When planning our North Queensland getaway we couldn’t decide whether to go to Hamilton Island or Port Douglas. So we thought why not go to both and get the most complete experience possible?
But the distance between the two is huge and we couldn’t find any good transport options to get from one to the other.
- Plane – you had to fly back to Brisbane and then north again to Port Douglas
- Train – About an 18 hour trip with the timetable being very unfriendly.
We both love a good road trip and we thought it would be a waste to miss everything in between. The choice was an easy one in the end! So we rented a car and set aside 9 days for us to do the loop, with four days in the middle to enjoy Port Douglas.
In this article, we have included our itinerary, where we stayed, and what we learned along the way so you can learn from our mistakes if you also choose to do the Airlie Beach to Port Douglas road trip one day.
Airlie Beach to Port Douglas Itinerary
As you can see at least half of our time was spent based at Port Douglas, but you spend very little time IN Port Douglas. You need a car and most of these days required a decent amount of time on the road.
You will also see that Magnetic Island was thrown in towards the end.
This was not part of our original plan but we managed to squeeze it in after the Atherton Tablelands underdelivered (at least in our experience). We will expand on this later.
- Day 1 – Hamilton Island -> Airlie Beach (Prosperine Airport) -> Townsville
- Day 2 – Townsville -> Crystal Creek -> Cardwell State Forest -> Alligators Nest -> Innisfail
- Day 3 – Innisfail -> Josephine Falls -> Babinda Boulders -> Port Douglas
- Day 4 – Port Douglas -> Daintree Rainforest
- Day 5 – Port Douglas (Relax Day!)
- Day 6 – Port Douglas (Great Barrier Reef)
- Day 7 – Port Douglas -> Atherton Tablelands
- Day 8 – Atherton Tablelands -> Magnetic Island -> Townsville
- Day 9 – Townsville -> Airlie Beach (Prosperine Airport)
Day 1 – Airlie Beach to Townsville
After a relaxing four nights in Hamilton Island to start our two week adventures we had to make through a lengthy ferry and bus transfer to get us to Prosperine Airport where we could pickup our rental car.
We opted for Europcar as they were the only provider we could find with unlimited miles on their rentals. We were immediately glad we did as they upgraded us to a much larger vehicle than we had reserved for no extra charge… This really made our vacation so we are very grateful to the friendly folks there!!
Townsville was just over three hours away and we decided to just go straight there and find somewhere cheap to stay. As we approached the city you could see the big red face of Castle Hill that overlooks the city. It gives the town some character and is instantly recognizable.
As far as highlights go that was it though – our cheap hotel awaits!
The Hotel Allen only cost us about $80 for the night – and all we needed was a shower and sleep before setting out again early the next morning. After four nights in a beachside hotel, this was a shock to the system and I wouldn’t recommend it (we stayed at The Robert Towns a week later in Townsville, and was much nicer!).
Paying an extra $20 for something nicer and cleaner is worth it.
The air conditioning barely worked, the bathroom didn’t have sealed windows, the bathroom door was missing the door handle (which is why the AC took so long to work), and the floor was slightly grimy… But we slept fine so no major issues.
Day 2 – Townsville to Innisfail
We were greeted with the morning sun hitting the red face of Castle Hill as we made our way out to Townsville nice and early. It was our first proper sightseeing day and we had a lot of stops planned, and no idea how far north we would get before sundown.
The first stop was Crystal Creek which was only an hour up the road.
We didn’t see many cars in the carpark and saw no one on the walk to the sight. When we arrived there was one group sitting in the water – which was reassuring – no crocodiles in the area!
As we sat on top of a rock overlooking this large opening of the creek we were both impressed with just how clean and clear the water was. I had not planned to swim, but stripped down to my undies in two minutes and jumped straight in.
It was cold, refreshing, and very peaceful. The other group left within a few minutes and we had the place all to ourselves.
What I expected to be a ten minute stopover turned into nearly an hour as we jumped in and out of the water to take advantage of having this beautiful spot all to ourselves.
