A local’s guide to Tropical North Queensland’s best beaches
Welcome to Tropical North Queensland, where it’s summer year-round and the livin’ is always easy.
You may have heard that the far north is where the rainforest meets the reef? Well, that couldn’t be truer, however, stunning waterfalls, lush jungles and an epic marine park are definitely not all we have on offer here – throw in over 300kms of pristine coastline, not to mention islands galore!
Yep, TNQ is BIG. One of the biggest regions in Queensland, in fact, and we’re super proud of the picture-perfect coastal towns and secret local beaches that make up our slice of paradise.
With a little bit of everything up here in the tropics and a beach-kinda-day nearly every day, pop these spots to the top of the itinerary for your next salty escape.
When you wanna be stranded for a day
Searching for total tropical paradise? Look no further than one of the most beautiful beaches in Queensland.
Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island is located just a zippy 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns. Whether you’re heading over on a day trip or plan on staying a night or two at the resort, it makes for a great (and easy) island escape for couples, families, and even solo travellers.
Jumping off the boat, you’ll need to take a short stroll through the rainforest to the other side of the island to find this patch of salty goodness. A mix of soft white sand and loose coral, with lush jungle to the back and turquoise water in front, it’s a pretty damn spectacular sight (one that deserves a quick snap before jumping in to be the envy of all your Insta-friends).
One of the best things about this beach is that it’s rarely busy – much the same as the rest of the island – so you won’t have to battle off other tourists to claim your private patch of sand for the day.
But before you jump to conclusions, it’s Nudey by name, not by nature, so that means clothes stay on! And as well as remembering to pack your togs, be sure to bring a set of snorkel and fins (if you forget, you can hire these from the island dive store).
While most snorkelling is done back at the main beach, there’s still plenty of marine life and coral formations to be viewed straight off the shore from Nudey, and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a friendly green sea turtle.
Feeling peckish? There is no food or drinks available at the beach so it would be wise to pack plenty of water and a bite to eat if you plan on hanging out here all day.
That said, the island general store and the very funky Foxy’s Bar and Grill, back at the resort, is open for delicious meals at lunch and dinner.
Stay on a budget: Did you know you can camp on Fitzroy for next to nothing? With a well-equipped camp ground located on the main beach, it’s the perfect spot if you’d prefer to sleep out in nature (bookings can be made through Fitzroy Island Resort).
This little-known piece of paradise is the largest of the Family Islands National Park and is a spectacular mix of rainforest and reef just waiting to be explored.
Tip: If you fancy a little adventure, jump on board Fozzy’s 3 hour, 3 island tour by the Mission Beach Dunk Island Water Taxi, which gives holiday goers the chance to learn more about the island landscapes that make up the national park.
Take in the views of Timana, Kumboola and the exclusive Bedarra Island from the boat before jumping off to get your toes sandy on a private beach for an hour and a half of enjoyment. This is the perfect tour for the whole family if you’re looking for something fun that sticks to the budget.
Feeling peckish? While the resort is yet to re-open after suffering extensive damage in Cyclone Yasi, you will find the fully licensed Sunset Café and Spit Bar right on the foreshore, open Friday to Sunday serving fresh locally-caught seafood and ice-cold bevvies.
If you want to go where the locals go
Ellis Beach(approx. 30 minutes from Cairns) is located at the very start of the Great Barrier Reef Drive – a gorgeous scenic drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas – and is rated among Australia’s top 20 beaches in the 101 Best Beaches 2017 awards.
A favourite amongst locals, the small coastal town has a much more chilled vibe than some of the other northern beaches, and in my opinion is one of the most visually stunning patches of coast near Cairns. Not too shabby if you’re planning a low-key beach vacay, with the Ellis Beach Bungalows and Leisure Park sitting right on the water’s edge.
This is the last of the beaches with a stinger net and lifeguard on duty before Port Douglas – perfect if you’ve got the kids in tow.
