Back in 2014 when the Sailor and I first hopped on a one-way flight to Australia, we quickly followed the sunshine up the coast from Sydney and landed in Port Douglas. It was a place I’d never heard about but always dreamed of- it took all of two minutes to decide that we wanted to settle here! If you’ve visited then you’ll understand why.
Port Douglas- or simply Port or Port Dougie to her residents- is the kind of Australia you read about in books. It’s uber chilled-out and hugely picturesque with a gorgeous beach, it’s hot all year-round and the locals say “G’day” when you pass them in the street. It’s why we chose to move back last year and why tourists frequently return. To sum her up, she’s a little bubble of tropical paradise and during lockdown she’s been flourishing.
Living in this region has put a big focus back on sustainability for me. Being amidst nature, I inherently feel a part of it and want to preserve it. And with two World Heritage Sites on our doorstep- The Daintree Rainforest (aka- the world’s oldest rainforest) and The Great Barrier Reef (aka- the world’s largest coral reef system) there’s A LOT of nature to relish.
The beauty of our environment is also why Port Douglas Daintree was awarded top spot for travellers out of 700 global destinations. In part, this is a testament to local operators who deliver awesome experiences and are committed to eco-practices.
So for when travel reconvenes, I’ve finally got round to putting together a two-years-in-the-making list of my favourite things to do in Port Douglas, focusing on sustainable adventures. From rainforest to reef, waterfalls, authentic indigenous experiences and adrenaline sports, there should be something for everyone.
I hope you enjoy exploring this incredible region as much as we have! x
Best Things to do in Port Douglas for 2020
There’s a good handful of walking tracks in and around Port Douglas, but this is the only one actually on the peninsular (it’s a small place!). Due to it’s locality and range of perks- i.e. beach, bush & banging views- it’s the most popular local hike and well-attended by residents.
It can be as long or short as you like (depending on if you walk the full length of the beach) but in full, it’s a leisurely 5.5k.
Fun Fact: despite it’s name, Four Mile is only 4k!
To start: enter Four Mile at the southern-end car park, or at any point, and walk North towards the rocky headland. Then take the path up the steps to begin the 1.5k Flagstaff Hill trail where you’ll be rewarded with saucy views of the Coral Sea, Four Mile Beach and neighbouring islands.
Visiting the GBR is undoubtedly the most popular activity for tourists in Port Dougie, as it should be. A perk to going from here over Cairns is that many operators take a smaller number of guests, so local spots will be less busy. Although Low Isles is pretty popular during peak times.
We’ve visited the Great Barrier Reef twice from here and and the variety of marine life is impressive. Often you’ll spot turtles, giant clams, gentle giants Maori Wrass, Clownfish, stingrays, reef sharks and more. We’ve seen many of them and didn’t even visit the best sites.
If you’re visiting the outer reef then during humpback whale season from June to September you might be lucky enough to spot some on your way, or sight Dwarf Minke Whales from May to August. Dolphins are often about following boats too.
Whilst, sadly, up to 50% of the reef has experienced mass coral bleaching over the last 2 decades and it’s certainly vulnerable against global warming, The GBR is still a remarkable global asset and very much worth visiting.
I’d suggest heading to the outer reef for coral quality & diversity of life, and many local operators have chosen prime spots there. I haven’t been to the outer sites yet so quite a bit of the reef that we saw wasn’t in the best shape. For us it was the array of animals that stole the show as opposed to “colourful” coral.
There’s a number of snorkelling sites between Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation which I’ve mapped above and include the following:
- Coral Cays : They’re those lush sandy islands surrounded in reef systems- Mackay & Undine Cay is nearby. You may visit them as a part of an outer reef trip so won’t necessarily spend much time on them.
- Islands : like Low Isles (visible from Four Mile Beach- my favourite of the two) & Snapper Island (below). Although technically a Coral Cay, Low Isles is a good option for those with young children or whom don’t enjoy boat rides and easily get seasick, or those who just want to more “island” time. The beach offers easy snorkelling, good shelter from the sun and there’s a short Heritage Walk to the historic Lighthouse.
- Outer reef sites – recommended : There’s over 15 reef systems nearby and they’re said to house a higher diversity of fish- so I’d try heading on this tour.
