48 hours in Cooktown
If Cooktown was a motivational fridge magnet, it would read “ambition is everything.”
Afterall, this is the town that finally stopped The Endeavour in its tracks after Captain Cook ambitiously tried to save the vessel by throwing all the cannons overboard into the Great Barrier Reef.
And ambitious, because it takes bucket loads of the stuff to conquer all the natural attractions on its doorstep. Here’s looking at you, Mount Cook.
Ultimately, it’s no surprise that discovering it all in 48 hours is nothing… well… short of ambitious:
9AM: SET OFF FROM CAIRNS
It might only be 327km long, but the drive between Cairns and Cooktown packages every type of Australian landscape into a neat little road trip package. We’re talking rainforest, reef, outback scenery, and all within four hours of high-octane driving.
If you’re not familiar with The Great Barrier Reef Drive and Bloomfield Track from this post, you will be at the end of this drive. They’re the kind of roads that car-enthusiasts collect like notches in a belt – with their hairpin bends, spectacular views and obstacles like river crossings – giving you serious story-topping ammunition.
Must stops along the way
- Rex Smeal Park, Port Douglas
- Daintree River Ferry
- Bloomfield Falls
- Bob’s Lookout
Not into rushing? Check out how to see Cairns to Cooktown in 10 days.
12PM: LUNCH AT LIONS DEN HOTEL
Arriving with an appetite at Lions Den Hotel is easier than you think. The location of this tin and timber hotel, four hours from Cairns, is no coincidence. It’s perfectly timed with lunch for those who leave Cairns in the morning and dinner for anyone leaving the capital in the afternoon.
While people come with an appetite, they stay for the atmosphere, which is created by the bar flies who perch on its well-worn leather stools and welcome everyone with a nod and curious stare.
Pubs don’t come much more iconic than this one – with evidence written on its walls by the number of visitors who’ve passed through this 1875 establishment. Outside, you’ll find a beer garden, burgers and pizzas, which are best enjoyed under the 100-year-old mango trees that tower over the courtyard.
2PM: DISCOVER THE BLACK MOUNTAIN LEGENDS
A visit to Black Mountain National Park will reveal something as spooky as it is geologically phenomenal. Here, you’ll find mounds of black rock, which at first glance looks like a coal mine perched precariously close to the highway. Coal this is not – you’re looking at dried lava, formed over 250 million years ago.
Although you can’t climb this pile of rocks in case they come crashing down on you – perhaps a better reason not to climb them are the myths and legends associated with the land around here. Black Mountain is home to four separate religious sites for the Kuku Yalanji people.
So legendary is this site, the Cairns Post newspaper actually ran an April Fools Day prank alleging a black panther was found here. Their stunt backfired because readers actually believed the story, knowing stranger things have happened in this very spot.
4PM: ARRIVE INTO COOKTOWN
By late afternoon, point your compass directly to Cooktown to check into your digs. Driving down the main street of Cooktown, prepare for some seriously confused architecture. This town is one part beach shanty, one part Gold Rush opulence, and all parts Captain Cook references – making it a bit like a patchwork quilt of styles.
For river views, check into the Seaview Motel. It’s the kind of place you can leave the car in the car park and walk to dinner, the museum, the riverfront and hoof-it to everywhere.
With history old and new, James Cook Historical Museum is as good a place as any to refresh what you may have forgotten about early Australian History from primary school. Here you’ll find all the early stories of what happened when Captain Cook was forced to stay in the Endeavour River while his boat was in the proverbial shop.
Perhaps more interesting than the navigational tales are the tidbits of gossip about what the townsfolk thought of this man with his fluffy white hair and oversized hat – documented first hand.
You’ll also find this town had a role to play in the Gold Rush, when it was the port for the goldfields in 1873, bringing more than 30,000 people to the area. This population seems almost unfathomable when today it only has a population of 2000.
2PM: GO SHOPPING
What Saks is to New York, the Croc Shop is to Cooktown. Seriously, the Croc Shop is the most iconic shop on the Peninsula. You can pick up anything from T-shirts to didgeridoos in this variety store which packs a distinct crocodile theme.
If you run out of time, you’ll find one just south of the tip of Australia – selling the kind of souvenirs that will become talking points at your next BBQ. Crocodile foot bottle-opener, anyone?
4PM: GET A LAY OF THE LAND
What if we told you one of Cooktown’s most well-known structures – its lighthouse – was sold for just $100 in 1988? Not bad for a piece of freehold title with 360-degree views over the town.
Make like Captain Cook and head to Grassy Hill Lookout to see the structure and views over the township, Mount Cook and the Endeavour Reef.
As you stand here and overlook the reef, think back to 1770 – that’s when James Cook and his crew climbed this very hill to find their safe exit.
SUNSET: SUNDOWNERS ON THE WATER
Sail, sunset, sip, repeat with Riverbend Tours, who know that a good cheese platter is the way to any visitor’s heart. This BYO (we repeat, BYO) sunset cruise takes you through Cooktown harbour so you can watch sunset over the ranges.
Although you’ll learn more about Captain Cook’s infamous passage to Cooktown as you tootle down the river, this tour focuses on the Cooktown you see today, which is the last frontier to the gateway to the Cape.
9AM: CAST OFF IN COOKTOWN
You only need to see the kind of boats bobbing around the Endeavour River to know what Cooktown does best. You won’t find luxury liners here – instead, it’s moor-to-moor fishing boats because Cooktown has the fishing scene to warrant it. In fact, it’s a world-class fishing destination with keen anglers falling for Cooktown’s coastal charms hook, line and sinker.
Set your email auto-responder to “Gone Fishing” and join this guided fishing tour company with your lure, fly or pole ready for coral trout, tuna, mackerel, jacks and trevally. It’s no wonder the fishing is so good here, the river is lined with over 25 species of mangrove – and crocs who know the fish-game is good.
Not so much into fish? What about something a little bigger?
- Join Cooktown Cruises for a nature boat cruise along the Endeavour where crocodile spotting is guaranteed.
12PM: Where to from here?
If you’re feeling ambitious how about Cairns to Cape York? It’s only another 860km to the top!