The Cairns to Port Douglas drive only takes a bit over an hour but there are lots of things to do along the way and it is a great introduction to Tropical North Queensland. As you drive up the Captain Cook Highway you can get a taste beautiful North Queensland beaches, cane fields and you can stop to spot crocodiles on the muddy banks of the Mowbray River.
A short detour inland takes you into a world of rainforests, waterfalls and crystal clear swimming holes. The Cairns to Port Douglas drive also has some great views where you can stop and see the Daintree Rainforest meet the Coral Sea and look out over islands where you can swim with turtles. Cairns to Port Douglas also makes up the first half of the The Great Barrier Reef Drive which extends a further 150km up to Cape Tribulation.
Featured Image: Great Barrier Reef Drive © Tourism & Events Queensland
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- Leaving Cairns – Captain Cook Highway
- Cairns to Palm Cove Drive
- Palm Cove to Port Douglas Drive
- In & Around Port Douglas
- Where to Eat in Port Douglas
- Where to Stay in Port Douglas
Leaving Cairns – Captain Cook Highway
The drive from Cairns to Port Douglas only takes 70 minutes but you could allow a day to stop and see everything along the way. There are a few attractions in the northern parts of Cairns that are worth taking a look at as you leave the city. Because the drive from Cairns to Port Douglas is only 70 minutes, there is also time to duck up to the rainforest town of Kuranda for a look around.
Kuranda Rainforest Village
If you haven’t visited Kuranda as a day trip from Cairns, it is worth making your way up into the hills on your way to Port Douglas. This rainforest village is home to three separate markets, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Kuranda Koala Gardens, Birdworld and the Rainforestation Nature Park.
Kuranda has a hippie vibe, the markets are full of local arts and crafts, produce and handmade clothes and there are lots of great places to eat. You can also follow the Cassowary Art Trail and see galleries featuring local and indigenous artists. If you have time from Cairns, getting up to Kuranda on the Skyrail Cableway and back on the Kuranda Scenic Railway is great fun.
- Skip the line and book Kuranda Scenic Railway Gold Class & Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
- Book your tickets here to the Kuranda Koala Gardens & Birdworld Kuranda
Barron Falls is just a small detour on your way from Cairns to Port Douglas and on your way if you are going to Kuranda but they are worth the trip. The falls always have water spilling down from the Atherton Tablelands to the plains but are at their best after rain or during the wet season from December to April. You can also get a look at them from the cable car and the Kuranda Scenic Railway stops at Barron Falls too.
- Book a Barron Gorge & Kuranda National Park Half Day 4wd Tour from Cairns
- Stop off at Barron Falls on the Kuranda Scenic Railway from Cairns
Australian Artillery Museum
If you like military history you have to stop on your way out of Cairns at the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum. With the largest collection of armoured vehicles in the southern hemisphere, there is a huge amount to look through, it’s a real hidden gem for history buffs.
AJ Hacket Adventure Park
For adrenaline junkies, a stop on your way out of Cairns at the AJ Hackett Adventure Park. Pay to go on the Giant Swing or Bungee. If you don’t want to jump, for free you can make your way up the Tower Climb Lookout to get a bird’s eye view of the place.
One last stop before you leave Cairns is the lovely Cattana Wetlands. Located near Smithfield north of Cairns, the wetlands are a beautiful place to walk through. There are several short walks you can do that take you around lily-filled lakes where you can spot a wide variety of birds, turtles and fish. The walks range from 600m to 1.2km in length. Our favourite was the Feather Palm Boardwalk where you can spot turtles sitting up on the logs.
Cairns to Palm Cove Drive
If you arrive in Cairns and expect to see beautiful beaches you’re going to be disappointed, the Cairns foreshore is one big mudflat. But don’t worry, there is sand near Cairns and the road trip from Cairns to Palm Cove takes you through the Northern Beaches area of Cairns which has some lovely beaches to relax on.
Trinity Beach is about 20 minutes from the heart of Cairns. It is a popular spot to stay, unlike Cairns it has a beautiful beach (with a patrolled stinger net), and it is a pretty spot to stop and take in the views. There are plenty of cafes where you can grab a snack and walk along the Esplanade which is lined with great looking Beach Almond Trees. You’ll also find some interesting commemorative plaques with information on how Trinity Beach was used as beach landing training site for World War 2 Soldiers.
