Sasha Heseltine rediscovers her appetite and cuddles a koala amid the sugar cane plantations of coastal Queensland.
Singapore was frenetic and we were dazed by two night flights with Jet Star by the time we flew over the banana and sugar cane plantations of Far North Queensland. Thankfully we were off the plane, in our hire car and into Cairns within 30 minutes of landing. Here started our long-awaited three-week road trip down the coast to Brisbane.
Navigating this trip was never going to be a problem as there's only one road. Turn right on the Bruce Highway for north, left for south. Two days beach hugging and indulging in some unseemly eating-fests in laidback Cairns (the wonderful Bayleaf Balinese restaurant) and we were ready for the off, heading 1½ hours up the spectacular coastline to Port Douglas, which I fell for immediately.
Two sunny streets crammed full of restaurants, bars and up-market shops, the endless Six Mile beach plus daily dive trips out to the Agincort Reef and Low Isles at the northern end of the Barrier Reef. It's buzzy and cosmopolitan but wonderfully unimpressed with itself; favourite moments were playing 2-Up in the Verandah Bar among celebratory crowds on Anzac Day, meeting George the 250kg groper fish who pops into the On The Inlet for his daily fish supper at 5pm sharp and enjoying our own exquisite seafood dinner at 2Fish across the road.
Side trips took us up to remote Cape Tribulation via Mossman, site of a pretty river gorge and desolate little Aboriginal settlement. An hour among the mangrove swamps on the Daintree river with Bob Belcher's Crocodile Cruises introduced us to Elizabeth the salt-water croc and orioles flitting through the sun-dappled hibiscus trees.
A happy day was spent exploring rolling winelands in the Atherton Tablelands, visiting lakes Barrine and Tinaroo, plus the wild-west heritage village of Yungaburra, where we were enthusiastically swept up into a local wedding celebration. In the afternoon we sampled bright red dragon-fruit ice cream in the Emerald Creek Ice Creamery and got a speeding ticket. A trip to the heritage markets at Kuranda disappointed. The displays of indigenous paintings and crafts have been supplanted by imported tat and fast-food joints, but we loved the immense power of the dramatic falls at nearby Barron Gorge.
Further south down our route, bordered with sugar cane and always accompanied by a single-gauge railway, Mission Beach is a gloriously eccentric little township straggling along a wonderful sweeping beach; much of its rainforest hiking trails are currently closed but the welcome is still warm. A noisy evening was spent hearing cyclone stories at Bernie's on the Beach and scoffing the tenderest of rump steaks.
Charismatic Airlie Beach is another springboard to the Great Barrier Reef; sophisticated Mediterranean resort and back-packer village by turn. At neighbouring Shute Harbour we watched the RAAF Roulettes aerobatic team soar in tight formation over the tiny airfield before flying by Air Whitsunday seaplane over a perfect heart-shaped coral formation to Hardy Reef. Here we swam in splendid isolation with six companions and one black-tip reef shark, who stalked us among the Disney-coloured lettuce, antelope and brain coral along with flashy regiments of sergeant majors and parrot fish. The return flight at sunset took us back over the Whitsunday Islands, flying low over the spotless white silica sands of Whitehaven Beach, streaked yellow and pink in the setting sun.
The next day saw us back at Shute Harbour for the 40-minute Fantasia sea cat trip out to Hamilton Island, the classy lovechild of Rosemount Estate winery billionaire Robert Oatley. From our perch on the 16th floor of the Reef View Hotel, where we were joined for nightly cocktails by a dozen raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos, we peered over the neighbouring islands of Fitzalan and Whitsunday. Here we had a couple of days of hedonistic luxury and I re-energised with a magical massage at Wumurdaylin spa and cuddled a sleepy koala in the mini-zoo.
Robert Oatley's Hamilton encompasses a clutch of bars and eateries around the quay, but none compare with Bommie, a spectacularly sited restaurant in the harbour-side yacht club, constructed of sharp angles mimicking sails. This night's feeding frenzy was the best yet - and competition was steep. By the end of three weeks I had gained a stone as a reminder of our gastronomic storm march through Queensland. Back on the mainland and aiming south again, the landscape changed abruptly from uniform sugar cane plantations to rainforest and on to flat grasslands scattered with cattle. Brahminy kites circled overhead, following the occasional plough. We stopped off overnight in Rockhampton, HQ of the Aussie beef industry, and found the town firmly closed.
On the Sunshine Coast we enjoyed a lingering al fresco lunch at Seasons overlooking soft, sandy Main Beach at Noosa, followed by a poke around exclusive boutiques in the stylish enclave of Hastings Street. Later we drove through the rush hour to Cleveland and caught the Big Red Cat to North Stradbroke Island. Here we met up with friends, spotted grey kangaroos grazing, heard kookaburras chuckling in the pandanus palm trees and watched dolphins frolicking joyfully in the swell off Point Lookout. We walked along Home Beach accompanied by a yellow and blue sunset, BBQed great slabs of steak and drank tinnies into the early hours. The next day we sought out the restorative properties of Brown Lake, softening our skin and easing the hangovers by swimming in waters coloured by oil seeping from the surrounding melaleuca (tea) trees.
In stark contrast to the chilled ambience of 'Straddie', Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton was manicured, ordered and regulated. Even the pelicans were allocated a set time for feeding. A whole day's worth of activities are available here, from a Segway trip along the beach or snorkelling over a wreck to sand toboganning down a terrifyingly sheer dune - but the main pull is the dolphins who swim up to the jetty each evening to be fed. On our trip the sea was rough and murky; although a couple of dolphins appeared, we didn't get close enough to feed them.
Never mind, though. We were rewarded with own virtuoso performance on the return journey up the Brisbane river when a pod of dolphins leapt out of the water and danced alongside the ferry. From the port at Pinkenba it was a hop over the Gateway Bridge into Brisbane's curiously Gotham City-esque heart and the end of our 3,300km odyssey in a straight line. And we didn't get lost once.
Background: In late December (2010) ¾'s of Queensland was declared a 'Disaster Area' after being hit by a series of floods, which affected over 70 towns, but, as Queenslanders say, not holidays!
Route: We kicked off from Cairns, went north to Port Douglas, island-hopped a lot on the journey south to Brisbane (Green, Hamilton, North Stradbroke and Moreton) and stayed in Mission Beach, Townsville, Airlie Beach, Rockhampton, Hervey Bay and Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast. Our longest driving day of 5.5 hours was from Airlie Beach to Rocky and the entire trip was 3,300km long.
- Airlie Waterfront B&B, Airlie Beach for sheer gorgeousness
- Holiday Inn, Townsville for the amazing views downriver from the 15th floor
- Reef View Hotel, Hamilton Island
- Best Western Quarterdeck Harbour Retreat, Hervey Bay
- We paid £380 for 23 days rental through Budget. Alternatively hire a Maui Motorhome camper; a four-berth Ultima costs £2,590 plus campsite fees and high petrol usage.
Background track to holiday...
- Forever Faithless, everywhere, all the time. Especially on Straddie.
* This 'Factbox' is not sponsored. I commission journalists to write travel articles and supply a factbox because I think it is useful information.