Here are my top picks on smaller, locally owned eco-certified operators to choose from:
The Sailaway team really looked after us when we went on a sunset sail with them. The company is committed to sustainability and their luxury catamaran is primarily driven by wind power which is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, but be aware that it will take longer to reach the sites. This is a good option for people who want a sailing and reef experience.
Wavelength are involved in a number of conservation projects and are committed to low impact tourism. They visit three snorkel friendly spots along Opal, St Crispin & Tongue Reef, chosen on the day by the skipper. Maximum tour group is 48 with a marine biologist. View their full-day outer reef tour or see their certified dive courses.
Poseidon lead a snorkel & dive cruise with a marine biologist, taking guests to Agincourt Ribbon Reefs (there’s a few reefs here) and Escape Reef along the the Outer GBR. They also have a special permit which allows guests to swim with Dwarf Minke Whales. Certified scubies can enjoy 3 dives, and they offer diving courses at an additional cost. See their full-day outer reef cruise or view their diving course.
Calypso also lead a snorkel & dive cruise to three outer reef sites along the Agincourt Reefs. Or if there’s no divers in your party, then it’s better to hop on their snorkel only boat which takes you to shallower, more snorkel-friendly sites along Opal Reef. Half-day tours to Low Isles are available too, as well as certified diving courses. Check out their snorkelling tours or see their certified dive courses.
This is one of my favourite experiences near Port Douglas. Mossman River runs through the Daintree National Park which is a blissfully peaceful environment, and SUP-ing here is a really low-impact way to enjoy these surroundings. I left feeling really energised and inspired.
Local operator Windswell offers daily SUP sessions from here at 9am or 2pm. Or you can do a sunrise SUP with them along Four Mile Beach (if you’re good at getting up early!) or as a part of a reef trip.
This beast is also in the Daintree rainforest just past Mossman. By far, this was the hardest physical activity I’ve ever endured, but it was also the most rewarding- the quote “it’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” is how I’d best describe the experience.
And also Churchill’s “if it feel’s like hell, keep going!” 😄
This epically steep trek won’t be for everyone, but steely adventures will be challenged. It’ll put you through your paces as you slog it uphill for 4-5 hours before reaching the summit (although a shorter 5-hour hike is possible too). Expect a remote and isolated track immersed in nature, offering breathtaking views of the Far North Queensland coast that most don’t get to marvel over first-hand.
For more trail details and tips, head to my detailed guide.
There are heaps of sunset spots in Port Douglas, but this is a more fancy and special way to enjoy it. If you don’t manage to get out on a reef trip, then heading out for a sunset sail is another great way to appreciate the thrills of the ocean without getting your hair wet.
The experience usually lasts for an hour and a half and it’s a super chilled evening that finishes right before dinnertime, with great coastal views, good vibes, good company (optional!) plus complimentary drinks and finger food upon arrival. As a local we don’t often get out on the water as much as we should and the experience reminded me what we’re missing!
There’s a few local operators offering this tour:
◇ Sunset Sail with Sailaway : We went with these guys as they offered a 2-for-1 deal for locals during the Feb-March low season. The team were super friendly and took good care of us from start to finish, offer canapés & bubbles upon arrival on their luxury catamaran (+ drinks to purchase after). I left feeling really revitalised, if not a little tipsy!
◇ Shaolin Sunset Sailing : The newest addition to the sunset sailing club since 2016, Shaolin is a unique timber junk boat that originates from China and offers a slightly different experience. Yum Cha canapés and drinks are offered upon arrival.
◇ Indigo 2 : Also a luxury catamaran but offers a 2-hour sunset sail with BYO drinks, and they cap numbers to 12 guests only for a more intimate experience.
As a beginner kiteboarder, I’m finding Four Mile Beach a really good spot to learn and it’s equally great for experienced riders. The water is perfectly shallow with sandy bottoms, zero obstacles and the weather is tropical year-round. Some visiting Aussies have even told me that it’s the best place they’ve kitesurfed on Australia’s East coast.
May to October is the main wind season where we get a good stream of cross-onshore northwesterlies. Speeds are typically between 10-16 knots, although some days can reach 20+ or be a no show. You’re predominantly riding in flatwater but when the wind is pumping, there’s usually good rollers to kick from and play with at the shoreline.
If you’ve never tried kitesurfing before then you can test the waters with an intro-lesson first where you’ll practice with a trainer kite- a smaller version of the real thing. Or if you’re ready to go all in, you can take a ‘zero to hero’ course which will teach you all the fundamentals before you [hopefully] get up and riding your first 50 meters. Find out more about my experience doing the course in Thailand!
