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A small-town entree to Australia’s wonders

Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, Australia, looks out on the Coral Sea. Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, Australia, looks out on the Coral Sea. (Christopher Klein for The Boston Globe)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / June 21, 2009
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PORT DOUGLAS, Australia - “Kiss the toad, mate!’’

Kiss a toad? I had come to tropical Queensland to get close to Australia’s wildlife, but this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Tradition is tradition, however, at the Ironbar’s nightly cane toad races, and if the race director said it was good luck for “jockeys’’ to peck their warty steeds, who was I to argue? I bestowed a kiss on the back of my toad and loaded him into the starting gate - an open cylinder in the middle of a rickety, circular table.

Once each toad had been properly smooched, it was post time. The crowd packed into the back of this Port Douglas bar was ready to cheer on their favorites. Then the cylinder was lifted, and they were off! Toads leaped everywhere, vying to be the first to jump off the table and be put into a bucket at the finish line by his jockey. I tried to spur my toad on with my “whip,’’ a party blower, but despite my good-luck buss, there would be no fairy tale ending. My toad came in third.

These races take place behind a curtain in the rear of a bar that has the vibe of a dusty Outback station, even though there is nothing unseemly or illegal going on at the event.

Native to South America, cane toads were introduced to Queensland in the 1930s to combat beetle populations that were devastating the local sugar cane crops. Unfortunately, the toads had little impact on the beetles and, even worse, they bred like champion stallions and became pests themselves. Today, their only redeeming virtue may be in enticing the crowds to stop in at the Ironbar for this popular Port Douglas pastime.

We chose Port Douglas as our base to explore the coral reefs and rain forests of north Queensland, and bypassed sprawling Cairns, which is filled with the same types of tourist traps and nondescript strip malls that can be found in countless numbers of American seaside towns. Stretches of the 40-mile drive between the airport at Cairns and Port Douglas are simply spectacular and rival the scenery of Australia’s famed Great Ocean Road, which skirts the country’s southern coast. The winding road hugs the cliffs while the aquamarine water below gently laps onto white, sandy beaches fringed with palm trees.

Port Douglas, which has fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, is far from a quaint, tourist-free village. But along with its share of upscale resorts and trendy boutiques, it does have a small-town feel and an intimate charm. Another advantage of staying here is that it’s surrounded by an embarrassment of natural wonders, with the Great Barrier Reef in its front yard and the Daintree rain forest in its backyard. If you have the energy, you can take a dip at the town’s sweeping Four Mile Beach, snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef, and hike into the rain forest all in one day.

We decided on a more leisurely pace and set aside a day to venture to the Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps I had seen one too many episodes of “Australia’s Deadliest Animals,’’ but I had no desire to snorkel or dive into the same water inhabited by sharks, box jellyfish, and stingers. The warning signs along Queensland’s beaches featuring cartoon drawings of a swimmer ensnared in the spindly tentacles of a stinger certainly did nothing to make me change my mind.

Luckily, a tour from Quicksilver Cruises offered the option to view the reef’s beauty from semisubmersible vessels and an underwater platform. A spacious, high-speed catamaran whisked us from Port Douglas to a two-story, floating platform on the outer edge of the reef. While some passengers wriggled into wet suits, we squeezed into the tight quarters of the semisubmersible.

Watching the reef’s amazing aquatic life from the vessel’s portholes made us feel as if we were at an aquarium, except this time we were the ones in a tank. It was mesmerizing to stare out at the crystal blue haze and see darting schools of angelfish and clownfish, lumbering turtles, and coral in all shapes and sizes on the white sands of the seabed. Just don’t expect to see a kaleidoscope of vivid colors along the floor of the reef. Without direct light shining on them, the fish and coral are more muted in their hues.

Since Port Douglas is nestled at the end of a peninsula, there are numerous waterfront restaurants where you can savor a bottle of Queensland’s local brew, XXXX (pronounced four-ex), and dinner while watching the ships return from the reef. One of the hidden jewels is the affordable Port Douglas Combined Club, known to the locals as “the tin shed.’’ As daylight fades, the tables on the verandah overlooking the tranquil harbor fill in anticipation of the spectacular sight of the sun setting behind the waves of rugged mountains that flow down to the sea.

