Finally I was able to organise this epic trip, the Cairns to Port Douglas scenic drive.
Because this is one of the most beautiful road to do in Australia, probably together with the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.
Table of Contents
Driving in Queensland, especially in North Queensland, is pretty easy going.
If you are not used to the left side you may want to spend the first couple of days renting a bicycle to have a ride in Cairns, visiting some of the best sites of this interesting town.
After this acclimatisation process, you will be ready for the Great Tropical Drive.
The question now is more about what to see between Cairns and Port Douglas.
When I prepared this trip I checked first of all Google Map to see all the possible routes.
For each road from Cairns to Port Douglas, I checked any point of interest, viewpoint, hidden beaches and secret corner through the Satellite view.
I then went on most of the Tourist Board websites (the Australia.com first and foremost) and some other interesting local websites to gather more intelligence and inside view.
Best season to visit North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef
I have been living in Australia for over 10 years and I have pretty much travelled everywhere, except only the north of Western Australia.
I travelled with any mean, including an epic bicycle trip from Sydney to Uluru, 4000km through the Australian Alps area and the South Coast, to finish in a 10-day desert ride.
The most important thing I have learnt so far is that most of the places in Australia can change dramatically based on the season you visit it.
As an example, in Melbourne, the temperature in summer may drop 20-25 degrees Celsius, from 40-45 to 15-20 degrees, in a matter of 3-5 minutes. Therefore checking daily the weather forecast is just essential as strong winds may kick in.
Back in North Queensland, during the raining season, November to May, having a swim in the sea may be a dangerous business as jellyfish can actually kill and crocodiles are more likely to be closer to the beach.
Having a swim in a river waterhole may be the solution…..or a mistake. Crocodiles are more likely in the rivers and inlets during the May to October period because the water is warmer.
During the raining season (also called summer)….well it rains. North Queensland is in the tropics. I was in the area in February for 2 weeks and I had almost every single day raining.
I am sure I was not very lucky. The locals told me that rain comes every second day or so and that lasts for a few hours only, typical of the tropics.
The sea in the raining season is not as clear as in the dry season (May to October), in case you plan to do some snorkelling or diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
Thinking about the jellyfish, the turbid water and the rain, I personally suggest, if you can, to visit Cairns and Port Douglas between May and October.
In the post below I suggest some of the sites that should be safe to visit in any season and some of the beaches that are patrolled and have a net to avoid encounters with the jellyfish.
I have been a bit dramatic here. I do not want to scare anyone. The media always highlights stories with crocs, jelly, sharks etc. The reality is that accidents happen very very rarely, especially when compared with car crashes.
Drive Cairns to Port Douglas by car
The drive from Cairns to Port Douglas and Daintree is around 110km.
Every single km of the great tropical drive is a beautiful experience, especially between Palm Cove and Port Douglas. Also, the drive from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation is quite remarkable
I have visited the area three times, twice in winter (dry season with 20-30 degrees Celsius) and once in summer (raining season, quite humid and hot).
Here below a few suggestions that may help to plan what to see between Cairns and Port Douglas:
- rent the car in Cairns and check some of the sites in this post as day trips. Just easier than moving accommodation every day. It saves plenty of time in the trip organisation too.
- You will be surprised by the many day trips you can do from Cairns. You will love to drive to the waterholes through the forest and be rewarded by a nice safe swim.
- You can plan the road from Cairns to Port Douglas following the coast and drive back from Port Douglas to Cairns through the Tableland National Park where you can experience more of the tropical nature
- Once in Port Douglas plan at least a few day-trips to the Mossman Gorge, the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation (more on this later)
- If you visit North Queensland in the raining season (November to April) ask your car rental if they are aware of any closed road (it may happen, flooding is not uncommon)
Cairns – the start of the trip
I have visited Cairns for the first time around 10 years ago.
It was a good backpacker tropical centre to start the exploration of North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef.
I was back 5 years ago and I could already see some changes.
In this third visit, I must say, I have been totally impressed.
In my opinion, the town has gone through an incredible, and very positive, transformation.
It’s not anymore just hostels and pubs offering dirt cheap deals.
There is so much more than that. There is even a contemporary art museum, to spend a few hours on a hot day. With great exhibitions too.
The Botanical Garden and the Tropical Park are both a must visit. I was even invited to an art exhibition opening night next to the Information Center, a great place to meet a few locals.
