Australian odyssey: reefs and rainforests

| February 13, 2012 | 0 Comments
An overview of the beach at Port Douglas, a surfing mecca.

An overview of the beach at Port Douglas, a surfing mecca.

 Cairns: Days 1-6

As a natural spectacle, North Queensland is comparable to the Rockies in Canada or Death Valley in the U.S. It offers, in other words, a unique experience. On my 14-day tour, I made sure to visit Cairns and Port Douglas before heading south to Sydney.

Cairns (pronounced ‘cannes’) has the towel and postcard stores of many ocean-side towns, but also offers fine dining, a well-maintained boardwalk and various public parks, including a children’s playground straight out of Tim Burton’s imagination.

The Hilton Cairns is an ideal base for your North Queensland visit. It’s close to ocean, city and esplanade. The restaurant, Hanuman, provides a great breakfast buffet. (Once we worked through the difference between tomato sauce and ketchup — there is none — and the difference between a latte and flat white — again, they’re the same thing — I very much enjoyed my early morning meals.) By night, Hanuman transforms into a fine Indian restaurant with dishes of amazing variety. When it comes to wine, be ready anywhere in Australia for pages of menus listing only Australian wine by region, and rightly so. (Aside from a slightly acidic edge, the house wines are generally quite good.) Hanuman has a winner in an Australian Sauvignon Blanc, Salitage Treehouse (2008).

The Hilton offers fantastic service, both in terms of dining and front desk and concierge staff. They are incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and happy to direct you to off-the-beaten-track dining, shopping and bar options. They also will accommodate requests, no matter how unusual. Harder pillow? Not a problem. Store your bags for a day, three days after you checked out? Of course. Still, if you want water with lunch, or a morning coffee, be ready to ask at least two different people and to wait for between 10 to 20 minutes

Spend one day walking the boardwalk. It might take only an hour or so to go from start to finish, but stop at some of the restaurants, shops, cafés (which make truly excellent coffee) and the numerous gelato shops, and the day will race by happily.

The boardwalk also covers the resort and yacht club area, then past local bars and stores, and the uniquely-shaped (and very large) public swimming pool. It could easily belong to a five-star resort and looks out over the ocean to the mountains

Several tours leave from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef and nearby rainforests. I recommend skipping the Ocean Spirit dinner cruise. The boat stays in the harbour, traveling in slow circles, and doesn’t provide views any better than had it stayed moored to the pier. Many of the best tours depart from Port Douglas, an hour north of Cairns.

A short drive from downtown Cairns — “hire” a car, take the bus or hail a cab — is the A.J. Hackett Cairns bungee jumping company. If you aren’t the sort to try it, they also operate a gigantic swing that sends horizontally prone patrons zooming down a huge arc at incredible speeds. If you are more of an observer, or need some liquid courage, they also have a well-stocked bar and make a mean white Russian.

Also close to Cairns is the Kuranda cable-car and railway. The company’s website ( has extensive information about travel options. Allow at least six hours for both legs of the trip. I opted for the cable-car going one way and for the railway on the return. The cable car takes you to Kuranda via two stops in the jungle at which you can take a guided tour, explore on your own, or just find a place to lean and look at the beautiful waterfalls.

Kuranda is a somewhat charming — and distinctly friendly. Go through town towards the amphitheatre and you will pass entrances to very beautiful jungle walks (of varying degrees of difficulty). Coming from eastern Ontario, I’m used to walking carelessly through forests. In North Queensland, it’s safest to operate on the assumption that everything is poisonous: spiders, caterpillars and plants. Wear closed-toe shoes whenever you’re leaving a town or city and carry bug spray, even if you’re there in the Australian winter.
The Kuranda jungle paths take you past ancient trees, plant-filled valleys, streams gliding over shallow waterfalls and along riverside pathways. If you take the cable car into Kuranda and the railway back, you see more than if you use one transportation method round trip. The cable car affords an amazing view of Cairns, the ocean and the nearby mountain ranges. The train takes you around heart-poundingly sharp corners beside a mountainside cliff and through several tunnels.

The train station is directly beside the main shopping centre in Cairns that offers anything you might need (towels, local gifts, clothing, boomerangs, etc.). Note that most of the shops in Cairns close at 5:00 p.m. and only the night market (featuring mostly trinkets,T-shirts, on-site massages, leather hats and overpriced local opal jewelry), which is near Cairn’s central bus station, is open for shopping after hours.
It seems that everything closes early due to the mass exodus to restaurants and bars. Cairns, in the downtown core, caters to backpackers and a somewhat younger demographic. So be ready for noise if you go into town and leave the boardwalk.

