I booked local tours directly through Travellers Oasis for my first and second full days in Cairns. While I would have loved to explore Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation independently, the lack of public transportation and relatively prohibitive cost of renting my own car nixed that idea.
I reserved the first day for the Great Barrier Reef cruise. There were a number of operators to choose from, and I settled on Down Under Cruise & Dive, which came highly recommended by Helen at the hostel. At $159 AUD plus a $10 AUD discount, the cost was slightly cheaper than another option I was considering, Passions of Paradise, but either way, it wasn't going to be a budget tour.
The hostel offered free shuttle rides to Cairns Marlin Marina, and we arrived at 7:30 am. I proceeded into the Reef Fleet Terminal for check-in formalities. Once the reservation was confirmed and my boarding ticket was issued, I spent some time walking around the marina before heading to our vessel.
Reef Fleet Terminal
Down Under Cruise & Dive check-in
Walking to the boat
Down Under Cruise & Dive operates a large, modern, and extremely fast vessel called the Osprey V. It is, in fact, probably the fastest option to get out to the Great Barrier Reef, which is a great thing, since less time on the boat means more time snorkeling and diving.
With two floors, a large forward sundeck, and convenient aft stairs to enter the water, the Osprey V is really the perfect base from which to spend a day on the reef. The boat can accommodate up to 120 passengers, but I don't believe there were more than 100 people on board the day I went.
After we settled into the air-conditioned seating area on the lower floor, welcome announcements and safety instructions were made. Guests were then asked to go to the aft deck to pick up their snorkeling gear and pay for extras such as wetsuits and diving equipment. We were also assigned cubbies to store our belongings for the day.
Interior seating area
Trying on fins
Soon, we were on our way to the Great Barrier Reef. Going a maximum of 30 knots, we arrived at our first destination, Saxon Reef, in just under an hour. It was a beautiful day out on the water, and I spent most of the journey there on the upper deck soaking in the sun.
Leaving the marina
Some crazy yacht
Exploring the Osprey V
It was not obvious we had arrived at Saxon Reef since it looked like nothing but open water from above. But much like my experience in the Outer Great Barrier Reef off the Whitsunday Coast, it was very clear from the schools of tropical fish immediately swimming up to our vessel that there was an entire ecosystem of coral life just underneath the surface.
Divers and snorkelers were called to different staging areas for preparation, and we were soon exploring the spectacular reef. Sadly, also like my time in the Whitsunday Islands, I failed to bring along an underwater camera to capture the incredible sights. There were cameras available for rent on board, but I decided not to get one at $50 AUD each.
Above Saxon Reef
Snorkeling at Saxon Reef
The reef itself was remarkable. Having just been to the Outer Great Barrier Reef off the Whitsunday Coast, I could make a direct comparison between the two, and I must say I preferred the quality, variety, and scale of the Cairns location. Not only that, the reef is situated closer to shore the further north you travel, so it was much faster getting to the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns than it was from the Whitsunday Coast.
The water seemed to be more clear here, and the colors of the coral more vivid. Despite this being the second time I visited the reef, I was still astounded by the sheer quantity of coral stretching out before me, as far as my eyes could see. I saw turtles, barracudas, giant clams, eels, clownfish, angelfish, Maori wrasses, and countless other species I can't even remember.
After our first session at Saxon Reef, we headed to Hastings Reef, approximately ten minutes south. There, we were served a buffet lunch featuring prawns, fish, steak, sausages, pastas, and salads. I really have to compliment Down Under for a fantastic meal. The taste was great, and there was plenty of food available for everyone on board.
Fish, steak, sausages, and prawns
While wetsuits were available for an additional cost, the water was definitely warm enough to go without one. For more hesitant swimmers, complimentary floating noodles were provided. We stayed at Hastings Reef for about three hours, and there were a few extra activities for passengers, including a free glass bottom boat ride and a short helicopter flight from a floating pontoon ($125 AUD for 10 minutes, $195 AUD for 20 minutes).
As the snorkeling and diving session came to an end, passengers were treated to afternoon snacks of cheese and crackers, as well as a glass of champagne or wine. One of my favorite aspects of the tour was our resident entertainer, Elvis, who joked around with passengers and played some pretty good electric guitar on the way back to Cairns.
