Tropical North Queensland: rainforests, waterfalls, pristine beaches, islands, historic towns as well as the occasional crocodile. Who needs the Amalfi Coast when you have all of that in one place? We spent 12 days driving from Townsville to Cooktown via the 4WD Bloomfield Track, returning along the Mulligan Highway. If you are looking for an unforgettable road trip, this one is hard to beat!
DAY 1: TOWNSVILLE TO MAGNETIC ISLAND
Townsville is the largest town in North Queensland, but unless you have time up your sleeve, head straight to Magnetic Island – a forty-minute car ferry ride away. With a laid-back vibe, pretty beaches, and great bush walks, it is the perfect place to start a holiday. There is a Peppers resort at the ferry terminal, but for a more relaxed feel, wind your way over to the other side of the island. Horseshoe Bay has a good range of accommodation, a handful of eateries, and is the best place to be when the sun sinks into the Coral Sea. Horseshoe is also the starting point for the beautiful walk to Florence Bay, which can only be reached by foot. With any luck the butterflies will be out and you might even spot a koala. For stunning ocean views, make tracks for the forts. The World War 11 concrete bunkers were built to protect the coast from a feared Japanese invasion. Get up early and make the trek to the top before it gets too steamy! The walk starts on the main road behind Horseshoe Bay.
Tips: In Horseshoe Bay, try dinner at Barefoot – the barramundi was fantastic when we ate there – and Café Nourish for breakfast, smoothies and wraps. In Nelly Bay, check out Scallywags for breakfast and Saltwater for delicious meals. You can get around Magnetic Island by bus, but a car is a big advantage.
DAY 3: MAGNETIC ISLAND TO MISSION BEACH
Next stop on our itinerary is Mission Beach, three and a half hours north of Townsville, along the aptly named Great Green Way. It’s worth allowing extra time for the drive as there are countless places to stop along the way. Big Crystal Creek is one you won’t want to miss. Look for the Paluma National Park turnoff, 67km north of Townsville, then follow the road to Paradise Waterhole. Here you’ll find picnic tables and toilets. A beautiful clear waterhole is just a short walk away, making this the perfect spot for lunch and a swim. Just make sure you bring your own food as you won’t find any cafés around here. A mask is also handy for checking out the fish.
Further along the highway, duck off the road at the Hinchinbrook Island viewing point. The whole island is a national park – no hotels or accommodation of any kind – just dense tropical rainforest, mangroves and cloud-covered mountains. A little further on, the beachside town of Cardwell is a pretty place to stretch the legs and grab a snack. From here it’s all lush green mountains and banana farms. Keep some change in the car to buy local produce from the roadside stalls on the road to Mission Beach.
Mission Beach is a 14 kilometre stretch of palm-fringed paradise. It’s actually four small communities – Mission, South Mission, Wongaling and Bingil Bay – the perfect place for beach walks, bike riding, kayaking, reef excursions and fishing trips. Porter Promenade is the heart of things – a hub for restaurants, cafés and rentals, but you’ll find beach-front cottages, resorts and apartments spread all the way along the unspoilt coastline.
Tips: Try Buko at Castaways for heavenly beachfront meals and Shanti for breakfast and lunches. Head to Leny’s, just across the road, for fantastic fresh fruit and local dairy produce. You might be lucky enough to spot a cassowary while at Mission Beach. This is the Cassowary Coast, after all. If you don’t have any luck, head to nearby Etty Bay. A cassowary is a regular at the campsite there. Just ask at the office and they’ll point you in the right direction.
DAY 5: MISSION BEACH TO PALM COVE
We’re back on the Great Green Way today – heading north to Palm Cove. It’s a two-hour drive, but once again there are ample options for detours. If architecture interests you, plan a stop in Innisfail – the home of tropical Art Deco. On virtually every street, you’ll see 1930’s treasures – the remnants of the sugar cane town’s glory days. Many of the buildings are just brightly coloured facades these days, but the Shire Hall is a well-preserved relic of a bygone era, and definitely worth a visit. Another option for history buffs is Paronella Park. This faux European castle was built in the 1930s by Spanish migrant José Paronella as an amusement park. The site on Mena Creek is well off the highway, but the drive is a delightful detour – through the tiny historic towns of Al Arish and Silkwood. For nature lovers, Josephine Falls is a must see. The tiered cascade is just five minutes from the highway at Mirriwinni and the perfect place to have a dip on a hot day. Feeling peckish after your swim – head to the Babinda Bakery for the best pies in the area.