Located in Far North Queensland, 2,400 kilometres north of Sydney, Cairns and Port Douglas serve as base camps for visitors to Australia who want to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef and who want to trek in Daintree National Park, a World Heritage site famous for its lavish biodiversity.

Located in Far North Queensland, 2,400 kilometres north of Sydney, Cairns and Port Douglas serve as base camps for visitors to Australia who want to scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef and who want to trek in Daintree National Park, a World Heritage site famous for its lavish biodiversity.

If you want a few minutes of solitude, kick off your shoes, walk along the boardwalk to the public pool, dip your feet in the water and enjoy the breeze coming off the ocean — and then head to the patio at Villa Romana Trattoria for a flat white. Sitting there in the sun, sipping coffee and writing my postcards was the perfect way to say goodbye to Cairns after a wonderful week.

Port Douglas: Days 7-9

Port Douglas is a much more natural escape than Cairns. It’s the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree National Park and many other natural attractions. There are fewer backpackers and less feeling of evening excess. That’s not to say that there isn’t a thriving nightlife, though. Some of the restaurants and bars in Port Douglas are the most popular in the entire region.

No matter where you’re staying downtown, take a morning walk towards Four Mile Beach and you’ve basically mapped the whole town. You can orient yourself using the one main street, the marina and Four Mile Beach.
If you can, stay near the town’s main street or near Four Mile or opt for one of the many inclusive apartment residences. These often have pools, kitchenettes, in-room laundry facilities and patios which are great for enjoying your homemade pina coladas and margaritas. The Port Douglas Queenslander has one of the best rates, an excellent central location and, despite a lack of some common amenities (shampoo, extra towels, evening service and an office that closes at 9 p.m.), it’s a good option if you’re staying for more than a few days. I found myself appreciating the laundry machines as you will certainly use all your towels at least twice a day.

Our writer, scuba diving near the Great Barrier Reef, where she also found this clown fish.

Our writer, scuba diving near the Great Barrier Reef, where she also found this clown fish.

You will find grocery marts that provide ingredients for a fantastic meal. This comes in handy when you’re ready for a break from the astronomical prices of a meal in Port Douglas, and Australia, in general. (Comparisons are easy as the Canadian and Australian dollars are roughly equivalent.) A plate of pasta? $30. One small scoop of gelato? $5. One side garden salad? $15. Having said that, make sure you head to 2 Fish for the barramundi dinner. Tell the restaurant’s Nick that Gerhard — a local tour guide who recommends the place — sent you.

For breakfast every day, I walked to the Beaches Café on Four Mile Beach. The owners are fantastic and will make whatever you want if they have the ingredients. Show up before the 8:00 a.m. rush and get your breakfast to go, walk 10 meters to the beach and sit on the golden sand to enjoy your breakfast and (heavenly) cappuccino.

The tourists of Port Douglas disappear between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. — due to the numerous one-day adventures on offer. Try the scuba diving day at the Great Barrier Reef with Poseidon Tours. Buses pick you up at your hotel (regardless of where you’re staying in town — be out front or be prepared for the honking horn when the driver arrives). We were on the boat by 8:30 a.m. and ready to start diving (after a very in-depth and humour-filled lesson) by 10 a.m. when we arrived at the reef. Alternatively, you can snorkel above the reef.

John De Boer, who’s been diving for more than 20 years, was our leader. He took all the stress out of the experience and did everything he could to make it memorable. I recommend doing all three available dives. Each site is different. We visited one site with cliffs of reef that made you feel as though you were parasailing rather than scuba diving. The sheer size and the presence of sea turtles, sharks (smaller reef sharks, though we were told to be diligent in looking for larger sharks nearby and to head towards the bottom of the reef if we did see one) gave it a prehistoric feel. Another dive was a shallow underwater hill with more sand and colorful fish (including Nemo). By the last dive, you’re a seasoned pro and can enjoy taking underwater pictures.

Either bring your own underwater camera or rent one of their high-quality underwater Canons for $55. The advantage of renting the camera on board is that they can simply swap your camera’s memory card and return it to you afterwards. They also offer a fairly impressive lunch.

