Port Douglas: Barrier Reef and Daintree Itinerary

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Port Douglas Travel Guide

Far North Queensland has two major tourist towns; Port Douglas and Cairns. We opted to stay in Port Douglas due to the proximity to the Daintree Rainforest, and the generally laid-back atmosphere. 

We also had recommendations from friends that this was the best place to see the Great Barrier Reef. Having just come from Hamilton Island we were looking forward to comparing the reef experience (spoiler – Port Douglas is way better!). 

When you add in the close proximity to the world heritage listed Daintree Rainforest you can see why Port Douglas is the jewel in the crown of far North Queensland. 

Activity Quick Summary

Here is a quick overview of the activities we did and whether we recommend them or not. 

  • Daintree Crocodile Tours – Yes, it’s awesome!
  • Cape Tribulation Horse Riding – If you’re into that kind of thing, yes. 
  • Quicksilver Outer Reef Cruise – Yes! A thousand times better than our Hamilton Island reef experience.  
  • Introductory Scuba Dive – Yes!
  • Atherton Tablelands – No, if you have your own car then maybe but tours are expensive and the experience not worthwhile compared to alternatives. 

There are also a handful of free activities that are available:

  • Daintree Rainforest – $30 to get a car over the ferry.
  • Four Mile Beach – not great for swimming though.
  • Cape Tribulation Hiking – right at the northern point of the rainforest.
  • Sheraton Hotel Lagoon Pool – also awesome, but you have to stay there to access.
Daintree Horse Riding Tour

Port Douglas Hotel Choice

We traveled by road from Airlie Beach over the previous four days. We had driven nearly 1,000kms and had stayed in some basic roadside motels along the way. 

We were keen to lash out and have a few days of both adventure and luxury! 

So we opted for the Sheraton Mirage which sits within its own complex complete with a golf course, massive lagoon pools throughout, restaurants, and direct access to Four Mile Beach.

It is more expensive than most of the alternatives in Port Douglas. Whether it is worth the cost depends on how much time you plan to spend on-site and around the swimming pools. 

We enjoyed our stay and are happy with our choice. However, if we returned to Port Douglas we would probably stay somewhere else. 

The main reasons being:

  • We spent a lot of time out doing activities.
  • The restaurants are not great but overpriced.
  • The cocktail bar was closed most of the time we were there (if it was open every night we would have been there!).
  • There was no fridge in the room – which forced you to rely entirely on the restaurants or drive into town. 

The pool areas are amazing though and the cocktail selection is decent. You can have a fun and relaxing time just enjoying the swimming pool if that’s the kind of vacation you are after. 

However, there are plenty of options that are half the price and also have great rooms and swimming pools.

Daintree Crocodile Warning Sign

Port Douglas Four Day Itinerary

Day 1 – Sheraton Hotel 

Highlights:

  • Four Mile Beach

After so much driving all we wanted to do was get acquainted with the hotel, have a drink, and walk around a bit. 

We headed out to Four Mile Beach to check it out. We knew immediately that there would be no swimming going on here (thank god for the massive pool just behind us!). 

There are signs everywhere warning people to look out for crocodiles and jellyfish. Only a small area was netted and safe for swimming. The sea was rough and it was incredibly windy too so we just enjoyed the stroll and then headed back to the hotel to settle in. 

We had a quiet drink, and some two-minute noodles (classy for a five-star hotel) and that was the extent of our night. 

Daintree Boardwalk Hiking

Day 2 – Daintree Rainforest

Highlights:

  • Daintree Crocodile Tours
  • Daintree Rainforest Hiking
  • Cape Tribulation Horse Riding
  • Cape Tribulation Hiking

You could spend multiple days in the Daintree if you wanted to but we decided to try and squeeze in as much as possible into the one day. 

As we headed north from Port Douglas our first stop was a crocodile cruise on the Daintree River. We were both so excited for this and hoped to see some big saltwater crocs! 

Crocodile Tour

As our cruise started, the tour guide explained that at this time of year the water levels were very high and that it would be more difficult to see the crocs. 

They are definitely out there but if they are a foot underwater you will never see them. We had a perfect demonstration of this on the tour – but more on this shortly. 

In the dry season (May to November) the water is narrow and the muddy banks around the water are very wide. Almost daily you will see crocs just sunbaking out in the open. So if you are coming just for the crocs then the dry season will get you the best result. 

Now, back to our tour…

There is one male that dominates this stretch of the river. He would be anywhere along a 3-5km (2-3 mile) stretch and your chances of seeing him are low. However, there are multiple nests where the females are raising their baby crocs. 

These are always in the same place and the tour generally follows the river to each of these nests. 

We saw a lot of baby crocs. Some only days old (we were there just after the hatching time of year) and in clusters of 2-6 babies of various sizes. 

We spotted just one momma croc on the tour and we could only see her head. The nose sat just above the water watching her nest where her babies hung out. We managed to get up close and in a split second, she put her head under the surface. 

This is the danger of the crocs – you can’t see them but they know you are there…. So we decided not to go for a swim. 