Skirting around Cairns (and hopefully avoiding Friday afternoon traffic and roadworks) you’ll reach the turnoff to Palm Cove, about 30 minutes north. Here you’ll find another idyllic palm-fringed beach (hence the name). But unlike Mission Beach, Palm Cove is a well-established tourism hotspot with swanky accommodation, a host of great restaurants, chic little boutiques and giant melaleuca trees towering over the main street. It’s a very popular destination, so make sure you book accommodation and restaurants, especially if you are planning a trip during school holidays.
Tips: You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to dining, but Nu Nu is a stand out. Think spanner crab brioche and kimchi butter reef fish, followed by macadamia tart with Daintree vanilla ice cream. Yes, please!
DAY 6: PALM COVE TO PORT DOUGLAS
It’s a short drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas – just 42km – but it is one of the most spectacular routes in Australia. The Captain Cook highway hugs the coastline, with views over the turquoise waters of the Coral Sea. Stop for a photo at Ellis Beach or further along at Rex Lookout. This spectacular hilltop position is also popular with hang gliders.
Port Douglas is a substantial tourist town with a wide range of accommodation, restaurants and shopping. It doesn’t have the intimate feel of Palm Cove but it’s a good place to stay if you want to do a day trip to the reef or head out on a catamaran for a sunset sail. While in Port Douglas, make sure you walk to the Flagstaff Hill lookout for breathtaking views over the coastline. Head to the netted area at Four Mile Beach to swim.
Tips: Visit St Mary’s by the Sea – the cutest chapel ever, and try the nearby Tin Shed at the Combined Club for reasonably priced food and drinks on the waterfront. Great for lunch. The Surfy Bistro at the Port Douglas Surf Club does excellent meals in a relaxed beachfront location.
DAY 8: PORT DOUGLAS TO DAINTREE
One of Tropical North Queensland’s most important natural areas, Mossman Gorge, is just a twenty-minute drive from Port Douglas. Your starting point is the Cultural Centre. If you decide to go self-guided, you can take a bus into the rainforest and follow an elevated boardwalk to a beautiful clear swimming spot. If you want to do a deep dive into the customs of the Kuku Yalanji people, you can book a Dreamtime walk, which begins with a traditional smoking ceremony and finishes with bush tea and damper.
Half an hour further north is the town of Daintree. The town sits on the banks of the Daintree River, and was once the heart of the timber industry, but is now a tiny settlement with a handful of cafes, a quaint museum style shop and a distinct frontier feel. We arrive late afternoon and take a sunset cruise on the river. The river is famous for its crocodile population and we spot one half submerged among the reeds. It’s not interested in posing for cameras so we move on, enjoying the abundant birdlife, and watching the sun sink behind the mountains. The perfect end to the day.
DAY 9: DAINTREE TO COOKTOWN
The real adventure starts today. Our destination is just 150km away, but between Daintree and Cooktown is the Bloomfield Track – an iconic 4WD route that forges a path through the World Heritage listed Daintree Rainforest. But first, there’s the Daintree River, which can only be crossed by car ferry. The journey across the river lasts 15 minutes, but takes you from farmland into another world. Towering fan palms, giant cycads and ancient conifers form a canopy over the road as you pass into one of the oldest rainforests on the planet. The Daintree is thought to be 180 million years old – more diverse than any other landscape in Australia
with thousands of species of plants and animals. Make sure you stop at Mount Alexandra lookout for an incredible view over the treetops, the Daintree River and out towards the Coral Sea. It is absolutely spectacular.