Palm Cove is another beautiful palm lined holiday village. If you’re after a spot smaller than Port Douglas and further from Cairns than Trinity Beach, Palm Cove is a great option. And if you are driving through from Cairns to Port Douglas, Palm Cove is a great place to stop for brunch or lunch or a long walk on the idyllic beach. There are plenty of food options along the beach front Williams Esplanade and there is a stinger net here if you want to go for swim.
Double Island Turtle Kayak Tour
If you have a bit more time to spend in Palm Cove, a fun activity is to go on a kayak tour to nearby Double Island. The 3-4 hour tours are the perfect way to enjoy the calm waters in Palm Cove. Best of all, Double Island is a great place to spot sea turtles. So if you have never seen one of the beautiful creatures in the wild, this a great chance to see them and other marine life.
- Book a Double Island Turtle Kayaking Tour from Palm Cove
Palm Cove to Port Douglas Drive
The drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas is characterised by stunning beaches and views as the Captain Cook Highway hugs the coastline. The beaches along this stretch don’t have stinger nets – with one exception – but they are all worth stopping at to see the rainforest meet the sea.
This is the one spot where you can swim more safely, there is a stinger net here in summer, there is also a stunning long beach fringed by palms and giant strangler figs. It is lovely spot to relax for a while and take in the views.
The Gatz Balancing Rocks
Ok, we personally don’t understand this fascination of stacking rocks but if seeing rocks stacked on top of one another is your thing (no judgement!), you can check out the Gatz Balancing Rocks, about 6km from Ellis Beach.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is one of the best wildlife activities in North Queensland. If you want to see giant saltwater crocodiles up close and learn about other reptiles and birds in the region this is the place. Your admission ticket includes a short lagoon cruise, where you’ll likely see a crocodile, and there a range of presentations across the day including several crocodile shows and cassowary feeding. There are also self guided walks and wildlife exhibits. If you want to be guaranteed a North Queensland croc sighting, this is the place to go!
- Avoid the queue and book your self drive visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
- Join a tour from Port Douglas to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
You’ll likely have Wangetti Beach to yourself. There is plenty of room for a beach walk and great views of the rainforest. Look for the turn off to the beach from the main road.
There are great rainforest, beach and island views between Cairns and Port Douglas and Rex Lookout is one of the best places to stop along the road to take them in.
It is easy to drive straight past the secluded little village at Oak Beach so look out for Oak Beach Road on your right then drive to the end of Oak Street to the beach car park. There are no stinger nets here and the Grant’s Creek outlet is at Oak Beach so while not the best swimming spot, it is a nice spot for a walk. The 1.5km long beach is a beautiful place with rainforest reaching the water’s edge and lots of palm trees.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve
Thala Beach Nature Reserve is privately operated and has a range of very cool treehouse-style accommodation. Visitors can check out the impressive looking coconut plantation just by the main road and dine at the Osprey Restaurant. Guests have a range of guided nature tours around the property and access to the many walking trails around the nature reserve too.
- Stay at Eco Friendly Thala Beach Nature Reserve with a private beach & coconut plantation
As you drive Cairns and Port Douglas it is hard to miss the vast fields of sugarcane. There are over 4000 sugarcane farms in Queensland producing over 5 million tons of raw sugar each year. Australia exports 85% of its raw sugar, making it the second largest exporter of raw sugar in the world.
Sugarcane is harvested anytime between June and December so if you’re travelling through North Queensland, pay attention at the rail crossings for the trains taking the cut cane to local sugar mills. You’ll be disappointed if you’re hoping to see the classic Aussie image of burning cane fields, that doesn’t happen much now, the sugarcane is harvested Green.
Remember the plantations are on private property so you cant walk through them – not that you would want to. The cane fields are home to everything from rats and mice to venomous snakes so a picture from the road is the way to go!
Mowbray Bridge Crocodiles
On your way from Cairns to Port Douglas check the tides. If there is a low tide around the time you are crossing the Mowbray River near Port Douglas, pull over and see if you can spot some crocodiles. There is plenty of parking and it is a great spot to see crocodiles in the wild. We came by at low tide tide and saw a couple of crocodiles moving around the mud flats. Locals we chatted to said you see them here most times. From the southwest side of the bridge you can follow the cliff around to get a closer look but definitely stay away from the water!
About 1km before you get to the bridge look on the power poles for a big nest. It is home to a couple of Eastern Osprey Eagles, there is room to pull over on the opposite side of the road. If you are patient, you might see them leaving or returning to the nest, they are a great sight.
In & Around Port Douglas
Port Douglas is a great base for exploring Tropical North Queensland. From Port Douglas you can get out to the Great Barrier Reef on a cruise to the Low Isles, explore the Daintree Rainforest at Mossman Gorge, or just relax at any of the great bars, cafes and restaurants.
