Port Douglas, Australia: The Great Barrier Reef and Beyond

Photo Courtesy of Calypso Reef Charters

We were returning to the beach after lunch when we saw the sign. Small enough that we almost missed it, but bright enough that we had to take a closer look.

“Beach closed,” it said. “NO SWIMMING. Crocodile recently sighted.”

My daughter was due to spend a term at the University of Auckland, and before she started her studies, we took a ten-day whirlwind visit of Australia. It wasn’t enough time to do more than sample the country, so we focused on Sydney, the Blue Mountains, and Port Douglas.

A lot of travellers see the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns. Regular flights from Sydney serve Cairns, and it means you stay put once you arrive.

But we chose Port Douglas as our base for two reasons. It’s a small town, and we could walk everywhere instead of relying on transit and taxis. And it’s close enough to the rainforest to make a day trip there. Both of these made the one-hour transfer to Port Douglas a non-issue.

Our first day was all about relaxation. After enjoying a leisurely breakfast in our room, we strolled to Four Mile Beach. With a wide sandy beach lined by palm trees, and gently rolling hills in the distance, we felt like we were on a film set. Even the crocodile sighting felt like a plot twist in an adventure movie.

We split our time between relaxing in beach chairs and exploring the beach. Sunscreen was mandatory here – on that mid-winter day, the temperature hit a high of 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit).

The next day, we met the Calypso, our boat for snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. “If the seas are rough, you’ll appreciate as big a boat as possible,” our concierge had promised when we booked the tour.

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Photo Courtesy of Calypso Reef Charters

We were thankful for his advice. The winds were high, and our trip to the reef was … bumpy. Before we left the harbour, the crew gave specific and substantial directions on what to do if we got seasick. (Many of us were grateful for those specific and substantial directions.)

But you’ll forget the roughness of the journey when you arrive at the first snorkeling spot. Calypso takes travellers to three sites, which vary depending on the weather and whether it’s a snorkeling or diving voyage. We snorkeled off the Opal Reef (part of the outer Great Barrier Reef), and we visited the Bashful Bommie, SNO and Blue Buoy sites.

One of the reasons the Great Barrier Reef was at the top of our list was the news we’d heard about damage from climate change and seasonal cyclones. Will the barrier reef still be vibrant in ten years? In five years? After the destruction of Cyclone Debbie in early 2017, I wondered if it would already be damaged beyond repair.

Photo 6 - The Great Barrier Reef - Photo credit to Calypso Reef Charters
Photo Courtesy of Calypso Reef Charters

I needn’t have worried. With the brightly coloured fish, and extraordinary shapes and textures of the plants, we felt like we were swimming in an underwater retelling of Alice in Wonderland. Clownfish, damselfish, parrotfish – we swam after them until another one caught our eyes. Every direction brought something new, and we wanted to see it all. In each location, we reluctantly got back in the boat only when the whistle blew, signaling time was up.

A buffet lunch at midday, tea and biscuits after each location, warm showers on board, and the kindest crew imaginable made our tour to the Great Barrier Reef the highlight of a wonderful trip to Australia. And Port Douglas was the ideal location from which to explore it.

After all, it’s not everywhere that even the crocodiles come out to welcome you to town.

Travel Tips

There are lots of accommodation choices in Port Douglas, but it gets booked early, especially in the summer and during holidays. We opted for the Garrick House, an apartment-style residence on a quiet street that’s five minutes to the beach, and a block from the main street and restaurants. The full kitchen means you can save money by making your meals there and eating in. And the concierge offers advice and will help you book the best tours.

I wish we’d found Jimmy Rums before our last night in town. Port Douglas dining is more homey than sophisticated, but Jimmy’s is up there with any city bar. You’ll love the fabulous décor, the brilliant bartender, and the terrific cocktails. He served me a warming, smoky Boulevardier that made me long to stay all night.  (13/53-61 Macrossan St.)

If you have a sweet tooth, Wicked Ice Cream offers a diabolical choice of flavours. My favourites were the Lemon Meringue and the Pavlova gelato, but I doubt you’ll go wrong with anything on the menu. We treated ourselves every night we were in town. (48 Macrossan St.)

And try to make some time for a trip to the Daintree Rainforest. Tony’s Tropical Tours takes day trips to the area, where we saw the Mossman Gorge, the Mount Alexandra lookout and Noah Gate. We spotted crocodiles – this time from the safety of a boat on a Daintree River Cruise. The highlight of the journey was Cape Tribulation and its gorgeous beach where two UNESCO parks meet – the Great Barrier Reef, and Daintree National Park.

Coming home from the rainforest, you’ll be ready for a pit stop at the Daintree Ice Cream Co. They specialize in exotic fruit flavours, which change every day.

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