Home to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, North Queensland is bursting with family adventure.
All the superlatives used to describe the Great Barrier Reef fail to capture its true beauty. It’s a bucket list destination that doesn’t disappoint. Off the coast of Queenslandin northeastern Australia, the 1429-mile-long reef is the largest living thing on Earth; so large, it’s even visible from space! And while it’s the reef that may attract your family to this region, other natural wonders await!
While you can plan a reef trip from either Cairns or Port Douglas, I’d recommend basing your family in the latter. Port Douglas is closer to the Daintree Rainforest and has a welcoming small town atmosphere.
What to do?
You'll likely fly into Cairns. After you pick up a rental car and make a quick stop in downtown Cairns, drive (yes, on the left side of the road) 45 minutes north to Harley’s Crocodile Adventures. Take a boat ride to see the crocodiles in their natural habitat and watch as they snap out of the water to grab dangling bait from the captain. On land, you can hold a baby croc for a photo op. There’s a daily 11 a.m. crocodile feeding and 3 p.m. crocodile show, where a handler educates the audience and demonstrates the “death roll.” Cost: Family $67.
Continue north to Port Douglas. Book a full-day tour with Quicksilver. In the morning, you’ll depart on a high-speed catamaran for the 1-1/2-hour ride to Quicksilver’s platform on Agincourt Reef at the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The snorkeling here (or scuba diving, if you choose; minimum age 12) is the best in the world! Your family can participate in an introductory or advanced snorkel tour (extra fee) or simply snorkel on your own from the platform, as we happily did. There’s a mind-boggling number of colorful fish, mollusks, turtles, dolphins, and even harmless Whitetip reef sharks. You’re guaranteed to see fish, as the staff does feed them. My sons, ages 7 and 10, were stoked!
Even if you’re not a swimmer, you still can enjoy the beauty of the reef from the underwater observatory on board the platform or from the semi-submersible vessels that depart the platform every 15 minutes.
The snorkeling is totally appropriate for young children. Everyone is supplied with a buoyancy vest, mask, snorkel, and lightweight lycra wetsuit. There’s also noodles and flotation devices available; bring your own towels. A buffet lunch is served on the platform; strollers are allowed. Cost: Family $449; book online. Yes, it’s pricey, but I’d say that it’s worth the once-in-a-lifetime experience.
KidTripster Tip: The water can be a bit nippy; it was when we visited in November. We were glad that we brought our own thicker wetsuits.
Granted, the Great Barrier Reef is hard to beat, but our bush walk in Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world, with guide Pete Baxendell of Daintree Specialised Tours was just as memorable! Pete was incredibly knowledgeable about the animal and plant life, as well as the Aborigines. He really made the tour fun and engaging for our kids. The all-day adventure started with tea and snacks on the hood of Pete’s Land Rover. We climbed the vines of enormous Mahogany trees and sampled food from the forest, including licking the abdomens of green ants! They’re a good source of Vitamin C and taste like Starbursts! We dammed a creek to create our own billabong for swimming; there we ate a satisfying picnic lunch, prepared by Pete’s wife. The day ended with a walk along the beach, where the forest meets the Coral Sea. I can’t recommend this tour enough! Cost: $145/person for private tour; $116/person for group tour (Tuesdays & Saturdays only); ask about child or family discount; book online.
KidTripster Tip: There’s a fair amount of walking on this tour, so be prepared with closed-toe shoes and insect repellent. If your child gets tired, I’d recommend opting out of the beach walk. You’ll still get your money’s worth.
Where to eat?
There’s a number of good restaurants in the town of Port Douglas, including Zinc (53-61 Macrossan St.). Don’t miss the opportunity to try kangaroo! The rare-seared kangaroo salad with poached pears is delicious. As an added bonus, kids eat off the children’s menu for free from 5 to 6 p.m. After a long day on the reef or in the rainforest, you’ll be ready for an early dinner and early bedtime.
Where to stay?
Just a five-minute drive from downtown, Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas Resort is an excellent choice for families. This luxury resort is situated on Four Mile Beach and includes an 18-hole golf course. While you may be tempted to get an upper floor room to take advantage of the beach views, don’t. Instead opt for a first floor room with a ladder that drops you directly into the enormous saltwater lagoon pool. My boys were so content in the pool, we never even made it to the beach! Starts at $237/night.
KidTripster Tip: While the easy pool access is a dream for swimming-age kids, it could be a hazard for tiny tots, so plan accordingly.
KidTripster Tip: Ask about the Starwood Kids Pass. For a flat daily rate, children (12 and younger) can enjoy all-inclusive access to a variety of dining options, including children's menus, buffets, and beverages during their stay.
When to go & getting there?
Peak season on the Great Barrier Reef runs June to October. Temperatures are in the 70s and prices are at their highest. Low season runs November to March (summer in Australia) with temperatures in the 80s, high humidity, and a greater possibility of rain which affects water visibility. Also, you’ll want to avoid mainland beaches in this area during that time because of deadly box jellyfish. The shoulder season which sees temperatures in the 70s and 80s with little rainfall and clear water conditions runs April to May.
We did visit during low season. While it was hot and humid, we still had good visibility on our rain-free day at the reef.
You can fly to Cairns from most major cities in Australia.
KidTripster Tip: If you book your international flight with Qantas, you can then get discounts on in-country flights through the Qantas Explorer program.
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Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels with her husband and two sons. No matter what any Aussie tells you, she says that Vegemite is awful and should be avoided at all costs!