Cape Tribulation, in the heart of the ancient Daintree Rainforest, is a tropical playground of hiking paths and wide, empty swaths of sand, with easy access to some of the most pristine parts of the reef. The area looks a lot like Hawaii 100 years ago: palm-tree-wrapped peaks reaching for the sky above and sliding into the ocean below—and not a single resort or mega-development mucking up the view. The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cairns is a treat in its own right. Two-lane Captain Cook Highway hugs the ocean like a paved wave, curving between sand-dollar white beaches and the camouflage-colored foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It’s a worthy replacement for the famed Great Ocean Road near Melbourne, which, pretty though it is, would require yet another flight from Sydney.
LESSONS FROM THE REEF
Skip: Cairns; 27 dive outfits; gets 70 percent of visitors from overseas Do: Cape Tribulation; one dive company—and it's the only one you'd want
“People come to Australia to meet real Australians,” says Dawn Gray, who owns and runs the Cape Trib Farmstay, “and here I am. At a big hotel, you maybe get to say hello to other travelers around the pool.” Gray’s tropical-fruit farm has 88 acres and five Swiss Family Robinson–type cabins, each with its own veranda and views of Mt. Sorrow, to the north (Cape Tribulation Rd., from $139, with breakfast, two-night minimum). Every morning, guests find a basket in the refrigerator with their name on it, overflowing with complimentary fruit such as papaya, wattleseed, and jackfruit, many grown by Gray on the property. (Just down the road—the only road in town—another farm charges $26 per person for an “Exotic Fruit Tasting.”) In the evenings, Gray makes tea and helps book tours on the reef and in the rain forest. She knows all the operators personally; just 101 people live in Cape Tribulation year-round.
That said, there is only one snorkeling outfitter in Cape Tribulation—though it’s the same one you’d choose even in a sea of options. Ocean Safari Adventure keeps crowds in check by only running one or two trips a day on a 25-passenger vessel (Cape Tribulation Rd., half-day snorkeling trips from $123 per person). The snorkeling trips last well over two hours, and in wet suits, the 70-degree water feels balmy. “The sections of the reef we’re heading to are in such better condition than most of the rest,” says Tristan Giardini, an Ocean Safari snorkeling instructor with blond dreads and a sunburn. “Even people with good intentions sometimes bump it and break parts off when they snorkel, but here in the cape, it’s just us, so the reef is almost perfect.”
The Mackay and Undine reef sections, where Giardini leads tours, are just as spectacular as he promises: orange-and-white striped anemone fish, ledges of pink coral, curious sea turtles, and starfish of such a startlingly bright cornflower blue that they seem spray-painted. But the boat rides to and from shore can be just as exciting. As the catamaran is pounding through the choppy surf, about 200 yards away a massive blue torpedo shoots out of the ocean toward the sky. Giardini had mentioned that humpback whales migrate along this stretch of coast from August to September, but this looks more like a rocket than a mammal. When it crashes back into the water, it shakes the boat like an earthquake.
The passengers, of course, are thrilled, but they’re mellow compared with Giardini. While everyone else stays obediently glued to their seats, he grabs his camera and races to the front of the rocking boat to try to photograph a whale in midair. “Ah, isn’t this amazing?” he yells, followed by a few ecstatic expletives, shouted into the wind. And suddenly, you realize you’ve just seen the highlight of your icon-free trip. The whale? Sure—the friends at home are going to love seeing those pictures. But it’s Giardini’s utterly unjaded reaction—doesn’t he do this every day?—that reminds you of the difference between a trip crammed with must-see destinations and one designed for maximum spontaneity and authenticity. Any time your tour guide is having at least as much fun as the tourists, you know that you’ve had a very g’day, mate.
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As seen on TV! We've followed Don Draper for seven seasons as he's crisscrossed the globe, be it via Cadillac or TWA flight. As the final episodes air, we're taking you back to the Golden Age of travel with a 'Mad Men'-inspired vacation guide for retro-style trips to cities Don visited.