Add the Great Barrier Reef Drive to your road trip bucket list
If you’re after a holiday where you can set the pace and explore North Queensland’s most famous nooks and crannies, a few days rolling along the Great Barrier Reef Drive will see you cruising the seam between two of the world’s most renowned heritage sites.
Our answer to the Great Ocean Drive comes speckled with chances to stretch your legs on secluded bush hikes, discover the reef on ocean safaris, and soak up some of the most beautiful vistas in the country.
The drive is just 140 kms in length, but stretch it out into a week-long journey and you can make the most of each pitstop.
Use this itinerary as a guide to get the most out of Great Barrier Reef Drive road trip:
Day 1: Cairns to Port Douglas (67km)
The drive to Port Douglas is only about an hour so there’s plenty of time to pick up snacks at the Smithfield shops, detour to some of the most beautiful tropical beaches, or grab lunch with the sand in your toes at Palm Cove. You might even get a chance to feed a croc at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
Feel like lingering? Pull over at the Rex Lookout for a sweeping vista back towards Cairns. If the conditions are right you might get to watch paragliders riding the airstreams.
Along this route you can also steal moments on empty beaches, and stumble upon rock stacks just north of Ellis Beach. Of course, if Palm Cove really takes your fancy you’re more than welcome to stay a while.
When you’re keen to get moving, head up to Thala Beach Nature Reserve. Just 15 minutes shy of Port Douglas, this family-run eco-retreat is something approaching a wildlife sanctuary, and perfectly situated for exploring the nearby Daintree Rainforest. Guests are also invited to join in Thala’s coconut odyssey tour, where you’ll learn all about the uses and benefits of the tropical fruit, grown within the reserve’s own coconut plantation.
If you’re continuing on to Port Douglas, try to get there in time for sunset over the water. Then for dinner, take your pick from one of the many great restaurants along the waterfront and Macrossan Street strip before turning in.
Day 2: Port Douglas
If you want to crack on with the GBR Drive, skip straight to Day 3. But with so much going in Port Douglas, you could easily press pause and stay here for a few days.
First up, coffee and a first introduction with the reef. As a world heritage-listed site, and namesake of the drive, the Great Barrier Reef is a natural wonder teeming with marine life including turtles, rays, and hundreds of tropical fish.
There are half-day and full-day Great Barrier Reef tour options, all departing from the Port Douglas Marina, as well as shorter snorkelling trips to Low Isles, and relaxing sunset sails if you prefer to stay a little closer to shore.
To get the blood pumping, book in with Port Douglas Adventure Tours to go mountain biking, sea kayaking or drift snorkelling.
Day 3: Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge (22km)
Access the day area of the Gorge via the Mossman Gorge Centre and the best way to explore is through the eyes and stories of the Kuku Yalanji, the traditional owners of the region.
Hike the moderate 2.4km Rainforest circuit track, starting on the far side of Rex Creek bridge. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for the chameleon-like Boyd’s forest dragons who clutch to the tree trunks, as well as tree-kangaroos and musky rat-kangaroos – animals only found in the Daintree Rainforest. On the left, 80m from the bridge, you’ll have a picture-perfect view of Manjal Dimbi (Mount Demi).
In the afternoon, join the Kuku Yalanji brothers, Linc and Brandon Walker. They’ll teach you some traditional hunting and gathering skills along the mudflats of Cooya Beach, just 13 minutes from Mossman Gorge.
Anyone with a sweet tooth can join Sweet Farm Tours, who will take you through a working cocoa and sugarcane farm to learn how north Queensland’s own Daintree Estates chocolate is grown and produced.
At day’s end, return to Port Douglas for another night or splash out on a stay at Silky Oaks Lodge, on the banks of the Mossman River.
Day 4: Mossman Gorge to Cape Tribulation (68km)
Moving ever north from Mossman Gorge, take a croc-spotting river cruise with Solar Whisper Wildlife Cruises, keeping an eye on the muddy banks for the prehistoric reptiles and in the treetops for great egrets and azure kingfishers.
After all that adrenalin, take a moment with a spa treatment at the Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa.
Then, it’s time to leave civilisation and mobile coverage behind and cross the croc-infested Daintree River on the Daintree car ferry to continue your journey towards Cape Tribulation.
The oldest living rainforest on the planet, the Daintree Rainforest is an untouched remnant of the prehistoric. Up here, secret waterholes, deserted beaches and weird and wonderful fruits are in abundance.
The Daintree is the only place in the world where two world heritage-listed areas collide, and there’s nowhere better to appreciate it than at Cow Bay, where you can go horse-riding or sea kayaking along the very place where the Wet Tropics meet the Great Barrier Reef.
At night, bunker down and be lulled to sleep by the sounds of the rainforest at the secluded and completely eco Safari Lodge.
Day 5: Cape Tribulation
Enshrouded in the Daintree, Cape Tribulation is an ideal base to make introductions with both heritage sites. There’s so much to do you could easily spend four days in the Daintree and barely scratch the surface, but here are some highlights:
On a half-day eco tour with Ocean Safari you’ll snorkel the virtually unknown Mackay and Undine Reefs, swimming with turtles and eagle rays.
Back on land, a stroll along the Marrdja, Kulki or Dubuji Boardwalks will immerse you in the forest and the habitat of countless species (keep an eye out for unmistakable flashes of blue from the Ulysses butterfly).
Serious hikers should look to Mt Sorrow, 800m above sea level. It’s a steep and challenging 7km-return journey but ends with rewarding views out over Snapper Island and beyond.
Being so far away from metropolitan areas, you have the chance to sample Daintree produce. Have your next cuppa brewed on a bag of Daintree Tea, freshly picked on the tropical plantation. And don’t forget a scoop from the Daintree Ice Cream Company. Their flavours all champion the native produce, using fruits like black sapote and wattleseed grown in their own orchard.
Day 6: Cape Tribulation to Cairns (140km)
Take your time enjoying the rainforest as much as you can this morning before hitting the road again for the southwards journey.
Stop in for fresh scones at Heritage Lodge and Spa’s restaurant, then make your way back to the car ferry and back along that spectacular stretch of coastline. On the way back you’ll be able to take your time soaking up everything you might have missed.
If it’s a Sunday, stop in at Ellis Beach Bar & Grill just before Palm Cove for their famous $1 oysters from 1pm-4pm and get to know some locals.