Thank you to Rene Young, our first guest blogger, for sharing her gorgeous photos and recommendations from her recent family vacation in North Queensland – a trip our family cannot wait to experience. Rene and I met while we were both living in St. Louis – the minute I met this little firecracker I knew we’d be friends for life, and I’m not letting the fact that we’re now on opposite sides of the world change that. I wish you all knew Rene so you could imagine her sassy, Australian-accented voice while you read this. Rene has plans to launch her own travel blog in the future, so please share some love and leave your questions and feedback for Rene in the comments. Happy reading! – Candace xo
It’s not very wise to book last minute travel with two kids. But as very keen travelers, we know that when that travel bug bites, you simply must go exploring. My husband and I are the typical Aussie travelers: we have been around the world, visited, worked, and lived in many different countries, but we haven’t explored too much of our own backyard. On the bucket list were the Daintree Rainforest, The Great Barrier Reef, and Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsunday Islands, all located in North Queensland, Australia, and very do-able in a week trip.
Although last minute, the timing for this trip was ideal. It wasn’t too far from home in Brisbane, not peak season, and the weather was warm but not hot. North Queensland summers are very humid and you can’t swim in the water due to stingers (both the stingray and jelly fish variety)! The trip did not disappoint. Here’s our itinerary of our one week tour, including recommendations on where to stay and what to do with the kids.
1) Daintree Rainforest
The first leg of the trip was from Brisbane to Cairns (a 2 hour flight), then we hired a car for a 40 minute drive to Palm Cove, our base for the next three days. Palm Cove is a sleepy North Queensland coastal town. Very chilled. Very serene. There isn’t much of anything except hotels and understated restaurants along the esplanade and a lovely little beach with a little sandy playground.
Where to stay
There are some other cool hotels along the esplanade across the road from the beach. I liked to look of The Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort and Spa. We decided on the Mango Lagoon Resort and Spa. We picked this as it was an affordable two bedroom place in the area, and with two kids, it’s just so much easier when you have your own kitchen, living area, and separate bedrooms. The resort has three kid-friendly pools and was walking distance to the beach. Although this place has the most uncomfortable furniture ever, it was a bonus to get two bedrooms, and my two children really slept well this leg of the trip.
Another alternative is to stay in Port Douglas which is roughly and hour from Cairns. This place has a different vibe and is more touristy. There’s a reason though – it’s a beautiful spot with a long stretch of sandy beach, a variety of shops, restaurants, and the main supermarket. There are also more accommodation options. I think if it wasn’t for our early trip flying out of Cairns, Port Douglas would be more suitable for the kiddos. I would’ve loved to stay at the QT Port Douglas – very posh but still kid friendly.
What to Do
A nice scenic drive from Palm Cove to the Mossman Gorge takes about 50 minutes, and you can pop into Port Douglas on the way.
Mossman Gorge is the start of the Daintree Rainforest region. It is stunning and very accessible for kids. You need to park your car and take an eco-friendly bus through the rainforest to Mossman Gorge. Costs are $6 AUD per adult (kids under 3 free). We brought our stroller for the rest of the short 2km walk along raised walkways to the gorge. This is a place to get a feel of the Daintree Rainforest without having to trek through the rainforest for hours. (If you are looking to be in the depths of the rainforest experience, then head further north). I have trekked through the Amazon; scurrying over fallen trees and ducking under spiders the size of your face and this is not that type of experience. The tourist information center where you meet the shuttle bus has a restaurant attached and art gallery!
Bring your bathers to swim in the water hole, which is a clear emerald green. Being winter, the water was quite chilly, this however didn’t stop the kids from diving in. The rainforest is a sight in itself. Green, lush, bright, and peaceful.
Further north is Cape Tribulation. From Mossman Gorge it’s another 1.5 hour drive and at the time we were advised it would be an hour to wait for the car ferry to cross the Daintree River. With kids we decided we would give this a miss. I hear it’s beautiful. If we had an extra day or two we would’ve done it slowly; starting really early.
Tours depart from both Port Douglas and Cairns. They all seem to do the similar things – a 90 minute cruise to spend a day on a floating pontoon at the reef. The pontoon is a sheltered multi level structure with different sections e.g. dining area, change area, entry points for snorkelling. We took the Quicksilver Agincourt Reef cruise and they ran the tour like a well oiled machine. It was professional and the staff were on their game. Activities included in the standard price were morning tea on the boat, snorkeling gear, underwater semi-submersible tours, fish feeding sessions, and lunch. Optional extras on offer were scuba diving, guided snorkeling tours, those weird looking helmet diving contraptions and guided snorkeling tours.
OK, taking young kids to the reef is not a breeze. Try to get the kids naps on the way to or from the reef. I managed to lull my youngest, Layla, to sleep in the harness just after the cruise took off. The way it works once you are at the reef is one parent is with the kids whilst the other goes snorkeling around the reef. There’s lots to keep them occupied whilst it’s your turn to be caretaker, including watching the staff feed gigantic fish which emerge from under the pontoon. The kids can be in the water whilst they are being fed. There is a stationery underwater viewing area and the the submersible “submarine” tour where you can see a great amount of the reef without getting wet. There’s also a large sun deck where they can run around, not to mention going back to the buffet lunch.
There is a platform in the water where the snorkelers put their gear on and enter the ocean, which is ideal for the kids to play and splash. Liam and Layla loved paddling around here with the fish swimming by. It is still winter here, so the water was about 19 degrees celcious. Still a little chilly for them to stay in too long. We did all get in the water with the kids together. The tour supplied all snorkeling gear, including children’s and infants float vests, snorkels, masks, and fins. Layla, my 1 year old, just floated along for a good fifteen minutes before my son inhaled a heap of sea water through his snorkel, then it was tears and game over for that adventure.
You get about 4 hours on the reef itself and time goes surprisingly quickly! I am a certified diver but I didn’t dive this time around. Just from snorkeling alone, the clarity was great and the abundance of marine life was amazing; think giant clams, schools of fish, coral, and Finding Nemo! I spoke to a diver who was actually with his wife and two young kids (so diving can be done!), and he saw two small sharks.
It was such an enjoyable day. To top it off, the whales were in town this time of the year and we spotted a few on our cruise back.
Want to luxe it up? There is an option to helicopter to the pontoon and back or take a 30 minute helicopter tour of the reef whilst you are there. It would be trip of a life time stuff!
3) The Whitsundays – Hamilton Island
The Whitsunday Islands are a collection of various sized islands off the central coast of Queensland, Australia. The beauty of the Whitsundays is that you can fly direct to Hamilton Island. Another bonus, it’s only 1.5 hrs from Brisbane or Cairns.
I think Hamilton Island is the most picturesque island geared for families. Hamilton Island is all about just unwinding and spending time by the pool and beach, yet it’s big enough to go for a walks up the hill or into town. You can also hire a golf buggy to zip around town or take the free shuttle buses around the island.
Where to Stay
We chose to stay at the Whitsunday Holiday Apartments which offers one bedroom apartments with its own kitchen and living area. The best part of this is the balcony view out to the main beach Catseye Beach. Choose to pay a little extra to get the top floors with unobstructed views, updated decor, and electronics. These deluxe apartments get a daily mini-service (bins, linen, and bathrooms cleaned). The apartments are part of the wider resort complex and you have use of the pools and spa. They also run weekly activities such as yoga, catamaran races, kids crafts, and face painting. There is also a creche facility and baby sitting service.
I was able to order all my groceries online from Coles and have it shipped to the apartment on the day of check in. The front desk is familiar with this and can place it in your apartment for you before you arrive. Be sure to order a couple of weeks in advance as the delivery spots book out quickly.
Right next door from our apartments was the Hamilton Island Reef View hotel where the standard rooms were the same price as our apartments, but without a kitchenette. The nice touch is that all non-motorized sports hire was free of charge (e.g. kayaks, paddle boards, etc.). You can also rent a home or three bed apartment which comes with its own golf buggy. And for those who really like to live it luxe then there is the Conde Nast Best Resort in the World 2012 hotel called Qualia and apparently is where Oprah has stayed, so it must be amaze.
I also like nearby Hayman Island, the most northerly island in the Whitsundays and famous for it’s resort. It’s definitely more posh and the pool is amazing, but so is the price. It looks like it has kids activities and creches as well as tons of resort activities.
What to do
A must do is Whitehaven Beach. I have seen some pretty amazing beaches in this world and even lived on 7 mile beach in the Cayman Islands, but this beach is, quite simply, the most amazing beach I have ever seen. It’s made up of this soft squishy pure white powdery sand called silica. It’s gorgeous!
You can only access this beach by boat. There are tours that take you to Whitehaven from Hamilton Island mariner. We took Whitehaven Beach Tours. The tour ran so smoothly, and offered nice touches like a pop up beach tent, sunscreen, water, beach toys, and beach sports for the kids. There is a luxe option to take a seaplane there and enjoy the beach more or less to yourselves.
Although I could’ve stayed on that beach all day, the half day tours are a better option for families. Whitehaven is located in a national park, which due to the remoteness of it is the reason why it’s so stunning. There are no man-made structures on the island, this also means there is little shade and no running water. There are however drop toilets away from the beach. So for my little kids, the novelty of swimming in the water and playing in the sand wore off after a couple of hours. The half day tour meant we were back in the apartment for lunch and a late nap. With the full day tour option, they tender the dingy boat for some snorkeling or offer a guided hour long walk up a hill to see the Whitehaven Inlet, which isn’t set up for children.
As we sailed away, I did look at the yachts anchored off in the distance with envy. My brother once did a Whitsunday self guided yacht tour with 6 other people: they lived aboard, cruising the islands, coming and going as they pleased.
But then again, traveling with my two monkeys is the most wonderful thing in the world.