Port Douglas & The Great Barrier Reef

Drive from Cairns to Port Douglas

For our ventures to visit the Great Barrier Reef, we flew into Cairns with a plan to visit two key attractions – snorkeling at the Agincourt Reefs and a visit to the Kuranda Rainforests.  We landed in heavy rain which was worrisome, and was very glad when we heard from the car rental company that we were given a free upgrade to an SUV when we arrived. Little did we know, it was a very good thing that we got this upgrade.

After a short night’s rest at a very forgettable Holiday Inn, we got up early to be on our way.  The distance between the two towns – according to the maps, was only an hour away, and we had a much nicer resort in Port Douglas waiting for us.   So we hopped onto the Honda CRV, and made our way north onto Captain Cook Highway.  The itinerary I had in mind was to spend a couple of hours visiting the Kuranda rain forest before our destination, but by the time we got to the Skyrail entrance, the rain shifted from the light drizzle in the morning to something much more substantial.  DW started getting worried, and after making a quick enquiry to the front desk regarding the experience in rain, I made the executive decision to visit the rain forest on our way back instead.  It was a good decision, as the rain progressively got worse.  A lot worse.

What should have been an easy, 45 minute drive became quite the challenging experience.  As we progressed north, Captain Cook Highway transitioned from a wide, open highway to a narrow, windy road that wrapped itself along the coastline.  Coming from a coastal region myself, I normally would have enjoyed the drive, as I love the feel of carving back and forth following the natural terrain.  And I suspected the drive by the coast would have provided some spectacular views in sunny weathers.  But that was not the case.  The rain started coming down hard, and as the highway became narrower, the every oncoming traffic meant towering splashes onto the windshield and losing sight for a couple of seconds.  Despite being mid-morning, the highway was dark and visibility was severely limited, and our 45 minute drive soon doubled.  By the time we got to Port Douglas, my wipers were on maximum and it could still barely see; the rains simply torrential by that time.

Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort

Eventually we did make it safely to our resort in Port Douglas, the Sheraton Grand Mirage.  An expansive, beautiful resort with its own golf course and connecting pools, we had planned this stay to be a bit of a break from our fast and furious itinerary – the adults soaking up some sun while the kids enjoyed the many pools at the resort.  We did not expect to arrive under a major storm.  We checked in anyways, and was ferried in a large golf court to our room.  It was a beautiful room with two large queen beds, a small dining area, with a view to one of the larger pools in the resort.   After settling in, I was at a bit of a loss.  It was early afternoon, we were in a beautiful resort, and it was pouring outside…. and that’s when DW and the kids made a surprising decision.  They decided to play in the pool anyways.  It was warm, and playing in the pool meant they would be wet anyways.
Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort

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That led to an afternoon which was quite surreal… DW and I settled underneath a couple of beach umbrellas on a man-made beach by one of the large pools in the resort, watching the kids play frisbee in the pool while the skies simply poured over our heads.  Amazingly, the kids did not seem to mind the rain, and continued their fun regardless of the storm over their heads.

What we found out later in the day was how lucky we were to even get to Port Douglas.  Turning on the local news in the evening, we found out the storm  – Tropical Storm Nora – had broken a 124-year-old record for single day precipitation, dumping 593mm of rain on Port Douglas in a single day.  I quickly compared that to rain in Vancouver – which is famous for being rainy – and found that Vancouver’s rainfall record was 54mm…. what we experienced was ten-times the volume.

Worse, we found out that that there were multiple land-slides on Captain Cook highway in the afternoon, causing the highway to be completely closed.  Had we decided to follow my original plan of visiting Kuranda before coming to Port Douglas, we would have been caught by the road closures, or even worse… caught in or in-between the land slides.

Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef

As you could imagine, beyond the ruined resort time, our biggest fear was our scheduled snorkeling tour of the Great Barrier Reef.  While we had read that stormy weather could potentially be better farther away from land, we were dealing with record breaking precipitation.  There was a high chance our visit to the Great Barrier Reef would be cancelled.

Alas, fate was friendly to us, very friendly.  We woke up to a dry morning, and when we got to the harbour to board the reef tour, the sun came out in its full glory.  The contrast was astounding… record breaking storm one day, beautiful, bright, hot sun the following day.   We chose this tour to take us out to the reef.   We boarded a large catamaran which took us out to the tour operator’s permanent platoon at the Agincourt Reefs, which offered a number of activities.

First as foremost was snorkeling of course, but there were also other activities such as an underwater observatory and a semi-submersible tour for those who could not (or do not) wanted to enter the water.

We of course, went took up snorkeling.  Up until this point, DW was the only person with snorkeling experience. DS and I never bothered to try, and DD was late to learning how to swim.  Regardless, as soon as we landed on the platoon, we suited up on the provided Lycra suits, got ourselves hooked up to our snorkels, and entered the water. I went with DD, while DS swam together with DW.

I don’t think I was ever so proud of DD. Here she was, 6 years old who still hated getting her head wet when swimming, and she jumped into the water without hesitation. Holding hands we swam out to the reef, me checking on DD every 20 or so feet, to see a thumbs up and a smiling face underneath her mask. I was so proud of her.

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Back to the snorkeling itself, we saw numerous schools of colorful fish, some swimming close enough to touch. Of course, we were there to see corral, and we saw corrals of different shades of blues and greens. Sadly, many of the corral were bleached white. As we were shoveling and not diving, we could only admire the reefs from afar and could not experience the sea life up close, but it was still a wonderful experience.

Eventually we took a break for lunch. The buffet lunch was definitely not something to write home about, but I didn’t have any expectations. After lunch, DS and DW went back out to explore the reefs further, but DD was tired so we explored the other activities. We visited the observatory, which didn’t really have much to observe, and ride the semi-submersible. The latter reminded me a lot of that submarine ride at Disneyland, but you were able to view the corrals closer than when snorkeling. It’s also great for those who still wanted to experience the reefs up close but are not able to swim – an older couple told us it was their third ride and still saw new sights.

Overall it was an unforgettable experience and easily worth the price. We were so incredibly lucky that the weather turned out to be so nice white we were out there… as the catamaran headed back grey clouds started rolling in, and we were back to heavy rain by the time we reached the shore.  It was a raging storm again by the time dinner came around.  We were so, so grateful that Lady Luck decided to do us a favour and gave us that window of good weather just for the excursion.

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