Feeling peckish? Ellis Beach Bar and Grill is renowned throughout Cairns for its delicious BBQ dinner and $1 oyster Sunday Sessions.
Another Cairns locale just 20 minutes from the city, Trinity Beach brings to the table a relaxing atmosphere, stunner palm-fringed foreshore, and calm sheltered waters.
Situated between two headlands, this 1km stretch offers loads of activities if you feel like getting active, otherwise just claim yourself a soft patch of sand for the day and soak up the sun.
If you do want to get up and about, there’s a rocky coastal walk that winds around the southern headland definitely worth checking out. It offers gorgeous views back towards Cairns and you may even spot a turtle popping its head up on calmer days.
Feeling peckish? Try L’Unico on the Esplanade offering modern Italian cuisine for lunch and dinner. They also have a great cocktail menu if you fancy a few drinks – while also drinking in views of the Coral Sea – as you laze beneath the palm trees.
How Mission Beach has managed to stay such an underrated paradise beats me.
Located approx. two hours’ south of Cairns, she’s wedged between two World Heritage-listed wonders – the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef – yet still manages to maintain a totally laid-back holiday vibe (so much so that you won’t find traffic lights, chain stores, or even crowds here!).
Made up of four beachside villages – Bingil Bay, North Mission, Wongaling Beach and South Mission – this strip of coastline boasts 14 glorious kilometres of golden beach that link each to the other.
This continuous strip makes exploring a cinch: just hire a set of two wheels from Mission Beach Bike Hire (the same guys that run Mission Beach Water Taxi) and hit the sand or pavement. Boom, that’s all the transport you need, sorted for just 15 bucks a day. #bargain
Once you’ve had your fill of long, lazy beach days, up the ante with their adrenaline-packed activities menu, which sees blo-karting, skydiving, reef trips and white-water rafting on the list.
(Psst, plan on staying for a long weekend? Check out this 3-day itinerary for our take on what to see and do while you’re there.)
NOTE: Stinger season is between the months of October to June, so during those times swim only in the stinger nets provided at North and South Mission.
Feeling peckish? Chow down on tapas, sliders and craft beers at the Garage Bar and Grill, or opt for classic fish ‘n’ chips on the beach courtesy of Mission Beach Take Away. If you’re on the hunt for local, organic goodness, take a squiz at the ever-changing seasonal menu at Ebb and Flow on Porter Promenade.
While you can’t go wrong with any patch of sand in Mission Beach, if you want a touch more seclusion head five minutes north to Bingil Bay.
One of the area’s most beautiful stretches of coast, Bingil Bay is a secluded little cove fringed by lush tropical rainforest and coconut trees, giving that island escape feel without even having to hop in a boat.
Think of it as the eclectic sibling to its three sister villages: known for it’s hippie aesthetic and easy-going local atmosphere.
Feeling peckish? Drop in for a bite to eat at the family-run Bingil Bay Café, famed by the locals for its home-style cooking, funky decor, and cosy atmosphere.
If you like your beach time with a side of shopping
CAIRNS ESPLANADE LAGOON
Okay so technically not a beach, but it’s just too good not to include.
If you’re tired of the resort pool but don’t fancy leaving town, the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon is the perfect spot to soak up some rays while floating around for the day.
Conveniently located smack bang in the heart of Cairns, it kind of resembles the ultimate infinity pool, showcasing a stunning view of the foreshore just beyond the water’s edge.
With sandy banks, palm trees, and loads of grass to spread out on (and its very own flying fish), you’ll feel a million miles away from the city even though you’re only one street away from the CBD and its boutique shopping scene.
Another perk? There’s always something going on down at the lagoon and it’s FREE! Saturdays mean Market Day, with stalls offering up local products and crafts for sale; live music can be enjoyed every weekend and active living classes are on six days a week.
Feeling peckish? Well, you’re in the right place. For market food head to Rusty’s on Grafton St (open Friday to Sunday) or if it’s a café vibe you’re chasing, then Candy Cafe across the road or Pineapple Café on Lake St are a couple of favourites of mine.