The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, just north of Cairns, offers a chance to glide above those mountaintops as well as the lush rain forest canopy of Barron Gorge National Park. The cableway, one of the world’s longest, stretches nearly five miles and rises quickly from the coastal plain to a height of 1,788 feet, providing remarkable panoramas. It’s amazing to gaze down upon brilliantly colored birds and butterflies fluttering high among the treetops.

Two stops along the ride allow passengers to walk on boardwalks just above the rain forest floor or soak in the view of Barron Falls, which cascades 853 feet into a rocky ravine. The primitive-looking giant ferns and cycads, some of which are hundreds of years old, give the terrain the feel of a prehistoric landscape, and for good reason. Australia’s tropical rain forests are the oldest continually surviving ones on earth, dating 120 million years to when they covered the entire continent.

Nature lovers shouldn’t leave north Queensland without visiting Daintree National Park and cruising the Daintree River with Dan Irby’s Mangrove Adventures. Irby takes passengers on a flat-bottom boat that, unlike most river cruises, can navigate the small creeks feeding into the Daintree. And since no more than 10 people can fit on a boat, you’re assured of a personalized tour.

With his bushy white beard and burly physique, Irby looks like an Aussie bushman, and it’s only his hybrid accent that is a clue to an Oklahoma transplant who has lived in Australia for over 30 years. Irby’s tours explore the plants and animals that live in the unique ecosystems of the Daintree’s mangroves, distinctive for their intricate maze of exposed roots along the riverbanks. We got up close and personal with storks, snakes, kingfishers, and other denizens, and we listened in as Irby, like a modern-day Doctor Doolittle, talked back and forth with mangrove robins and other feathered friends with perfectly pitched bird calls.

Of course, most visitors to the Daintree want to see crocodiles, and we were no exception. After seeing one sign after another along the river warning of crocodiles, we expected to have an easy time catching a glimpse of the fearsome reptiles. It turns out, however, that we were much better at spotting what Irby referred to as “log-o-diles,’’ timber that looked like crocs to our untrained eyes. Luckily, Irby was able to spy a real, live crocodile in the final minutes of our nearly two-hour tour. The baby croc was sunning on a sandbar, mouth agape, possibly waiting for a kiss that would never come.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

If You Go

What to do

Quicksilver Cruises

Marina Mirage, Port Douglas

011-61-7-4087-2100

www.quicksilver-cruises.com

A high-speed catamaran takes passengers to a floating platform on Agincourt Reef. Cruise includes buffet lunch, snorkeling, and semisubmersible boat rides. Adults $160, children $80, family $410.

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Captain Cook Highway Smithfield

011-61-7-4038-1555

www.skyrail.com.au

Round-trip ride $47 adults, $23 children, $117 families. Reservations recommended.

Dan Irby’s Mangrove Adventures

011-61-7-4090-7017

www.mangroveadventures.com.au

Daintree River cruises leave from public jetty next to the ferry crossing. Call or e-mail danirby@austarnet.com.au. $40 per person.

Where to stay

Port Douglas Queenslander

8-10 Mudlo St.,

011-61-7-4099-5199

www.queenslander.com.au

Easy walking distance of the waterfront, beach, and town center, $89-$175.

Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas Resort

Davidson Street

011-61-7-4099-5888

www.starwoodhotels.com

This luxury resort fronts Four Mile Beach and features a championship golf course and acres of swimmable saltwater lagoons. Rooms from $305.

Where to eat

Ironbar

5 Macrossan St., Port Douglas

011-61-7-4099-4776

Steak and seafood, plus kangaroo and crocodile. Cane toad races nightly, $4. Entrees $14-$24.

Port Douglas & District Combined Clubs

7 Ashford Ave.

011-61-7-4099-5553

www.thetinshed-portdouglas.com.au

Recommended by locals for its spectacular views and its value; open to nonmembers. Entrees $11.50-$18.

Soul n’ Pepper

5 Dixie St., Port Douglas

011-61-7-4099-4499

Popular brunch spot. Entrees $13-$22.

Information

www.pddt.com.au