Who needs the Amalfi Coast when you’ve got North Queensland? The turquoise Coral Sea, the Daintree World Heritage Rainforest, waterfalls, pristine beaches, islands, historic towns as well as the occasional crocodile make exploring this part of the state an unforgettable experience. We spent two weeks driving from Townsville to Cooktown via the Bloomfield Track, returning along the Mulligan Highway and tagging on a few days at glorious Orpheus Island. There are plenty of places to explore along the route, but here are the details of our road trip.
Day 1 Magnetic Island
Magnetic Island – a 40 minute ferry ride (passenger and vehicle ferries) from Townsville – has a laid-back vibe with pretty beaches and great bush walks. Apart from the marina and Peppers Resort at Nelly Bay, it feels largely unchanged since my last visit 30 years ago. Horseshoe Bay is the best spot on the island for sundowners. It bakes in the summer but during winter it’s the place to be. Horseshoe is also the starting point for the beautiful walk to Florence and Radical Bays. With any luck the butterflies will be out and you might spot a koala. There are also stunning views from the World War 2 forts. We got up there early and had the place to ourselves. The walk starts at the top of the hill behind Horseshoe Bay.
You can get around Magnetic Island by bus but a car is very useful for exploring the island.
Eat: Try dinner at Barefoot – the barramundi was fantastic when we ate there. Café Nourish is great for breakfast, smoothies and wraps. Try Scallywags for a coffee and breakfast in Nelly Bay and Saltwater is also meant to be very good. It was closed when we visited so we didn’t have a chance to try it.
Stay: We stayed at Magnetic Sunsets – book direct for the cheapest rate and to avoid a tongue lashing from the owner!
Day 3 Townsville to Mission Beach
It’s a three-hour drive from Townsville to Mission Beach along the aptly named Great Green Way. There’s plenty to see on the way so it’s worth allowing extra time. We took a detour via the Paradise Waterhole at Big Crystal Creek. (Look for the Paluma National Park turnoff – 67 km north of Townsville). Definitely worth a visit. We were glad to have a wrap from Café Nourish (at Horseshoe Bay) to tuck into after our swim in the cold, clear water.
Further along the highway the road passes Hinchinbrook Island. There’s a good viewing point on the right of the highway. The beachside town of Cardwell, just a little further on, is very pretty and a great place to stretch the legs. From here it’s all lush green mountains and banana farms. Keep some change in the car if you want to buy local produce from the roadside stalls, and look out for cassowaries on the road in to Mission.
Mission Beach is a 14 kilometre stretch of palm-fringed paradise – the perfect place for beach walks, bike riding or a trip to one of the nearby islands. Hire bikes from the rental place in Wongaling Beach to explore the beach or the nearby rainforest. We also took out a double sea kayak from Coral Sea Kayaking and paddled to Dunk Island (not for the faint hearted). It’s a pretty tough paddle and I was glad it was a calm day. The Dunk Island resort was looking very forlorn, still suffering from cyclone Yasi. Only the Ulysses butterfly pool has been restored, apparently for the owner’s daughter’s wedding photos. Stay: We stayed at Castaways but there are lots of rental houses along the beach, which I’d go for if I came with a group.
Eat: Options were very limited due to Covid when we visited. Buko at Castaways was literally the only place open for dinner. Luckily it was very good. Make sure to book if you’re planning to eat there. Shanti is the place to go for breakfast and lunches – great food and a chilled vibe. The fruit shop across the road does delicious smoothies.
Day 5 Mission Beach to Palm Cove
The road to Palm Cove (just north of Cairns) is another lush green route. Paronella Park –a faux Spanish castle surrounded by tropical gardens is a popular place to stop. We didn’t make it this time (delayed by our ocean paddle to Dunk), so it’s on our agenda for our next trip. Walshs Pyramid – near Cairns is another remarkable sight, a steep-sided mountain that looks like … a pyramid. There’s a tough but rewarding day walk that is also on our to-do list for the next trip. From here the road north goes through the outskirts of Cairns. It gets very choked up with traffic and roadworks so it’s best to avoid Friday afternoons if possible.