Along the esplanade, you’ll find loads of different bars, cafes and Asian restaurants, but if you’re wanting something more casual then grab a couple of snags and use one of the BBQ picnic areas found near the lagoon. That way the kids don’t even have to stray from the water!
This picturesque coastal village is located at the far end of Cairns’ Northern Beaches, around a 30-minute drive from the city. Bursting with vibrant shops, restaurants, resorts and cafes, it has everything covered within walking distance of your accommodation.
Swimming is suitable year-round, with the convenience of stinger nets and an on-duty lifeguard down the northern end of the beach. Stand-up paddle boards and kayaks can be hired right off the beach from Palm Cove Watersports. If you fancy something more adventurous, jump on board their paddling tour and glide over to nearby Double Island.
On the other hand, if relaxing is your thing, I strongly recommend just chilling beneath the palm trees, reading a book or watching the world go by. If you can muster up the energy, take a wander down the street and poke your head into the shops lining the Esplanade.
Feeling peckish? When it comes to good food and coffee, this little town has (surprisingly) an abundance of options.
Chill Café on the south side has got your caffeine fix sorted, while their Eggs Benny is the stuff of some serious #brekkygoals. For a casual affair grab some takeaway fish ‘n’ chips from Pete’s Place or fine-dine for lunch or dinner at Nu Nu (not only delicious but comes with both a view and atmosphere that brings the tropical holiday feel straight to your table!).
For a sweet treat, you can’t go past Jack and Shanan’s gelato home-made from local and natural ingredients. Just be sure to eat it quickly, as ice-cream never lasts long up here in the tropics (heat + creamy goodness = a finger lickin’ good time… literally).
FOUR MILE BEACH
A 45-minute drive further north, Port Douglas has a similar feel to Palm Cove but on a much bigger scale. It’s home to the beautiful Four Mile Beach, a flawless stretch of coast that runs all the way from Yule Point – a stunning ‘stop the car’ spot for an Insta-worthy snap – to the rocks at Island Point. Four miles to be exact.
It’s the perfect place to soak up the sun while the kids enjoy the gentle surf break. Patrolled year-round and with loads of fun activities on offer, it’s not hard to see why Port is a travel destination for families from all over the world.
Hire anything from a bucket and spade to a catamaran from the beach hire crew, or if you’re not keen on getting wet, wander the shops along Macrossan St or check out the Port Douglas Markets held every Sunday.
I also highly recommend hiking or driving up to the lookout at Flagstaff Hill (also known as Island Point). The view is straight out of a magazine and gives you a great perspective of just how long four miles is!
Feeling peckish? Port has all your foodie needs covered!
If you’re after something a bit fancy then the degustation at Nautilus is sure to impress. Salsa Bar and Grill on Wharf St is an award-winning local favourite for modern Aussie cuisine, otherwise, The Beach Shack on the Esplanade is the go-to for some of the best pizzas in town.
For your morning juice take a stroll down to Lighthouse Café located at the southern end of the Esplanade, topping it off with a scoop or two from Shakes Gelati Bar.
Last but certainly not least, if you’re craving a spicy fiesta – YES PLEASE! – then check out The Mexican on Macrossan St. The tacos and churros… muy bien!
For your viewing pleasure only
You may have heard the rumour that everything in Oz wants to kill you.
I wouldn’t say this is entirely true, and while not EVERYTHING ’round these parts wants to bring you down, we are still home to some of Australia’s and the world’s deadliest creatures.
One is the not-so-smiley crocodile. A lover of salt water just like us two-legged folk, this is a marine/land-dwelling creature you’d want to keep a safe distance from at all times.
Best thing to bear in mind when it comes to crocs in the tropics is to always pay attention to signs and remember the further north you head, the further into croc country you go. Some of the most beautiful and secluded coastal scenery in Australia can be found in the top half of TNQ, and if you want to cool off there’s still an abundance of safe and refreshing rainforest pools to float about in.
