Change your life by taking a five day Cairns to Cape Tribulation Great Barrier Reef Drive and see where the rainforest meets the reef. With stops at Palm Cove and Port Douglas this route is a perfect road trip on one of Australia’s prettiest coast roads.
Why a Cairns to Cape Tribulation Great Barrier Reef Drive will change your life
The Great Barrier Reef Drive is where deep green rainforest-clad mountains descend to meet long stretches of deserted beach at Cape Tribulation. It’s two World Heritage areas, the Wet Tropics rainforests of Daintree National Park and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, in one magical location. The road leaves the turquoise blue Coral Sea and weaves in and out of tropical rainforests and sugar cane fields passing Palm Cove, Mossman Gorge, Port Douglas and the Daintree River along the way. This is Australia as you have never seen it before.
With a driving time of two hours and 40 minutes, you can do the one-way 140km drive in a day but what a waste that would be! Expand it to a five-day itinerary instead and thoroughly explore the beaches, rainforest, villages, unique wildlife and Indigenous culture of Tropical North Queensland. Take to the water to see the colourful corals and marine life of the reef.
Extra tips to help you plan your trip
Five day Cairns to Cape Tribulation road trip
Day 1 – Cairns to Palm Cove
Travelling north from Cairns to Port Douglas, a five-day itinerary will show you plenty of beaches with awe-inspiring coastal views along the way.Stop off at Ellis Beach or Palm Cove for a swim and enjoy a stroll along the boardwalk or on the beach. It wouldn’t be Great Barrier Reef road trip without lunch in a seaside café.
Palm Cove is a favourite stop for me, and I have stayed at both Peppers Palm Cove and Alamanda Palm Cove. I would recommend Peppers if you have children as they have a fantastic beach pool in the middle of the complex. Alamanda is at the end of the esplanade and ideal for watching the sunset from your room. It’s great for couples who want something a little special. There’s also a spa there and the best restaurant in Palm Cove, Nu Nu. A meal at Nu Nu to experience the locally inspired menu is a must. Here’s how to do a three day Palm Cove stay.
Life-changing moment: Take a dawn walk on the coconut palm-lined beach at Palm Cove and soak up the sounds of gentle waves lapping the shore. Life can be this good.
Below: Beachfront walk at Palm Cove.
Sunrise from Alamanda Palm Cove
Peppers Palm Cove
Day 2 – Palm Cove to Port Douglas
It’s just a 45-minute scenic drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas. On day two you can relax in the chic, seaside town of Port Douglas. It’s a place that offers resorts, a wide range of dining, bars, boutique shopping, the marina and the expanse of Four Mile Beach. Port Douglas has some seriously good eating. My favourites include Sassi for Italian food, Salsa for seafood, Watergate for drinks, Hemmingways for beer and Harrisons by Spencer Patrick for a divine meal. Here’s a list of the best places to eat in Port Douglas.
My favourite thing to do here is to visit the Sunday Markets because there is so much variety. With so many creative people in the local area, these markets are not just a cut and paste of every other market you’ve seen. It is also an excellent place to pick up local fruit that you will never see outside the tropical north. Be adventurous and take some home with you (if you are crossing state borders, check this is allowed).
I’ve stayed at Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Peppers Beach Club, and Oaks Resort.
Life-changing moment: Stay at a swim-up pool at Sheraton Grand Mirage and feel the luxury of the lagoon pool with a long float on your back gazing at the blue sky.
Sheraton Mirage, Port Douglas
Day 3 – Explore the sea from Port Douglas
Port Douglas is the closest mainland port to the Queensland World Heritage Great Barrier Reef, so day three is your reef trip day! It’s time to board a luxury catamaran or high-powered jet boat and spend a day on the water.
There are many boats that cruise to the reef, so think about your preferences to help narrow down the field. Do you want to swim, snorkel or learn to dive? Most boats offer all three options but some specialise in dive locations for people who are experienced divers. If you just want to look, find a boat that offers underwater or glass bottom boat viewing. That way, you can see and not get wet. All boats offer stinger suits for swimmers so you can relax in the water. Inexperienced swimmers will find that there is a crew member who will monitor their progress in the water and often swim with them.
Some cruises include experienced marine scientists who offer guided underwater tours for swimmers and snorkellers. This is a fabulous way to get up close and personal with reef creatures, but strictly hands off of course. The safety of the reef and passengers is always a high priority. If you want to meet turtles, a half-day Low Isles trip will see you swimming with these marine creatures. Do remember to pack plenty of sun protection gear and a hat for any reef day trip.
Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas is a great place to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. They have a huge walk-through aviary where the birds roam freely. The new “Swim with the Salties” experience in the new CrocArena gives you the opportunity to safely swim with saltwater crocodiles. Yes! It’s possible! Guests can swim centimetres away from the crocs in 180-degree clear underwater, viewing the salties at a depth of 2.3 metres.
Life-changing moment – Immerse yourself in the colours and creatures of one of the world’s greatest wonders, the Great Barrier Reef.
Day 4 – Explore Mossman and the Daintree
On day four, expand your Cairns to Cape Tribulation journey by taking yourself deeper into the rainforest to explore Mossman Gorge. Located just north of Port Douglas, the gorge is full of jungle walks and swimming holes. It is a place the Indigenous Kuku Yalanji people call home.
The Mossman Gorge Visitor Centre offers guided Dreamtime walks through the forest which I highly recommend. You’ll gain a fantastic insight into this forest as you walk along the gentle tracks and learn the significance of the area to the first inhabitant. It is a unique Queensland World Heritage experience.
Just north of Mossman Gorge at Cooyar Beach, you can do another Indigenous tour which takes you out along the beach to catch mud crabs. I wasn’t good at catching mud crabs, but the journey was one of the best things I have done. At the Daintree River, you can take on a crocodile, bird and wildlife spotting cruise, or visit Daintree Village. The Daintree area is filled with more than 430 bird species and unique wildlife, including cassowaries, crocodiles, kangaroos and platypus. Don’t miss the chance to stop for an ice cream at Daintree Ice Cream Company where they use local tropical fruits you have never heard of to flavour the ice cream. It is delicious!
The Mossman Saturday Market has an amazing array of local produce at stalls positioned under giant rain trees. You can pick up some amazing finds here as chef Spencer Patrick does for his restaurant Harrisons. Here’s what Spencer finds on his weekly visit to his ‘tropical pantry’.
If you are looking for a luxury lodge bolthole, Silky Oaks Lodge has recently reopened after a $20 million refurbishment. The lodge has 40 luxury king bed guest suites with views of the Mossman River and the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. Executive Chef Mark Godbeer heads up the Silky Oaks Lodge kitchen and has worked with the region’s producers to create a refreshing, daily changing menu ideally suited to the tropical climate. A walk through the new Kitchen Garden reveals a very short ‘plant to plate’ journey.
Life-changing moment – Discover a deeper connection to the land at Mossman Gorge through the eyes and experiences of a traditional custodian.
Mossman Gorge is an excellent place to stop on the Great Barrier Reef Drive.
Day 5 – Explore the Daintree and Cape Tribulation
On your Great Barrier Reef drive day five head north to the Daintree and explore the small historic Daintree Village. You’ll find a map of the village at the tour desk and there are plenty of informative signs along the way.
If you want to see crocodiles in the wild, the Daintree River is the place to do it. Book a spot on a boat tour and cruise up the river. The guide will point out the area’s amazing birdlife along the way. The best time for croc spotting is in the cooler weather when you’ll often see crocs sunning themselves on the river bank. However, you’ll be able to see their slides, the places where they enter the water from the bank, all year round.
Next, cross the Daintree River by ferry to explore where the rainforest meets the sea. The sealed road continues past several beaches to Cape Tribulation. Food lovers can stop at Cape Trib Farm and taste some exotic tropical fruits. Floravilla Biodynamic Organic Ice Cream offers 26 different flavours including Black Sapote (Chocolate Pudding Fruit), dragonfruit and mango.
Take a stroll on the Dubuji Boardwalk to learn more about the forest and mangroves in the area. The entrance for the one-hour trip is just near the car park.
Life-changing moment – Stepping straight onto the beach from the rainforest at Cape Tribulation is an extraordinary feeling.
What you need to know for your Cairns to Cape Tribulation road trip
- You can do the Great Barrier Reef Drive which takes you from Cairns to Cape Tribulation in a day or do it the leisurely way and take five days.
- One thing to remember if you are doing this drive without many stops is that the road winds around the coastline. Anyone who suffers from car sickness should take the front seat.
- If you visit the reef in October or November, you may witness the annual coral spawning event.
Discover more Great Barrier Reef Drive itineraries at Tourism Port Douglas & Daintree.
Here’s your route for the Great Barrier Reef Drive.