How to spend a long weekend in Tropical North Queensland
Hike, swim, relax and meet the wildlife on an easy long weekend in Cairns, with minimal fuss and maximum fun.
- July 2019
Standing on the beach, the crunch of pure white coral beneath my toes, it’s clear a decision has to be made. Dive into water so clear I can see vibrant orange clownfish smile at me as they swim past, or take to the rainforest behind me – a lush, emerald wonderland home to birds and butterflies?
“I can’t believe only hours ago I was battling commuters in overcoats,” I say as a green sea turtle pops its head out of the water in front of me. “Tell me about it,” the creature sighs. “I’ve battled crowds on the East Australian Current – this place is paradise.” At least, that’s what I think it says. But this imaginary exchange swings the decision – a swim it is.
I’m happy to say this is the toughest decision I face on the Great Barrier Reef’s Fitzroy Island, a rainforest oasis fringed with coral reef. Out here – 29 kilometres south-east of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland (or a fun, 45-minute, 80s music-heavy ferry ride away) – stressed-out city slickers like me can down tools, escape the cold and give ourselves over to a weekend of rest and relaxation in what is considered to be one of the most unspoilt islands on the reef.
Winter (June to August) is a good time to visit this region. Temperatures are still warm (rarely dropping below the mid-20s) and humidity is low. The wet season kicks off around late November/December and lasts through to March, bringing with it heavy rains, scorching temperatures and humidity – it’s bad for the hair but great for the lush, green landscape.
Fitzroy Island is home to the 99-room, 4.5-star Fitzroy Island Resort, which caters mainly to families. It’s got it all – an on-site restaurant and bar, swimming pools, a turtle rehabilitation centre and a campsite, which is managed by the same resort. The island’s best asset, however, is the one thing it lacks: crowds. There are no maddening hordes to get in your way as you kayak or snorkel around the famous Nudey Beach (don’t believe the moniker – not only are swimsuits very much required but the region’s infamous stingers might make you regret your decision not to wear a stinger suit).
Neither are there any tourists incessantly posting on Instagram when you stop at a lookout on the walking trails that snake through rainforest and coastal woodland.
Dotted with boulders and acacia trees, there are the Secret Garden and Nudey Beach tracks, the Lighthouse Road – which is perfect for spotting migrating humpback whales and views of Green Island – and the challenging Summit Track, which offers the super-fit stunning views over the reef and mainland.
Here, without the crowds, all you’ll hear is an orchestra of your own huffing, the squawk of a sulphur-crested cockatoo, the slither of a tail as it slides behind a rock and that telltale buzzing near your ear, reminding you to spray more repellent so you don’t end up a walking Uber Eats for the island’s winged residents.
But the best have-not on Fitzroy Island? No mobile phone reception. And one person who’s thrilled with my newfound disconnect is Doug Gamble, the property developer and owner of Fitzroy Island Resort. Doug purchased and redeveloped the resort as what he likes to call a “retirement project” back in 2010.
As we sit aboard his catamaran, Eye Spy (available for scenic sails or sunset cruises from the resort), and watch the evening sky bathe our surroundings in a soft pink glow, Doug explains his passion for the 339-hectare island.
I spent six months touring Australia’s coastline searching for the perfect wilderness escape and this is the only one that impacted me here,” he says, gently tapping his heart. “The combination of forest and reef is mesmerising and I wanted to keep it as wild as possible so that people like you could switch off, relax and be at peace around nature.”
You could opt to spend your whole weekend on Fitzroy Island but to miss out on Cairns – considered the official gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – would mean missing out on the region’s other magnificent attribute: lush rainforest as far as the eye can see.
One of the best ways to experience the rainforest is to take a scenic cable car ride with Skyrail, which stretches from Smithfield to the village of Kuranda over the World Heritage-listed rainforest in the Barron Gorge National Park. In the gondola, which dangles 545 metres above sea level at its highest point, Red Peak, it’s hard to know what’s more exhilarating: the patchwork tablelands that are slowly revealed the higher you climb or being surrounded by a rainforest that’s 75 million years older than the Amazon.
Guided tours are available at the Red Peak Station and historical displays complement the boardwalk loops. There’s also a new smartphone app that offers augmented reality experiences and audio tours triggered by GPS coordinates to give you the run-down on the native flora and fauna that call this rainforest home. You’ll come away from the experience not only with some in-depth knowledge but with the passion of a dedicated conservationist. And since it’s always a few degrees cooler in the rainforest, the added bonus is that you also come back significantly less sweaty and ready to take on the rest of what Cairns has to offer.
Whether it’s on the ground or in the skies, there’s plenty to do here. The omnipresent GBR Helicopters are constantly flying passengers to dream experiences – think swimming under a waterfall at spectacular Mossman Gorge or a two-hour picnic on a private sandy cay where the sun kisses the sea – while an early morning hot air balloon ride with Hot Air offers a bird’s-eye view of the beautiful Atherton Tablelands, as you glide over it.
I’d love to say I take to the skies or bungy jump from Cairns Bungy Tower, but I don’t, because I’m a chicken. Instead, I go for a scenic, 25-minute drive to Crystal Cascades for a secluded freshwater swim in a rainforest. Then I come back to meander along Cairns’ waterfront esplanade, which is always bustling with musicians, pelicans and kids squealing in the lagoon pools. I walk through produce and craft markets, browse laneways filled with quirky boutiques and cafés and, for the first time in a long time, embrace life in the slow lane. I take the time to note how the sun feels on my skin, what the birds sound like as they pester me for a snack and giggle at the tickle of sweat trickling down my back.
Feeling adequately thawed out and recharged, I make one last stop before I drive back to the airport. I head to Marlin Marina, where four old-school fishing boats have been repurposed into a unique dining experience. Prawn Star has come to play an integral role in Cairns tourism since opening in 2014. Serving AUD $6 beer and wine (two types of each) and platters of fresh seafood – tiger prawns, oysters, crab, cray, bugs and salmon sashimi – its communal tables are chock-full as Baz, the resident singer, croons Elton John classics in boat three.
As I settle in with my fellow diners, the conversation easily flows and contact details are swapped as new friendships are forged. Owner Danny Moore looks on like a proud papa. “You’ve heard of analysis paralysis?” he asks, as we watch the scene play out before us. “We worked out pretty early on that if you keep things simple – we only have eight items on the menu – people are happy to focus on the things that really matter like human connection and finding joy in their immediate environment.”
I’m mulling over whether he’s still talking about Prawn Star or life in general when his colleague, Kay Green, tells me to practice caution. “If you spend too long in Cairns, you may never leave,” she warns. “Everyone comes back eventually and most end up staying.”
And with that, I pick up my phone for the first time in days to look at flights. I already know I’m coming back but the question is do I really need to wait for next winter to do so?