The gateway to Magnetic Island and the Palm Group, Townsville’s most enticing feature is its waterfront Strand precinct. Tropical gardens amid children’s playgrounds and water fountains are linked with wide pathways leading to the swimming lagoon. Just ten minutes from the airport, the strip is lined with restaurants, bars and cafes overlooking Cleveland Bay.
Breakwater Marina is the departure point for Yongala Wreck dives, as well as the base for a small bareboat fleet, while car and passenger ferries for Magnetic and Palm Islands depart from Ross Creek (www.townsvilleholidays.info).
Visitors travelling to Hinchinbrook Island will more than likely board their transfer vessel at Port Hinchinbrook Marina in Cardwell (Lucinda is the possible alternative), which is on the Green Way Drive, halfway between Townsville and Cairns (www.greatgreenwaytourism.com).
Just 70km north of Cardwell is Mission Beach, the logical jumping off point for visitors to Dunk and beyond to Bedarra Island, where vessels depart from the Clump Pt Jetty. Offshore Marine Park trips also depart from here (www.missionbeachtourism.com).
Cairns is the major northern hub for visitors wanting to explore the Marine Park, as the majority of day trip and liveaboard charters depart from downtown Cairns Marlin Marina. On the waterfront, The Pier precinct has boardwalk restaurants overlooking the busy harbour. The wide open decks and leather couches at Ba8 Lounge Bar are a suitably welcoming venue to moisten a salt-ravaged throat after a day of snorkelling or diving. Adjacent is the Lagoon, a lushly manicured waterfront park, with the swimming pool a welcome cooling off alternative to the unappealing tidal mudflats.
Hidden behind the palms on Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas has adopted a stance preventing high rises clamouring for sought-after sea views.
Only 15min north of Cairns, Palm Cove should really be named Paperbark Cove due to the ancient melaleuca trees that shade the swanky beachfront resorts and restaurants. Beachgoers don’t despair, though; coconut palms line the strip of sand overlooking Double Island. There’s also a somewhat ramshackle campground at the northern end of the waterfront strip near the jetty (www.tourismpalmcove.com).
Hidden behind the palms on Four Mile Beach, bewitching Port Douglas has thankfully adopted a stance preventing high rises clamouring for sought-after sea views. There are plenty of waterfront resorts, restaurants and parklands, however, cooled by the soothing trade winds. Hotels such as Sea Temple Resort are concealed behind lush gardens, blending into the natural beauty that attracts visitors to this previously exclusive retreat village. Watergate Restaurant and Lounge Bar (www.watergateportdouglas.com.au) on Macrossan St makes the best Mojito in town, the obligatory handful of fresh mint leaves more caressed than crushed.
Downtown Marina Mirage is the boarding port for vessels exploring the Marine Park, as well as the departure point for the quirky Lady Douglas paddle steamer, which does a relaxed wildlife spotting cruise deep into the mangrove lined waterways of Dickson Inlet (www.pddt.com.au).
The site of Australia’s first European “settlement” when Captain Cook beached the Endeavour here for seven weeks having struck the reef further south, these days Cooktown thrives on its status as a charismatic frontier town.
The sealed road north of Cairns has opened up tourism opportunities, which was previously only accessible by 4WD, while Cooktown Airport has seaplane services to Lizard and Hope Islands.