Every single dinner and lunch I had in Cairns was a real surprise, I mean positive surprise. Awesome tasty food and some of the best deals in Australia, not just Cairns.
Let’s go deeper with more info on the city and some of the greatest Cairn day trips.
It’s the closest and most accessible island from Cairns. You can leave the port in the early hours and be back in the late afternoon.
It’s a good fun day and probably the easiest and less expensive experience in the Great Barrier Reef.
The cost of the trip is around $100 (ouch) and it includes snorkelling gear as well (or access to the glass bottom boat).
The small beach is beautiful and overall an experience to do if in Cairns for a few days.
Great Barrier Reef day trip
This is another possibility to experience the Great Barrier Reef. With a powerboat that will take you right to the edge of the reef where you can experience some of the best diving and snorkelling in the region.
It’s a long day on the boat including also a visit to a tiny island.
If you have money for just one trip to the Great Barrier Reef make this the one.
There are different tour operators with different prices based on the experience they offer
Cairns Botanic Garden
I had one spare afternoon, the weather was not really a wow and I decided to visit the Cairn Botanic Garden.
What a beautiful surprise I had.
To be precise, there are two botanic gardens: Cairns and Flecker. They are separated by Collins Avenue.
I started my visit in the Flecker Botanic Garden and I was really impressed by its beauty and it’s quite close to the town centre too, very accessible.
I personally suggest a walk to the Bamboo Collection, close to the border between the two parks. I never seen bamboo of that size!! It was a windy day and the noise they do is so creepy.
Another highlight for me was the Rainforest Boardwalk, really an easy and beautiful walk not to be missed
Barron Gorge and the Placid Lake
It’s a 30 to 45 minutes drive from Cairns, through a beautiful road in the forest that follows the Barron River.
Driving in North Queensland can really take you to some amazing places and in some respect, it is a pity that lots of visitors stay in Cairns, or Port Douglas, and never venture outside the town.
Renting a car in Cairns will make you flexible with your days and the places you can and want to visit.
The final destination of the Barron Gorge is the Hydroelectric Power Station Lookout. Interesting that they once offered guided visits but they stopped that.
The highlight here is the tall bridge connecting the 2 sides of the gorge.
It’s a 400 meters return walk and you will experience a great view of the river and the hills around.
High, on top of the gorge, you can also see the railway bridge used by the steam train connecting Cairns to Kuranda.
On the way back from the power station there are few spots where you can stop for a swim.
Alternatively, you can visit the Placid Lake at the base of the gorge (just follow the signals).
This lake looks great for a swim, which is suggested, based on the first sign you see close to the parking area.
But once you venture to the beach you see another sign with a croc face. Just to be sure I avoided any contact with the water LOL
There are two very good reasons to go to the Copperlode Dam.
The first one is the winding road through the tropical forest.
It’s a lovely drive with few viewpoints where you can stop to admire the beautiful view to Cairns, and up to Green Island on a clear day
The second reason is the destination, a big reservoir/lake nested between tropical hills. It left me open mouth.
The distance from Cairns is between 30 and 40 minutes by car. This road is very well know by the locals for its beauty and it can be quite busy with cyclists.
This is such an awesome easy walk with an amazing destination, a pool under a waterfall.
I would definitely suggest a trip to the Crystal Cascades to anyone visiting Cairns.
You can drive there in probably 20 minutes.
Once parked, you can walk up the gorge along the Crystal Cascades.
It’s really an easy walk, accessible even with toddlers and prams, which makes it popular with families.
I was almost on my own, no tourists or locals around. In saying that it was quite early in the morning, probably around 9-9:30am.
When I left it, around 10:30am, I could definitely see quite a number of people starting the walk.
My suggestion here is to plan it as soon as possible in the morning.
Other top destinations and things to do in Cairns
The more I think the more I realise that I should write a post just about Cairns, I was really impressed by the town.
