I travelled with my best friend Chloe, from Airlie Beach in the Whitsundays to Cairns, with excursions to the Great Barrier Reef, Magnetic Island, the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas, just to name a few.
The Great Barrier Reef may be this region’s major calling card, but don’t let your adventures stop there. There is so much to do in Queensland’s tropics and it’s worth at least a week of your time. It was a busy week but we had enough island time to unwind in between our many day trips and excursions.
I found the sheer number of amazing options in this region really overwhelming, so I hope by sharing my itinerary it makes it easier for you to plan your own tropical travels!
I’ve had lots of readers asking about how much this sort of trip costs, after seeing it on my Instagram account @thewanderbugworld. Struggling to work out a budget for your trip? Check out my budget post for one week of travelling in Queensland.
- Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef
- Swimming in Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest
- Visiting the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites collide, at the beautiful Cape Tribulation
- Kicking back on the best beach in Australia, on Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays
- The scenic journeys to and from the mountain-top rainforest village of Kuranda, via the Kuranda Skyrail and the Scenic Railway.
- Taking the scenic route along the Great Tropical Drive – one of Australia’s prettiest driving routes.
- The view over Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas
- Seeing a baby crocodile in the wild in the Daintree River
- Visiting the biggest butterfly sanctuary in the world in Kuranda
- Sailing through the Whitsundays archipelago
- Swimming in the calm. clear waters on Hamilton Island
In a nutshell, more UNESCO world heritage listed natural sites, world class overland journeys, beaches and islands than you can poke a stick at. Pretty amazing considering I was only away for a week!
Day 1: Brisbane to Airlie Beach
Airlie Beach is a tiny coastal town that is the main jump-off point for visiting the Whitsundays Islands. Airlie Beach doesn’t have an airport, so we flew with Jetstar to Prosperine and pre-booked a seat on a transfer bus to Airlie Beach. Pre-booking is essential, I can’t stress this enough. The transfer was $36 with Whitsunday Transit– it would be a $100+ cab ride!
Accommodation: My first stay in a hostel! We booked a private double room at Airlie Beach Magnums, which was $112 for two nights. Staying in a hostel was fine but I was thrilled to have my own bathroom again in Townsville. There is a Woolworths behind the hostel, which was really handy for buying snacks and lunch to take on our day trips and long bus rides.
Day 2: Day Trip to Hamilton Island & Whitehaven Beach
There are several options for exploring the Whitsundays. You can stay at hostels and resorts on a few of the islands, such as Hamilton Island and Daydream Island, or you can visit the islands on day trips from Airlie Beach. The most famous beach in the Whitsundays archipelago is Whitehaven Beach. Located on the resort-free Whitsundays Island, Whitehaven is accessible only by a day trip.
There is a huge variety of cruise excursions available. Since we weren’t staying on any of the islands, we decided to take a tour with Cruise Whitsundays that would give us four hours on Hamilton Island and two hours on Whitehaven Beach.
While I found the postcard-perfect marina on Hamilton Island a little too much like Disneyland, I was blown away by how beautiful the water was at Catseye Beach. I’d love to come back to Hamilton Island for a few days of uninterrupted beach time.
The beach at Whitehaven is the best beach in Australia, famous for its bright white sand. We walked far enough away from the rest of the tour group so that we had a big chunk of beach all to ourselves. All that there was left to do for the next two hours was sit back and relax.
I didn’t realise this when booking, but the half-day trip to Whitehaven doesn’t include walking up to Hill Inlet for the famous view over the island. This was disappointing, but luckily the Whitsundays isn’t too far out of my reach while I live in Australia. I’ll have to go for a return visit!
Day 3: Airlie Beach to Townsville and Magnetic Island
We took an early Greyhound Bus from Airlie Beach to Townsville. The trip took five hours including a lunch break at a service station in the middle of nowhere. There was basic food for purchase but I’m glad I brought my own lunch.
It was my first time travelling with Greyhound and I was really impressed. Comfortable leather seats that recline, great air conditioning, a bathroom onboard, free WiFi and a USB charger for every seat. The WiFi was slow, but we were probably some of the last to log on. Travelling with Greyhound was much cheaper and less hassle than flying, which would have involved tiny regional planes. I definitely recommend travelling with Greyhound around Australia.
We were only in Townsville for one night. It broke up the journey between Airlie Beach and Cairns but I’m glad we went because it is a pretty waterfront town in its own right. We arrived later in the evening than I expected, so we didn’t have time to visit the Reef HQ Aquarium before catching the ferry to Magnetic Island. Reef HQ is the best aquarium in Australia, so I was a bit disappointed, but this is just a part of travelling.