Another good place to stop is the Madja Botanical Walk where you can explore the mangrove forest from the safety of a boardwalk. You will also want to call into Mason’s Café for lunch and a swim. The café offers a quirky range of local specialities including croc burgers and black sapote smoothies. After a bite to eat, head to the waterhole behind the café – guaranteed to be croc-free. From here it’s a short drive to Cape Tribulation, named by British explorer Captain James Cook after his ship struck the reef in 1770. Take a stroll to the lookout to see where the rainforest meets the sea, and where it all went wrong for Cook.
Cape Tribulation also marks the end of the bitumen. For the next 30km you’ll be on the Bloomfield Track – a steep, rough, twisting route through mountainous rainforest – considered one of Australia’s most scenic 4WD routes. It is only accessible in the dry season and can be impassable after rain. Challenging, yes, but also unforgettable and definitely worth the effort. The track ends at the town of Wujul Wujul on the Bloomfield River. Wujul Wujul means ‘many falls’ in the language of the local Kuku Yalanji people. So, as you’d expect, the falls here are pretty impressive. Also worth a visit is the Bana Yirriji Art and Cultural Centre which is on the same road as the falls.
It’s another 65 km of bitumen road to Cooktown. On the way, don’t miss the Lions Den hotel about 30 km north of Bloomfield. The historic pub has been feeding and watering weary travellers since 1875, and is firmly on the tourist trail these days with an extensive selection of merchandise to prove it, but the place has a great atmosphere and amazing pizzas that are served all day.
It’s late afternoon by the time we finally make it into Cooktown. The town, with its wide main street, bright blue Endeavour River and historic buildings, feels almost like a film set. It is in fact a thriving rural town, a favourite with grey nomads and a great place to visit. The streets are dotted with landmarks and monuments to Captain Cook, even though it was a maritime misadventure that saw him stranded here in the first place. He and the crew of the Endeavour hobbled into the river to repair damage done to their ship when it ran into the reef. Here begun all out troubles, as he put it. They spent seven weeks in Cooktown fixing the ship and trying to work out how to get away again. It was Cook’s longest time ashore in Australia.
Things to see: The James Cook Museum is a must. Cook’s connection with Cooktown is obviously the focus of the museum, with the Endeavour’s anchor and canon gracing the entrance. But stories and artefacts from the Guugu Yimithirr nation who called this area
home long before Cook was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye also feature, as do mementos and photos from the gold rush days at Palmer River.
Cook’s Lookout: For stunning views of Cooktown and the Endeavour River, walk or drive to the top of Grassy Hill. An old lighthouse still stands on the spot where Cook searched for a way out of the reef. Snippets from his diary also line the route to the top.
Eat: Head to the Sovereign Resort for the best coral trout and chips in the entire world. (I am not joking.) Try Driftwood Cafe in Charlotte St for great coffee, breakfast and wraps.
Out of town: For a proper 4WD experience and a dip in a beautiful waterhole, head to Trevethan Falls. Take the Amos Bay Road, off the Mulligan Highway, then follow the makeshift signs. This is not an easy place to find and the final section of the track is steep and rocky. The walk to falls from the ‘car park’ is also tricky, but definitely worth the effort. Check with locals before swimming anywhere up here.
DAY 11: COOKTOWN TO CAIRNS
We return to Cairns via the Mulligan Highway – a 328 stretch of bitumen road through the farming communities of the Atherton tablelands. It is much less spectacular than the coastal route, but is a pleasant drive, and there are some pretty picnic spots and villages to stop en- route. Check out the Mount Molloy Coffee House for great whole foods, smoothies and coffee. There is also lots to see and do in the rainforest village of Kuranda. The Barron Falls are spectacular after rain, and there are beautiful walking trails to explore.
DAY 12: CAIRNS TO TOWNSVILLE
After an overnight in Cairns, we head south to Townsville – 346 km away. We ditch the car and take a helicopter to Orpheus Island resort, where we spend the next three days snorkelling, hiking, boating, paddle boarding, eating delicious food and generally feeling in awe at how truly beautiful Queensland is, and how lucky we are to live here.