Traveling to Australia: The Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas, Daintree Rainforest & Cairns

traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-39Port Douglas

As I mentioned in the first part of this trip recap, my boyfriend and I had no plans or reservations when we arrived in Australia. February is the south of Australia’s summer (perfect weather—warm/hot, not humid), but in the north (think Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands), it’s the rainy season. We felt like we couldn’t leave Australia without doing the GBR, so when I checked the weather forecast Tuesday morning in Sydney and saw that there were a stretch of sunny days coming up around Cairns, we booked a flight up north for that very afternoon. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-21

Travel tip: As recommended by our Aussie friend, we used WebJet to search for flights while there. Typically, either JetStar, Qantas or Virgin Australia would end up offering the cheapest flight options within Australia.

One thing we noticed about flying within Australia was that they board the front the back of the plane at the same time, through two different entrances. WHY DON’T YOU DO THIS, AMERICA?! I know in the US the thought is to board window seats before aisle seats, but it’s always boggled my mind that the back of the plane isn’t boarded first to avoid aisle jams. Am I right or amiright??

Port Douglas

traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-37Every person we talked to had the same thoughts on Cairns: mehhh (their words–not mine!). Put off by that, we decided to stay in Port Douglas instead of using Cairns as our home base for the Great Barrier Reef. From the airport, we took a shuttle van (in retrospect, we should have rented a car—would have been cheaper) to Port Douglas, a small vacation town about an hour’s drive north. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-23 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-40

After some quick searching on Trip Advisor for affordable—but quality—hotels, we decided on Martinique on Macrossan, a boutique hotel that we loved! The owners were so sweet and helpful with guiding our plans, and our room had a kitchen, living room and balcony, making for a comfortable two-night stay. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-45

Because it’s the off-season up north, Port Douglas was very quiet, and a lot of the shops and restaurants were closed for the season. There were a few options serving up your basic bar food menu, but my boyfriend and I are both picky about healthy food, so we ended up going grocery shopping and making most of our meals in our hotel room’s kitchen while there. I’d imagine it’s a totally different scene in Port Douglas during tourist season!

The Daintree Rainforest

traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-35On our first full day, we rented a car and drove north to check out the Daintree Rainforest. From Port Douglas, you can make a nice little day out of the rainforest, slowly driving your way north along the coast, stopping at beautiful secluded beaches along the way, getting in a little hiking, checking out a crocodile tour and even zip-lining through the rainforest (we didn’t do those last two things, but they came recommended). traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-46

Our first stop was Mossman Gorge. We did about an hour’s worth of hiking (in flip-flops…oops), taking a few stops to jump in the water on our own, and ending at the largest opening for swimming with the rest of the tourists. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-25 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-26 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-27 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-28 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-29

When we made it back to our car, we continued north, and whenever we saw a sign for a beach, would pull off the road to check it out. The beaches were all down little dirt roads and a short walk through the woods. I don’t know if it was because we were there in the rainy season, but they were all completely empty—it was amazing! We’d have an entire jaw-droppingly beautiful beach to ourselves. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-30 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-31 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-32 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-33

We ended up exploring the coast like this until late into the afternoon when we figured we should turn around and start making our way back to Port Douglas. If we hadn’t stopped at so many beaches along the way, we could have gone a little deeper into Daintree and done guided tours of the rainforest, but oh well—we had fun doing our own thing and felt we got enough hiking in around the gorge.

The Great Barrier Reef

traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-44Our last day in Port Douglas, we set out for a tour of the Great Barrier Reef—by far the most touristy thing we did while traveling. As recommended by the owners of our hotel, we signed up for an all-day boat cruise with Quicksilver Cruises that would drop us off at three different reef locations for snorkeling and diving.

We were on the fence about paying the extra money to scuba dive, but I’m glad we didn’t. The three locations we stopped at were definitely chosen with snorkelers in mind—shallow with tons of fish towards the top of the reef.