Palm Cove is something like a Noosa of the north – an idyllic palm-fringed beach with a strip of shops, restaurants, accommodation and enormous melaleuca trees spread along the front. It’s a popular spot with locals and visitors, so it’s worth booking restaurants and accommodation in advance. The main pursuit here is eating, drinking and promenading along the beach or just chilling under the palm trees, something I was very happy to do after a week on the go.
Eat: You’re spoilt for choice here but Nu Nu is a stand out. Vivo is also good. Bookings essential. Stay: There are lots of options. Lancemore apartments at the southern end of the beach is pretty special because you’re off the main street and in amongst the palms and melaleucas.
Day 7 Palm Cove to Daintree
The road north from Palm Cove to Port Douglas is one of the most spectacular routes in Australia. The Captain Cook highway hugs the coastline, with views over the turquoise waters of the Coral Sea. There are plenty of places to stop for pictures. We shared a viewing point with a pair of hang gliders getting ready to take off. Very cool.
Port Douglas is a substantial tourist town – with supermarkets, restaurants and big hotels. It doesn’t have the intimate feel of Palm Cove but it’s a better place to stay if you’re heading to the reef or looking to do day trips. Four Mile Beach is an iconic strip of coastline. There’s a netted swimming area, but as I got speared in the ear by a garfish last time I stayed here, I’m keeping out of the sea. There’s a beautiful walk to the top of the hill from the northern end of the beach with spectacular views. You can also go by car if you can’t face the walk. While you’re in Port Douglas check out St Mary’s by the Sea – the cutest chapel ever, and the nearby Tin Shed at the Combined Club for reasonably priced food and drinks on the waterfront. Great for lunch.
A twenty minute drive from Port Douglas (back south and then north west) is the beautiful Mossman Gorge. A bus takes tourists from the visitor centre to the gorge where it’s easy to spend half a day doing walks and swimming in the waterhole. We only have time for a short visit, before heading through the delightful town of Mossman to Daintree Ecolodge which is nestled into the rainforest on the southern side of the Daintree River.
We take a sunset cruise from the tiny town of Daintree heading out with an expert guide and a small number of nature enthusiasts. We spot only one crocodile, mostly submerged in the dark water, which I’m not unhappy about. Crocodiles terrify me and I’m very content to just watch the sun sink behind the mountains, enjoy our guide chatting about the birds, the rainforest and the mangroves. I’m a little nervous when he asks my husband to go kayaking the following morning from one of the nearby beaches. Our guide chooses a different spot to launch his kayak every morning to confuse the wily crocs. I’m glad we don’t have time for kayaking and can politely decline!
Most visitors to the area head straight from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation without stopping off at Daintree, but it’s worth a visit. The community was originally settled by timber cutters in the 1870s and retains a charming frontier feel, with a handful of cafes and a quaint museum style shop.
We also spend a morning on the north side of the Daintree River, crossing on the car ferry and visiting the Mount Alexandra Lookout, which has spectacular views over the rainforest to the Daintree River, and Cow Bay – one of the many beautiful beaches along the coastline. A local bloke shares his croc stories with us, so we stay well clear of the water!
Day 9 Daintree to Cooktown via the Bloomfield Track
It’s only 150km on the coast route from Daintree to Cooktown, but there is so much to see along the way you need to allow a full day or break your trip at Cape Tribulation. We set off right after breakfast, crossing the Daintree River on the car ferry and then driving through the National Park to the Madja Botanical Walk, where a boardwalk runs through the ancient rainforest. We also stop at Cape Tribulation and do the short walk to the lookout. The water looks so tempting it’s almost impossible not to scramble down the hill and dive in!
The sealed road ends at Cape Tribulation. From here you’re on the Bloomfield Track – a graded dirt road, steep and rough in places with creek crossings. It’s nothing like the hard-core track it used to be now there’s a bridge over the Bloomfield River but the 38km route is still one of Australia’s most iconic 4WD tracks, cutting through mountainous terrain to the town of Wujul Wujul on the Bloomfield River.