If you’re doing a half-day tour, or are taking a day off from tours just to relax, rent bikes to tour the city, shop in Port Douglas or head 20 minutes out of town to Silky Oaks for afternoon tea. It’s a gorgeous (but not conveniently located) resort near Port Douglas. The entrance is framed with tall, beautiful, windblown sugar cane plants.
The local community of Mossman, a city close to Port Douglas, relies on sugar cane for much of the region’s employment. With a decrease in production over the past few years, the sugar refinery in Mossman is innovating and has recently registered a patent to use different, fibrous parts of the plant as a natural sweetener. The sugar-farming community works as a cooperative, using a railway that circles the cane fields and harvests an equal portion of each farmer’s plantation so no individual farmer is affected by daily price increases and decreases. Also, local farmers are planning to grow cocoa, vanilla and sugar cane, a combination they say makes this area unique as the only one to grow the main ingredients for purely locally made chocolate.

After a day at the reef, or fishing, dry off and go visit the other natural wonders in the area, such as Daintree National Park. Take a look at the many pamphlets, which seemingly are on every flat surface in the town, or just sign up with BTS Tours. They’re flexible (I called at 6 p.m. for a tour for the next day at 8 a.m. without a problem.) Their Daintree Rainforest tour starts off with a very informative jungle walk which takes you past ancient trees. Tour guides place the age of one of them at somewhere between 600 and 1,200 years. Aside from just being in the rainforest, hearing the silence (many of the animals are nocturnal) and feeling small and awestruck, keep your eye out for gigantic spiders — and take in babbling brooks heading down into deep valleys, towered over by the huge sun-stealing trees that form the rainforest’s canopy.

The Daintree National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has certainly earned this honour as the world’s oldest continuously living rainforest. Locals and tourists take good care of it, including those few residents who live (without electricity connections and using only generators) on the Daintree side of the Daintree River, which you reach only by ferry.

After a jungle walk, BTS took us to see Al, the operator of the only Daintree River boat cruise. The cruise was a lovely opportunity to put on more bug spray and enjoy the breeze coming off the ocean.
Al talked mostly about the importance of the mangroves (around 30 of the world’s 60 varieties exist in the Daintree area) and why preservation of this unique tree is necessary to the ecosystem in the area. He also spoke quite a bit about crocodiles, which seems to be a common pastime in Australia’s north. All of the locals have at least one story about their pet being eaten, seeing one while out fishing or warning tourists to take the threat seriously. On the cruise, Al pointed out several logs which turned out to be four-meter crocodiles. Used to the sound of his boat (a glorified tin can), they would swish their gigantic tails and swim alongside us for a few minutes before heading back to the river’s edge to wait for an unsuspecting pet, tourist or wild pig.

After the boat tour, we headed to the BTS campsite. With a small natural clear water pond at hand, we canoed and swam (“don’t worry about the eels, they’re more scared of you than you are of them”) while our guide prepared lunch – fantastic barbecued Australian lamb (and fish and vegetarian alternatives) with several other side dishes, including coconut rice and a fresh fruit salad.

After lunch, we toured Cape Tribulation (“Cape Trib”), Cow Bay and, of course, a gelato shop. The beach at Cape Trib is a large, gorgeous semi-circle of pale sand and a very shallow decline into the ocean. At the very least, take your shoes off and walk along the surf (being mindful of the crabs that are hidden just below the sand’s surface).

Sydney: Days 10-14

Sydney is like a more-southern Vancouver but bigger (population: 4.5 million) with more varied neighborhoods and crazy, crazy driving.

There is so much to do that you need at least two weeks to see it all. In my five days, I managed a sort of “must see” list, but did miss a few.

Downtown Sydney is divided into sections. Circular Quay is a harbour-front region. Its ferries will take you to well-known Manley and other ocean-side suburbs of Sydney. The ferry is a cheap and fantastic way to get views of the city, the famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge. Darling Harbour contains the downtown skyscrapers and much of the dining and nightlife in the city. The Rocks, the first settled area in Sydney, has many historical buildings and higher-end artisan stores. Kings Cross is the city’s red light district which, during the day, at least, is interesting. Further afield are Manley and Bondi, the latter of which boasts the world-famous surfing beach.
The entire city is peppered with amazing shopping and dining. At Sushi Rio in Darling Harbour, the chefs stand in the middle of a bar fitted with an electronic sushi train. They’ll tell you what’s in each roll that makes its way past you and will also make sushi to order. It was fantastic and one of the cheaper meals I had in Sydney, at around $40.