The boat took off around 9AM and took us about an hour out to sea to our first location. There honestly wasn’t much difference between the three spots, but it was nice having the diving broken up into three excursions so that we could have snack breaks and some relaxing sun bathing on the boat. The tour company also served us up a hearty buffet-style lunch. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-41 traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-43

The Great Barrier Reef is gorgeous, and I was blown away at just how many fish there were—it’s like the Manhattan of sea life! Now don’t get me wrong, we loved it; but to be honest, I felt a little underwhelmed considering this is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I’ve done some equally beautiful snorkeling right in Mexico! To be fair though, the GBR is massive—I’m sure we didn’t go to the most beautiful part of it. Had we chartered a seaplane to take us out to the most remote reef with trained scuba divers, I’m sure we would have been stunned. traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-42

Beautiful nonetheless, and we even saw a couple baby reef sharks!

Cairns … But Really Just Gilligan’s

traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-47This part of the trip was hilarious. The night we got back from our GBR boat tour, we decided to take the shuttle van back to Cairns and spend the night so we could catch an early fight back to Sydney the next day. We didn’t know where to stay, but I remembered my friend saying she’d stayed at a hostel called Gilligan’s when she was traveling through Cairns. Now when she was in Australia, she had just graduated college—a very, um, different time in one’s life than where I am now. But that didn’t really cross my mind when I booked us a room…

We roll up to Gilligan’s, and at first I think we’ve just accidently been dropped off at a strip club. The outside is plastered with pictures of half naked girls funneling beers and wrestling in petroleum jelly (I’m not exaggerating even a little bit), and there was the loud thudding sound of bass spilling out into the street at like 7PM. What in the…

Turns out Gilligan’s isn’t just a hostel—it’s one of the biggest nightclubs in Cairns. In fact, it’s really just a nightclub that happens to have communal bedrooms attached to it. LOLLOLLOL

We were definitely two of the oldest people staying there (womp womp), but it didn’t take long for us to embrace it. Up until that point in our trip, we had been so nonstop go-go-go during the day that we went to bed early every night, totally pooped. So when we realized we had accidently booked a room at Australia’s number one party hostel, we just kinda looked at each other and went, “OK, let’s get weird.”

And we definitely did. Surrounded by 18 year olds, I decided to drink like an 18 year old, and heavily paid the price the next day haha. I hate being hungover on vacations because you waste the whole day, but luckily it was down pouring all morning so I didn’t feel too guilty about sleeping in.

We didn’t get to do much exploring of Cairns before heading back to Sydney, but we heard there’s great white water rafting in the area and I wish we’d looked into doing that. Oh well, next time! traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-34Welp, there you have it! It was an amazing two weeks, and so nice to be able to take a break from reality and just enjoy ourselves. I didn’t realize how much I needed a vacation until we went! And the icing on the cake was that the trip was perfectly timed so that we missed all the snow storms Boston got slammed with–well, except for the last one. That one occurred just as we were trying to fly back, which resulted in all our flights getting cancelled and re-routed. We ended up having to fly from Sydney to San Francisco to Detroit (spent the night in Detroit) to Minneapolis to Newark (spent another night in Newark) and FINALLY to Boston. Meanwhile our bags went to Atlanta. It was such a disaster that it was funny. Look at how many boarding passes it took us to get home: traveling-to-australia-sydney-cairns-59Good. Times. signature


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  1. Sounds amazing — and of course, you looked like a model the whole time!

    Now to start planning your next trip…

  2. My husband and I went to NZ and Australia in October 2013 and were a bit underwhelmed with the Cairns area and our excursions. We also did the Quicksilver GBR tour and while we had fun, the coral in Hawaii (off the coast of Maui) was so much better! We were told that the rising water temperature is bleaching the coral.

    We did the Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation through a tour company and were so bored. It was such a long day and were in the car driving for 80% of it. I wish we would have rented a car like you and done our own thing!

    Oh, and we also had to deal with some of the native people in Cairns barking, growling and trying to scare everyone that walked near them.

  3. We board at the front and back in the UK too, esp on small cheap flights that they want to get moving quickly. Bigger airlines board the back first (and first/business) before the front of economy! Does really help speed things up! Once again your Australia post has got me incredibly jealous!!

  4. Ahhhh- breath taking pictures!!!

  5. Yay! Such an amazing trip. I hope I can go one one like it sometime sooner than later 🙂

  6. Gorgeous pictures! That hotel looks amazing!

  7. I love this recap! A few years ago, I worked on board a cruise ship that sailed around Australia and we stopped in Port Douglas pretty often, but I could never get the timing right to do the reef!! My only regret!…guess I have to go back 🙂

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