The ferry to Magnetic Island took about 20 minutes. There is an island bus which departs from the ferry terminal, so we hopped straight on and went to Horseshoe Bay. There are plenty of beaches on Magnetic Island, but Horseshoe Bay was easy to get to by bus and it was lovely and quiet when we got there. We chilled out on the beach for a couple of hours, watched a magnificent sunset and had fish and chips for dinner by the water.
Afterwards, it was back on the bus and then the ferry to spend the night in Townsville.
Accommodation: Yongala Historic Lodge, Townsville. The room was huge and we had our own private bathroom. We were on the third floor and there was no elevator, which was a mere nuisance for us with our suitcases, but would be a real issue if you have mobility problems.
Day 4: Townsville to Cairns
We travelled with Greyhound from Townsville to Cairns, for another five-hour drive. We had a much nicer lunch stop, in the pretty seaside town of Cardwell-by-the-Sea. This drive is part of one of Australia’s most scenic driving routes, The Great Tropical Drive, so the scenery was lovely for most of the trip.
We were pretty tired by the time we got to Cairns, so we spent the afternoon wandering around the shops, finding the Cairns Night Markets and checking out the manmade lagoon.
Accommodation: Queens Court on Sheridan St. We got a great deal but it was around a fifteen-minute walk into town. In the thick tropical humidity, I would have really appreciated staying even five minutes closer to the action.
Day 5: Day Trip from Cairns to Kuranda Village
Kuranda is a rainforest village on a mountain just outside Cairns. The journeys to and from Kuranda are a big part of the attraction. We went up on the award-winning Kuranda Skyrail and took the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway back down the mountain at the end of the day.
My heart was racing the entire time on the Skyrail, but even my fear of heights couldn’t ruin it for me. The views are an absolute knockout and I’ve never felt smaller than when I was floating above the endless sea of the ancient rainforest canopy.
The Scenic Railway return trip gave us beautiful views over the range as we descended the mountain. The journey itself is one of the world’s most scenic railway trips and the train is an engineering marvel, completed in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, everyone was distracted from the views by how sticky and sweaty it was inside the train – just a part of travelling in the tropics.
I found the Kuranda Markets a bit of a let-down because they are really just a series of small shops. I’m always searching for a beautiful open-air market, so maybe my expectations were too high. However, it’s a great place to check out some local products.
We visited the Kuranda Butterfly Sanctuary, which is the biggest butterfly sanctuary in the world. A few butterflies landed on us, but we missed getting a photo of the elusive blue Ulysses butterfly landing on me – it waited until we had packed up our cameras and were leaving!
After the butterfly sanctuary, we took a Rainforestation Tour, through the rainforest on an aquaduck. Our guide had lived and worked in the rainforest for decades, so it was fascinating to hear his stories from the beautiful but potentially lethal rainforest. I can see why tourists feel like everything but the people are out to get you in Australia, but all of these dangers can be avoided with a little common sense.
Day 6: Day Trip from Cairns to Green Island
I want to win the lotto and buy Green Island. It is literally my idea of what a tropical paradise should look like.
Green Island is a coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef, covered in rainforest and fringed by white sandy beaches and brilliant blue water.
There is a resort, so once you venture into the island there are resort pools and snack kiosks, but the sublime beaches feel a world away from modern life.
We spent the day snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, straight off the beach. This was my first time snorkelling and I loved it! Unfortunately, my visions of snorkelling amongst colourful coral weren’t realised, as the coral in this shallow part of the reef has suffered from coral bleaching. We saw lots of colourful fish (and one jellyfish), which kept us entertained for hours.
I don’t really enjoy swimming most of the time, so I wasn’t sure if I’d like snorkelling. I loved it! I want to plan more holidays around snorkelling and am even tempted to try scuba diving – who would have of thought?!
The island is also home to Australia’s largest crocodile in captivity, but we were having too much fun in the water to find time for that.
Day 7: Day Trip to Cape Tribulation, Port Douglas & The Daintree
Our final full day was epic. We took a full day tour with Daintree Discovery Tours. Our first stop was the Mossman Gorge Centre in the Daintree Rainforest. The Daintree is the oldest living rainforest in the world – 80 million years older than the Amazon!
We had morning tea at the centre before going on a walk through the rainforest. Our guide, Jean, took us to the only body of water in Tropical North Queensland that he’d let us swim in. The water is too cold for crocodiles – and for most of our tour group – but I couldn’t resist! It was such a sticky, humid day that I could not just sit on the gravelly riverbanks and look at the refreshing, clear water.