- Book your Great Barrier Reef Sailing & Snorkelling Cruise from Port Douglas
- Don’t miss the Rainforest with a Full Day Daintree Rainforest Tour from Port Douglas
- Enjoy the beach with a Half Day Low Isles Snorkelling Tour from Port Douglas
Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas
This is the main swimming Beach in Port Douglas and there is a patrolled stinger net here. As the name suggests, Four Mile Beach is a great long beach for a walk, it is also right outside some of Port Douglas’s best resorts including the Sheraton Grand Mirage.
Read More: Finding the Best Beaches in Port Douglas
Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse & Walking Trail
From the town end of Four Mile Beach you can follow the Flagstaff Hill Walking Trail around the headland to Rex Smeal Park. The trail has a few steps and steep sections but the views from Trinity Bay Lookout and the Lighthouse are fantastic. There are lots of birds and butterflies flitting around too that distract you from the steeper sections.
St Mary’s by the Sea Church
This non-denominational church has been moved and rebuilt a couple of times but its position right on the foreshore at near Rex Smeal Park makes it one of the most photographed attractions in Port Douglas. Surrounded by palm trees and with a big back window that opens up to views over the water, it is not hard to see why it is such a popular wedding venue too.
There are a few ways to see wildlife around Port Douglas. You can go on the Port Douglas River Cruise or spot some crocs at the Mowbray River Bridge. But for guarenteed sightings there is no better place for a wildlife encounter than Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat – you can’t miss it as you come into Port Douglas.
With a range of different habitats to explore you’ll see everything here from tree kangaroos and cassowaries to salt water crocodiles and snakes. Besides the rainforest, savannah and wetlands habitats, there is a great nocturnal house and full schedule of keeper talks and animal feedings.
Your Wildlife Habitat ticket is valid for 5 days which makes it great value. You could spend most of a day here as you make your way around the exhibits and go to all the presentations. There’s a nice cafe to keep you going. The Crocodile feeding, Rainforest bird talks and focus on conservation were our highlights. It’s a must see when you are in Port Douglas.
- Book your tickets here for Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat
Port Douglas River Cruise
For a different look at Port Douglas, hop aboard the Lady Douglas for a look around the mangrove lined Dickson Inlet. It’s a relaxing 90 minutes on the water, the cruise runs 4 times a day. We did the sunset cruise and saw lots of wildlife. Read more about the cruise here.
Port Douglas Sunday Market
A Port Douglas institution, the weekly markets run every Sunday from 8.00am to 1.30pm. There’s art and crafts, locally grown fruit and vegetables and all sorts of other surprises. The mango smoothies were just the shot after we finished the Trinity Bay Lookout walk.
If you have done the Cairns to Port Douglas road trip then it is worth the extra 20 min drive to beautiful Mossman Gorge. There are lovely self-guided walks, go for a swim at the Mossman Gorge Waterhole or just take in the spectacle of the Mossman River tumbling over the granite boulders in the gorge while surrounded by the Daintree Rainforest. There is also a fantastic guided tour run by the local Kuku Yalangi people that shows their deep connection to rainforest.
- Visit Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation & the Daintree Rainforest on this small group tour
- Daintree Discovery Half Day Tour visiting Mossman Gorge & Daintree River Cruise
Where to Eat in Port Douglas
Tin Shed & Ironbar
These are two of the most popular places for a meal and drink in Port Douglas. The Tin Shed is down by the marina and Ironbar is in the main street. We loved them both, no trip to Port Douglas is complete with trying them.
Not sure what you feel like to eat? There is a good chance you’ll find something on Grant Street that runsoff the main road. The Grant Street Kitchen, Mocka’s Pies and Chilli’s Pizza (and cane toad racing) are all fantastic.
Located on Four Mile Beach next to the Port Douglas Surf Life Saving Club, The Surfy is a great spot for a meal when you are done at the beach. There is a great vibe here under the palms, make sure to try the fish taco – Yum!
Where to Stay in Port Douglas
- Stay in Port Douglas beachfront self contained apartment at Seascape Holidays at Beaches
- Self Contained Apartment Accommodation at By the Sea Port Douglas with lots of extras
- Lush Tropical Gardens & Lagoon Pool with Swim Up Bar at Oaks Port Douglas Resort
- Big 4 Port Douglas Glengarry Holiday Park with playground, jumping pillow & water park
- Stay at Eco Friendly Thala Beach Nature Reserve with a private beach & coconut plantation
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