It was still early and we were in no hurry so we floated on our backs some more and took in our surroundings.
We only saw another group when we finally walked back to our car to hit the road for the next stop.
Caldwell State Forest
We very nearly skipped this whole stop due to a stupid navigational error on my part. I assumed that there would be one main entrance to the forest so had only entered Cardwell State Forest in google maps.
This took us 20 minutes past where we intended to be, and then we drove another ten minutes deep into the forest on a single lane dirt road that was horrendously bumpy. It was only when the road deteriorated to the point where it felt unsafe that I thought we should turn around.
We had no internet reception by this point so it was a gamble either way. It was only when we got closer to the main road again that I realised how bad I had stuffed things up.
We made the call to backtrack and continue as planned. I am glad we did as every sight was entirely worthwhile!
Pro tip: type in the specific site within the forest into your navigation app!
Sites visited at the Caldwell State Forest:
Spa Pool – a small waterfall with a deep drop-off almost like a plunge pool.
Dead Horse Creek – a larger waterfall with an equally deep plunge pool (but be more careful diving into this one).
Attie Creek Falls – A stunning waterfall and large swimming hole. We had this all to ourselves for half an hour and was the highlight of the day. Amazing place!
Cardwell Lookout – hike up to a lookout where you can see Hinchinbrook Island off the coast.
We had time for one more step before the sun went down. Unfortunately, as the twilight hours grew closer the mosquitos came out in force! So our stay here was very short with Anh getting eaten alive in the few minutes we were there.
The spot itself is a three way junction of waterways that open up into a large flat area that is great for swimming (when the sun is high in the sky!).
We decided to stop at the next town for the night and found another cheap motel in Innisfail where we could stopover for the night.
Day 3 – Innisfail to Port Douglas
We set out that morning happy in the knowledge that the standard of our accommodation was going to take a giant leap by that evening with the Port Douglas Sheraton as our destination.
But first, we had some real highlights to cover first.
Both Anh and I were not sure if we really wanted to see more waterfalls after spending most of the day prior in Caldwell Forest. But we pressed on anyway and my god, I am glad we did!
Josephine Falls was on a whole other level in size, brute force of the water, and the scope of natural beauty around us.
There are multiple viewing platforms and rocky areas that you can climb out to. And they all offer a very different view of the falls area.
There are also signs everywhere that warn you people have slipped off the rocks and died so we didn’t take too many risks. You can see how violent the currents could get if there was heavy rain and the water levels rose quickly.
I loved the constant roar of the water pouring down the multiple tiers of water as it made its way down to the flat stream at the base.
Definitely the highlight of the road trip so far!
As we drove into the car park you could see we were getting closer to more established tourist trails. The bus/coach drop-off and shiny rails around the water’s edge were a giveaway.
After being chased out of Alligators Nest by mozzies we were happy to see that the swimming area here was very similar and much larger. There was a big sandy flat area in the middle of a three-way junction of water.
The water was clean, clear, refreshing, and not too many people around.
After a nice swim in the sun we then walked down the nearby trail that follows the creek downstream. Here you see large boulder shapes on both sides of the water that create unique rapids and waterfalls.
It is another beautiful place that you can see getting very dangerous when the water picks up.
There was a lot of fencing here preventing people from getting near the water which is a give-away that some people have found out the hard way in the past.
From here it was only a short drive to Cairns. We stopped here for lunch but were eager to get to Port Douglas. So we decided to press on rather than explore the city.
This is the other major tourist town but after driving through we didn’t see anything that grabbed our attention. So we were back on the road for the final 45 min stretch to Port Douglas.
A popular activity here is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway – we skipped over this as it was costly and we had seen a lot of forest recently.
Port Douglas – Sheraton Mirage
After a couple of nights in cheaper motels, we were excited to get to see the extravagance of the Sheraton.
The surroundings are dominated by the lagoon style swimming pools that surround each hotel block, and the lush green golf course around the entrance driveway.
After a few days on the road, we needed a little downtime.