Pop these beaches on your list if you want to visit some of the most remote and scenically blessed coastal stretches in Australia (even if you won’t be swimming).
Have you always dreamed of visiting the Daintree? I know I sure did!
Before moving to Cairns the closest I ever came to a rainforest was the ferns in my mum’s garden, so my first Daintree experience was a dream come true. It really is a spectacular sight to behold and the beaches that connect one eco-system to the next are as picturesque as they come.
Cape Tribulation is a quirky rainforest village located just under two hours north of Port Douglas. It has two main beaches worth getting your toes sandy for, but my favourite is Myall Beach. Found to the south of the headland, it’s one of the best spots to watch the sunrise in TNQ.
It’s cheap as chips to spend a night or two at Cape Trib Camping, where you’ll find yourself nestled under a rainforest canopy, listening to the waves crash behind you. When you want to catch the sunrise, simply roll out of your swag, walk a few steps along a private beach track, and presto, you’re right on the golden sands of Myall Beach with minimal effort required.
If you’re in the mood for an adventure, you’re in the right place for it. While you might not be able to paddle out to the local break, you can try your hand at a different kind of surfing – zipping across the treetops of the Daintree Rainforest.
Yep, Jungle Surfing is just one of the many adrenaline-packed activities on offer up here in the tropics. If that’s not enough to satisfy, then we suggest trying this 10-day Wild North itinerary on for size.
Feeling peckish? No worries! There are loads of places to grab a bite around Cape Trib.
‘On the Turps’ at the Heritage Lodge and Spa is a pretty little open-air restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and their scones with jam and cream are some of my favourites in TNQ).
Mason’s Cafe is great if you’re after something a little less fancy, with a refreshing creek behind it, perfect for a post-feast dip. Craving some ice-cream? Stop into the Daintree Ice Cream Co. and sample some of the tropical flavours they have on offer.
If you’re heading up the Cape, make sure your itinerary includes spending a night or two at Elim Beach.
This stunning stretch is home to the mesmerising coloured sands – a series of dune formations and cliff faces boasting different shades that have developed over this natural landscape. It can only be reached 4WDing along the beach at low tide, so make sure your car is well equipped before taking to the sand.
The campsite at Elim Beach belongs to local Thiithaarr-warra elder, Eddie Deemal, and after acquiring a suitable permit from the Hope Vale Service Station, you can have yourself set up right on the water’s edge with views out to Cape Bedford.
This remote paradise is perfect not only as a base for exploring but if you’re needing some downtime after long days on the road.
Feeling peckish? Then you’ll have to be prepared!
If you don’t plan on catching dinner yourself, make sure you’ve packed enough grub to be entirely self-sufficient on arrival. You’re on the Cape after all, and with no town for miles, you can’t just duck down to the local to grab a bite.
What you don’t expect to find after driving 1800kms to the pointy tip of Australia: tap beer and bloody good pizzas.
But that’s exactly what’s on offer alongside the money-can’t-buy views overlooking the Arafura Sea and the Torres Strait Islands from Cape York Camping Punsand Bay.
And since the beach faces north-west, the sunsets here are the stuff of photographer legends.
Located just 5kms shy of the actual tip of Cape York, this blessed stretch of beach begs for you to dive in but you’re best sticking to the campground swimming pool to cool off. Or just grab another one of those beers.
Feeling peckish? The Corrugation Bar will fuel you up with good, strong, real coffee by morning (a blessing after so many days of instant on the road) and dishes out woodfire pizzas by night. The campground shop has you sorted for the essentials like milk, bread, ice-cream and bait.
They don’t come much more rugged or wild than Chilli Beach in the northern part of Cape York Penisula – a sweeping horseshoe of white sand and sky-blue water where palm trees hang heavy with coconuts.
Tucked into Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL) and accessible only by 4WD, you’ll need to be prepared and book well in advance to nab a campsite here and bunker down because the winds can be fierce.
