Queensland: All calm at Palm Cove

By Susan Buckland

Palm Cove is such a special place to visit, as Susan Buckland finds out, that she contemplated redoing her itinerary to stay longer.

The trick is to wrench yourself off the sand at Palm Cove to get to your next destination.

The beach had seduced us barely 20 minutes after setting out on North Queensland's Captain Cook Highway. The water sparkled through palm trees swishing over the sand in the breeze. And our plan to drive straight from Cairns Airport to Port Douglas further north wafted out the car window.

In little more than five hours we had exchanged Auckland's winter bite for tropical balm. Thanks to a dawn-cracking departure from Auckland, much of the North Queensland day still lay ahead. The lively parade of cafes, shops and resorts along Palm Cove's esplanade were filling with people in beach gear.

Hotels with huge swimming pools added to the feeling of a relaxed tropical beach resort. At the southern end of the beach was a resort café with nothing separating it from the water except the crème caramel sand. We kicked off our shoes and made for a beachfront table.

Close by on the edge of the sand was a small chapel. "A popular place to tie the knot," smiled the waitress as she placed a platter of sliced mango on the table.

She followed our gaze out to kayakers heading for an offshore island. "Double Island is privately owned so you can't land there. But tour boats go to Green Island which is close to Palm Cove. It's a national park with white sand beaches, rain forest and coral reefs, being part of Great Barrier's inner reef. And you will meet Cassius, believed to be the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity. He's about 110 years old and lives in a sanctuary on the island.

''How much time have you got?"

Time? With our accommodation booked at Port Douglas only 40 minutes north, we figured we had most of the afternoon. Plenty of time for a swim.

"Next time you visit our café name will be named Nunu," the friendly waitress called with a final tip. "They already have a café on the esplanade which is popular for its modern Australian cuisine and dishes featuring regional produce. Like crocodile tempura."

It was a challenge thinking of crocodile tempura and Green Island's ancient reptilian resident, Cassius, in one hit. But as we took in information on sky railing up into the hills, Great Barrier Reef trips and the lure of the great Daintree rainforest, it was easy to see why Palm Cove had become a spa as well as beach resort.

After a day in the tropical outdoors marvelling at butterflies as big as your hand or snorkelling coral reefs, a full body massage at Peppers Beach Club Spa would go down rather well.

As for swimming in Northern Queensland's so-called winter (it was June) the water was an inviting 24 deg C.

Strolling along Palm Cove beach you notice there are no buildings higher than the palm trees. A foresighted touch of town planning. Two hours blissed by on the beach before we contemplated swinging clubs at Paradise Palms. The golf course lies about seven minutes' drive south, undulating from Kewarra Beach to forested hills. It's a stunning setting overlooked by the club house and resort accommodation.

It's normally a half hour drive on the coast-hugging highway from Palm Beach to Port Douglas but it often takes longer because the scenery en route has you pausing to reach for a camera.

Ellis Beach, a marvellous stretch of sand with virtually no one on it is one of those places. Nearby Wangetti was another in the chain of fine beaches north of Cairns. A hang glider rose on the breeze for a bird's-eye view of coast, forest and feather-headed sugar cane. Port Douglas would have been easily detected from his vantage point.

Old timers cling to memories of Port Douglas when it was a sleepy fishing village. The transformation to resort town began 60 years ago when well-heeled yachties came upon the sheltered harbour and coral beach and began making buying land. Fortunately for Port Douglas, the no-higher-than-a-palm tree rule applies to all buildings.

Catamarans purr out to the Great Barrier from here to hitch to a pontoon which serves as a floating restaurant and launching pad for divers, snorkellers and semi-submersible boats for people who want to view the reef without getting wet.

Queensland's tropical north is a rare place encompassing not only "the world's greatest living orgasm," as I heard the momentarily tongue-tied tour guide describe the Great Barrier Reef, but also the magnificent Daintree rainforest. The ancient forest is a giant oxygen factory with more species of trees than the entire continent of Europe. Some species are at least 3000 years old.

A BBQ lunch on our tour included time for a swim before the final leg to Cape Tribulation where the forested hills run down to the coral beach. The magnificence of it all was lost on Captain Cook in June 1770 when his ship, the Endeavour, struck a reef in June near the cape. Such were his trials that he saddled the lush promontory and mountains with the mournful tags of 'Tribulation' 'Sorrow' and 'Misery'.

"The Daintree rainforest is older than the dinosaurs," explained the guide, which made most of us feel the size of a trampled twig. Cycads, ferns, strangler figs, fan palms and a moonscape of tree roots in an eerie mangrove interact in the forest drama.

Thin shafts of light penetrate the thick canopy and twilight zone where the forest creatures scuttle about their lives. We stumbled on the big seedpods carried by the endangered Cassowary birds.

But sightings of the flightless Cassowary bird and other shy forest species are much more reliable in Port Douglas' Rainforest Habitat. The eight hectare habitat, where trees form a canopy under a huge net, is helping people to understand the interdependence of rainforest fauna and flora and to aid its conservation.

Twilight is optimum show time on the Daintree River. In an open boat with the motor switched off and stars pricking the fading sky, the boatman's spotlight picked out crocodiles, dancing sprats, flying fruit bats and emerald tree frogs.

Back in Palm Cove the next day we checked into a one bedroom apartment at the beachfront resort where we had enjoyed breakfast. And grabbing sunnies and flip flops, headed off to meet Cassius. And yes, Cassius was in one piece.

FACT FILE

Getting there: There are direct flights from Auckland to Cairns, or services connecting via Brisbane. Palm Cove is a 30 minute drive north of Cairns.

Accommodation: Palm Cove has a wide variety of holiday accommodation close to the beach.

Weather: Winter is the ideal time to visit tropical Queensland with day temperatures hovering around 26-27 deg C and average night temperatures 17 deg C. Summer brings high humidity and frequent rain.

Dining: Vivo's Italian restaurant and Chill - Brunch.

Cairns day out: Botanical Gardens.

Further information: See escapewinter.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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