Beyond the Reef

Port Douglas is a gateway to Australia’s Tropical North

By: David Swanson

This is the first Image
Daintree National Park is known
as the “original Garden of Eden.”
Australia’s Tropical North points toward Papua New Guinea like a giant horn. Two magnificent World Heritage-listed natural attractions snuggle up to each other here: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.

The city of Cairns is the usual tourism hub for Australia’s reef and rainforest. But I wended my way 42 miles north to lodge in the funky-chic town of Port Douglas, the last major outpost along the scenic Captain Cook Highway.

With a year-round population of just 4,800 residents, Port Douglas doesn’t seem like an obvious fit for mass tourism. The indolent town doesn’t even have traffic lights. But most of the boats headed to the reef are based here, and each morning motorcoaches from Cairns shuttle hundreds of tourists to the port for day trips. The rest of the day Port Douglas hums at a gentler pace against a backdrop of interesting boutiques, galleries and dining and a four-mile-long sweep of beachfront.

In addition to being the easiest jumping-off point for the reef, Port Douglas has good lodging options. I liked the Port Douglas Peninsula Boutique Hotel, a stylish, adults-oriented property at the edge of downtown, with 34 apartment-style units overlooking the beach and within walking distance of more than two dozen restaurants.

Thala Beach Lodge, located 10 miles south of town, is a sophisticated 84-room eco-resort that lays on the creature comforts and offers all-inclusive or E.P. options.

There’s one big resort, the 394-room Sheraton Mirage, which I found overdue for a freshen-up and best suited for the meeting crowd. But most visitors won’t spend a lot of waking hours at their hotel there’s too much to see. I signed up for a four-wheel-drive excursion to the Daintree National Park and got an eyeful.

“Daintree is reckoned to be the oldest tropical rainforest on the planet, at 120 million years old,” said Ben, our guide with Down Under Tours. “It’s the original Garden of Eden.”

The road mostly follows the coastline north to Mossman Gorge, where a short hike took us into the thick of the forest.

Ben said Daintree is classified as the world’s safest rainforest, due to its lack of large predators and venomous snakes. Still, there was plenty to keep an eye out for. The climbing palm, better known as the “wait-a-while tree,” has saw-toothed strands that can ensnare clothing of unsuspecting passersby or even tear flesh. The endangered southern cassowary is listed in Guiness World Records as the world’s most dangerous bird. The secretive, flightless creature, about half the size of an ostrich, possesses a vivid blue throat and sharp claws that once slit the throat of a teenager.

But the creatures everyone wants to see are the estuarine crocodiles, locally known as “salties” (their inland counterparts being “freshies”). We detoured onto a croc-spotting river trip with Daintree River Cruise Center, captained by an acerbic guide who threatened with a wink that the bigger crocs can jump out of the water and grab something off the roof of the boat. We saw huge crocs, to be sure, but none of the supine beasts made a move for us. More enchanting was a groggy, white-lipped green tree frog, which hitched a ride on the boat and posed for photos on the captain’s arm.

Our 65-mile trek north eventually reached the dirt-road Bloomfield Track and Cape Tribulation, where the Great Barrier Reef kisses the continent.

As the best tour guides often do, over the course of our day Ben had succinctly captured how seemingly disparate elements were related, and tied them in with our environments at home.


Douglas Peninsula Hotel

Down Under Tours

Sheraton Mirage

Thala Beach Lodge