Crossing the Daintree River is akin to crossing into another world. The air gets thicker, the foliage gets wilder, and the pace gets slower. This special geographical region in Far North Queensland is home to one of the oldest continually surviving rainforests in the world, and the Far North Queensland coastline is the only place on Earth where two UNESCO World Heritage-listed areas intersect — the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics.
Given its tropical climate, the Daintree is a fertile area to grow the colourful, juicy fruits commonly associated with South East Asia and Central and South America. A coastal location also means plenty of fresh seafood is readily available. Making the most of their slice of paradise, a number of businesses in the region place the spotlight on these delicacies for travellers exploring Queensland's seaside jungle. A food map launched in June 2020 ties 20 of these businesses together to form a huge tropical food hotspot spanning from Port Douglas all the way up to Cape Tribulation.
TOURING THE TRAIL
The official Daintree food trail begins at the Port Douglas markets, which run on the waterfront every Sunday in Anzac Park. Slurping the sweet water of a coconut through a straw before taking it back to the stall to have it cracked open is a signature experience, so you’ll see plenty of people gnawing on fresh, soft coconut flesh as they browse plants, bric-a-brac, and jewellery. Mango ice-blocks are also a hit on a hot summer day (or any day — it is the tropics, after all).
The drive to Cape Tribulation from Port Douglas takes around two hours all up, but factoring in foodie stops and meandering about to sightsee, a few days can easily be spent crawling up the coastline instead of racing.
Heading north out of Port Douglas, we take a detour from the Captain Cook Highway to visit the Shannonvale Tropical Fruit Winery, which is what it says on the box.
Owners Trudie and Tony Woodall have been commercially producing fruit wines on their farm for 17 years, putting a new spin on the old grape variety, with base fruits like passionfruit, lychee, mango, and jaboticaba. You may be unfamiliar with the latter, however the backyard tree is easily identifiable enough, with red clumps resembling grapes covering its trunk.
Anticipating possible hesitations, Shannonvale offers four free tastings to let you wrap your head around the distinctive, yet pleasant, flavour profiles of their wines. As part of a rather crafty sales tactic, this offer is extended to 12 free tastings to those who promise to purchase a bottle. Though the table wines give the illusion of sweetness, they tend to finish dry and seem well-suited to sundowners — perhaps the Tropics’ answer to a gin and tonic.
If you’ve got time to stop for dinner before crossing the Daintree River, make a booking at Julaymba at the Daintree Ecolodge.
Located just off the main road a five minute drive from the Daintree village, the restaurant is one of the crown jewels of the food trail. Here you can dine on a timber deck overlooking a lagoon laden with lily pads (hand-dug by the original owners) and surrounded by lush rainforest.
Our dishes of Sichuan-style crispy crocodile, grass-fed eye fillet, and bush-spiced kangaroo with macadamia dukkah were cooked to perfection and highlight some of the region's best produce.
Interesting flavours are what make this region sing, and one of the first places you’ll chance upon after crossing the Daintree River on the car ferry (which caters to caravans) is the Floravilla Ice Creamery, known for its signature Daintree Rainforest ice cream. Blended with kale and freshwater spirulina to give it an authentic green rainforest tinge, owner Betty Hinton’s creation combines lemon myrtle, coconut, ginger, and vanilla to create a not-too-sweet and hard-to-put-your-finger-on taste (and no, it doesn't taste like kale).
As I dug into my pot of ice cream, Betty explains that she only sources produce from growers she knows — most of them local — and that she fought the health department to avoid putting preservatives in.
“Never have and never will,” she says with a lift of her chin. Betty stands by her principles and strikes me as someone that won't back down.
Further up the road is the Daintree Ice Cream Company, which also produces handmade ice cream. Here they make the choice easy with a tasting cup that changes each day. Four generous scoops lets you try a cross-section of flavours, which could include variations such as yellow sapote, wattleseed, spiced jackfruit, and coconut. There’s also a selection of individual specials, including at least one ‘safe’ flavour for less adventurous palates, plus dairy-free and vegan options.
You can work off the energy by wandering around the farm, which is where most of the fruit is grown. Signs will help you distinguish your sapodilla from your soursop.
Two ice creameries in one hit is a bit much for most, so break up the sugar highs with a stop at the Daintree Discovery Centre. Here you’ll not only see the Daintree Rainforest up close, but will glean an insight into its ecological significance via a self-guided audio tour. You can also get a rare bird’s-eye view of the sweeping forest from the 23m canopy tower. With an abundance of information and scenery to take in, allow up to an hour, if not more.
Also consider a stop at the Mossman Gorge Centre outside Port Douglas to learn about the importance of the rainforest to the local Kuku Yalanji people.
Heading north, the last stop on the food trail is Cape Trib Farm, located at the end of a bitumen road which merges into an unsealed Bloomfield Track to Cooktown.
Owned and operated by Merran and Jeremy Blockey, who traded their former careers as a school teacher and economist respectively to take over Merran’s parents’ property five years ago, Cape Trib Farm is an excellent place to supercharge your tropical food knowledge.
When our 90-minute tour kicks off, Sam — the son of Merran and Jeremy — explains that his cane farmer grandparents bought the 88-acre Cape Tribulation property as a hobby farm 40 years ago (half the land was, and remains, rainforest).
Having travelled to the Philippines to undertake missionary work in the late 1970s, they met a local family who opened their eyes to the wonderful world of tropical fruit.
The couple returned to Australia armed with seeds and cuttings, sparking the development of a tropical fruit farm that now grows more than 75 varieties of fruit. Just five are sold commercially.
You won’t be offered a 75-strong platter on the tour, but you will get your fill of interesting seasonal fruits accompanied by plenty of informative and entertaining commentary along the way.
After devouring the fruits with much opining about the flavours being sensed (“Sweet potato!” “Custard!” “Quince!” “Cake batter!”), we conclude our tour with a 30-minute walk around the farm. Sam points out the tiny red miracle berries that are heralded as the next superfood for their medicinal and taste-altering properties, and strongly advises that we don’t walk under a jackfruit tree.
We soon see why — the spiky green fruits dangle precariously from narrow stems and can weigh in at 15-odd kilos. In Asia, he said, they’ve been known to tip 50kg, making jackfruit the largest tree-borne fruit in the world (not to be confused with smaller and spikier durian).
It's not something you want landing on your head, but it is good to eat. Some say the slippery yellow fruit segments inside remind them of mango or banana, but I think they taste like bubblegum.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a number of campgrounds suitable for caravans in the area. Cape Trib Camping offers an entirely waterfront position on a quiet stretch of beach with 30 powered and 30 unpowered sites. I’m told caravans of any size can park “wherever they’ll fit” — and the sites are huge.
During the tourist season the on-site Sand Bar serves beer and wood-fired pizzas by night, however, at the time of writing the bar was closed due to COVID-19, so, if your stay is contingent on pizza availability, consider checking its reopening date. This relaxed family-run business takes phone and email bookings and is all for campfires and fishing. Just look out for crocs!
The smaller Safari Lodge is a two-minute drive up the road, where 30 campsites and eight cabins are tucked away at the back of a densely rainforested property along with a pool, laundry, and communal cooking facilities. Four sites cater to large caravans. Here I feel as though I am sleeping in the jungle, with the sound of frogs and the patter of rain providing a soundtrack for sleep, and the soft chirrup of birds acting as a gentle morning alarm.
We opted for Safari Lodge on a Sunday night, which is when the place buzzes with energy, spurred by a chilled-out, younger crowd drawn to the cheap cocktails and live music on the deck.
The Turtle Rock Cafe forms part of the Daintree food trail and opens for drinks and dinner on Sundays (it’s only open for breakfast and lunch on all other days). A limited dinner menu is inspired by international cuisines inclusive of Italian, Indian, Mexican, and, going by our Hawaiian-style poke bowls, the food is excellent and crafted from fresh local produce. The Whet restaurant next door is open seven nights a week.
Seven kilometres down the road from Safari Lodge is the stunning 30-minute Madja Botanical Walk, which takes you through a forest of giant fan palms interwoven with trickling streams. You may spot a cassowary, or even the crocodile known to hang out near the viewing platform at the end of the boardwalk.
Closer to the Daintree River, the 20-acre Lync-Haven Rainforest Retreat offers a family-friendly campground with plenty of room for caravans. Owner Justin White doubles as a wildlife carer and will happily introduce you to his macropod (wallaby) family, fostered dingoes — fear not, as they are fenced in — and 'pet' crocodile Doris, who lives behind a different fence. The grounds closed during COVID-19, so call ahead to check availability.
The Daintree Tea Company, wedged in amongst thick hedges of vivid green tea plants, is situated next door
That said, all stops along the Daintree food trail are wedged in amongst something green. The entire region pops with verdant colour. As you cruise through archways of tall rainforest trees with misty mountains up ahead and the Coral Sea to your right, you will fast realise this is truly a special part of the world.
The Daintree Rainforest covers approximately 1200 square kilometres and is Australia’s largest swathe of tropical rainforest. From the Daintree River, the area extends north to Cooktown and west to the Great Divide. A small, pretty town named Daintree, with little more than a pub and few cafes, lies on the southern side of the river.
The Daintree River is 106km north of Cairns and 50km north of Port Douglas. Crossing is via car ferry only, and cars towing a caravan can cross for $25 one-way or $43 return. While the crossing itself only takes a few minutes, allow up to 30 minutes of wait time, particularly during peak travel hours during the week (that is, 10am to noon heading north, and 3pm to 5pm heading south). The ferry operates daily between 5am and midnight.
The road is sealed between the Daintree River and Cape Tribulation, thereafter turning into the rough, narrow, and unsealed Bloomfield Track.
Phone reception is tenuous north of the river, and the area is completely off-the-grid. Some locations have WiFi, though these are few and far between.
The humid tropical climate means mosquitoes are common in these parts — bring plenty of insect repellent.
Cassowaries are known to frequent this area. While beautiful, these large flightless birds can become aggressive and dangerous. Never feed a cassowary — it's illegal — and be sure to keep your distance. If approached by a cassowary, back away slowly and put something like a tree or backpack between yourself and the bird. Cassowaries often wander on the road, so take care whilst driving.
Not all stops on the Daintree food trail offer parking for long vehicles, and some parking becomes unusable during the wet summer season. Call ahead to check parking availability if you’re planning on dropping in with your caravan in tow.
Visit Daintreefoodtrail.com for the full list of businesses on the official trail.