I went for a slow walk on Four Mile Beach, hung around the pool area, and then finally indulged on a dinner of two minute noodles (in a five star hotel) to finish off the night. Classy!
Day 4 – Port Douglas to Daintree Rainforest
Today we headed north into the Daintree for a couple of our most awaited activities:
- Crocodile Cruise
- Horse riding on the beach
We also spent the remaining hours driving and hiking around the Daintree. There are multiple boardwalks that make it nice and easy to get into the depths of the rainforest without having to navigate damp or rough trails – but these also exist if you want more of a challenge!
It is difficult to fully describe the Daintree. Compared to the forest we had seen earlier in our trip the Diantree looked like it was hundreds of years older. The trees were taller, foliage thicker, and had a unique character with twisting vines and strange natural formations that I assume you will only ever see here.
We made it as far the lookout at Cape Tribulation Beach before turning around the make our way back to Port Douglas.
We had not realized just how far we had traveled through the day and it was almost a two-hour drive back to the Sheraton.
Day 5 – Lazy Sheraton Lagoon Pool Day
This was our designated lazy day of the trip. We had been so busy with activities every day so far that we needed it. So we slept in, had a slow and easy breakfast, and parked ourselves next to the giant lagoon pool for the day.
After getting a coffee out of the way we tucked into some cocktails… Then more cocktails…. Then lunch, beers, more cocktails and the odd swim.
Anh and I just sat there hanging out until the sun started to go down.
We cleaned up and headed to one of the restaurants for dinner (which was ok, but didn’t deliver compared to the price tag so we do not recommend it).
It was just the kind of day we needed and we loved it!!
Day 6 – Barrier Reef Scuba & Snorkel Trip
Today we were heading back to the Great Barrier Reef! No helicopters this time – like our Hamilton Island experience – and the boat ride was to test both of our stomachs with the first hour making us both feel very queasy.
We had booked in for an introductory scuba dive which we were both nervous and excited for. Unfortunately for me I declared that I have previously had a mild form of asthma (no active treatment, and never had an attack) and was excluded from diving. I guess honesty isn’t always the best policy.
So with me feeling hard done by, and slightly left out, I watched as Anh went through the training and prepared herself. She handled it well and at the first stop at the reef, she went straight into the water for her first ever dive.
I wish that we had experienced this together, but what can ya do.
I spent the time snorkeling on my own. I could immediately see that the quality of the reef here was on another level to Hamilton Island (about 1,000kms to the south). The colors of the coral were brighter, the fish more diverse and more abundant, and the currents also stronger! It was tiring out there.
We made three stops on the boat with the final being the clear standout:
- Coronation Corner – a long and flat stretch of reef with multiple underwater features and endless places to explore. We could easily have spent the whole day here.
- Barracuda Bommie – Less to see here but the main feature was an underwater mountain with a clear triangular peak. Around this was the largest collection of fish we saw all trip. They were massive compared to elsewhere, and there were hundreds of them.
- Castle Rock – A relatively new spot on these tours, and you could tell that it was as close to an untouched natural beauty as you could get. The coral sparkled brighter, and there were so many colorful fish that stretched along a reef that was easily the length of a football field.
This day made us both so glad we came to Port Douglas. If we had only seen the reef at Hamilton Island we would have forever thought that the barrier reef was just ok, but doesn’t live up to the hype. This day exceeded the hype and we will come back again one day in the future.
Day 7 – Port Douglas to Atherton Tablelands
It was time to leave Port Douglas and start our journey south. The industrial-sized Sheraton was a good experience, but we were ready to move on to somewhere with a bit more variety in the scenery (and better food!).
We had decided to skip over Cairns and headed inland towards the Atherton Tablelands.
There was a tourist food trail that we wanted to use as our guide through the region. Unfortunately for us there were a number of the main stops closed.
I can only assume this was due to COVID and the reduced tourist numbers. We didn’t get the full experience but still managed the following stops:
Skybury Cafe & Roastery – Food was ok, and the scenery nice.
Golden Drop (Mango) Winery – The mango wine was much nicer than I expected and definitely worth a stopover.
Mt Uncle Distillery – you can do a tasting here for $10 that consists of a vodka, gin, scotch, and their signature marshmallow liquor. The scotch was excellent! I didn’t much like any of the others and walked out with a $150 bottle of the single malt which was worth every cent.
Mungalli Creek Dairy – We arrived here 90 minute before closing time and was disappointed that they were already closing down the kitchen for the day and virtually nothing was available but ice cream. So we left slightly annoyed and wondering why they would be limiting customer choice so tightly at a time when tourist numbers were down – oh well.
Of the closed venues we really wanted to go to the Malanda Dairy where they make a range of cheeses. We were pleasantly surprised when in a supermarket just near our accommodation for the night where we found a whole shelf of Malanda cheese.
So we loaded up and had a small wine and cheese party in the evening. That was a plus, but on balance I found the day underwhelming.
But before we retired to our accommodation for the evening we had one more stop at the Millaa Millaa Falls. This was another imposingly high cliff face that was impressive and had a big open waterhole for swimming. Not as impressive as Josephine Falls, but it was a nice way to finish the day.
We stayed at the Malanda Manor Guest House, which was an odd mix of a hotel and a homestay. It seemed to be just one guy running it and there was a lovely farmland backdrop. The place was strangely empty though which was eerie – but the room was fantastic and the host very friendly.
Our appetite for the Atherton Tablelands had been dulled by the day just gone. So we had a choice to continue as planned to the Mamu Tropical Skywalk in the morning and face a fairly long day of mostly driving. Or, get up at 5am and hit the road to make an unplanned visit to Magnetic Island back in Townsville.
We decided on the latter and turned in for an early night.
Day 8 – Atherton Tablelands to Magnetic Island (Townsville)
So we started the day with a 5am alarm, and a four hour drive to get back to Townsville with enough time to explore Magnetic Island. We made good time and got to the ferry terminal at around 9am.
Plenty of time to make the 20 minute trip over the water and enjoy a solid day of exploring.
Given that this was a last-minute decision to go we had not booked a car on the island. We assumed that we could just get the bus around if we needed to.
There was a bus we could have jumped straight on after getting off the ferry. It was only after getting some supplies from the supermarket nearby that we realized that the next one didn’t come for another hour.
Pro tip: if you are here for a short time get a damn car!! The freedom of movement is essential and the slow ass bus can really limit your day.
I was resigned to just walking to the next beach area rather than wait around for the bus. Anh walked into a nearby shop front that said ‘cars’ on it and was lucky enough to find one available car! It was a dodgy little hatchback that was old, but we had wheels to get around!!
It cost around $80 but was worth its weight in gold. We were off!
You can read more on our full Magnetic Island experience here. Highlights of the day were:
- Balding Bay Hiking trail
- Sphinx Lookout
- Hawkings Point Lookout
We jumped on a ferry back to Townsville just before sunset. The view was nice and I felt glad that we made the effort to come here and squeeze in one last destination into our trip.
On return, we checked into The Robert Towns Motel which sat at the foot of Castle Hill and had an up close view of the mountain from our front door. It cost a little more than our last stay in town at $100 for the night.
But was far more comfortable and clean! We cleaned up and headed into town for some drinks and a steak dinner to celebrate our last night in North Queensland.
Our final adventure was to be our first attempt at one of these scooter services. Taxis were scarce in town and this to be our only way back to the motel without a hot & sweaty walk on tired legs. A fun way to finish the night.
All that was left in the morning was to drive back to Prosperine Airport where we started off. We had completed a 1,868km loop (1,160 miles) on our road trip and had seen some pretty amazing things along the way.
While this probably doesn’t rank among our favorite trips ever, this may just be due to the familiarity of Australia. Those coming from overseas will have a different perspective but there are similar destinations (with the exception of the barrier reef) closer to home.
So it was not a mind-blowing trip but one we thoroughly enjoyed.