Our second stop of the trip was the one I was most excited for: Far North Queensland. It's a beautiful spot that holds many great memories and adventures, having living in Port Douglas for more than four months back in 2007. I've been anxious to revisit our former home to see how fast things might have changed. We also had a trip booked to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef (a must-do!) and rented a car so we could drive into the leafy wilderness of Daintree National Park. It promised to be a great couple of days.
We were also hoping to find a little more sunshine and heat up in the north, after our previous day in the cold and wet Blue Mountains. Well, we got our wish. As soon we stepped off the plane, a steaming wall of humidity hit us. We stepped out onto the tarmac in Cairns, surrounded by sugarcane fields and lush green hills under dark blue rainclouds. Somehow the colours are all a little deeper in the tropics -- maybe it's the sunlight? Right away I felt like I'd returned home.
We made a brief stop through Cairns, zooming past the big Captain Cook doing his Hitler-esque salute in our rental car, and like that, we were in the centre of town (smaller than I remembered!). We took a stroll down the boardwalk along the seashore, and I remembered why I steered us away from getting a hotel in Cairns - the massive unsightly tidal mudflats, that sleepy yet mildly rough vibe, and souvenir junk shops at every turn. (Probably with some interesting history though: after our first trip to Australia, my great uncle Alan told me some great tales about his backpacking experiences in Cairns back in the 1960s, when Cairns was just a tiny mining and fishing outpost at the end of the railway line. There were so few places to sleep that he had to take turns sharing a bunk with the miners, who worked all night and slept by day!)
What Cairns did have was plenty of al fresco restaurants serving beer and thin-crust pizza -- perfect on a hot day. With full bellies we set off on the winding oceanside road north to Port Douglas, stopping nearly every five minutes for another look at the insanely gorgeous views of the Coral Sea from beaches and cliffs.We finally reached the turn-off to Port Douglas, familiar territory with its jungly main road and blue-footed scrubfowl pecking about under the roadside palms. We arrived at the Sheraton, an stunning tropical paradise of a hotel (albeit with interior decorating that's a wee bit '80s), with a swimming pool that flowed under footbridges, around palm trees, and stretched around about 6 different hotel buildings! We settled in, checked out the hotel grounds a bit (we got lost there more than a few times!). Later we ended up on Port Douglas's main street, which was pretty much as it was when we left in 2007, with many of the same restaurants and bars still around, and a few new additions.
The next day was our reef trip, which we booked with Port Douglas's reef trip juggernaut, Quicksilver, for the main reason that they have a massive multi-storey platform built out on the reef, so my mom could check out the reef from outside the water, and my dad and I could snorkel it up. When we arrived at the platform, they recommended at this time of year we wear lycra "stinger suits" for snorkelling, to avoid deadly jellyfish stings (and a few had been spotted here and there), so we paid the $5 while my mom laughed at us in our head-to-toe black spandex suits that even had hoods and mittens. My mom went off into one of the 'semi-submersible submarines' (like a skinny glass-bottomed boat that sits low in the water) and we hopped into the water... it was beautiful. We weren't sure if the coral would be really damaged thanks to daily snorkel trips, but there was so much life - coral and fish - and colours everywhere. One guy saw a shark, but unfortunately (?) we missed it. We saw a couple of turtles from the sub, and a big cuttlefish, which was cool. My highlight was a bunch of clownfish and their babies, hiding in a sea anemone. I was the last one out of the water in the afternoon when the ship honked its horn for everyone to come in.... it was so great to explore the Reef again!
Our third day up in FNQ was a road trip day, and we took the car north all the way to Cape Tribulation, to the end of the road for cars, at least (it's where the 4WD track starts up Cape York). We checked outthe ancient Daintree Rainforest, taking a crocodile-spotting cruise on the murky Daintree River -- unfortunately not seeing any crocs, as we learned they're harder to spot at high tide (strike one) and don't sun themselves on the riverbanks so much in the summer (strike two), but we did see some cool birds and plants, and learned all about the mangroves. We also stopped at incredible Cape Trib beach (sadly my parents aren't as big beach bums as I am... I could've stayed there all day!), ate strange fruit ice cream at the Daintree Ice Cream Company, and wandered through the jungle boardwalks in search of wildlife. My dad provided the mosquito bait as he ran ahead through the boardwalks, while my mom and I hung back and inspected odd-looking spiders and noises in the bushes. It turns out, she is a bit of a lizard whisperer, and lured out all kinds of crazy reptiles along the trails on our trip. No cassowaries this time (maybe I got everyone's hopes up too much after my previous encounter?) but well, there are only about 1200-1500 left in the wild in Australia. And you really have to take things at a more leisurely pace to see these creatures....