But when you’re wandering along the sandy flats at low tide and marvelling at the feeling of isolation that’s definitely worth travelling for, not even Mother Nature’s darkest mood could put a dampener on your experience.
Feeling peckish? We hope you BYO’d!
When you’re looking for dog-friendly beaches
Beach hangs are just as much a way of life for the pups of TNQ as they are for locals, and there are loads of dog-friendly spots to give your furry friends the salty fix they need.
Come early morning and you’ll find people out walking their dogs at nearly every northern beach. Palm Cove, Trinity Beach, Yorkey’s Knob and Ellis Beach are hot spots if your pup is a bit of a social butterfly.
If your dog’s new to the beach scene, doesn’t mix well with others or needs a bit of room to stretch his/her legs, then there are some perfect sandy bays to check out where they can run free and play at their own leisure.
Head north on the coastal road between Ellis Beach and Port Douglas.
While this drive really is something spectacular just to see from the car window, I’ll let you in on a little local secret – this 38km stretch not only boasts scenic views to rival the Great Ocean Road, but it’s also home to loads of little coves and sandy nooks perfect if you want to snag a pristine beach all to yourself and your tail waggers for the day.
Why, might you ask, are these beaches not overflowing with crowds? As there’s only limited space to pull over, only a small number of people get to enjoy it. And even if someone has already set up camp for the day, chances are a couple of kilometres further up the road there will be another beach waiting for you to claim it.
Feeling peckish? There aren’t many food spots between Ellis Beach and Port Douglas, so it’s best to pack a picnic if you plan on making a full day of it.
If you want to spot a cassowary
Want to hang beach-side with the second largest bird in the world?
You might think that spying a cassowary in its natural habitat would be a bit of a rare occurrence, but if you happen to be visiting Etty Bay, then your chances of a cassowary encounter suddenly increase to guaranteed.
Located on the Cassowary Coast, 15 minutes from Innisfail, this strip of coastline is not only perfect for a dip but is home to a resident family of cassowaries that love to wander the beach and nearby campgrounds at their leisure.
Now, bear in mind that while they may flaunt some pretty colours, these feathered friends are considered the most dangerous bird on the planet. But don’t let that frighten you, as they are content just wandering about and keeping to themselves, only attacking when provoked.
If you are lucky enough to spy one, make sure you keep your distance and admire the beauty of this ancient dinosaur-like creature from afar.
Feeling peckish? Etty Bay is equipped with a caravan park only a stone’s throw from the seashore and a kiosk serving up yummy takeaway treats and coffee, so you can’t go wrong with a day spent combing this quiet little bay.
One for the photographers
If you’re a photographer like me – whether it be professional or hobby – you’ll be scoping the best beaches to capture some epic shots. Sunrises up here are something else and we’re fortunate to have some pretty amazing backdrops to frame the colours.
After two years of exploring and lots of early mornings, my favourite beach for sunrise is by far Pebbly Beach. Located just before Yule Point, about 10 minutes south of Port Douglas, this bizarre stretch is covered almost entirely with smooth colourful pebbles. It also has a long and steady drop-off meaning the water pools perfectly, making for some epic reflections.
You’ll need a car to get here and you park literally on the side of the highway. This beach is another favourite spot of mine to take the puppies as there’s rarely another soul in sight, so I can shoot the morning away while they run wild and sniff to their heart’s content.
Safety tip: Be aware that the highway is very close by, so if your pooch isn’t road aware, it may not be safe.
There are tonnes of beautiful places to swim up here but safety is key.
Be careful and be croc-wise swimming anywhere in TNQ. Pay attention to signage and if you’re not sure, ask a local or keep a safe distance from the water.
Be mindful of stinger season from October to May every year. Whether you’re swimming out on the reef or at any of the beaches, stinger season means stinger suits, unless you’re swimming within the nets.
Two things I learned quickly working as a pharmacist on the northern beaches was: 1) tourists tend to burn easily in these parts, and 2) midge and mozzie prevention is the key to an unforgettable time, so make sure you’ve packed plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent.