“Iss is a-nazing!” says Bethan, face down in the sea. Talking with a snorkel in your mouth is tricky, but the fact that she’s even attempting it says plenty about what’s on show. The two of us are floating about 65ft offshore from Fitzroy Island, and she’s right: this is amazing. We’ve been following a huge green turtle for the past two minutes, watching it glide nonchalantly over the seabed while parrotfish nibble at the coral. As water adventures go, it beats playing Poohsticks back home.
We’ve come to northern Queensland on a two-week family trip. It’s by far the most exotic place we’ve ever visited en masse but, given that we’re already committed to flying out to Sydney for a family reunion, adding on a fortnight here seems to be a logical move. For months before we set off, the word Australia swirls around the house with all the magic and promise of Christmas.
Our base is a holiday home in Port Douglas, a gold mining port turned resort town about an hour north of Cairns. A minute’s walk from our door is Four Mile Beach, complete with starfish, palm trees and ranks of forested mountains. I don’t need to tell you how it got its name. For two kids accustomed to the kind of beaches where you pester for chips and have running races from one end to the other, it’s a mind-blowing sight — and it turns out the fortnight holds plenty of those.
“Winter last year was on a Wednesday,” quips Drew, captain of our boat up the river creek outside of town. It’s August, which laughably passes for midwinter up here. The temperature hovers at around 23C, which means you find yourself reaching for a beer far more often than you do a jumper. “Ah, here we go,” he continues, pointing at the bank. “Our first croc.”
The kids’ eyes almost pop out on stalks. A 13ft-long saltwater crocodile is lying on the mud of the shoreline, its colossal jaws slightly ajar. It shifts its head, almost imperceptibly, as if to confirm its realness. Crocodiles have been around, we learn, for somewhere in the region of 120 million years. “So quite young compared to the Daintree,” says Drew, referencing the rainforest that blankets much of the region. “That’s more like 180 million years old.”
With such an impressive rainforest relatively close, we of course make the effort to visit it. We end up balancing relaxing at the holiday home (during which time I rightly convince the kids that Vegemite on toast is a very good thing), with multiple trips outside of Port Douglas.
We drive north, via a short river crossing, to the towering green depths of the rainforest. The road is hemmed in on either side by high foliage from which the relentless drone of cicadas emanates. The highlight for my wife and I is walking the beach at Cape Tribulation, the point where Australia runs out of sealed roads — for the kids, it’s the Jungle Surfing zip-lines.
We also drive south, once to ride the brilliant Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and once to catch the ferry out to Fitzroy Island — because, as if having the world’s oldest rainforest and knock-out beaches isn’t enough, the region also sits on the Great Barrier Reef.
For the rest of the holiday we take things slowly, trying to let the scale of the surroundings sink in. We hire bikes and trundle up and down the beach. We swim. We spot kookaburras and kangaroos by day, and Mars and the Southern Cross at night. All this has a terrible downside when we return home, of course. After all, how do you readjust two kids to life without turtles, beaches and rainforest?
Four Mile Beach
The show-stealing centrepiece of Port Douglas has a swimming area with lifeguards at the northern end. Its length means it never feels crowded.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Just outside Cairns, this is a three-part, 90-minute cable-car high above the rainforest — and you can return to the start via the spectacular Kuranda Scenic Railway. ksr.com.au
Lady Douglas River Cruise
Get up close to saltwater crocs on cruises that sail through mangrove channels close to Port Douglas. Crocs are spotted on 95% of trips.
A 45-minute crossing from Cairns takes you to this laid-back island with child-friendly snorkelling, a turtle rehab centre and beach-to-beach walks.
The Daintree Discovery Centre
Gives a strong intro to any rainforest visit. The highlight is an observation tower over the canopy where, with luck, you’ll spot cassowaries (an emu-like bird). discoverthedaintree.com
Who went: Ben and Helen went on holiday with Joe (9) and Bethan (6).
Best for: Tropical adventures for kids aged 6+.
Need to know: Make your first couple of days as relaxed as possible to ease jet lag. Health-wise, the main things to watch for are too much sun and hydration: it’s worth investing in ‘rashies’ (spandex shirts that offer protection while swimming or snorkelling). Tap water is safe to drink.
How to do it: Austravel has an 11-night family holiday to northern Queensland with two nights at Palm Cove, four nights on Lizard Island and five nights at Port Douglas, plus the Daintree Discovery Centre, Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and Kuranda Scenic Railway trip including five days’ car hire, from £13,768 for two adults and two kids, with flights.
Published in the Family 2019 guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)