To make things short, this is a list of other top spots to visit in Cairns and around. They are all in the map, at the bottom of the post
- Cairns Esplanade Walk: this was my lovely morning walk/run place. It’s the place to be for sport (basket, soccer, skateboard, etc), kid activities (a majestic playground), ice creams and sunset watching the long muddy beach, on low tide
- Glacier Rock: an easy to moderate hike on top of the Barron Gorge. You can go as far as Kuranda and come back by train
- Lake Barrine: you can have a cruise ($16) to view one of the most incredible rainforest eco-system
- Goldsborough Valley: this is a place I haven’t visited myself (just lack of time). It’s supposed to be a great waterhole and a camping area too
- Behana Gorge: another waterhole with waterfalls around 40 minutes from Cairns
- The Boulders – Waterfall: one hour drive south of Cairns
- Josephine Falls: around 70km south of Cairns
If you are in Cairns between Friday and Sunday I suggest a visit to the Rusty’s Markets where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables at some of the best prices in Australia I believe. There is also a food corner. My Thai dish was just superb, highly suggested (there is only one Thai street food, you can’t miss it)
Where did I eat
The Cairns Night Market is nothing to call home about but worth a visit anyway for the cheap food on offer, mostly Asian take away sort of.
However, if you are after some great food at a reasonable price ($9-$15 main) I definitely suggest these places. In all cases, I had a great experience (I am not going to mention the ones I was not impressed LOL, probably the night market is one of them though)
- Ganbaranba Noodle Collosseum: this is a Cairns institution. Expect a bit of queuing
- The Korean restaurant next to it (not sure about the name): I honestly went there because Ganbaranba had a long waiting list on that night. Really a great surprise. Highly suggested
- Tokyo Dumpling: when I saw the restaurant I was not really impressed. More looking like a cheap take-away. I seat anyway and actually, the place itself is ok. The food experience however is just at another level, very high!!
- Outback Jacks Bar & Grill: mostly meat and real outback food. Think big steaks, burgers and icy cold beers
- The Flying Monkey Cafe: best coffee and arty environment in town. The size of the latte mug is double the one you have in Melbourne LOL
- Stratford Pizza Bar: the pizza is more Australian than Italian. I loved this place for the owners and I would go back any time. Super friendly, as meeting family members, real Aussies!!
Where did I sleep
The price range of accommodation in Cairns goes from $15 to $1500.
As I said, this town was catered only till a few years ago for a backpacker market however now you have a huge selection, which is good.
On my first trip, I found this great Queensland style accommodation called Travellers Oasis
There are few rooms dedicated to the backpackers and a couple of rooms, called deluxe, on the back with a nice veranda to have breakky. Just loved it.
There is also also a small swimming pool if you need to cool down.
It’s very close to the shopping center, quite handy must say. On the following trips, I tried different accommodations.
The Cairns Queenslander Hotel is another budget option, with dated furniture but a great pool in the perfect location of the city. It’s a great option to save some bucks but still stay in style.
The Rydges Esplanade Resort is a fantastic value for money hotel. Perfect location with a refurbished interior design. The pool is just beautiful and the hotel is walking distance to most of the restaurants and bars in Cairns
Kuranda, the arty village in the forest
Here we are, bye bye Cairns, the drive starts.
If you ask yourself what to see between Cairns and Port Douglas, here is the first answer:
This arty town can either be visited as a day trip or when you drive from Cairns to Port Douglas.
Actually, if you opt to do the Tableland way when coming back from Port Douglas, you will cross it at the end of the drive.
Kuranda is described in many tourist guides as the arty town of Cairns.
Reality is that it’s not that hippy anymore as it used to be in the 70s or 80s.
Today it’s a tourist destination that you can reach by car, steam train or by the famous skyrail.
It’s an easy drive from Cairns, around 40 minutes, although the road can be quite busy.
There is a local stable market and if you never patted a koala or a kangaroo you can visit the Koala Gardens. It is an expensive experience I must say, however probably a unique one (it’s rare you are able to get so close to a kangaroo)
There are two lookouts you should not miss when in Kuranda. You can only drive there.
- Wrights Lookout, nice view to Cairns although I preferred the viewpoint on the road to the Copperlode Dum
- Barron Falls Lookout, awesome boardwalk through the forest from the carpark. The viewpoint is nice however not that great. I suspect the waterfalls can be really spectacular in the raining season, maybe not that much in the dry season. The train from Cairns makes a stop there as well.
This is the first and closest beach to Cairns.
Of all the beaches I have visited on the road between Cairns and Port Douglas, Holloway was the one that impressed me the least.
A stretch of long beach without anything that grabbed my attention.
There is not really a village or restaurant/bars area. Probably the close proximity to Cairns does not help to make Holloways a destination
You may have suspected it already.
Yes, the list of what to see between Cairns and Port Douglas includes quite a number of beaches
Trinity Beach is definitely one you should visit on your driving trip
The town has a nice feeling of beach village, with few bars/cafes facing the beach on the main street.