Wujul Wujul means ‘many falls’ in the language of the local Kuku Yalanji clan. So, as you’d expect, the Wujul Wujul Falls are pretty impressive. They aren’t signposted, but take a left after the Bloomfield River bridge (if you’re coming from Cape Tribulation) and follow the road to the very end. The falls are a short walk from here. Also worth a visit is the Bana Yirriji Art and Cultural Centre which is on the same road as the falls.
It’s another 65 km of bitumen to Cooktown from Wujul Wujul. Don’t miss the Lions Den hotel about 30 km north of here. The historic pub has been feeding and watering weary travellers since 1875. It’s firmly on the tourist trail these days with an extensive selection of merchandise to prove it, but the place has a great atmosphere and amazing pizzas that are served all day, which is very lucky for us as lunch spots have been non-existent along the track! (It’s worth keeping a cold bag and freezer pack with a few snacks and drinks in the car, as shops of any kind are few are far between.)
It’s late afternoon by the time we finally make it into Cooktown. The town, with its wide main street, bright blue Endeavour River and historic buildings, feels almost like a film set. It is in fact a thriving rural town, a favourite with grey nomads and a great place to visit. The streets are dotted with landmarks and monuments to Captain James Cook, even though it was a maritime misadventure that saw him stranded here in the first place. He and the crew of the Endeavour hobbled into the the river to repair damage done to their ship when it ran into a reef at Cape Tribulation in 1770. Here begun all out troubles, as he put it. They spent seven weeks in Cooktown fixing the ship and trying to work out how to get away again. It was Cook’s longest time ashore in Australia.
Things to see: The James Cook Museum is a must. Cook’s connection with Cooktown is obviously the focus of the museum, with the Endeavour’s anchor and canon gracing the entrance. But stories and artefacts from the Guugu Yimithirr nation who called this area home long before Cook was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye also feature, as do momentos and photos from the gold rush days at Palmer River, and the old convent that now houses the museum.
Cook’s Lookout: For stunning views of Cooktown and the Endeavour River, walk or drive to the top of Grassy Hill. An old lighthouse still stands on the spot where Cook searched for a way out of the reef. Snippets from his diary also line the route to the top.
Stay and eat: We stay at the Sovereign Resort which is right in the heart of town – a great location with a landscaped pool. The pub downstairs serves a good range of food and drinks, including the best coral trout and chips in the entire world. (I am not joking.) Try Driftwood Cafe in Charlotte St for great coffee, breakfast and wraps as well as stunning lino prints by Glen Mackie.
Out of town: For a proper 4WD experience and a dip in a beautiful waterhole, head to Trevethan Falls. Take the Amos Bay Road, off the Mulligan Highway, then follow the makeshift signs. This is not an easy place to find and the final section of the track is steep and rocky (definitely glad to have the Ranger here). The walk to falls from the ‘car park’ is also tricky, but the falls are worth the effort. Locals assure us crocs can’t get to the falls because of the rocks, but you definitely need to check before you swim anywhere up here!
Day 11 Cooktown to Cairns
We return to Cairns via the Mulligan Highway, through the tablelands to the rainforest town of Kuranda. We make a quick stop at Barron Falls and then continue down the range to Cairns. The 328 km inland road is much less spectacular than the coastal route, but is still a pleasant drive (except for the roadworks!) and there are towns en-route where you can stop for lunch, as well as some very pretty picnic spots. Check out the Mount Molloy Coffee House for great whole foods, smoothies and coffee.
Day 12 Orpheus Island
After an overnight in Cairns we head south to Townsville – 346 km away. We ditch the Ranger and take a helicopter to Orpheus Island, where we spend the next three days snorkelling, hiking, boating, paddle boarding, eating delicious food and generally feeling in awe at how truly beautiful Queensland is, and how lucky we are to live here.