Craving a beach to yourself? Tropical North Queensland is the answer. Here's our top 5 paddling spots.
In Queensland's far north, a string of sunny tropical isles await intrepid kayakers seeking seclusion.
Think sheltered, white-sand beaches, steamy rainforests, rugged peaks, skin-tingling waterfalls and granite headlands that slide into deep blue seas where coral gardens and seagrass beds flourish.
Protecting the habitat of dugongs, marine turtles and rare migratory sea birds, these national park islands provide cheap campsites, straight-off-the-beach snorkelling, hiking trails, and preserve indigenous and historical sites. Accessible in a day's paddle from beaches between Cooktown and Cardwell, these five reef-fringed, rainforested isles offer facilities ranging from a cosy campground with a beach cafe, to nothing but a blissfully isolated toilet.
HERE ARE THE TOP KAYAKING SPOTS IN NORTH QUEENSLAND
1. EAST HOPE ISLES
When the Endeavour struck reef in 1770 and began taking on water, Lt. James Cook sailed tentatively north, naming two tiny sand cays en route "because we were always in hope of being able to reach these islands". The treacherous coral reefs fringing low-lying East and West Hope isles have snagged a succession of sailing vessels in the years since, adding to the allure of this idyllic, castaway refuge. Three campsites nestled beneath beach almond trees on East Hope Isle await experienced seakayakers 10km east of the Bloomfield River mouth. This tiny island's offshore location protects dense coral gardens that will thrill snorkellers, and a tiny pocket of red coondoo, beach almond, silverbush and nickernut that lures black flying-foxes, sacred kingfishers, figbirds and rose-crowned fruit-doves from the mainland. A walk around the island takes less than an hour, but at low tide, vast rock shelves extend the island to the south, full of pools hiding sea cucumbers, octopus, fish and crabs. South-easterlies blow sailors north from Cairns each winter, but for the rest of the year, kayak-campers can lay claim to this deserted tropical cay.
Location: East Hope Isles lies 10km east of Ayton on the Bloomfield River, 37km by road south of Cooktown.
Overnight Option: Paddle north from Ayton to reach remote Cedar Bay (Mangkal-Mangkalba) National Park, accessible only to hikers and boaties.
Camping: Three campsites with picnic tables, tarp poles and a toilet require advance bookings (max. 7 nights). BYO water and a fuel stove, and take away all rubbish.
2. SNAPPER ISLAND
On a calm day off Snapper Island, see-through glassy seas reveal immense gardens of colourful corals: plates, brains and staghorns that attract green turtles, and an endless procession of fish. Rising to 99m and cirqued by rugged cliffs and a handful of tiny sand beaches, the island harbours lush vine forests and in its lee, a string of four shady campsites with picnic tables, tarp poles and a toilet. The most accessible island within Hope Islands National Park, Snapper Island sits at the mouth of Daintree River and on a good day, can be reached in a two-hour paddle from the boat ramp at picturesque Wonga Beach, 90km north of Cairns. Although no trails penetrate the island's fragile interior, you can walk the island's circumference via beaches and over headlands, and snorkel the reef that flourishes off the northern fringe.
Location: Snapper Island is located 2km off the coast. Launch your seakayak from Wonga Beach, 90km or an hour's drive north of Cairns.
Overnight option: Daintree's Crocodylus Village runs overnight kayak-camping trips to Snapper ($220 per person, www.crocodyluscapetrib.com).
Camping: Four campsites, suitable for small and medium sized tents, are available at West Point campground. A limit of six people per campsite applies and permits are required. Ensure you have your own supply of drinking water.
3. DUNK ISLAND
If roughing it isn't your idea of a tropical holiday, Dunk Island keeps things civilised with a beachfront cafe; within reach of its national park campground. Despite housing a massive resort, three-quarters of Dunk Island's mountains, palm-fringed beaches and coral reefs are protected as national and marine parks which provide a haven for birdlife, fish, turtles and dugongs. Just 4km separates Dunk from Mission Beach on the mainland, but your seakayak will come in handy getting you to the island's more remote bays and the fringing reef at Muggy Muggy Beach. The summit trail up Mount Kootaloo (5.6km/3hrs return) provides good views, or you could laze about with a copy of The Beachcomber and daydream about the envious life of Dunk's most famous resident, E.J. Banfield.
Location: Dunk is 4.5km off South Mission Beach,135km south of Cairns.
Overnight option: Book a stay on remote Coombe Island near Dunk and the entire national park island is yours for $5.30 per person (max. 8 people).
Camping: Showers, toilets, drinking water and access to the resort's cafe/kiosk are provided. Phone Dunk Island Resort on (07) 4068 8199 for camping permits.
4. GOOLD ISLAND
Located off Hinchinbrook's northern tip, this rainforested continental island rimmed by sheer sea cliffs and sheltered beaches has a colourful clam garden off its eastern edge. Shaded by casuarinas and at times occupied by raucous flocks of sulphur-crested white cockatoos, the island's beachfront camp on the Spit is a lonely spot that sees few visitors. Walk to the end of the beach at low tide where old Aboriginal fish traps hold juvenile fish and small stingrays in the shallows.
Location: Launch from Cardwell for the 17km paddle to the island.
Overnight option: Paddle around the island to camp at Wilderness Cove (no facilities) or hike there at low tide via the Island Coast Walk (13km/5hr return).
Camping: Free gas barbecues, toilets, picnic shelters and a rainwater tank are provided at the Spit, although paddlers should BYO water and insect repellent.
5. HINCHINBROOK ISLAND
With a dramatically sculptured spine of jagged peaks separating its croc-infested mangroves on one side and shimmering bays on the other, Hinchinbrook Island is as tantalisingly seductive as it is inhabitable. Harbouring some of the state's great coastal wilderness, Australia's largest island national park lures seakayakers to bays and beaches beyond the reach of Thorsborne Trail hikers. A great six-day paddling route traces the island's eastern edge from north to south, setting out from Cardwell across Hinchinbrook Channel and Missionary Bay to reach tranquil Macushla Campground. The tour continues around Cape Richards to ride the island's wild western swell, stopping to camp at Banshee Bay, Nina Bay and Zoe Bay for a dip high above the falls before ending the trip on the mainland town of Lucinda.
Location: Hinchinbrook Island is located off Cardwell, halfway between Cairns and Townsville.
Overnight option: Paddle 4km across the channel from Port Hinchinbrook Marina's boat ramp to reach Scraggy Point and The Haven, a rainforested camp with a hidden freshwater stream and well-preserved fish traps left by the Bandyin Aboriginal people who once lived on the island.
Camping: Macushla and The Haven campgrounds have toilets, picnic tables, free gas barbecues and drinking water. Gather water upstream at Zoe Bay. Make sure you bring all supplies, insect repellent and a fuel stove.