Day 1: Arrival, Welcome Orientation and Sunset Cruise. Welcome to the tropics. We transfer from the Cairns airport to our accommodation at The Hotel Cairns, a breezy, sophisticated 4-star hotel only a block from the ocean. In the afternoon, we are greeted by our guide who will lead us through a welcome orientation over drinks and tapas. Just a short walk from our hotel is Cairns’ wharf and our awaiting boat, on which we look for crocs in the mangroves and watch the sun slip below the horizon. Following our cruise, we savour an elegant meal at one of Cairns restaurants in the heart of the city, where we have an opportunity to sample classic Australian cuisine.
Accommodation: The Hotel Cairns
Day 2: Aboriginal-Guided Hike, Rain forest Habitat and Port Douglas. Powdery beaches and arching palm trees drape the coast heading north from Cairns, considered one of the most scenic drives in Australia. We walk in a protected swath of wilderness important to the native Kuku Yulanji, and the rain forest comes alive in the company of an aboriginal guide. We discover how the Kuku Yulanji found their way through dense rain forest and learn what native plants were used for food, medicine, and even soap. Our guide also explains the tribe’s rites of passage, the meaning of rock art and body painting, and the significance of the boomerang. We leave with a greater understanding of Dreamtime stories and the traditions of this ancient culture.
The Rain forest Habitat, praised for its authentic mixed-immersion exhibits, is home for a mosaic of Australian animals such as forest dragons, emus, koalas and crocodiles. The Habitat’s unique design lets us walk freely among the animals, and we can quite easily interact with animals such as wallabies and kangaroos, colorful Eclectus parrots and cockatoos. Our guide will give us insight into the endangered wildlife, such as the giant cassowary and the tree kangaroo, which are unique to Australia’s tropical north.
We visit Port Douglas in the late afternoon, a seaside town known for its sugary 4-Mile Beach and its status as a preferred holiday destination for the likes of Bill Clinton, Nicole Kidman and Keanu Reeves. We enjoy dinner at an oceanside restaurant before heading back to Cairns.
Accommodation: The Hotel Cairns.
Day 3: Mareeba Wetland Reserve and Granite Gorge. Mareeba Wetland Reserve, located on the East Asian-Australasian flyway, is a rich and diverse sanctuary for almost all of Australia’s tropical water birds. A ranger takes us on an electric-powered boat ride and we can expect to see sea eagles, black swans, magpie geese, cranes, whistling ducks in the hundreds, pelicans, pink-eared ducks and even Australia’s only stork, the jabiru. In addition, the tropical savanna woodlands boast eastern grey kangaroos, agile and whiptail wallabies, wallaroos, possums and gliders. We learn how staff rescue native wildlife and then facilitate their release into this untouched natural wonderland.
In the afternoon, we visit Granite Gorge, where a boulder-filled canyon offers limitless opportunities to explore, and rock wallabies come out to play. We stop in Yungaburra for dinner at Nick’s Swiss Restaurant—a local favorite and home of the yodeling accordion player. At sunset we look for the elusive platypus at their preferred swimming hole before heading to Rose Gums Eco-Retreat, a superb set of bungalows designed by our hosts, John and Peta.
Accommodation: Rose Gums Eco-Lodge.
Day 4: Optional Sunrise Balloon Flight or Crater Lakes National Park, Outback Pioneer Homestead, and The Waterfalls Circuit. Today we rise early for an optional balloon flight over the Cairns Highlands. Peaceful and silent, our balloon glides over the tablelands, affording us a magnificent view of the rising sun and of kangaroos going about their daily routine. For those of us who choose not to balloon, we pay tribute to Yungaburra’s high-profile resident—a massive curtain fig tree—and one of the area’s ancient crater lakes, tucked away in a national park.
Crossing over the Dividing Range, we enter the outback where we are welcome guests at a traditional cattle station and homestead. In the company of our "fair dinkum" cowboy friends--Kate and Peter--we have a quintessential Aussie BBQ, and take a walk back through time to the age of the early pioneers.