For lessons or gear hire, head to Windswell.
Like the river that runs through it, Mossman Gorge is an equally majestic nature hit. It offers a leisurely 4k trail through the rainforest where there’s a number of fresh-water pools for you to cool off in, as well as some insane trees and fauna to spot.
The Baral Marrjanga track, accessible via the Mossman Gorge Centre is run by the region’s traditional owners, the Kuku Yalanji people. It feels almost spiritual here.
As this section of the Daintree Rainforest is closest to Port Douglas & Cairns, it gets the most busy during the high season so it’s best to set out early.
To find out more about this hike and other goodies nearby, check out my recent article.
Prior to colonisation, Far North Queensland’s rainforests was one of the most densely populated Aboriginal regions in Australia. It’s estimated that around 5’000 Indigenous people lived in the area of rainforest near Cairns.
Although Port Douglas never had any permanent year-round camps, nearby Mossman was a popular settlement for The Kuku Yalanji people. Also named “The Rainforest People” because of their close affinity with nature, they’re rooted to the region like the trees.
Acquiring knowledge, stories and heritage passed down through the generations over 50’000 years, there is so much we can learn about their rich culture- from ancient traditions and stories, to their appreciation & interconnectedness with the rainforest and Earth.
If you’re seeking an authentic Aboriginal cultural experience, then there are many on offer between Cairns and the Daintree that support sustainable tourism. Here are three near Port Douglas:
Janbal Gallery – Aboriginal Owned & Operated
Located near Mossman Gorge, local Aboriginal artist “Binna” invites you to learn about his culture through art. You can simply come to check out the gallery or paint your own piece whilst listening to stories. I’ve been wanting to visit for a while and look forward to checking it out when lockdown lifts. Visit his website to find out more.
Dreamtime Walk at Mossman Gorge – Aboriginal Owned & Operated
The Mossman Gorge Centre is an eco-tourism hub, owned and operated by the Kuku Yalanji People who offer immersive Dreamtime Walks in the rainforest. Lead by a local Aboriginal guide, they’ll take you along private tracks to identify traditional plant use & bush food, share ancient stories & legends and show you a traditional ‘smoking’ ceremony. Check here for more details or to pre-book.
Flames in Forest Experience
If your budget can afford, then for a fancier affair ‘Flames of the Forest’ offers a unique rainforest dinner with Indigenous culture. Two Kuku Yanalji brothers will give you an insight into their culture through stories, ceremony & song as you feast on a 7-course banquet dinner in an intimate environment.
I haven’t participated in this experience yet, but have seen the set-up on my way to a local hiking track and can see how it’ll feel remote and magical at night. To find out more, check out their reviews or read more details about this event.
A few of the wider hiking tracks nearby are ideal for mounting biking. I’ve only ever walked them, but biking through is another fun way to explore these trails and a bigger adrenaline hit!
If you have your own bikes you can pitch up yourself, or if you’re without then Bike’n’Hike Adventure Tours are really well reviewed & offer trips to either:
- Bump Track– On a cross-country ride from the Atherton Tablelands to Mowbray, you’ll descend 2k downhill through the rainforest passing streams, lookouts and finish-up on Four Mile Beach. View this adventure.
- Hartley’s Creek– This track is more challenging as there’s greater uphill legwork involved, but you’ll be rewarded with a waterfall & refreshing dip in a freshwater pool at the end (above). Then you can bomb it downhill back to base. Click to see more details, or read their reviews.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of traditional zoos and prefer to view animals in the wild, but Wildlife Habitat is a bit different. The first time I visited I was really impressed with the spacious and open environment where most animals can roam free within their specific habitat. They’re also committed to conservation and run a wildlife rescue program, whilst being fully eco-certified.
The Wildlife Habitat is a great option for families and people of all ages to observe a variety of native Australian animals, including tree-kangaroos, koalas, kangaroos and cassowaries. Visit their website to find out more, or pre-book your visit online.
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I hope you enjoyed reading my article on things to do in Port Douglas and found it useful. There’s plenty of nature to inspire you here, whether it be in the reef or rainforest.
If you’re seeking a place to stay, I’ve come to know many hotels & resorts over the years. Here are my top picks on where to stay in Port Douglas for a range of budgets.
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