Queensland: Where rainforest meets the reef
IT's like no other place on Earth. That was the promise before we left for our visit to Queensland, Australia's Sunshine State… and it was far from an idle boast. This place is a living treasure, a place that keeps on giving. Just when you think you've seen it all, it gives you more.
From the moment our flight landed at Cairns International Airport, and our faces felt the first burst of heat on the short walk across the apron, it was hard to shake the feeling that something special was about to unfold. From our endless coastlines to the great outback expanses, the world famous Great Barrier Reef and our array of luscious rainforests, our home state is a giant living and breathing postcard waiting to be explored.
Cairns, in north Queensland, is a relatively small city, the fifth largest in the state, with a population of around 145,000. It is often referred to as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef but with two world heritage areas side by side, the reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest, it is much more than that.
The Reef needs little introduction. It is the biggest coral reef system in the world, stretching for 2,300km along the Queensland coastline. And still it is just part - admittedly a large part - of the Queensland story. The reef will assuredly take your breath away, with its crystal blue waters and array of colours and marine life. There are plenty of day tours from Cairns to different parts of the reef, by sea and air, but just be sure to give yourself time to savour its splendour.
For a taste of what lies beyond Cairns, a good first port of call is the city's aquarium, even if the truth, of course, is that nothing can truly prepare you for what lies beyond. It is the only aquarium in the world to showcase aquatic wildlife from both the forest and the reef, taking you on a memorable journey through 10 North Queensland ecosystems, from the fresh clear waters of the ancient rainforest to the sea. As they like to say out there, it's the only place in the world where the rainforest meets a coral reef.
If - as many people do - you are using Cairns as the starting point for your tropical adventure, then a visit to the aquarium will really whet your appetite with its large collection of colourful and rare species, from endangered sawfish, grey reef sharks, humphead wrasse in their freshwater and marine habitats, to the amethystine python and Boyd's forest dragon making a spectacle of themselves in their treetop displays.
With more than 70 exhibits to occupy your time, it is a good idea to take one of the guided tours to enhance your experience.
On leaving Cairns, our first port of call was 30km north to the wonderfully picturesque, and aptly named, Palm Cove. It is a gentle retreat, an idyllic getaway with golden sandy beaches and restaurants and boutique hotels with ocean views to die for. It is an ideal spot to start, or finish, your Queensland adventure.
We chose the Reef House and Spa, with its charming colonial South Pacific ambiance, and dined out front to the sound of the ocean waves breaking gently on the shore only metres away.
The hotel underwent a complete refurbishment less than two years ago, and each room has its own individual character with features such as bespoke carved bedheads and four-poster beds, soft linen armchairs, and a variety of featured art works like shell artefacts and driftwood sculptures.
A walk along the shore at sunrise is a must - just don't allow the crocodile warning signs put you off. So long as you stay out of the undergrowth - where you have no business being anyway - you'll be fine!
There are so many daily excursions - to the reef and rainforest - that one of the hardest things can be organising your itinerary. One that offers a nice change of pace - and gives you a touch of both worlds - is to take the Fitzroy Flyer from the marina in Cairns to Fitzroy Island, a tropical paradise of rainforest and coral beaches. The Flyer, as its name suggests, gets you there fast.
There are plenty of activities for the whole family on Fitzroy. We opted to kayak from the main beach in Welcome Bay to Nudey Beach on another part of the island and back, while others decided to have a go at paddleboarding and snorkelling. Other activities on offer were diving lessons and tours - while if you have more time, I recommend one of the island's walking trails.
The island is also a resort, offering quality overnight accommodation in ocean suites, beach cabins or self-contained apartments. The resort's facilities include a cinema and a large pool, and guests can also avail of the beach bar and restaurant.
A little bonus for visitors to Fitzroy is that it is home to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, which is run by a group of volunteers who take care of sick and injured turtles, nursing them back to health to be released back into the wild.
The Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world's seven species of marine turtles but they are constantly under threat - natural and otherwise. There are daily tours of the centre, where one of the volunteers will explain their work, and their passion for it, and introduce you to some of the turtles being cared for.
