Wet and wild

Photo / Supplied.
Photo / Supplied.

Far North Queensland is a region of superlatives, home to the world's largest reef, the oldest rainforest and some great food and drink, writes Alex Newlove
It's probably the only time you'll ever feel guilty about your SPF 50 habit.

When you visit Great Barrier Reef, it's prudent to place a physical barrier between yourself and the sun. But sunblock "run off" from the thousands of tourists who swim in these waters each year is one of the factors contributing to coral decline, alongside pollution, overfishing and climate change.

So, ditch the sunblock, but don't beat yourself up too much. Tourism along the reef raises awareness and funding is likely to be doing this natural wonder of the world more help than harm, especially if you book with an operator like Sailaway, an eco-certified company that includes an environmental management charge and carbon offset contribution as part of its fee.

If this reef system - the largest in the world, stretching 2200km along the Far North Queensland Coast - is a wishlist item for you, try to see it soon.

Although still spectacular, Great Barrier's fish life is not what it once was but it's still glorious to spend a couple of hours drifting around window-shopper style, catching the infectious enthusiasm of the snorkel guides who seem as if they're seeing their first-ever giant clam, rather than their thousandth. The underwater garden is home to more than 6600 species of marine plant, 1500 species of fish and 360 types of coral. There's the hard coral that looks like honeycomb or calcified fungi and the soft stuff that waves its black fronds at you. Bright fish - yes, there are still plenty - are ambivalent to your chasing.

Among Sailaway's offerings we opt for the adults-only afternoon cruise on which the brave souls sitting at the front of the catamaran squeal as they are splashed copiously while we're whisked across the water to the Low Isles. This particular taster spot - one of hundreds to choose from - is only about an hour from the Port Douglas departure point, so is kinder to tight schedules and fragile tummies. Port Douglas is the closest town to the reef and dozens of tours - scuba, snorkelling and scenic - depart each day.

When you tire of the blood temperature water, there's the chance to spend some time on Low Island - a 2ha mound peeking above sea level. You can wander the island's (brief) heritage trail, or sloth on the sand and look forward to the bar opening on the sail home.

This is the part of the journey where you say "wow" repeatedly as you watch the sun start to set and avoid the splash zone more studiously as the day cools.

Back at Port Douglas, packed in the evening with sun-kissed day trippers, shuffle up the dock and straight into the one-year-old Hemingway's Brewery, shamelessly on board the craft-beer fad but pulling it off with all the good bones required for a joint of its type: good pizza, beer with a charming story on the label, rustic ambience, and creative touches like their cocktail masterclass hosted by Queensland's own Mt Uncle Distillery. This means an hour spent overlooking the marina learning the nuances of a dirty martini.

For a more refined dining experience, a 10-minute walk around the corner in the spotlessly suave Coconut Grove Complex is 2 Fish Restaurant, where you can test your newfound cocktail expertise alongside a modern seafood extravaganza ranging from wasabi jelly and green apple oysters to the restaurant's signature whole baby barramundi.

Far North Queensland is a region that lends itself to superlatives, and the day after seeing the reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, you can explore the world's oldest rainforest.

Parts of the Daintree Rainforest and National Park are up to 140 million years old, meaning the Amazon is a baby in comparison, at just 7 million years.

The Daintree River runs through the rainforest - it'sone of Australia's signature sinister murky waterways. It homes the salt water crocodiles synonymous with the lucky country, a shudder-inducing presence from the minute you catch site of your first "do not swim" sign. Many boat operators - based around Daintree Village about 45 minutes north of Port Douglas - offer the chance to get up close to the beasts, among them Solar Whisper, an environmentally friendly barge with open sides.

Pitching itself as a "small boat to get up close" (whether or not this is a selling point is debatable), our guide David talks about the local crocodiles as though they are personal friends. A horrifyingly massive "Scarface" is the alpha male in this area, though with the tide high and the water warm, we only see a smallish (2.5m) female-crocodile called Gump. Obligingly, she provides us with some excitement by turning her jaws on a cray pot hanging off the wharf as we cast off.

As the name suggests, Solar Whisper's boats are wonderfully quiet and David incredibly knowledgeable about the river, its plant life and other fauna: frogs, bats, birds and snakes. If you're among the unlucky 1 per cent of cruisers who don't spot a croc, you can come again for free.

There's no bridge across the Daintree River, so when it comes time to head into the depths of the forest you wait for a car ferry and 15 minutes later are at Daintree Discovery Centre, the crash course in all things rainforest. The centre itself is a building containing a coffee shop, souvenir shop and learning centre. It's hugged by hundreds of metres of concentric elevated boardwalks, including an 11m aerial walk, which gets you to mid-canopy level. It leads to a 23m canopy tower with several viewing platforms, the idea being you can explore the different levels of the canopy.

Although the centre is pitched as a nature and wildlife experience, it's light on the latter, probably due to most sentient creatures being put off by the stream of tourists on the tracks. There were certainly no cassowaries to be seen on the cassowary circuit.

Australians are obsessed with these prehistoric emu-type things. We were lucky enough to see one on the drive, an experience akin to spotting a kiwi in the wild.

For those who want to continue their escape of civilisation overnight, book in at Daintree EcoLodge and Spa.

The first thing that needs pointing out is that Eco is not shortform for economy, this place is pure luxury and the combination of massage, cocktails, bird calls, and zero man-made noise will have you blissful and semi-catatonic within hours of arriving.

The tree-house style rooms are nestled into the forest in such a way that you can have a bath amidst the trees, shrouded by your room's insect screens.

The fact the lodge's restaurant, Julaymba, has a captive audience in the evenings has not put them off striving for excellence.

You continue to breathe in the superior air on the dining deck hanging over a rainforest lagoon while the chef presents an ever-changing menu of dishes with nods to the rainforest surroundings. A taste of the Aussie wilds.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:
Philippine Airlines flies four times a week from Auckland to Cairns, with Economy Class return airfares starting from $752 on selected dates in May. Business Class return fares for the same period start from $1142 pp, when booking two tickets.
Port Douglas is about an hour's drive from Cairns airport.

WEATHER
Like most tropical climates, there aren't so much four seasons as two: dry (May to October) and wet (November through April).

DON'T MISS
The Mossman Markets, on the drive between Port Douglas and the Daintree. Saturday mornings, in the park area surrounding historic St David's Church under towering rain trees.

Further information: queensland.com

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