Elvis and his guitar
I really enjoyed the tour, and would highly recommend Down Under Cruise & Dive for a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. The snorkeling and diving locations were absolutely spectacular, the food was delicious, and the entertainment was fun.
The worst part about the day, however, was the fact that my camera decided to quit on me. I only had my Sony HX7V for about two years, so I was a bit upset that it didn't last longer. Luckily, I had my iPhone 5 as a backup, but still, the quality wasn't the same. In any case, I apologize in advance for the substandard picture quality throughout the remainder of this trip report.
The second full day was reserved for the Cape Tribulation and Daintree National Park tour. The scenic coastal drive north of Cairns has always been a popular attraction, and I definitely wanted to visit Cape Tribulation, where the ancient rainforest meets the reef.
Driving up the Captain Cook Highway
The day started at 6:55 am, when I was picked up from the hostel by our tour shuttle. For the next hour, we drove around Cairns picking up more passengers. Finally, we stopped at a random street-side stall, where we paid the balance of the tour cost to an unknown gentleman. It all seemed a bit odd, but by then, it was past 8:00 am, and we were all just thankful to be on our way.
Our first stop was the Daintree River Cruise Centre, where we enjoyed some tea and cookies. After a brief wait, we boarded a small boat along with another tour group and began the jungle cruise. While the river was pleasant and we did get to see two crocodiles from a distance, I wasn't amazed by the experience or the guide. In fact, I think the swamp tour I took in New Orleans a few years ago blew this one out of the water.
Daintree River cruise
After the cruise, we were dropped off on the opposite side of the river, where our shuttle picked us up and we continued on our way up Cape Tribulation Road. Our next stop was the Alexandra Range Lookout, which provided a panoramic view of the region as well as the mouth of the Daintree River.
We then stopped at the Jindalba Botanical Boardwalk for an easy one-kilometer stroll through an ancient rainforest. Our driver and guide, George, an Indigenous Australian, was very knowledgeable about the ecosystem, and demonstrated a number of uses his people had for the flora and fauna. We even witnessed a wild cassowary, the third tallest and second heaviest bird in the world.
Honor system banana stand
Alexandra Range Lookout
George giving a demonstration
Our northernmost stop for the day was Cape Tribulation. This is where the Great Barrier Reef is just about as close as it gets to land. Known as the point where the rainforest meets the reef, it is a lush environment with a magnificent beach surrounded by mangrove forests. We stopped here for a lunch break, and then stayed another hour or so to explore the beach and walk up to Kulki Lookout.
Large lizard joining us
Sand bubbler crab artwork
On our return journey from Cape Tribulation, we visited a couple of interesting places, including the Daintree Ice Cream Company, which featured some very exotic flavors. Prices weren't cheap, but the ice cream sure was good. George also pulled over at some beautiful lookouts alongside the road and gave of plenty of opportunities to take photos.
Daintree Ice Cream Company
Beaches on the way back
We were running behind schedule, but thankfully, we made it to Mossman Gorge with about an hour to spare before sunset. Out of all the places we visited that day, this was my favorite. Something about its tranquil and secluded atmosphere really appealed to me. We were given the opportunity to take a dip in the chilly waters, but only two of us actually went in. I must say, it was well worth it!
Afterwards, I followed an adjacent boardwalk for a bit, which led to the Rex Creek Bridge. Further past the bridge was a long looping trail that can take up to 45 minutes to complete. George treated us to some hot tea and Tim Tams as a late afternoon snack, and then we continued on our way back to Cairns. Since we were short on time, a scheduled tour of Port Douglas turned into a quick drive-through, which was perfectly fine since most of us were quite tired after a long day of activities.
Swimming in the river
Rex Creek Bridge
Along the way back, George stopped at another lookout on the side of the road just before it got completely dark. While the tour itself was a bit underwhelming, I really appreciated our guide and the amount of knowledge he had about the region. He recounted stories and myths from his childhood, and gave us a real glimpse into the impact the natural surroundings have on their daily lives.
We returned to Cairns quite late, and unfortunately, I was the last passenger to be dropped off by the shuttle. By the time we arrived at Travellers Oasis, it was well past 8:00 pm.
Lookout before sundown