Where the rainforest meets the reef

AN opportunity to walk through the world’s oldest living rainforest and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef where two World Heritage sites collide is not to be missed writes Sheriden Rhodes.

There’s nothing more blissful than pointing your compass north — far north — when days are short and you’ve forgotten what summer feels like. Heading north of Cairns, the Captain Cook Highway hugs the coastline along one of Australia’s most beautiful shorelines. It’s where the rainforest tumbles down to a palm fringed coastline dotted with deserted beaches and shimmering turquoise waters. In your rear view mirror all trace of urban life become smaller and smaller as you skirt the spectacular shoreline. With expansive vistas out to the fringing Alexandra Reef, you’ll feel a long way from anywhere.

No matter where I’m staying — whether it’s the beaches of Trinity or Palm Cove close to Cairns, or the resort town of Port Douglas — I make a beeline for the Mossman River. It’s become a rite of passage. Heading to the friendly sugar town of Mossman takes you through swaying cane fields until I reach a pristine swimming hole, its location a carefully guarded local secret. Treading carefully over a tangle of ancient tree roots I scramble down the river bank, diving into the cool, clear fresh water (no salties here; only platypus sightings if you’re extremely lucky). Washed clean, I float on my back looking up at the sky through trees that overhang the river. Sometimes local Aboriginal kids can be seen and heard splashing along the river bank. I feel the weight of the world wash away on the fast flowing current.

Nearby Port Douglas, or ‘Port’ as it’s known to the locals, is a good base to explore the best of the reef and the rainforest.

Port’s heady days when Christopher Skase unveiled his five-star Sheraton Mirage Resort, transforming the small fishing village into a tropical playground for the rich and famous, may be long gone. Today, it’s a relaxed destination, yet it still offers an upmarket feel with everything from serviced apartments, affordable family resorts through to swanky five-star stays.

There’s much to do in Port itself including taking a sunset cruise aboard the charming Lady Douglas and having dinner at the iconic Tin Shed overlooking the inlet. Set aside at least one full day to explore the Great Barrier Reef and another to see the world’s oldest living rainforest, the Daintree. From Port you can also set sail for the Low Isles for a blissful day of sun and snorkeling.

Long slow walks along Four Mile Beach fringed with swaying coconut palms are one of my favourite things to do in Port Douglas. You can also have coffee with the locals at Origin Espresso or do breakfast with the birds at the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary. Here you can get the chance to hold a black cockatoo, feed wallabies, explore the new Cassowary Walk and (for an additional cost) hold a koala.

The Saturday Mossman Markets (with its staggering range of fresh tropical produce) and the Port Douglas Sunday Markets are both well worth a mosey. At the more touristy Port Douglas Markets you can buy fresh tropical fruit, sugar cane juice, hand crafted wooden flutes from a man with a King Parrot on his shoulder and gorgeous locally made jewellery. While there be sure and take a peek inside St Mary’s By the Sea, a charming white timber church built in 1911. Opposite, the Court House Hotel balcony is a terrific spot for sundowners.

It’s a full day when your destination is the Great Barrier Reef, so fuel up with breakfast first at Betty’s Bohemian Cafe in Port Douglas’ main strip Macrossan Street. Your journey starts from Reef Marina where you’ll board Quicksilver’s catamaran and motor out to the outer Great Barrier Reef. Here you can swim, snorkel or simply admire one of the seven natural wonders of the world through the boat’s glass bottom. You’ll return just after sundown — in time to freshen up for dinner with your feet in the sand at the iconic Beach Shack.

Another full day should be given over to discovering the Daintree. Getting there is an adventure in itself crossing into what feels like another world on the Daintree Ferry. Head north to the long stretch of Thornton Beach and have fish and chips at the beachfront kiosk, take a croc tour, or zip line through the lush rainforest canopy.

Closer back to Port Douglas, the Mossman Gorge (in the town of Mossman itself) is another way to explore the ancient rainforest and learn about the local Kuku Yalanji culture. Join a Ngadiku Dreamtime Gorge walk from the Mossman Gorge Centre. On this fascinating walk you’ll learn about the Daintree — the inspiration for the movie Avatar — the Kuku Yalanji people, bush tucker and culturally significant sites. Afterwards take a dip in a glorious waterhole, where clear water flows over granite boulders. It goes without saying you’ll be plotting your return to this magical part of Australia.

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