Port Douglas & The Great Barrier Reef, North Queensland

Beaches and sand, tropical waters and sunshine. I’ll admit that the stereotypical coastal relaxation getaway is not my first choice when it comes to travel destinations – I much prefer the brisk chill of winter and the adventure of exploring a new place and culture. But sometimes the beauty and quiet charm of a place can’t help but sway my views – Port Douglas, in tropical far north Queensland, Australia – is one such place.

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas

Strolling along Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas

Escaping the monotony of dreary winter and jetting off to sunny Queensland is a staple of Australian domestic travel – boarding a plane in Sydney at 6am in 7ºC temperatures, emerging three hours later into 32ºC humidity speaks volumes about the sheer size and diversity of the Australian continent. The gateway to Far North Queensland is Cairns, and there are numerous flights daily from all major airports in Australia, as well as from several international hubs in South East Asia. Cheap fares can be obtained from any of the budget Australian domestic carriers, and sales on flights are frequent. The best time to visit the region is during the drier months, with July and August being the most popular.

Port Douglas is a quaint seaside paradise, about an hours’ drive north of Cairns. Big enough to have all the essential services and accommodation you’d need, but still small enough to feel like a untouched seaside haven, Port Douglas is the premier tourist destination of the region. Gateway to two Word Heritage Areas (The Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest) the town is the perfect destination for a mix of relaxation and adventure.

Port Douglas

Tropical waters and yellow sand beaches – view from Flagstaff Hill, Port Douglas

There is plenty of accommodation in the area to suit all travel styles, from backpacker hostels, family holiday parks and upmarket boutique resorts. We spent four nights at the latter, staying at Coconut Grove about a two minute walk to Four Mile Beach. The self-serviced apartment offered a luxurious stay and all the amenities you could need, and we had a welcome platter awaiting us in the fridge. The resort was on the main street of Port Douglas, seconds away from the  amazing restaurants and cafes of the town – stand out favourite was The Little Larder cafe (delicious sandwiches). Most delicious was the BBQ feast we made ourselves, overlooking the street below.

Sunset, Port Douglas

The sunset against the old wharf, Port Douglas

Take a stroll down the bustling main street and check out the parks and waterfronts in the north of the town. There are pubs lining the main thoroughfare, and a range of clothing, beachwear and art and craft shops. Bring a picnic blanket, some wine and cheese and check out idyllic Rex Smeal Park promontory for amazing sunset views out over the bay; the area is popular with backpackers and other relaxatiophiles playing frisbee, and just generally enjoying life.

Sunset, Port Douglas, Far North Queensland

Glorious sunsets and picnic blankets, Port Douglas

The Great Barrier Reef

No visit to the region would be complete without heading out onto the world’s largest coral reef system. The Great Barrier Reef consist of over 2,900 separate reefs, is larger than the United Kingdom and contains over 1,600 species of fish, turtles, marine mammals and birds. These facts alone make the reef worth visiting, and boy do people flock here – over two million tourists visit annual, pumping more than AU$5-6 billion per year. The reef lies 16-160kms off the Queensland coast and requires a day trip on a boat – luckily Port Douglas offers one of the best marinas for day trips to the reef.

Port Douglas Marina, Great Barrier Reef, Far North Queensland

Port Douglas Marina is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

There are a load of tour operators who offer cruises out onto the reef which cater for a range of activities, including snorkelling and scuba diving. It can be daunting choosing from the multitudes of companies based in the town, so I highly recommend researching the different options before you go. Expect to pay anywhere from AU$250 upwards for a chance to cruise and snorkel, more to dive. The price usually includes an Environmental Management Charge, a levy for conserving and maintaining the ecology of the reef.

Ryan was keen to head under the waves and go diving, while the less than aquatically-minded yours truly was happy to just snorkel. We ultimately settled on Calypso Reef Cruises who offered us a chance to head out to the reef for both snorkelling and diving – and I should let you know, that while diving is great (so I’ve heard), by no means do you miss out on anything by just snorkelling. The majority of the coral and fish are in the shallower six to eight meters of the surface, so you definitely get to experience the reef in all its glory.

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Far North Queensland

Agincourt Reef, one of the many reef systems that make up the Great Barrier Reef

The Calypso dive and snorkel cruise departs in the morning, with the trip to reef taking about an hour and a half. The first glimpse of the reefs is sublime – like a desert oasis, the coral systems are veritable refuges of life and colour. Once on the reef, the boat stops three times at different sections of the reef, depending on wind, currents and tides. You can snorkel or dive, and buffet lunch is provided after the second stop.

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Far North Queensland

Fish abound at Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef

Now to the actual experience of the reef itself – it has never been more apparent to me that climate change is a pressing issue than when visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Where decades ago there was thriving coral colonies and splashes of colour, now there is only bleached remnants at many systems. The ecology of the reef has suffered immensely of the last few decades – rising ocean temperates and pollution have caused a loss of diversity on an devastating scale. The sensitivity of coral systems to slight changes in ocean temperatures and water conditions have meant that reefs all over the world are the first casualties to succumb to climate change and warmer oceans. So while the journey under the waves was enjoyable, the pangs of guilt and sadness at the loss of such biodiversity and natural wonder dull the experience a tiny bit.

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Far North Queensland

Despite the bleached coral, the variety of fish species is still staggering

Expect to see colourful parrot fish, anemones full of clownfish (yes, Nemos!), jellyfish and giant clams – for those lucky ones, turtles and sharks are a rare but thrilling sight. For those interested in the species found on the reef, one of the guides offers a snorkelling tour around the second reef site, pointing out different fish and teaching the group about them. After the third stop, the journey back to the Marina is a lengthy (and for us, bumpy!) one, but its a relaxing way to end your a full day out on the reef.

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef, Far North Queensland

Snorkelling offers an up-close view of the reef and its inhabitants

Agincourt Reef, Great Barrier Reef,

Scuba diving at Agincourt Reef

The Daintree Rainforest

The region’s second World Heritage area is the tropical wonder that is the Daintree Rainforest – famous for its luscious green forests, crocodile-infested rivers and array of wildlife. Plan your visit to the region well in advance as the only route in gets quite busy – our scenic afternoon drive was thrown into disarray when we had to wait over an hour and a half for the car ferry across the Daintree River. By the time we made our way across the river, the day was almost at an end, and we were forced to turn back after a few quick walks along some of the beautiful boardwalks. I highly recommend spending an entire day or more exploring the Daintree – the drive to Cape Tribulation is picturesque and stunning.

Daintree Rainforest, Far North Queensland

Looking back towards Port Douglas, Daintree Rainforest, Far North Queensland

So there you have it. Port Douglas is a fantastic seaside gateway to the natural wonders of the Far North of Queensland, and I highly recommend the destination to anyone who finds themselves in need of a dose of sunshine and relaxation, with just a hint of adventure! The region offers a range of activities, natural sights, amazing wildlife and glorious sand beaches which epitomise Queensland’s slogan – ‘The Sunshine State’.

For more information on conservation efforts in the Great Barrier Reef, I urge you to visit the Marine Conservation and Fight For The Reef pages. Both have fantastic information about risks to the reef, projects in place and interesting links. The Reef faces increased pressures from human industry in the area. I urge you to sign petitions, write letters and visit the reef – each tourist provides much needed funds for the managements and preservation of this amazing natural wonder. 

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