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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 Queensland's Tropical 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 in September.

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.

Eco-friendly digs

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 mountain bikers.

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 tropical adventure.

This article appeared in volume 52 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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