Exploring Australia for US tourists can be a daunting task if you plan only one trip there. The country is not only on the other side of the world (15 hours ahead) but it is huge. It’s about the same size as the continental US and I can’t imagine seeing either country in one bite. While I opted to explore only the east coast, I focused my time in Cairns, Australia so I could explore the wonderful beaches, tour the rainforest, and dive the Great Barrier Reef.
The first stop was the incredible Daintree rainforest north of Port Douglas, about an hour’s drive from Cairns. I opted to rent a car so I could enjoy the travel and I wasn’t disappointed. The views along the coastal road are incredible. We had saved some time aside to stop and enjoy. Each section had an amazing lookout or secluded beach where you could stop and take in the sights. The only way into the rainforest is via a car ferry so planning is important. It can (and did) take an hour to cross at busy times because the ferry holds only about 20 cars. They do drive on the left so be careful if you are unfamiliar.
We took a “canopy tour” which is essentially zip-lining for babies. Anyone over 3 years old can do this and it is very safe. The staff makes sure to add rainforest facts and anecdotes so the tour is really very entertaining. The harness is always very secure and it really makes a fun day. It did rain a bit while we were there but we were warned to bring foldable raincoats that really came in handy.
We took a Daintree tour the next day that gave us some of the history of the area, information about the aborigines, information about the various flora & fauna found there. Australia is a wonderful place to discover new creatures and cultures. I found out that ants really taste spicy and koalas really do live in trees but are very difficult to spot. On the way home, we found several herds of Red Kangaroos that come out to grasslands to feed at dusk. They actually live in forests at most times and are pretty much unconcerned with humans. There is also actually a job title of “kangaroo hunter” since all kangaroo meat must be culled from wild animals, and there are no farms. Of course, in Australia, you can always visit a zoo and hug one.
One nice side trip was the crocodile spotting tour we did. You are guaranteed to see a croc and being close to these large creatures is amazing. The guides were very knowledgeable about their lives and habits. I wasn’t aware that one large male keeps a harem of females along his patch of the river. He spends his time making sure they are safe (and alone).
The highlights of the Daintree tour were the Ice Cream factory and the Tea House. The Ice Cream Factory offers fresh ice cream made from local fruits. Most of the fruits here are not available in the US and I’d never even heard of them. For instance, the black sapote (my personal favorite) is a fruit that tastes just like chocolate pudding. The Tea House offers locally grown teas along with a home-made meal including local fruits.
We spent some time snorkeling and scuba diving the famous Great Barrier Reef as well. I had opted for a multi-day outer reef tour which takes you out to a boat farther from Cairns. Here you have the option of staying however long you like onboard. I found the live-aboard very comfortable, the food was great, and the diving times just right at a maximum of 4 dives per day.
The reef is in terrific shape with lots of healthy coral and the entire food chain represented well. The largest fish are either the grey shark, grand trevally or parrotfish seen here. There are few sharks and, in fact, few large fish overall, at least where we were. There is a healthy dose of small colorful fish you’ll likely not see in many other places. Snorkeling was as good as or better than diving as most of the fish kept to shallow water.
I’d like to say I’ll visit again but this may end up being the only time I’ll visit. The flight is long and relatively expensive. I think visiting the Cairns area was a good choice because there are so many things to do there. There are travel agents on every corner willing to sign you up for any adventure. Cairns, itself, is a tourist center with lots of shops and restaurants. They seem to cater to a younger (hostel) crowd so there are some inexpensive options here.