Have a walk towards the southern end of the beach for the impressing black rock formation.
At the time of my visit there was also a fun park in the water which was a great and at a good price too (unlimited runs)
This is the beach I loved the most on the way to Port Douglas.
The main reason is that it is well repaired by the Southerly wind, which can be quite annoying during July/August.
I was on other beaches and I had to leave because of the wind. Kewarra is in a small bay, very well repaired.
I was there actually twice, in low and high tide. With the low tide, Kewarra gives the best.
The walk towards the end of the bay is really nice, with palms trees and mangroves
This is the most beautiful town on the way to Port Douglas, around 30-40 minutes from Cairns.
The street on the beach area is full of cafes and small restaurants, a great location for lunch.
The beach is beautiful, although it can be quite windy and in this respect, Kewarra is much better.
I love the pier at the bottom end of the beach. Great location for some photography
Palm Cove is a must visit place. Not to be missed
You may plan to spend a few days here. It’s a place very popular with families and couples.
The Reef House Palm Cove – MGallery is an amazing accommodation option in Palm Cove. Designed in a colonial style between palms and water features. The restaurant is one of the most popular in town and for a good reason. The great breakfast is a fantastic way to start the day
This is my favourite beach from a nature point of view.
It is also the last patrolled beach before arriving to Port Douglas.
Why do you want a patrolled beach?
Because you may feel safer with a Life Saving Club that would help straight away in case you touch a Jellyfish. You can ask also information about crocs and usually, there is a net to build a sort of small pool in the sea.
Never feel super confident with swimming in these waters. Ask the locals before jumping in the sea.
This is a great spot also to stop for a night if you have a camper van or a romantic lonely stay in a hotel.
This is another idyllic beach where you can stop for a swim or a nap.
Think yourself under the palms with turquoise water in front of you.
It’s located right next to the Captain Cook Hway
The entire road from Cairns to Port Douglas is a great experience however the best part, in my opinion, is from Ellis Beach and Borderline Beach is an example.
Driving this part of Queensland is just a magnificent experience.
A must stop for the best viewpoint on the Great Tropical Drive.
Stop there for a few photos and for some entertainment
This is the last beach on the road between Cairns and Port Douglas.
It’s quite secluded and you will hardly meet anyone.
I crossed less than 10 people in 2 hours.
Well worth a stop though.
I did not feel very confident as I was basically alone.
I love the place for the beautiful walk and it’s a 10 minutes drive from Port Douglas
Captain Cook Low Tide Viewpoint
This is the viewpoint that impressed me the most however it has to be seen in low tide.
The water leaves the space to a very long and wide each with the mangroves that become the main actors of this beautiful view.
It’s one of the best walks close to Port Douglas.
You just need to time it, based on the tides which you can check on the newspaper or on an app.
If you are still not that happy on what to see between Cairns and Port Douglas then you may wonder on what to do in the final destination, or maybe not.
What I mean is that the drive from Cairns to Port Douglas should not be finished in this town. There are more places to see north. These could be an easy day or half-day excursions.
They can also be a full journey in your car, especially if you are thinking to head as north as Cooktown.
Places to go in Port Douglas
Port Douglas main attraction is Four Mile Beach, a long strand which can be very wide too, in low tide, or just a few meters, in high tide.
Interesting enough, this beach is not actually four miles, or approx six km long. The name is just after one of the first pioneer in the 19th century.
On the town end of the beach, you can find a few steps that will take you to an elevated viewpoint.
Another great viewpoint is Flagstaff Hill Lookout. You can walk or drive there through the Island Point Road.
If you are into Astrophotography, this is a must visit location in the night. It’s extremely dark. To the point that you need a light to move around. I was there 3 times and I met just another car, not very popular in the night but still safe to visit.
You can clearly see the milky way with your eyes. Awesome
Other places to go in Port Douglas are the Sunday Market and the St.Mary’s by the Sea, a church with a tropical feeling.
I usually do not expect that much from today’s local markets. Most of them tend to sell the same thing imported from other countries.
However, I must say that the Port Douglas one was quite interesting and a popular destination too. I met also a guy that created a bike to squeeze the sugar cans on site. Definitely an alternative way.
The meeting point for sunset is Rex Smeal Park. I think most of the town is there on a good sunset day. And there is a good reason for that 🙂 This is also a good location for stars viewing
Plan a trip to Low Isles for a quick 1-hour return trip to the closest island. It’s the quickest way to approach the Great Barrier Reef.
