Surf & Turf in the Real Outback Without Fork or Knife

The Great Barrier Reef - One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World
The Great Barrier Reef – One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank whomever it was that invented the dish called surf and turf. I mean, the brilliance is just astounding! Hmm, what can we possibly serve alongside a succulent steak to make it taste even better and cost even more? I know! Lobster! And there you have it – the best of both worlds right there on the same plate.

In terms of travel, you can go with the straight up entree of just one destination (beach, mountains, whatever) or you can insist on having a little more variety (beach and mountains and whatever). There are several places that come to mind where you can do so, but if you really want the best of both worlds – the metaphorical surf and turf of travel – a trip to the Australian state of Queensland is the best choice on the menu. You won’t even need silverware.

Speaking of metaphors, the term surf and turf also lends itself to the nature of Queensland’s attractions. There’s the surf – some lovely beaches to go along with the incomparable Great Barrier Reef – as well as the turf – a broad spectrum of land-based features ranging from the lush Wet Tropics to the arid Outback. Not only does this offer you a great deal of variety when it comes to activities, but much like that steak and lobster tail, the elements – though wildly different – complement each other. Think of it as Jacques Cousteau meets Crocodile Dundee.

Chances are you’ll be looking for a place to stay on the ‘turf’ portion of our metaphor, and there’s perhaps no better base of operations than the small coastal city of Cairns. From here you can have your surf, turf or a little of both, all accessible through easy day trips. The town itself isn’t terribly noteworthy, though there are some decent restaurants and shopping malls geared to tourists. But there are lots of affordable lodging options in and around town, and it is a convenient launching point for the area attractions.

So to start off with the surf, north of town there are some lovely beaches – such as Trinity Beach – an easy drive away. This is a great place to unwind and take a dip so long as it isn’t box jellyfish season (particularly January-February). But while the beaches (jellyfish aside) may be appealing, the main reason people come to northern Queensland is located some thirty miles offshore – The Great Barrier Reef.

I'd like to be...Under the sea...on the Great Barrier Reef
I’d like to be…Under the sea…on the Great Barrier Reef

Though technically beginning just north of the town of Bundaberg, it is here near Cairns that most visitors will access this gargantuan natural wonder. Just for the record, the GBR isn’t one contiguous reef, but rather a coral reef system that spans some 1,400 miles. Besides its fame as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and status as one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of the World’ (right up there with Victoria Falls and the Grand Canyon), for lovers of marine life and scuba divers in particular, this is the Holy Land.

Getting to the reef is possible via high speed catamarans and other watercraft, allowing for day trips for both snorkelers and divers alike. But if you’re serious about your fishes (like me), the best way to see the reef is on a live-aboard dive vessel. Not only do you get to spend more time on the reef (usually 4-5 dives a day including night dives) but you can also access more remote sites that are beyond the reach of day trippers. It’s not cheap, but then again, surf and turf never is.

Moving on to the ‘turf’, there’s a wide variety of ‘cuts’ that can be sampled from your base of operations. The easiest (and most touristy) is the mountain town of Kuranda, maybe a half hour drive from Cairns. Set inside the rain forest of the Wet Tropics Heritage Area and nearby to Barron Gorge National Park, the main attractions are the flea market and the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which has daily service to Cairns and sums up the whole “life’s a journey, not a destination” cliché.

If that’s not enough Wet Tropics for you, less than two hours to the north is steamy Daintree National Park, offering more lush greenery and the lovely Mossman Gorge. Considering the high levels of humidity, be aware that it may at times feel more surf than turf.

Undara Lava Tubes National Park, Queensland, Australia
Undara Lava Tubes National Park, Queensland, Australia

No trip to Australia would be complete without a visit to the Outback – a general term for the sprawling, largely untamed and arid interior of the country. From Cairns, a long but scenic drive over the Atherton Tablelands will bring you right into the sort of scenery everyone associates with the Outback; mostly-flat terrain; red soil; massive termite mounds and packs of kangaroos lounging about the savannah. A great destination is Undara Lava Tubes National Park, where you can see the aforementioned geological formations and wander a landscape right out of Crocodile Dundee (both 1 and 2). This is authentic Australia, and I can honestly say that my time gazing at this brittle landscape to the sound of cackling kookaburra birds is perhaps my greatest memory in what is an already very memorable country.

Getting to Cairns is quite simple. You can either spend long tedious hours (I mean, really long) driving up from Brisbane, or you can hop on one of any number of daily flights from most major Australian cities and even New Zealand. While the town itself is walk-able, the attractions farther afield are not, so plan on renting a car for at least a portion of the time.

As I implied earlier, the best part of surf and turf is not having to choose. The same can be said about northern Queensland. You can enjoy some of the greatest ‘surf’ this planet has to offer, and sample a gamut of ‘turf’ rarely found in such close proximity. I’m sure that’s something both Jacques Cousteau and Crocodile Dundee could agree upon – with or without silverware.