Queensland's tropical north offers fun and adventure at every turn. Nick Walton takes a road trip to remember
Every country has a 'backyard', a place where the locals like to lap up the sun and where tourists get a more authentic experience than they would in the better-known holiday resorts.
Places such as the tiny resort towns of Palm Cove and Port Douglas, in tropical north Queensland on Australia's northeast coast, offer this experience. Yes, you'll stray across incredulous Japanese tourists, sunburned Brits and the odd South Korean honeymooner, but there'll also be plenty of Aussies dressing down in flip flops and singlets and enjoying the off-peak solitude.
I arrive at Cairns Airport on a humid, murky Friday afternoon at the end of an Australian summer. Within a month, this whole region will be deluged as the monsoons dance past, keeping the coast lush and verdant. But today I'm willing the soot-coloured clouds on the horizon back out to sea, as the electric roof of our convertible hire car slides into 'end of summer' mode, to my companions' applause.
Driving is a big part of the whole north Queensland experience. The region is famous for its two World Heritage listings, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, but it's the long, relatively empty, palm-lined stretches of highway and tiny sun drenched layovers, which give access to the deserted and unspoilt beaches, that makes the region so good to see through the windshield. The Captain Cook Highway remains one of Australia's most beautiful routes, reaching north from the city of Cairns, through Palm Cove and Port Douglas to Mossman, at the cusp of the Daintree.
Putting the bulbous red Chrysler PT Cruiser, a car which just screams road trip, into gear, and with John Mayer blaring on the stereo, we cruise Cairns' neat but quiet streets.
It's a tropical town that is slowly coming of age; backpacker inns now sit next to fusion restaurants like the Red Ochre, which serves up smoked kangaroo encrusted with local macadamias, emu pate and crocodile wontons to intrepid tourists. The man-made lagoon is a point of civic pride for locals and in the late afternoon heat this oversized swimming pool, which overlooks Cairns' tidal harbour, is bustling with children.
Leaving Cairns in our wake, we head for the coastal highway, diving between fields of tall, swaying sugar cane to a chorus of cane toads and tropical crickets.
I love driving this route: the warm, saturated air heavy with the scent of wild frangipanis and eucalypts, the near-constant presence of the ocean lulled by the reefs that lie just off the coast, the names of tiny settlements and remote beaches on ancient ironwood signposts - Trinity Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Buchan Point.
At Palm Cove, we take a slight detour from the highway to cruise down the main strip by the beach.
Here, the likes of Sea Temple Resort and Angsana Spa compete for beachfront real estate with low-rise, luxury apartments and alfresco dining. The pavement is bustling with tourists making the most of the evening dry spell as those clouds resist my telepathy and return.
There isn't much to Palm Cove: the main strip runs less than a kilometre along a tiny beachfront. Behind the hotels are retirement homes, cute B&Bs and the odd caravan park. The sky has turned a smoky violet as we roll into Ellis Beach. If anything, this pit stop on the highway epitomises the whole region. Ellis is quiet, laid-back and easily overlooked. There are no fancy restaurants or resorts, just a seasonal campsite, a diner and a spectacular beach.
Perched on the bonnet of the Cruiser as the last light of the day ebbs into darkness, all conversation is halted by the arrival of dinner. The so-called 'Aussie burgers' (although the Kiwi in me could contest this to the death), made with homemade bread rolls, fat, juicy beef patties and the addition of a fried egg and beetroot.
We reach Port Douglas, only an hour's straight drive from Cairns, as the first fat tropical raindrops descend from the heavens onto the paintwork, each making a splattering sound as they hit. It's the beginning of the low season, the resort is being renovated and looks like it has emerged from Hurricane Katrina, with thick palm fronds competing for space with wheelbarrows and moist clumps of instant grass. In many ways it's the best time to visit the region, when the crowds abate.
Within minutes we're in swimming trunks and carrying plastic glasses of cheap champagne to the pool as steaks cook on the grill - this is a holiday and not a moment can be wasted.
At dawn, the clouds are gone, the birds are singing and although the sun is sluggish in the sky, the air, alive with dragonflies and fat cicadas, is starting to heat up as we tee off at Sea Temple Country Club in Port Douglas.
One of the premier courses in the area, it's a maze of water traps, bunkers, hillocks and native vegetation, encircled by massive, luxurious, but almost entirely vacant summer homes, their residents already having headed back to their city jobs. It's just after 6am, and the early start is a small price to pay to have the course to ourselves.
Many people travel to Port Douglas to play at resort courses. They rise early, play quickly and still have afternoons for the reef or drives up into the Daintree.
And that's where we head after golf. Still debating the slim stroke count difference, my friend Ben and I collect the girls, and head north again towards one of the world's most ancient rainforests.
With the largest diversity of animal and plant life in the world, the 35-million-year-old Daintree is Australia's largest forest, at more than 1,200 sq km - and in true Australian tradition it also has its fair share of things that kill, including spiders, snakes and crocodiles.
The Daintree is halfway between Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation, and entry is via a cable ferry which carries cars and tour vans over the Daintree River. Inside the forest, darkness seems to descend and the ancient canopy closes in. There are river tours that include crocodile feeding, hiking tracks, freshwater streams and falls and even eco-lodges so you can turn a day trip into a weekend in what feels like Never-Never Land.
To make the most of the last day, we head out early to the Great Barrier Reef on one of Quicksilver Cruises' early morning catamarans. Quicksilver has its own pontoon anchored at the outer reef, with showers, changing rooms and a host of water sports equipment on hand. You can scuba dive or do a flyover in a helicopter, enjoy the buffet lunch or take a glass bottom boat. But for us, getting one of our friends into the water, despite her very real ichthyophobia (fear of fish) proves to be a battle. We yell, we encourage, we threaten and we bribe and finally, with everyone urging her on, including a few snorkellers in the water, Rose plunges into the reef's turquoise waters with a shriek, to applause from across the pontoon.
There are few reefs in Hong Kong and no rainforests, but I know the locals of tropical north Queensland always find room for a few more tourists, so I'll be welcomed back.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) flies direct or via Brisbane, where you can connect with Virgin Blue (flyvirginblue.com.au) to Cairns.