There’s nowhere quite like Queensland’s Tropical North, where the rainforest meets the reef and the dusty red dirt of the outback offers endless opportunities for adventure.
As the gateway and hub of the region, Cairns is home to a heady mix of luxury hotels and resorts, quirky markets and bustling boutiques, not to mention a bevy of bars, breweries and restaurants all dishing up a feast for the senses. Yet there’s more to see than just Cairns alone.
Beyond the tropical city you’ll discover a kaleidoscope of colour and beauty, with thundering waterfalls, quirky towns, tea plantations and even a “Spanish castle” hidden in the rainforest!
Mark and Judy Evans are the proud owners of that castle and its enchanting surrounds: known as Paronella Park. Located around 120kms south of Cairns in Mena Creek, it’s a hugely popular spot for day trippers and travellers seeking to experience a different side of the region.
Is it a picnic spot? A botanic garden, or elaborate photography backdrop? We’re not entirely sure. Even Mark says he struggles to explain exactly what it is. And therein lies its beauty.
“People often arrive to visit the park not knowing exactly what it is,” Mark admits with a chuckle.
“I greet visitors in the carpark and explain there’s a tour about to start, that there are umbrellas if you need them there, and you can take their picnic lunch with you. I then add in how amazing it is they’ve come to visit the park but they’re still not sure what it is they’re going to see. You just see their faces just change in relief that they’re not the only ones.”
The mystery runs deep at Paronella Park. What’s the truth? You’ll have to visit to find out.
What Mark can say for sure is that the property was originally purchased and built in the 1920s and 30s by its namesake José Paronella, who immigrated to the tropical north from Catalonia in Spain with his wife Margarita. Although Paronella started his time in the region as a sugar cane worker, he had a dream of building a fantastical place unlike any other in Australia.
The park today is the realisation of his dream – and more. A grand staircase like one you’d find in a mansion hidden within the steamy tropical forest, a moss-covered castle structure overshadowed by native rainforest trees, fully restored hydroelectric generator, and acres of gardens to breathe in and explore.
Fancy more sightseeing while you’re in town? Here are five other easy day trips from Cairns.
Though just 30 mins up the road from Cairns, Palm Cove is a destination in its own right. Set along a gorgeous stretch of beach, the tiny town is home to a colourful mix of hotels and resorts, bars and restaurants (like Nu Nu from chef and regular MasterChef guest Nick Holloway), and plenty of spots to just soak up the dappled sunshine along its palm-fringed foreshore.
When you’re all beached out, it’s time to head for the Atherton Tablelands – a paradise of lush farmland and pristine rainforest, dramatic mountains and cascading waterfalls. There are hundreds of farms in the region producing everything from tea and coffee to strawberries and avos.
Must-visits include the villages of Kuranda, Mareeba and Yungaburra; the wetlands of Hasties Swamp National Park, home to over 220 species of birds; Hou Wang Temple and Museum (a heritage-listed site and the only one of its kind left outside China); and the delicious mix of teahouses, dairies, distilleries, cafes, restaurants and hotels right across the region. Kuranda Scenic Rail and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway are both fantastic ways to get a feel for the area.
Craving a little island time? You’re in luck. Only 45 minutes from Cairns via high-speed ferry, Fitzroy Island is a paradise of lush rainforest and uncrowded beaches, fringing coral reefs and a network of bushwalking trails that just calls out to be explored. Adding to the feeling of getting back to nature, 97 percent of the island is covered in national park (with the other 3 percent including a resort and restaurant). Hiking, paddle boarding and snorkelling are essential.
The Tropical North is made for chasing waterfalls. There are some gorgeous ones in this neck of the woods, like Crystal Cascades, Josephine Falls and Behana Gorge, many of which have pools you can swim in. However, there’s one mighty fall that leaves them all in the dust – Barron.
Accessed via Kuranda in the Barron Gorge National Park, the upper section of the falls can be reached via a flat, wheelchair-accessible path. During the drier months Barron Falls is beautiful and serene, but when the rains arrive, so too does the thunder. The ferocious, unbridled power of the falls as it thunders over jagged rocks to the valley below will give you goosebumps.
If Cairns is the extravert of the family, Port Douglas is its relaxed and carefree sibling. A little over an hour north via a winding coastal road, the tropical town dances to its own beat with a great cafe and bar culture, not to mention some of the most exclusive hotels in the region. Some of the reef fleet is based here too, meaning the Great Barrier Reef is never far away. If you’re a passionate seafood fan, Nautilus restaurant is waiting to send you into foodie heaven.
Sound like your kind of holiday? Browse deals to Cairns and the Tropical North here.