Ewan McDonald embarks on a mission down Australia's Bruce Highway, and discovers intrigue along the way.
Sleepy Sunday morning sidewalks. Everyone in Cairns, it seems, obeys the commandment about honouring the Sabbath except a middle-aged Kiwi rolling his suitcase down the street and, fortunately for him, the guy in the rental-car office.
Road-tripping and some bushranging today, heading south along the Bruce Highway — it's Australia. There had to be a Bruce Highway, and I'm tempted to google to see whether there's a Wayne Motorway or a Kylie Freeway, too.
I'm heading for Mission Beach, about halfway between Cairns and Townsville, just 140km or two hours drive if I stick to the highway that runs along the coast between the Coral Sea and the rainforest. But here in what's called the Green Heart of Queensland, there are attractions and distractions just off the main drag, and that's the point of a road trip.
The first half-hour is bland, flat: miles upon kilometres of sugar-cane, the tiny-gauge tracks of the sugar-cane railway, later giving way to banana plantations. Coffee at Babinda, as much an Old West stage-set as a country town, and jumping-off point for adventure tourists heading for the swimming holes, waterfalls and tramping trails around Mt Bartle Frere, Queensland's highest … um, mountain.
Leaving the coast, I head into the hills and forests for the Mamu Tropical Skywalk. I'm completely alone inside the World Heritage rainforest, save a few birds, the occasional insect, and even more occasional lizard. It's cool. It's quiet. It's primeval.
The walkway is high above the forest floor, the valleys, the river gorges of the Wooroonooran National Park, a 350-metre long metal path that allows visitors to walk with the birds and butterflies through the canopy of the forest's grandest trees, look out and down on a virgin landscape. Displays not only explain the region's geology, plants and animals, they offer fascinating insight into the ancient and recent history of the traditional owners, the Ma:Mu nation.
Returning through the forest track, I meet an Englishman. We chat briefly, then fall silent and walk together. It seems more appropriate.
Perhaps if we'd been Spanish, like Jose Paronella, we'd have done something more flamboyant. He came here in 1913, made a fortune buying and selling cane farms, went home and found a bride, and built her a Catalonian castle, tennis courts, cinema and a ballroom; even a tiny hydro-electric plant over a waterfall. Paronella Park is in ruins now; perhaps it lives on as a memorial to a glorious eccentric. The next stop was intriguing. I liked that the local tourist organisation advised it "is real and genuine! It is deliberately NOT a theme park, it's authentic and even a little 'raw'".
Charley's Chocolate Factory (careful with that spelling, you do not want to upset Roald Dahl's notoriously litigious estate) is one of only three places in the world where you can see cocoa growing on the tree and then being turned into the chocolate you can taste (the other two are in Hawaii).
The tourist board was right — it was a bit of a struggle to find the place (Google didn't help) on a country road, drive through the farm gate on to a dusty drive, dogs barking welcome, and it's very much a hands-on, family operation.
But it lives up to its promise of a sensory journey of seeing, touching, smelling and tasting all things chocolate, from the growing and flowering plants, roasting the beans, producing the cocoa nibs and through to "Yes, I'd love to taste that" and "I'll have one of those and one of these to take home".
It's just a few minutes' drive to Mission Beach, four villages along a 14km stretch of white-sand beach, lined with palm trees, that have morphed into a relaxed, happy-go-lucky community of beach bars, cafes, eateries, low-key backpackers and upmarket resorts, galleries and boutiques.
It's one of only two places where two World Heritage sites touch each other, and if you've been following the trail you'll recall those are the reef (Dunk Island is a 10-minute ferry ride offshore) and the rainforest. It's also halfway between Cairns and Townsville, so it appeals as a weekend getaway from both cities.
So does its billing as an adventure activity base — skydiving, snorkelling and diving, whitewater rafting, tramping and camping are on offer.
But not for me.
Sleepy Sunday morning is lazy Sunday afternoon. Park the car, dump the bag, kick the shoes off and hit the sand.
Castaways resort is right on the beach, with beachfront rooms, self-contained villas, pools and a day spa.
Bibesia Beach Club (at Castaways) is one of the best chill-out spots you'll find anywhere., serving a modern Aussie take on Mediterranean classics.