Daintree Crocodile Tour

Exploring the Daintree Rainforest

The only way across the Daintree River by car is to take a barge across the river. This can slow you down a bit so if you are ever there in a busier time of year make sure you get there early! 

Once across, you are driving through some seriously thick rainforest that looks prehistoric (it probably is!). 

You could have a great day just driving around checking out the roadside scenery! 

We stopped at the boardwalk hiking trails for an opportunity to go deeper into the forest. These easy flat walks on set pathways that take around 15-20 minute each. 

If you want something more challenging there are mountains to climb and walking trails that can take a whole day to complete. Make sure you plan ahead if you want to do these as it can get dark quickly in this area.

It is also incredibly hot and humid so take lots of water.  

Daintree Rainforest Boardwalk

Horse riding on the beach

In the afternoon we had a horseback ride that would take us from a farm out onto the beach, and up near Cape Tribulation. 

This was Anh’s first time on a horse and it was generally a nice and easy ride. The only challenge was the heat and the sun! So make sure you have lots of sunscreen, a hat, and more water.

The horses are generally pretty tame and the activity is beginner-friendly. For those with some experience, you won’t get to do any more than a trot, but it is the scenery that is the star here and not the ride itself. 

The beach is almost deserted and it is a nice moment when you emerge from the thick forest into a clearing that opens up onto the sand flats. 

On the return journey, we even saw a crocodile hanging out on the banks of a river.

Our tour guide was not bothered at all by this. I asked if it would spook the horses and he just laughed – “nah they’re not big enough”. 

Cape Tribulation Horse Riding Tour

Cape Tribulation 

The final stop was at Cape Tribulation where we walked up to a viewing point of the beach. An easy 10-20 minute walk to finish our day. 

Without realizing it, we were nearly a two-hour drive from our home base at Port Douglas. It also gets dark quickly due to the thick treetops overhead so make sure you factor both of these in when planning your trip. 

Some well-deserved beers were calling on our arrival back to the hotel. 

Some tips before you head out there: 

  • Take lots of water and snacks!! 
  • Make sure your car has a full tank of gas.
  • Sunscreen and a hat are a must.

Day 3 – Lazy day by the Sheraton Lagoon Pool

Highlights:

  • Cocktails by the pool!

This was our designated lazy day of the trip. We had been so busy with activities every day so far that we needed it (remember, this four-day stay in Port Douglas was part of a two-week vacation). 

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!! 

Sheraton Mirage Lagoon Pool Port Douglas

Day 4 – Great Barrier Reef

Highlights:

  • Quicksilver Outer Reef Cruise
  • Introductory Scuba Dive 

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 about. 

Introductory Scuba Dive

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. 

Barracuda Bommie Snorkeling

Snorkeling

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 features 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 colourful 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.

Amazing! 

Quicksilver Outer Reef Cruise

Port Douglas Budget

For reference, here is what we spent on all of our activities and accommodation (all are costs for two people): 

  • 4 Nights at the Sheraton Mirage – $1,217
  • Bill on check out (restaurant meals + cocktails) – $679
  • Daintree Rainforest Ferry – $31
  • Croc Tour – $80
  • Horse Riding – $268
  • Quicksilver Reef + Intro Dive ($74 each) – $658
  • Other meals & drinks – $150

Total – $3,083

This excludes the cost of our car rental… and you really need a car in Port Douglas! So make sure you factor that in too. 

As mentioned earlier, we splurged a bit on the hotel accommodation and you can easily get a top-quality hotel for half this cost and cut out a big chunk of these expenses. 

Optional Daytrip – Atherton Tablelands

When leaving Port Douglas we were driving all the way back to Airlie Beach to finish up our northern QLD road trip and decided to take the inland route via the Atherton Tablelands. 

This is another nice day trip that you could include in your itinerary. 

It is much easier with your own car but there are tours that will take care of things for you. Given that there are wineries and distilleries that are possible stops the tour at least takes the driving out of the equation. 

We followed the Atherton Tablelands Food Trail as a guide to explore the area via your tastebuds. There are also some nice waterfalls and hiking trails to follow if that’s more your thing. 

Our list of stops included: 

  • Golden Drop Winery – the mango wine is better than it sounds.
  • Gallo Dairyland – this was closed when we arrived, but we found their cheeses in the local supermarket so still got to do our cheese tasting for the day.
  • Skybury Cafe and Roastery – everything is straight off the farm.
  • Mt Uncle Distillery – the single malt is outstanding! 
  • Mungalli Dairy & Farmhouse Cafe – we arrived at about 2pm and the staff were oddly unaccommodating and almost annoyed we were there. So we left…

As you can see from the map there are plenty more places to check out. You may have better luck than us with many places closed due to COVID keeping tourist numbers down. 

Sheraton Mirage Bar

Final Thoughts

The town of Port Douglas has less going for it than other popular spots in North Queensland. However, the activities and day trips that surround the area are second to none. 

For this reason, it would be our recommendation for the best town to visit if you want to see the Great Barrier Reef, check out some crocs, or hike in the Daintree Rainforest. 

You can also check out Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands to add some more variety to your vacation.

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