Mission Beach, two hours south of Cairns, is the paradise you thought you’d lost – an epic stretch of palm-fringed coastline, beachfront cottages, a handful of great cafes and restaurants, rainforest walks, mesmerizing sunrises and the chance to spot a cassowary. Pure tropical bliss! The town is actually made up of four villages spread along a 14km stretch of beach – South Mission, Wongaling Beach, Mission Beach and Bingal Bay. Porter Promenade is the heart of Mission Beach, but you’ll find accommodation – ranging from family-friendly resorts to beachfront homes and apartments – all the way down the coastline.
Walk the beach at sunrise
Do yourself a favour and haul yourself out of bed in time for sunrise. Watching the morning sun breaking through the horizon, with Dunk and the Family Islands silhouetted against the golden sky, is a magical must. Add a walk and a yoga session, and you are set up for the day. Once you’ve worked up a good appetite head into Mission Beach for breakfast on the leafy veranda at Shanti Café. Think locally-grown veggies, delicious smoothies, the best bacon ever, and you’ve got the picture. If you prefer a DIY breakfast, stop at one of the roadside stalls and pick up some farm-fresh fruit. Keep some change in the car for purchases as the stalls operate an honesty system. Leny’s in Mission Beach village stocks yoghurt and milk from the Atherton Tableland as well as locally sourced fruit. So good!
Hire a bike
A network of walking tracks and bike trails connects the townships that make up Mission Beach, offering a great opportunity to explore the rainforest. But for the most Insta-worthy pics, you need to get a fat-tire bike and hit the beach. At low tide you can ride all the way from Clump Point to South Mission. Bring a backpack for drinks and snacks and a pair of bike pants for extra padding if you’re planning a long ride! Mission Beach bike hire is at 26 Porter Promenade.
Hike the Kennedy Trail
The 4km Kennedy trail offers spectacular sea views, plus the chance to spot turtles, dugongs and maybe even a whale. The trail starts just beyond the boat ramp at South Mission Beach (parking is past the no through road sign on Kennedy Esplanade) and hugs the coastline, crossing creeks and beaches, finally ending at Kennedy Bay. In 1848, explorer Edmund Kennedy came ashore here with a crew of 12 men, 27 horses and 100 sheep, to start an overland expedition to Cape York. The group established friendly relations with the Djiru people and spent 12 days camping here before setting off on the ill-fated journey. Only three members of the expedition survived the trek to the northern tip of Queensland.
Allow at least two hours to get to Kennedy Bay and back. Pack plenty of water and mozzie repellent.
Take a fishing trip or dive on the reef
There are several options for a deep-sea fishing trip out of Mission Beach, but we went with Alister at Hooked Up Fishing who has been taking tours for nearly 30 years. It was a breezy day and the swell was surprisingly big when we left the Clump Point harbour. That meant a chilly and exciting trip out to the Mackerel Patch and very lumpy conditions. Luckily, we landed some decent-sized mackerel which we took home for dinner. A successful day out! If fishing isn’t your thing, head out to the Great Barrier Reef for a really memorable day with Mission Beach Dive. They cater to all levels of ability with options to snorkel or dive, plus a delicious lunch. The reef is a 90-minute boat ride from Mission Beach.
Kayak to Dunk Island
Dunk Island, just 4km off Mission Beach, was home to a swanky resort before Cyclone Yasi swept through in 2014, and destroyed everything. These days you won’t get a poolside Pina Colada, but you can still enjoy the rainforest trails, sandy beaches, abundant birdlife and blue-winged Ulysses butterflies, on a day trip to the island. We rented a double kayak from Coral Sea Kayaks at South Mission Beach and paddled to Dunk Island for a picnic and afternoon of snorkelling. An incredible experience, but the island is a lot further away than it looks. This is definitely an activity for seasoned kayakers!
Spot the elusive cassowary
The Cassowary Coast might take its name from the flightless rainforest bird, but they are very thin on the ground. Habitat destruction, cars and dogs have all taken their toll on the cassowary population, and they are now an endangered species. We tried the Licuala Fan Palm walking track – which is reportedly the best place to see them, and came across plenty of evidence that they’d been through, but no actual birds. Your best bet is to head to Etty Bay, just south of Innisfail. We encountered one strutting along the roadside, and another one at the beachfront campsite. It is apparently a regular visitor and not afraid of people, but keep your distance – those claws are lethal. Take it easy on the roads through the rainforest. You definitely don’t want to hit one!
Explore the Tropical Art Deco architecture at Innisfail
Art Deco? In a country town? You got it. The regional centre of Innisfail, midway between Cairns and Mission Beach, is probably most famous for cyclones and sugar cane, but it is also the home of Australia’s most impressive collection of Tropical Art Deco buildings. On practically every street, you’ll find brightly painted 1930s treasures, built after the town was practically annihilated by a cyclone. The architecture is a mixture of European styles, taken from the many nationalities who had a hand in their design and construction. Many of the buildings have been re-purposed – just brightly coloured facades, housing chemists, gift shops and healing centres – but others, like the Innisfail Shire Hall, remain grand tributes to a previous era of prosperity. From the hand-made concrete tiles, to the upper-floor hall, this building has been carefully preserved, despite the best efforts of Cyclone Larry which tore the roof off in 2006, requiring a $17 million repair job. Check the Cassowary Coast Regional Council for walking tours or download the app for a self-guided wander through this surprising town.
Step back in town at Paronella Park?
Take a 45-minute drive from Mission Beach, past the historic towns of El Arish and Silkwood, through verdant farmland, and you’ll find Paronella Park. This surreal attraction was built in the 1930s by Spanish migrant, Jose Paronella, to fulfil a dream of one day living in a castle. Its decorative concrete structures, elaborate balustrades and walkways overlook the Mena Creek Falls. It once welcomed visitors to play tennis, picnic on the river bank and dance in the ballroom, but fell on hard times after a cyclone tore through. The current owners have spent the past three decades working to restore the incredible structures and revive Jose’s dream. Tiny bats occupy what was once a lover’s tunnel, and the tropical conditions are constantly working against the preservation efforts, but the owners are certainly committed to the project. The entry fee of $50 is vital in continuing their work and gives you entry for two years, plus free camping in the neighbouring site. For the full experience, pop across the road for a chicken parmi at the Mena Creek pub and return to Paronella to enjoy the evening light show.
Visit a waterfall
Several spectacular waterfalls are within driving distance of Mission Beach. The Millaa Millaa falls, west of Innisfail, are among the most impressive in the area, but the easiest to access are Josephine falls. The tiered cascade is an hour north of Mission Beach, making it an ideal place for a refreshing dip if you are heading to Cairns. Look out for the turn off at Mirriwinni, and follow the signs. The falls are just a five-minute walk along a bitumen path from the car park. Beware: the falls are dangerous when flooded – be sure to heed the warning signs, and take extra care on the slippery rocks. While you’re in the neighbourhood, visit the Babinda Bakery for the best pies in the region, but be prepared to queue. They are extremely popular!
Dine on a palm-fringed beach
After a day of exploring Mission Beach and surrounds, what could be better than sitting on the beachfront, cocktail in hand, watching the palm trees shimmer in the late-afternoon light, and listening to the gentle lap of the waves on the shore. If that sounds like the perfect end to the day, head to Buko at Castaways Resort for sundowners and a delicious dinner right on the beachfront. Make sure to book. Restaurant options are very limited in Mission Beach. Enjoy!
Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover. Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. Julie has also written books for children and young adults, including the Hazard River series, stories in the Choose Your Own Ever After series, and a play for high schools, As the Crow Flies. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventurers.