The World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest has remained largely unchanged over the past 110 million years. It is now home to rare plants that provide key links in the evolution story. In the 56,000-hectare (138,320-acre) Daintree National Park, you will find cycads, dinosaur trees, fan palms, giant strangler figs, and epiphytes such as the basket fern, staghorn, and elkhorn. Nighttime croc-spotting tours on the Daintree River vie for popularity with early morning cruises to see the rich bird life. Pythons, lizards, frogs, and electric-blue Ulysses butterflies attract photographers, and sport fishermen come here to do battle with big barramundi.
The Daintree Discovery Centre (tel. 07/4098 9171; www.daintree-rec.com.au) is a multi-award-winning attraction accredited by the Wet Tropics Management Authority. The center's aerial walkway links the entrance to the 23m (76-ft.) high Canopy Tower and the display center. The display center has the latest touch-screen technology, a theater, and sweeping all-weather verandas. It is 10km (6 miles) north of the Daintree River ferry crossing. Entry costs A$28 adults, A$14 children 5 to 17, and A$68 for a family of four. The center is open daily 8:30am to 5pm (except Christmas Day).
Just about everyone who visits Port Douglas takes a guided four-wheel-drive day trip into the beautiful Daintree and Cape Tribulation rainforests. You can rent a four-wheel-drive and explore on your own, but you won't understand much about what you are seeing unless you have a guide. Most companies include a 1-hour Daintree River cruise to spot crocs, a visit to the Marrdja Botanical Walk, a stroll along an isolated beach, lunch at a pretty spot somewhere in the forest, and a visit to Mossman Gorge. Some tours also go to the picturesque Bloomfield Falls in Cape Tribulation National Park. Expect to pay about A$150 per adult and about A$100 per child. Trips that include Bloomfield Falls cost more. A company that provides an excellent, gently adventurous alternative is Pete Baxendell's Heritage & Interpretive Tours (tel. 07/4098 7897; www.nqhit.com.au). On a daylong bushwalk into a privately owned rainforest, Pete -- a naturalist and professional tour guide -- encourages you to taste ants and other "bush tucker," learn about bush medicine and the wildlife around you, and to take a dip at a secluded swimming hole. He takes a maximum of six people at a time. Lunch and Port Douglas pickups are included in the price of A$140 per person. Pickups from Cairns and the northern beaches are possible for an extra cost. Walks run Tuesday and Saturday, leaving Port at 8:30am. Other days, the bushwalks are private and run for A$200 per person (minimum of two). A private "Rainforest Experience" tour costs A$200 per person for up to three people, or A$700 for a group of six.
You can also charter Pete and his four-wheel-drive for longer "go anywhere" adventures. The cost of this is A$700 per day for a group of up to six. The charter prices compare favorably to a regular Daintree four-wheel-drive tour -- if there are three or more of you -- and you get a tailored itinerary, Pete's knowledge, and the vehicle all to yourself. He often takes charter customers inland to Outback gold mining ghost towns, or north to tiny Cooktown,. If you have 2 days, he can take you farther west to see Aboriginal rock art, or to the amazing Undara Lava Tubes.
Other established operators are Trek North Safaris (tel. 07/4033 2600; www.treknorth.com.au) and BTS Tours (tel. 07/4099 5665; www.btstours.com.au). Take tour desks' recommendations of operators with a grain of salt, and ask other travelers for their recommendations. You may not see too much wildlife -- rainforest animals are shy, camouflaged, nocturnal, or all three! Most four-wheel-drive tours will pick you up in Port Douglas at no charge; there is usually a fee from Cairns and the northern beaches. Floods and swollen creeks can quash your plans to explore the Daintree in the Wet season (Dec-Mar or Apr), so keep your plans flexible.
If your chosen safari does not visit Mossman Gorge, 21km (13 miles) northwest of Port Douglas near the sugar town of Mossman, try to get there under your own steam. The gushing river tumbling over boulders and the short forest walks are magical. (Don't climb on the rocks or enter the river, because strong currents are extremely dangerous and have claimed at least one life recently.)
Most four-wheel-drive Daintree tours include a 1-hour cruise on the Daintree River. Cruises are available on a variety of boats, ranging from open-sided "river trains" to small fishing boats. One of the best is with Dan Irby's Mangrove Adventures (tel. 07/4090 7017 or 0400/643 059; www.mangroveadventures.com.au), whose small boat can get up side creeks the bigger boats can't. Originally from Tonkawa, Oklahoma, Dan has been in Australia for 37 years and is extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife and habitat. He takes no more than 10 people at a time on 2- to 4-hour cruises. It is very important to make advance reservations with Dan (at least 24 hr. ahead, if possible) to determine which days he is operating and has availability. Daytime tours (the first at 8am) leave from the public pontoon next to the Daintree River ferry crossing. Take the Captain Cook Highway north to Mossman, where it becomes the Mossman Daintree Road, and follow it for 24km (15 miles) to the signposted turnoff for the ferry on your right. The ferry is 5km (3 miles) from the turnoff. You'll need a car since Dan does not do transfers from hotels. Chances are you will spot lots of fascinating wildlife and birds on his 2-hour night cruise, but it's worth it anyway just to see the stars! A 2-hour trip costs A$55.
Birders love the Wet Tropics rainforests, which include the Daintree and Cape Tribulation national parks. More than half of Australia's bird species have been recorded within 200km (120 miles) of this area. Fine Feather Tours (tel. 07/4094 1199; www.finefeathertours.com.au) has a full-day bird-watching safari through the Wet Tropics to the Outback for A$245, and other tours.
Wildlife Habitat (tel. 07/4099 3235; www.wildlifehabitat.com.au) is a great place to see the animals that are too shy to be spotted in the wild. Here, 180 animal species from the Wet Tropics are in one place for you to see up close. You can see saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, hand-feed kangaroos, and have your photo taken with a koala. The highlight is the walk-through aviary that houses more than 100 Wet Tropics bird species, including cassowaries. Don't miss one of the excellent free guided tours that run regularly throughout the day from 9:30am to 3:15pm. Wildlife Habitat is on Port Douglas Road at the turnoff from the Captain Cook Highway. It's open daily (except Dec 25) from 8am to 5pm. Admission is A$30 for adults, A$15 for kids 4 to 14, or A$75 for families of four. Tickets allow entry for 3 consecutive days. Between 8 and 10:30am, the park serves "breakfast with the birds" for A$44 for adults, A$22 for kids, or A$110 families, including admission. Between noon and 2pm you can "lunch with the lorikeets" for the same price. Allow at least 2 hours here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.