When did I become such a wimp? When I backpacked around Australia 23 years ago with my future husband we hitchhiked – a lot – to hike and camp in remote areas. It was risky, but it was the only way to see more and spend less. And I’ll never forget the time we lost the trail and then half our tent in the midst of a three-day coastal walk in Victoria – not to mention the many times we let our rides take us home for free meals. (They were such kind people, really!) Reading my old travel diaries recently I was shocked at how unadventurous I’ve become – but kids, marriage, middle-age and a full-time job will do that to you.
So I’ve come back Down Under – not backpacking, thankfully – to recapture some of that derring-do. Still, I can’t help but think that standing shin deep in mud and tidal water in a mangrove swamp – home to crocodiles, maybe even deadly box jellyfish and the irukandji jellyfish – is a bad idea. Am I ready to ignore every bit of advice I’ve received since landing in Northern Queensland four days ago?
IF YOU GO
- From Canada, fly direct to Brisbane, Queensland, from Qantas hubs in Dallas (16 hours) and Los Angeles (13 hours). Then it’s another 2 1/2 hours to Cairns on Qantas, Jetstar or Virgin Australia.
WHERE TO STAY
- Silky Oaks Lodge: True luxe in the rain forest, complete with comfy hammocks on each treehouse balcony where you lie and listen to the Mossman River. Swimming holes, a restaurant that feels like you’re in the treetops and a proper spa make the haven complete. Treehouses from $410 ($398 Australian dollars, all prices below are in Australian dollars); Mossman, silkyoakslodge.com.au
- Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat: Gorgeous cabins that feel like treehouses in the rain-forest canopy. Take a short walk at the right time of day and they almost guarantee platypus sightings here. Plus, every morning there’s a musky-rat kangaroo and parrot feeding. Tree houses from $304, includes one breakfast. Malanda, rosegums.com.au
- Thala Beach Lodge: About a 10-minute drive from the resort town of Port Douglas is this luxe eco-escape. Under a eucalyptus forest, private cabins are scattered up and down a cliff overlooking the ocean. Head downhill to the two-kilometre-long beach where you’ll find hammocks in the pine trees and a quiet bar. Bungalows from $289. Oak Beach, Port Douglas, thalabeach.com.au
- Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours: If you’re going to learn anything about this country, it’s a good idea to understand how the non-Europeans see it. Bush walks with Brandon and Linc Walker are unlike any tour you’ve had before. A seafood lunch (foraged by you, cooked by your guide) is included. From $75. Cooya Beach, bamaway.com.au/KukuYalanji.aspx
- Alan’s Wildlife Tours: Who better to take your small group wildlife tour from than a man nicknamed “the possum whisperer”? In the Atherton Tablelands, naturalist Alan Gillanders offers a variety of animal experiences. If you’re booking the nocturnal tour, hope for a drizzly night: You’ll see more. From $80. Yungaburra, alanswildlifetours.com.au
- Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures: Natural rain-forest surroundings and too many crocodiles to count make this a must see. A croc-feeding boat tour is included with admission or book a private tour for $125 if you’ve got the chutzpah to feed the beasts yourself. Admission $35. Wangetti Beach, QLD, crocodileadventures.com
- Cairns Tropical Zoo: Queensland is one of two states left in Australia where you can hold a koala, and this is a good, animal-sensitive place to do it. Walk among the kangaroos and through the birds of prey aviary for an immersion-like experience. Pay $125 extra for the Zootastic experience and you can hand feed lemurs, cassowaries, crocs and cuddle a wombat. Admission $34. Cairns, QLD, cairnstropicalzoo.com.au
- Daintree River Cruise Centre: Putter along the rain forest waterway with eagle-eyed guides who know just where the saltwater crocs are sunning themselves and get you in real close for a photo. From $25. Mossman/Daintree Road, daintreerivercruisecentre.com.au
- Quicksilver Cruises: Climb aboard a 450-passenger Wavepiercer catamaran for the 90-minute ride to the outer reef. Lunch is served on a two-level pontoon and snorkelling equipment is included along with an underwater viewing area and semi-submersible boat rides. Book a dive or snorkel tour to get beyond the rope boundary, but the marine biologists I snorkelled with gave the same reef spiel in the water as they’d delivered for free on the trip out. Helicopter Reef tours are an unforgettable way to see the UNESCO spot. Reef trips from $225; scenic chopper flights from $165. quicksilver-cruises.com; gbrhelicopters.com.au