Swimming at beaches and in rivers is not advised in Tropical North Queensland because you won’t see a crocodile until it is too late. I was glad that we found an exception to the rule, but I can’t stress enough not to choose your swimming spots without a guide. Even then, you have to keep your wits about you.
After walking through the rainforest, we hopped back in the van and drove to Port Douglas, an ex
We drove to the top of a hill in Port Douglas to get the perfect view of Four Mile Beach before stopping in by the famous St Mary’s By The Sea Chapel for some more photos.
We ate a very tropical lunch at Daintree Teahouse. I had barramundi, one of Queensland’s most popular fish, and tried all of the exotic tropical fruits that were artfully arranged on our plates. Some were delicious and others smelt like feet but they were all interesting!
After lunch, we went on a crocodile cruise of the Daintree River, which was creepy but fascinating! Our guide, a local tracker, reckons that one of the stretches of water we went through was one of the most dangerous in the world – it’s infested with bull sharks and crocodiles.
In the afternoon, we visited Cape Tribulation. It’s a pretty spectacular sight because it is the only place in the world where two World Heritage Listed Sites collide, where the Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree. Just the largest natural structure in the world meeting the oldest rainforest in the world. No big. We went on a longer walk through the rainforest and stopped at a few lookouts for some great photo opportunities.
We were pretty exhausted by the end of the day, but we perked up just enough to go out for a few drinks…which turned into a big night. I was really surprised how much fun Gilligan’s was. I was expecting a rundown beach shack (probably thinking of Gilligan’s Island) and instead found a multi-storey nightclub – something I did not expect to find in Cairns! I would have been happy with a beach shack but we had a pretty good night.
Day 8: Cairns to Brisbane
As we nursed our hangovers on our final morning in Cairns, I discovered possibly the best hangover cure: Carrot, beetroot and ginger juice from a cafe on the Esplanade, dangling my feet in the lagoon for a while and finally, taking a nap under a tree.
I’m so glad I experienced this part of my home state before I moved to Melbourne. I went up mountains and floated down rivers, swam on the Great Barrier Reef and in the icy waters of the world’s oldest rainforest. I relaxed on Australia’s best beach and ate fresh tropical food. The crazy thing is, I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Travel tips for Queensland’s Tropics
We travelled through three regions of northern Queensland. This trip took us through The Whitsundays, Townsville and Tropical North Queensland regions. The tropics are beautiful, humid and have a hell of a wet season. We travelled in mid-November, pre-school holidays and pre-wet season.
When to go to North Queensland
Dry season is the most popular time to visit, from May to October. Daytime temps are 26-28 °C and at night it’s 16-17 °C. Humidity is low and there’s lots of great weather, with little chance of rain. Wet season is November to April, with an average temperate of 31 °C that feels more like 35 °C thanks to the 75% humidity. We went in mid November and had perfect weather every day, but if you travel in January or February the chances of tropical thunderstorms, lots of rainy days and potentially cyclones and floods is much higher. The plus side is, there are less tourists!
Safety: Stingers & Salties
Stinger season (poisonous jellyfish) is November – March, so we still had to be careful on any mainland beaches or on islands close to the mainland. Everywhere on this trip is crocodile territory.
We only saw one baby crocodile on a croc cruise, but this is because we didn’t go swimming in any rivers or creeks, apart from one in the Daintree which our guide guaranteed was croc-free because it is too cold. He said it was the only one he would swim in. Crocodiles are the ultimate predator, and their scales create countercurrents underwater, which means a five-metre croc can be in knee deep water right beside you and you won’t see the water’s surface move. Be smart.
Saltwater crocodiles also live in freshwater. They can be found in the ocean, but this is rare. We saw a sign on the beach on Cape Trib to stay out of the water because there had been a croc sighting, so use your common sense and swim at patrolled beaches.
Cairns has a muddy beach, but a beautiful man-made lagoon which is much nicer to swim in! Having said all this – if you’re smart, you’ll have no need to worry. Ask your guide if you need to hire a stinger suit (often free) and just don’t get in the creeks, lakes or rivers. Save yourself for the Cairns lagoon, which is easily the most beautiful public pool I’ve ever seen.
This trip was about seeing some of Australia’s best beaches and most beautiful islands, experiencing the great tropical outdoors and of course, the reef. Because we only had a week, for work-related and budget-related reasons, the trip had a relatively fast pace and it was a relief to settle in Cairns for four nights at the end.
However, because most of the day’s activities involved swimming and beaches, once we plonked ourselves on a beach we had a lot of downtime. If you can, I’d recommend adding a few days and taking it slower. I’d stay an extra night in Townsville and on one of the Whitsundays islands. Hamilton, Daydream, Green Island or Magnetic would be perfect.