On the way back down the range, we explore the Waterfalls Circuit: a series of three grand waterfalls under which we can swim or view from above. Our guide educates us about Australia’s unique rain forest species like the brilliant blue Ulysses Butterfly, the giant tree frog, and the musky rat kangaroo, which we may spot along the way.
Our home tonight is at Mission Beach, host of at least 33 rare and threatened plants, including endangered ferns, orchids and flowering plants. Nestled in the rain forest, our stylish eco-lodge boasts private nature trails, views to the Coral Sea and delicious meals al fresco.
Accommodation: The Sanctuary Retreat Eco-Lodge.
Day 5: Hiking to Josephine Falls and Babinda Boulders. Wooroonooran National Park boasts Queensland’s highest mountain, Bartle Frere, from which pour countless cascades. Josephine Falls is perhaps the park’s most picturesque, and we arrive at the base of the falls by way of a short guided hike through the jungle. Here we can glide down an exhilarating natural waterslide that ends in a perfect, clear swimming hole. We also hike at the enchanting Babinda Boulders, where mysterious giant boulders stand in a swirling river. We learn from our guide about the spiritual significance of this mysterious place and why it has given rise to aboriginal legends.
Back in Cairns, the waterfront is atmospheric at twilight, and we have the evening on our own to explore the Esplanade and sample some of the local fare. As a special treat this evening, we are welcome guests at Reef Teach, a fun and dynamic presentation given by a local marine biologist on the fascinating creatures that live at the Great Barrier Reef.
Accommodation: The Hotel Cairns.
Day 6: Sailing to the Great Barrier Reef, Snorkeling or SCUBA Diving. No trip to Cairns is complete without a visit to the outer Great Barrier Reef--a UNESCO World Heritage Site and easily one of the world’s top natural wonders. On this journey, we avoid the crowds and do the reef in style aboard the Vagabond, a 65-foot yacht with a crew dedicated solely to our group of 10 guests. Unmatched in personal service, our journey on the Vagabond affords us an intimate experience of the outer reef, flexibility of locations, and spontaneity not available on larger boats.
Snorkelers will find most of the abundant life and colors exist right beneath the surface at the reef. Within reach are giant clams, angel, butterfly and parrot fish, turtles, sea stars and corals of a thousand hues. Snorkelers can also opt to learn about scuba diving one-on-one from the Vagabond dive instructor—an intro dive is a fantastic way to see the reef without having a certification. Scuba divers can log up to 8 dives during these two days, diving along bommies and coral walls with mysterious swim-throughs that dance with light.
This evening divers can also experience the magic of the reef with a phenomenal night dive. Afterwards we enjoy a sumptuous meal, perhaps a raucous game of Pictionary, and the option to sleep on deck beneath a blanket of stars. Boat accommodation is single beds and shared bathrooms.
Accommodation: Live Aboard Sailboat.
Day 7: Great Barrier Reef Sailing, Snorkeling and/or Scuba Diving. Today we can rise early for a fantastic sunrise over the ocean, with a cup of hot coffee in our hands. We spend another day exploring the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, moving to several sites which offer us exclusivity and pristine environment. Included in the Vagabond’s roving marine permit are sites at Elford, Thetford and Briggs reefs, as well as Michaelmas and Upolu cays that only we visit. Among the 1,800 species of fish and 450 species of coral, we can expect to see "Nemo" clown fish in anemones, Wally the giant wrasse, elusive white-tipped reef sharks, fan corals, sea cucumbers and stag horn coral gardens.
On the sail back, the crew will is happy to teach us about sailing techniques, and we are welcome to "take the wheel" if we choose. We are likely to see dolphins swimming and playing in our wake, while in the winter season both humpback and minke whales may make an appearance. Tonight we mark the closing of our journey with a celebratory feast at one of Cairns top restaurants.
Accommodation: The Hotel Cairns.
Day 8: Trip Conclusion or Extension. After breakfast, we prepare for our journey home or enjoy a few optional activities such as the Kuranda Skyrail, whitewater rafting or a scenic helicopter tour.
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