival in Port Douglas and two nights at the Sheraton Port Douglas. The morning of day three begins with the first Barrier Reef excursion with a Low Isles Reef Day Cruise followed by a late afternoon visit to Port Douglas and exploring the shops and cafes.  Day four begins with a River Drift Snorkeling adventure on the Mossman River followed by a waterfall viewing hike to the Mossman Gorge. Guest would then overnight at the five-star eco-lodge Silky Oaks. 

The fifth day’s adventure begins with an early morning exploration of the Daintree River with a wildlife spotting cruise, then a drive and ferry across the Daintree river deeper into the rainforest and a visit at the Daintree Discovery Center and stops for sightseeing and nature walks along the way. As night falls guests settle in at the Mist Lodge in Cape Tribulation.  Day six brings guests back to Cairns and a visit to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and Kuranda followed by two nights at the Shangri La The Marina, Cairns. Day Seven features a full day of undersea reef exploration with a scuba or snorkel adventure with the final day to rest and relax at the area’s dramatic waterfalls while reflecting on the week’s adventure before returning home.

Hartleys Crocodile Adventures

The first stop is Hartley’s 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 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

Port Douglas is a quaint seaside Cape Cod-like village with low rise condos, well-to-do residents and holiday travelers 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.

Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Port Douglas

Travelers will enjoy their stay at Port Douglas’ the towns only five-star luxury resort, the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Port Douglas. The resort is a vast property that includes an 18-hole golf course, 295 rooms, and sprawls over 365 acres. The resorts most iconic feature is its seemingly endless lagoon of crystal blue lagoons that double as swimming pools which surrounds the hotel. Fronting the property is North Queensland’s Four Mile Beach, lined with coconut trees and wide beaches that meander down to the cerulean blue seas for which this region is known.    

The resort offers a number of exceptional dining options from tasty pool side burgers to their most acclaimed restaurant, Harrisons by Spencer Patrick which has won a cadre of awards under the helm of Chef Spencer Patrick, who began his illustrious career as the protege of Marco Pierre White. 

The Great Barrier Reef is an undersea patchwork of brilliant coral formations in a kaleidoscope of colorful 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

Low Isles Sailaway offers a wonderful way to experience the reef in two dive locations. This luxury catamaran that takes a limited number of adult guests for a day of snorkeling, glass-bottom boat sightseeing with some beach time as well. The catamaran sets sail to the Low Isles that are protected small sand islands surrounded by 55 acres of coral formations where you’ll see green sea turtles, massive centuries-old clams, all manner of colorful 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.

River Drift Snorkelling Adventure

The Mossman River Gorge is an area filled with beautiful rainforest rivers and pristine jungles.  Back Country Bliss Adventures takes small groups on a River Drift Snorkelling 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 above exotic birds, butterflies and forest creatures.  

The Mossman Gorge

The Mossman Gorge is a favorite of locals and visitors who come for its cool crystal waters, massive granite boulders and refreshing cool water natural swimming pools. It’s a wonderful area to explore the nature trails, and then cool off with a refreshing dip. This is also the land of the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people who have lived in the region for over 4000 years.

A short inland drive from Port Douglass is the Mossman River Gorge and your home for the fourth night of the journey, the Silky Oaks Lodge which offers 40 well-appointed stand-alone cabins overlooking the Mossman River. The Treehouse Restaurant is regarded as one of the top in the area serving inspired and innovative nuevo Australian cuisine. The luxury lodge offers an ideal rainforest stay for romantic couples with activities from jungle walks and chasing waterfalls to swimming in river’s refreshing cool water pools.

Daintree Boatman Nature Tours

The Daintree Rainforest is the land of the crocodile where the Daintree Boatman Nature Tours takes guests on a sunset river cruise offering an idea opportunity to see and photograph the Daintree’s abundant wildlife at close range. The  two hour exploration goes deep into recesses of the river and tributaries to spot the abundant wildlife and countless species of birds, snakes, and of course, crocodiles. The Daintree Boatman Nature Tours is the number one rated river cruise by TripAdvisor so guests are assured to have an enriching experience.    

Explorers 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. The first stop is the Daintree Discovery Center which a nationally awarded tourism destination that provides a foundation for understating the historical, environmental, and global significance of the rainforest. The center provides a self-guided tour with information stations, a complimentary guidebook and an audio device that details the wide variety of wildlife and fauna that make up 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.  

The journey’s end is at Cape Tribulation which is a sleepy crossroads village of a few bistros, campsites and country stores. Its main attraction is cinematic cove and wide stretches of beach the 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, guest will stay at the aptly named eco luxe lodge, mist at Cape Tribulation. The lodge has only three independent lodged 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. 

Cairns Esplanade Lagoon Pool

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 renown 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 that rises with the tide and makes a great place for a seaside stroll with plenty of parks and green areas as well as the Esplanade Lagoon which is a lake sized saltwater pool and sandy inland beach with free access and is located right in the center of town.   

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Nearby is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway which is a 4.5 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 birds 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 which is 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.  

Shangri-la The Marina, Cairns

While in Cairns, visitors will stay in the Shangri-la The Marina, Cairns that offers the ideal base to start and end adventure along the Great Barrier Reef. It is located in the center of town with walking access to most of the main attractions in the city. The resort faces the Marlin Marina where you’ll see the yachts and cruise ships coming and going.

The hotel offers 255 nicely furnished accommodations with large balconies ideal for a glass of wine after a long day of exploring. For another level of service, the resort offers its Horizon Club Rooms which includes comfortable lounge to relax in as well as several meals a day and cocktails and canapes at night. The resort is fun and lively with a large outdoor pool and its most popular watering hole, The Back Yard. The marina facing casual dining restaurant must have dish is the scrumptious seafood platter with a medley of fresh caught seafood including mussels, oysters, crab and bugs, which are and exotic cross between a lobster and giant prawn.

Cairns is one of the most popular locations experience the Great Barrier Reef due to the international airport as well as the bustling town which offers a number of other tourist options beyond the 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 and trained staff and reef guides that 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 and an experience of a lifetime. Divers descend 30 feet deep alongside colorful coral walls and formations of the continental shelf while coming face to face with a varied marine life including colorful parrot fish, massive clams, and sea turtles.

The Great Barrier Reef Drive in the far northeast region of Australia is a road trip of a lifetime offering an endless cache of unforgettable moments. The Great Barrier Reef and the oldest rainforest in the world are filled with fascinating experiences that will be cherished long after the suitcase is unpacked back home.      

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