All images © Mark Daffey
Sun-kissed family holiday in Queensland's Tropical North
Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands is a cool
alternative to Cairns, writes Mark Daffey.
Who doesn't love the idea of a
sun-kissed family holiday in
North? The thought of lazing
on a palm-fringed beach or
by a resort pool is enough to make chilled-to-the-bone southerners jump on the first plane
out of town come winter, such is its allure. There's
the reef to explore and limitless amounts of
fun-filled activities for all ages, so it's no
wonder that this is one of Australia's most
popular tourist destinations in the cooler months.
Cairns is the usual access point and for
many it's where they'll also stay. But did you
know there are alternatives away from the
coast? You don't have to travel far inland before
you're in another world, one cooled by World
Heritage-listed rainforests and moistened by
gushing waterfalls. It's a mountainous region
cradling crafty villages and historic mining
outposts, where savannah grasslands meet
towering kauri pine trees. It's called the
Atherton Tablelands. And it's where my family
chose to stay.
Following the cycling trails
Atherton is a town of some 7000 residents that
was first settled during the latter half of the 19th
century, when gold and tin prospectors and
pastoralists came in search of untapped riches. Corn, sugar cane, dairy products and
beef are its primary exports these days, though
tourism has received a noticeable boost due to
the town’s proximity to some of the best
mountain biking trails in the country.
Spread out inside national park and state
forest boundaries on the edge of town is the
Atherton Forest Mountain Bike Park, a
60-kilometre nest of trails suitable for all
expertise levels. You could spend days tackling
its sweeping bends and berms, but you’d also
want to allow time to ride in the Mareeba Skills
Park or Davies Creek Trail Network. Both are
within a 30-minute drive. A little further afield,
just north of Cairns, is the Smithfield
Mountain Bike Trail Park, where the UCI
MTB World Championships were staged
Riches of Atherton
There’s more to Atherton than just cycling
though. Being 80 kilometres inland from
Cairns, at an elevation of 700 metres, it has a
more agreeable climate than resort towns
along the coast – if the high humidity levels
found at sea level aren’t your cup of tea, then
this is your solution.
In town there is the fully restored Hou Wang
Temple, the legacy of a time when Chinese
prospectors came here in the late 1800s to fossick for gold. It’s now part of a museum
complex showcasing archaeological displays
and Atherton’s Chinese heritage.
Kids will also be amazed by the family-owned
Crystal Caves Museum and its
collection of 600 mineralogical specimens.
And they’ll love donning a miner’s helmet to
see the world’s largest amethyst geode, the
3.2-metre-high Empress of Uruguay.
There are numerous hotels, motels, farmstays
and B&Bs in and around Atherton but, like
many mountain bikers, we bunk down in the
eco-certified BIG4 Atherton Woodlands
Tourist Park. On-site lodges, cottages and villas
are spread out across the shady, two-hectare,
pet-friendly property where brush turkeys roam,
with ample space for camping either side of a
creek that’s home to platypuses.
We’re staying in a two-bedroom Eco Family
Villa that sleeps four. It has full kitchen facilities,
cable television access, free Wi-Fi, a furnished front balcony and car parking space. The villa
is part of the park’s solar cabin range that was
partly subsidised by a government funding
initiative called the Tourism Quality Project. Part
of the overnight tariff is donated to the Cairns
Turtle Rehabilitation Centre.
We are only a few doors up from the camp
kitchen, plus there’s a centrally located
amenities block that’s spotlessly clean. A
mountain bike-cleaning station is a thoughtful
addition for those intent on tackling the 60
kilometres of trails on the edge of town. The
holiday park also offers a loyalty card for
Parents can relax inside a Balinese-style
pavilion, complete with thatched roofing and
reclining stone Buddha statue on the steps,
near a swimming pool and children’s play area
that are both located just inside the park
entrance. This, for me, is the highlight of the
park. Indonesian timber furnishings and comfy
couches, with a gas barbecue tucked away in
one corner, make it easy for parents to keep an
eye on the kids in the playground while the
snags are cooking.
The holiday park owners have considerately
compiled a seven-day itinerary for those
basing themselves here. It includes visits to
markets, galleries, historic towns, waterfalls
and crater lakes, as well as a bat hospital.
"At an elevation of 700 metres, it has a more agreeable climate than towns along the coast"
Out of town
Away from the bike trails we manage to
squeeze in a morning visit to Historic Village
Herberton, 20 kilometres out of Atherton. The
village is an amazing collection of Australiana
that’s like a trip down memory lane for
grandparents. Children will love the nostalgic
toy and automobile collections, and the
interactive blacksmithing demonstration is
always a favourite.
Even better than a dip in a swimming pool is
one beneath a waterfall, and the Atherton
Tablelands is blessed with some of our most
picturesque cascades. Our swim at Millaa
Millaa Falls – said to be the most photographed
waterfall in Australia – is the perfect end to our
This article appeared in volume 52 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.