The next leg of our adventure was the sleepy town of Mossman at the edge of Daintree National Park, further up the famous Captain Cook Highway. Our destination proved to be one of the most stunning places I have ever had the good fortune to visit - the Silky Oaks Lodge and Spa, a luxurious five-star hotel. Although 'hotel' doesn't quite do it justice, because while the central building in the resort houses the lodge's main facilities (restaurants, bars, etc) and the spa, the rooms are spread throughout the forest in the form of individual cabins. They are referred to as 'treehouses', and all have private balconies.
A network of paths and trails link the cabins and the main area, which also has a large pool, and you can also venture a little further into the woods or take a stroll down the gorge to the Mossman River. The lodge will also organise bushwalks, kayaking and even yoga classes for you during your stay.
There are tennis courts there too, which might seem a little odd in that setting, until you learn that the owner of Silky Oaks Lodge is Paul Van Min, a former pro. The Dutchman has followed his success on the court by creating this spectacular forest getaway. An absolute must on your visit here is to indulge yourself in one of the many spa treatments on offer.
As someone who has only learned to swim in recent years, I find myself seeking out water-based activities all the time now - so the opportunity to go drift snorkelling in the river was an opportunity too good to turn down.
It was a new and thrilling experience for me. We had two guides who had intimate knowledge of the area. They expertly steered us through the forest and down the river, and even threw in a picnic. The beauty of this is that it is family friendly, as smaller children can journey down the river on inflatable river sleds.
The staff at the lodge will organise this or any of the other activities available in the area. Bicycles are available at reception too, so I spent a leisurely afternoon exploring Mossman and its environs.
There are many remarkable things about the Daintree River and the world heritage site it lends its name to - the Daintree National Park - but surely the fact that there is just one crossing point as it winds its way from where it rises beneath Black Mountain to the Coral Sea trumps them all. And that crossing point is by cable ferry. There is no hurry around here. A relaxing boat trip down the river yielded plenty of crocodile sightings.
One fascinating way to learn more about this vast territory is to take a walking tour with one of the local Aboriginal guides. We received extraordinary insight from our guide who has lived all his life in the park and who learned, and still upholds, many of the traditions of his people, who have lived there for generations. The Kuku Yalanji are the guardians of this place, and their connection with it is deeply ingrained.
One of the best known places in the park is Cape Tribulation, once a favourite haunt of backpackers. The story goes it was given its name by James Cook, whose ship Endeavour ran aground on a reef off the headland, and he wrote in the ship's log: "I name this point Cape Tribulation, because here began all my troubles".
Captain Cook's troubles may well have began there, but this is the kind of remote and beautiful place where you could wash some of your own troubles away. Life here moves at a different pace, harking back to simpler times and simpler demands.
The same could be said of this whole little - well it's not so little, as Queensland is about seven times the size of Britain - corner of the world. The best way to enjoy it is to immerse yourself in it.
You can mix some fast-paced action with more gentler pursuits, or learn from the locals to appreciate the world around you.
True, it's easier when it is so beautiful, be it out on the reef, snorkelling downstream, strolling through the rain forests, or just relaxing in your treehouse in Silky Oaks Lodge, it's all there for you… and so much more. Not so much Queensland, as Godsland.
Take Two: Top attractions
Silky Oaks Lodge
What a place — with your very own ‘treehouse’ and a private balcony to bask in the sights and sounds of the rainforest. There’s plenty to do in this luxurious hideaway; or, if you prefer, plenty of time to recharge.
Ah... the Daintree River, slowly meandering its way to the sea, with just one crossing point, a cable car ferry (above). Take a step out of the fast lane and savour a leisurely boat trip, spotting crocodiles and all manner of creatures as you go.
* John flew to Cairns, via Singapore, from Heathrow with Singapore Airlines. The airline flies to Cairns five times a week. singaporeair.com
* The Reef House and Spa, Palm Cove - Brigadier King Room from €160. reefhouse.com.au
* Silky Oaks Lodge, Daintree - rooms from €300 (based on booking websites). silkyoakslodge.com.au
* Fitzroy Island - easily reached by regular ferry transfers on the Fitzroy Flyer, from €50 for adults and €25 for children. (4-13 years) www.fitzroyisland.com.
* Walkabout Adventures - full day sight-seeing tour from €130 per person (lunch included). walkaboutadventures.com.au
* Back Country Bliss - €60 for river snorkelling and rafting half day tour. backcountrybliss.com.au/
For more info: queensland.com
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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