Add the Great Barrier Reef Drive to your road trip bucket list
When you start to think about iconic road trips around the world, there is some pretty mindblowing scenery to drink in through your car windows: California’s Big Sur, Canada’s Icefield Parkway, Iceland’s Ring Road, Australia’s Great Ocean Road…
But as far as scenic drives go, cruising the seam between two of the world’s most renowned heritage sites – the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest – puts the Great Barrier Reef Drive swiftly to #1 on our bucket lists.
If you’re hankering for a self-drive holiday where you can set the pace and explore some of Australia’s most famous nooks and crannies, and enjoy a serious nature fix, use this itinerary as a guide to get the most out of this iconic road trip.
PS. It may only be 140km in length but to make the most of the scenery and once-in-a-lifetime experiences we recommend stretching it out to a week-long journey.
Day 1: Cairns to Port Douglas (67km)
The drive to Port Douglas will only take about an hour so there is plenty of time in the day to stock up on supplies (we’re talking serious road trip snack supplies) at the Smithfield shops, take a detour to some of Cairns’ prettiest beaches, lunch with the sand in your toes in Palm Cove and perhaps even pop in to feed a croc at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
Photo op: Pull over at the Rex Lookout for a sweeping vista back towards Cairns and watch paragliders ride the airstreams when the wind is right.
As you continue north from Palm Cove, the sea of green created by the cane fields on your left will mirror the blue of the Coral Sea on your right as you wind your way along one of the most spectacular stretches of road known to man.
Pull the car over (when it’s safe to do so) to steal moments on beaches all to yourself and stumble upon these curious rock cairns (you’ll find them just north of Ellis Beach).
Staying in Palm Cove a little longer? Here’s a 48-hour itinerary we prepared earlier.
Keen to keep moving? Drive north to Thala Beach Nature Reserve, just 15 minutes shy of Port Douglas, and if you decide to book ahead to stay the night, you can enjoy activities like stargazing or their coconut odyssey tour, learning all about the uses and benefits of the tropical fruit, grown within the reserve’s own coconut plantation.
If you’ve continued on to Port Douglas township, aim to arrive in time for sunset over the water (preferably nestled into one of the cosy day beds with a cocktail in hand at Barbados) or if the kids have gone totally stir-crazy, take them to feed George the 250kg grouper who pops his head up at On The Inlet for a feed every evening around 5pm.
Tonight, take your pick from one of the many great restaurants along the waterfront and Macrossan Street strip.
Day 2: Port Douglas (ditch the car today)
If you want to continue the road trippin’, skip straight to Day 3. But with so much going on in this perennial favourite resort town, you could easily press the pause button and stay here for a few days.
First thing’s first: Get to the reef! (Well, grab a coffee from Sparrow Espresso and then get to the reef.)
There are half-day and full-day Great Barrier Reef tour options all departing from the Port Douglas Marina, as well as zippy two-hour snorkelling trips to Low Isles, and relaxing sunset sails if you prefer to stay a little closer to shore.
If you happen to time your visit on a Sunday, head to the markets to stock up on tropical fruit and handmade trinkets then meander your way along the boutiques on Macrossan Street and treat yourself to a Thai massage – or check out one of the resort spas for a full day of pampering.
To get the blood pumping, book in for a mountain biking tour, sea kayaking or drift snorkelling along the Mossman River with Port Douglas Adventure Tours.
Don’t leave without walking along Four Mile Beach (or hiring a SUP to paddle when the water’s nice and calm), eating a crocodile or kangaroo pie from Mocka’s Pies, and having a pot of Pitchfork Betty’s pale ale at Hemingway Brewery on the marina.
Day 3: Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge (22km)
A short 20-minute drive inland from Port Douglas lies a magical place, shrouded in thick rainforest with giant boulders smoothed by the crystal-clear rainwater flowing over them in this section of the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics.
Welcome to Mossman Gorge. Access to the day area of the Gorge is via the Mossman Gorge Centre and the best way to explore is through the eyes and stories of the Kuku Yalanji traditional owners who offer guided tours.
Afterwards, hike the moderate 2.4km Rainforest circuit track, starting on the far side of Rex Creek bridge. As you walk, keep your eyes peeled for the chameleon-like Boyd’s forest dragons who clutch to the tree trunks, as well as tree-kangaroos and musky rat-kangaroos – animals only found in the Daintree Rainforest. On the left, 80m from the bridge, you’ll have a picture-perfect view of Manjal Dimbi (Mount Demi).
This afternoon, immerse yourself further in Tropical North Queensland’s Indigenous culture by joining Kuku Yalanji brothers, Linc and Brandon Walker, for a lesson in traditional hunting and gathering skills along the mudflats of Cooya Beach, 13 minutes drive from Mossman Gorge. Or join Sweet Farm Tours through a working cocoa and sugarcane farm to learn how north Queensland’s own Daintree Estates chocolate is grown and produced.
You can either return to stay in Port Douglas for another night or splash out on a stay at Silky Oaks Lodge, on the banks of the Mossman River.
Day 4: Mossman Gorge to Cape Tribulation (68km)
Moving north from Mossman Gorge, take a croc-spotting river cruise with Solar Whisper Wildlife Cruises, keeping a keen eye on the muddy banks for the prehistoric reptiles and in the treetops for great egrets and azure kingfishers.
After all that tension build-up, stop for lunch and – if there’s time – book in for a spa treatment at the Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa.
Then, it’s time to leave civilisation and mobile coverage behind and cross the croc-infested Daintree River on the Daintree car ferry to continue your journey towards Cape Tribulation.
There’s a feeling that envelops you as you enter the Daintree Rainforest that can’t be translated into words. In this – the oldest living rainforest on the planet – an entire microcosm exists where nature is king and we’re all merely passing through. Up here, secret waterholes, deserted beaches and weird and wonderful fruits are in abundance, and falling to sleep to the sounds of the rainforest will seduce you even further into its spell.
Stop in at Cow Bay, where you can go horse riding or sea kayaking along the very place where two World Heritage areas collide – the Wet Tropics rainforest and Great Barrier Reef.
Day 5: Cape Tribulation
On a half-day eco tour with Ocean Safari you’ll snorkel the virtually unknown Mackay and Undine Reefs and swim with turtles and eagle rays.
Back on land, the Marrdja, Kulki or Dubuji Boardwalks allow you to take easy forest walks and immerse yourself in aeons of biology (keep an eye out for unmistakable flashes of blue from the wings of the Ulysses butterfly).
Serious hikers should look to Mt Sorrow, 800m above sea level. It’s a steep and challenging 7km-return journey but rewards with views out over Snapper Island and beyond.
The beauty about being hundreds of kilometres from any big-name food chains is the chance to sample only-in-the-Daintree produce. Make a stop at Daintree Tea and pop a few dollars in the honesty box for your take-home pack of freshly-picked tea leaves or bags. And you can’t visit the Daintree without sampling the scoops from Daintree Ice Cream Company, made with fruits like black sapote and wattleseed grown in their own orchard.
Day 6: Cape Tribulation to Cairns (140kms)
Take your time this morning, eking out as much rainforest goodness as you can before you hit the road again and start the journey south.
Stop in for freshly-baked scones with jam and cream at the On the Turps restaurant at Heritage Lodge and Spa then make your way slowly back to the car ferry and back along that spectacular stretch of coastline, breathing in everything you missed on the drive north.
On the way back down, if it’s a Sunday, stop in at Ellis Beach Bar & Grill just before Palm Cove for their famous $1 oysters from 1pm-4pm, an institution amongst locals.