Almost every visitor to Far North Queensland has the tropical town of Cairns on their itinerary. As the gateway to the iconic Great Barrier Reef and fringed by jungle-covered mountains, littered with white-sand beaches and home to a surprisingly cosmopolitan nightlife scene, it is little wonder this erstwhile fishing village has become one of Australia’s top tourist destinations. But for those who are willing to look beyond Cairns’ obvious attractions – and have the energy to get out of their deck chair – there is a wealth of delightful alternatives within an hour’s drive of the coast’s sticky climes.
The Atherton Tablelands is a cool, clean and astonishingly green volcanic plateau with vistas more reminiscent of Switzerland than sunburnt Australia; dairy cows munch yellow flowers, tractors trundle down meandering tracks and blue lakes wink at the base of impossibly rounded emerald hills. But do not mistake bucolic for boring: the 32,000sqkm region – which soars to heights of almost 1,300m – packs a dramatic punch in the sightseeing stakes.
The Tablelands are a short and scenic drive inland from Cairns, but for those who believe the journey should be as thrilling as the destination, the Kuranda Scenic Railway – a 37km mountain edge train track constructed in the late 1800s – and Skyrail – a 7.5km-long cableway gliding above the jungle canopy – are delightful alternatives. Both start in Cairns and terminate in Kuranda, a hippy hamlet nestled between a World Heritage-listed rainforest and the Barron Falls, which roars to life in the summer monsoon season. Billed as “the village in the rainforest”, Kuranda offers prime nature experiences both outside and in: more than 80 types of winged wonders flutter about in the Birdworld complex, while the Butterfly Sanctuary is Australia’s largest butterfly aviary. But the town’s most interesting inhabitants can be found at the Original Markets at the northern end of town, a ramshackle, sandalwood-scented jumble of stalls flogging everything from avocado ice cream to organic lingerie until 3 pm every day.
Trade the sarongs for spurs with a 30km drive west to the cowboy town of Mareeba. Home to one of Australia’s most iconic annual rodeos (held this year from 12 to 14 July), the town revels in a “wild west” atmosphere, with local merchants selling leather saddles, handcrafted bush hats and the oversized belt buckle of your bronco-bustin’ dreams. Mareeba’s main street is even wide enough for a high-noon showdown. Once the heart of Australia’s largest tobacco growing region, Mareeba now turns its soil to more wholesome produce, with organic coffee plantations, distilleries, a mango winery and abundant fruit and nut crops. For a sample, visit one of the many farms that offer tasting menus, or try Food Trail Tours for guided gourmandising.
Heading north towards Queensland’s rugged Cape York Peninsula, twitchers should stop off at the Mareeba Wetlands just out of town, a 2,000 hectare sanctuary that harbours more than 200 bird species, as well as the upmarket Jabiru Safari Lodge, a collection of lagoon-side African-style safari cabins ideally placed for wildlife watching and unwinding.
Named after the man – 19th-century pastoralist John Atherton – who gave the region its name, Atherton, located 30km south of Mareeba, is a bustling, central country town that makes an ideal base for exploring the delights of the southern Tablelands. Old-school accommodation at any of Atherton’s four traditional pubs ensures an authentic stay, while the lure of Crystal Caves – a gaudily fabulous mineralogical museum that houses the world’s biggest amethyst geode (more than 3m high and weighing 2.5 tonnes) – and the fastidiously restored late 19th-century Hou Wang Temple – one of the oldest original Chinese temples in Australia – tempt day tippers to linger longer.
It was John Atherton who also, accidentally, named one of the Tablelands’ most beloved outdoor playgrounds, the nearby Lake Tinaroo. Locals swear that in 1875 Atherton stumbled across a deposit of alluvial tin and, in a fit of excitement, shouted “Tin! Hurroo!” The excitement has not died down since, with Tinaroo becoming a favourite for Tablelanders as well as Cairnsites fleeing seasonal jellyfish, the threat of giant crocs and the swelter of the lowlands. People flock to its cool, clean waters for boating, water skiing and lazy shoreline lolling. It is also renowned as one of the best barramundi fishing spots in Australia. The sprawling lake, estimated at being two thirds the area of Sydney Harbour, is framed by the Danbulla Forest, a green blanket of rainforest, pine and scrub that offers refuge to kangaroos, bird colonies and platypus.