There are actually a number of tour operators that offer a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. None is cheap and they are catered on most people’s needs (short/long, day/sunset, etc)
The Ballyhooley steam train is another popular attraction, especially with kids ….and photographers LOL. It runs every hour or so.
Where did I eat
One thing you will see straight away is that Port Douglas is not that cheap. And you can’t do anything about it. The alternative is to prepare your food at home. There is a big Coles supermarket right in the town centre.
What are the places to go to Port Douglas for a nice dinner? I have been to a few and my favourites are:
- Chilly’s Pizza & Trattoria: my background is Italian and I was super surprised to have a good pizza, Italian style in Port Douglas. I have been there twice 😀
- Star of Siam: nice food and BYO (Bring Your Own). They do not have an alcohol license so you need to take your drinks which will save you some $$
- The Court House Hotel: an institution, fantastically refurbished
Where did I sleep
Let’s start saying that there is a great offer of accommodation in Port Douglas however most of it is on the expensive side.
On my first trip, I had a look at several options and I opted for Le Cher Du Monde. The location is perfect, right in the middle of the village and Rob, the owner, is a great helpful guy. Fantastic service and comfortable place to stay
Another accommodation I would suggest is the Regal Port Douglas. The place has a great pool right in the middle of the resort. The location is just perfect, right in the middle of the action, however, very quiet at night. Restaurants and bars are 2 mins away Really a great spot to spend the holiday.
It can be organised as a day trip from Port Douglas or on the way to Cape Tribulation.
This is a must visit place, really a beautiful gorge with an interesting walk that follows the Mossman River and enters into the rainforest.
It’s an easy walk that I did with flip flops, although some proper shoes, or just shoes, would have helped in few points LOL
There are few waterholes on the way, great for swimming. Pay attention to the currents that can be swift.
A few years back you could arrive at the parking by car however not anymore.
There is an information centre 2 km from the start of the walk and you are requested to take a bus from there ($20 return). I guess it was getting too busy to allow access by car.
Can you walk there and save the $20?
Probably you can as I saw a few people doing that. There is no gate or sign, that I saw at least. You can check it out.
This is another destination you can drive as a day tour from Port Douglas.
This is another micro cosmo.
You are in the tropical forest and you will feel it (high humidity in summer and low temperature in winter, as low as 12 in the night).
The most popular activity is a 1-2 hours trip in the river, looking for crocodiles.
And there are a few.
I saw an almost 5 meters long one, really scaring.
In winter they mostly rest below the water surface, till the warm sun comes out.
I took the trip with Bruce Belcher, one of the first operators you see on the road. He was a great character and good fun with his stories…or legends. I am quite sure most of the operators are enjoyable too, they are used to travellers and they know what we like LOL
I drove to the Daintree village, a beautiful road, by the way, however, the destination is not the highlight.
The road to Cape Tribulation
This road is part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage area and, in my opinion, another great driving of North Queensland.
You will go through an ancient forest spaced out by isolated beaches and fantastic viewpoints.
The road from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation becomes here a unique experience.
It’s absolutely a must drive.
It all starts from the Daintree River Ferry that will give you, even more, a feeling of holiday.
There are no clear landmarks. It’s more of a drive and stop whenever you feel
Cairns to Port Douglas map
I would personally plan at least 2 weeks for this trip, or one week as a minimum.
I have checked multiple websites to rent the car and I was really happy with APEX, a great easy experience.
I decided to stay mostly in Cairns and Port Douglas for this trip, two good bases to start any adventure.
Driving my own vehicle made my holiday very flexible and, to be honest, driving in North Queensland, along the Great Tropical Drive, is quite easy going, people are quite relaxed.
As a vibe, I preferred Cairns to Port Douglas, but it’s a personal feeling I guess.
For this trip, I decided to use mostly a Panasonic GX8 camera with one unique quick lens, the Panasonic 12mm f/1.4. It was a great choice as it covered 95% of my needs and it was very light to carry around.
The close-up pictures of the crocs were made with a zoom lens (200mm) in one of my previous trips. That was the only time when a wide angle just did not work, no way I would get closer 🙂
And finally, if you took the coastal road from Cairns to Port Douglas you may want to drive back through the Tableland National Park and stopping in Mareeba for a coffee.
This is another road that is part of the Great Tropical Drive, it takes around 2 hours without stops and it is just as magnificent. You will drive through coffee plantations, sugar cane fields and gigantic termite mounds