A city walk through downtown offers architectural explorations with museums, churches — make sure to see St. Andrew’s Cathedral after dark — and the Queen Victoria Building (a shopping centre).

The Sheraton Four-Points hotel is very well located in Darling Harbour, a 15-minute walk to Circular Quay, the Rocks and downtown shopping. It offers fairly good rates and is part of a trusted hotel chain. Due to Sydney’s prices, you might consider a smaller boutique hotel. Make sure to check the online specials for the large chain hotels downtown. I was offered a “free night” coupon. The Sheraton’s breakfast buffet is fantastic. Or, equally time-saving is McDonald’s and enjoy the Mates Brekkie Box, if only to have a chance to reflect on the subtle language differences between Australia and North America. Professor Henry Higgins would surely be fascinated. (They have lackies, we have elastics. They have a long black and we have a coffee. Something suspicious to us is suss to them.) Another cuisine tip: La Renaissance Café and Patisserie, where the fruit custard tart and French custard layer pastry will make you wish you had skipped lunch and headed right to dessert. This conveniently located eatery at the Rocks should be on the cuisine bucket list of all Sydney travelers.

As many tourists do, I headed to Bondi Beach for a day of surfing. Let’s Go Surfing offers group and private lessons and is the only school to operate on the famous beach. It is so famous, in fact, that the lifeguards are featured on their own TV show. The water, year round, is quite warm, but be ready for chilling winds if you are suiting up in the winter, as I was. We had the beach to ourselves and after some good instructions and lessons, I was able to get in some real surfing. And the feeling is unbelievable.

After surfing, head to Gould Street for great Bondi shopping when you’re ready for a break from the main street’s tourist beach shops. Don’t miss Abode for unique gifts and jewelry and Gusto Espresso Bar when you need some energy. Having eaten my way across the east coast of the country, I was pleased to finally find an edible salad in Australia. Le Paris Go, a charming café filled with locals, has an amazing grilled halloumi cheese salad.
Getting around Sydney is quite simple if you’re willing to try the bus system. Just make sure to buy your tickets from convenience stores as many routes don’t sell them on the buses themselves. It’s a great way to get back and forth to Bondi and it takes you through several parts of the city that you wouldn’t otherwise see. The city also has an efficient monorail and train system.

Back downtown, I headed for the major shopping area. There are three or four large shopping centres side-by-side downtown. They range from big box stores to high-end malls filled only with luxury-priced boutiques. If you’re looking for a different shopping experience, visit Paddy’s Market or Paddington — both are an experience.
After shopping what else is there to do but head out for an excellent lamb dinner? Adria Rybar & Grill in Darling Harbour served a combo dinner (if you’re seated between 6 and 7 p.m., you get a glass of house wine, a main course and dessert for $30.) The sticky date pudding was fantastic. If you’re looking for something quick and fun, head to Pancakes on the Rocks (in Darling Harbour). They have unusually good prices compared to their neighbours.

At 8:30 a.m., the first Hop On Hop Off city tour bus arrives at the Sydney aquarium. Next, get off at the Opera House to have a glass of wine at the Opera Bar (try Bantry Grove’s 2009 Chardonnay), walk over to the nearby gardens and then hop back on until you’re ready to catch the other bus to Bondi.
For something special on my last night, I walked around the harbour and ended up at Nick’s, the premier seafood restaurant in the city. The prices were totally unreasonable, but the food was unparalleled. While bug salad might not sound appealing, it is actually a slightly sweeter and lighter version of lobster and provided the culinary highlight of the whole trip. The shared seafood platter (complete with lobster, mussels, oysters, calamari, john dory, king prawns and blue swimmer crab) was the scene stealer at most tables, creating both a tower of seafood and also a fun and romantic mood for couples sharing the dish.

From its Barrier Reef to its mountain-of-seafood supper, Australia invites a traveler to memorably experience a unique part of the world through the senses — on a truly grand scale.

Jessie Reynolds lives in Toronto and works as an analyst with Barrick Gold Corporation’s Security and Crisis Management Group. She travels whenever she can.

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Category: Delights, Destinations

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Jessie Reynolds O’Neil lives in Toronto, and worked for four years as the senior security analyst for Barrick Gold Corp. She trained employees on security for international travel, and currently provides contract services relating to security, investigations, international industry software systems, data analytics and legal ethics and compliance programs. She travels whenever she can.

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