Three-day self-drive itinerary on the stunning Tablelands

Located just south of Cairns, the Tablelands are home to a variety of terrains and attractions. Vistas range from boulder-filled creeks that wind through granite gorges, to rolling green pasture, to the heritage-listed rainforest of the Wet Tropics.

Activities include wandering around markets, heading off in a hot-air balloon, exploring coffee and tea plantations and, well, lots of eating and drinking.

This fascinating region warrants more than a long weekend, but if you only have a few days, here’s what to squeeze in.

Day one: Cairns to Mareeba

Jump in the car in Cairns and make the one-hour drive from Cairns to Mareeba. Break up the journey by stopping in Kuranda for a meander through the two outdoor markets there. The Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets are open Thursday to Monday and the Heritage Markets are open Thursday to Sunday.

Stop into Kuranda Candy Kitchen to pick up some fine handmade rock confectionery to take back to share with the family (if you can make it last your whole trip!) They proudly make all their products by hand and display live candy-making demonstrations most days.

Make sure you’ve got your swimmers on hand because Mareeba and the surrounding area is waterfall country. Drive the 30 minutes from Kuranda to Davies Creek Falls. Relax on the sun-warmed water-sculpted rocks or refresh with a dip in the cool clear waters of the creek. Emerald Creek Falls is another must-visit, with its series of cascading waterfalls over granite boulders.

Read: Unexpected rainforest experiences in North Queensland

After visiting the falls, you’ll be well primed for an ice-cream to reward your 1.9km hiking efforts at the nearby Emerald Creek Ice Creamery.

Head to Jacques Coffee Plantation, Cafe and Roastery for a well-deserved cup of coffee and lunch. Sit on their timber deck surrounded by tropical gardens, refuelling your energy supply before hitting the road again. They open Wednesday to Sunday and serve everything from eggs benedict to steak sandwiches.

After lunch, check into your accommodation and explore the surroundings.  If you’re looking for a true wilderness escape, check into Granite Gorge Caravan Park south-west of Mareeba.

You can choose to settle into the onsite cabins, safari tents or set up your own caravan or camping accommodation but the star attractions here are the Mareeba rock wallabies.

When you’re not feeding the wildlife, explore the natural playground of Granite Gorge behind the tourist park with its boulders, swimming holes and waterfalls all linked by signed walking trails.

Drive the 20 minutes to the famous Mareeba drive-in cinema to catch a film and gorge on burgers in this old-style outdoor cinema. Open Friday and Saturday nights from 5:30pm with the film starting at 7pm.

Day two: Mareeba to Malanda

If an early start doesn’t bother you, take in the Tablelands from above with a sunrise hot-air balloon ride. Meet at the Mareeba Heritage Centre at 5:25am to experience the spectacular region from the sky.

Your experienced captain will pilot your scenic flight as you glide over the Tablelands with nothing but the sound of the balloon burners to interrupt the serenity.

Alternatively, check out the 2023-hectare Mareeba Wetlands on a tour with FNQ Nature Tours. The 6:30 am start will reward you with the possibility of seeing a huge range of birds including six different quail species, 11 duck species, nine cuckoos and most varieties of Australian tropical water birds.

Given the changing conditions throughout the year, you can expect different feathered faces coming and going with the seasons, such as brolgas and sarus cranes.

Next, drive to Atherton for breakfast served inside an old railway carriage at The Station Café.

After breakfast, pay a visit to The Crystal Caves to explore over 300m² of crystal caves and grottos, packed with more than 600 specimens across five crystal chambers – a personal collection turned visitor attraction.

Stop in at the Atherton IGA to pick up some tasty bits for dinner at your accommodation after an early start this morning. Make the scenic drive to check in at the fantastic Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat.

Experience sleeping in a treehouse or a villa treehouse in the cool tropical climate with a stunning rainforest panorama from the deck. Explore the 9kms of walking tracks through the 93-hectare property and try to spot the resident cassowaries on the way.

Read: Reef, rainforest and heady tropical scents

After some exploration, and maybe a nap, head for lunch at Lake Barrine Teahouse. This popular spot features a deep crater lake surrounded by cool, lush rainforest. The lunch menu features a selection of delicious items, and the scones are a must-try.

Take the short stroll to view the giant bull kauri trees or stretch your legs on the longer 5km track around the lake. Hire a canoe and paddle on to the lake to look for fish, turtles, eels and waterbirds along the shallow edges, or maybe hop in for another swim.

Next, visit the Tolga Bat Rescue’s multi-award winning Bat Hospital to enjoy an intriguing insight into the world of bats. You will meet small insectivorous microbats and larger fruit and nectar-eating megabats such as flying foxes. Personalised tours operate daily throughout the year but bookings are essential.

Head back to Rose Gums to cook up a storm in your fully stocked treehouse kitchen and enjoy dinner on the deck with incredible rainforest views.

Day three: Malanda to Cairns

Start the day with the delicious breakfast hamper provided by Rose Gums in each treehouse. Then, head to reception at 8:30 am to watch the colourful parrots and musky rat-kangaroos enjoy their breakfast.

Head to the Nerada Tea Plantation to taste an array of teas from Australia’s best-loved tea brand. Pop in for a factory tour before lingering over a delicious Devonshire tea with scones.

Nerada Tea’s mission is simple – to produce Australia’s freshest, finest and most sustainable tea. Depending on the season, Nerada Tea can travel from crop to cup in as little as four weeks, placing it among the world’s freshest! Take a whiff of some of the teas from the delightful handcrafted Directors Cut range and you’ll be sure to stock up your basket.

Stop at Mungalli Creek Dairy for lunch. The original farmhouse has been restored into a must-visit cafe for those travelling along the Tablelands foodie trail. Enjoy a cheese platter while taking in the expansive views over the rainforest, Johnstone River Gorge and Queensland’s highest peak, Mount Bartle Frere.

Sample a range of Mungalli’s biodynamic, gourmet cheeses or sweet treats while peeking through the windows of the production line – the food really doesn’t have to travel far to get from paddock to plate here. Stock up on local jams, chutneys and chocolate before hitting the road again.

Make the short drive to Millaa Millaa Falls to take in a waterfall surrounded by lush rainforest. The falls cascade perfectly to a pristine waterhole below where you can enjoy a refreshing swim in the cool water.

Millaa Millaa Falls makes up a part of the Waterfalls Circuit, along with Zillie and Ellinjaa Falls.

Read: New and notable in Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

After a refreshing swim, it’s time to head back to Cairns. Take the Gillies Range, also known as the windiest road in Australia. This road has 263 turns in only 19km of road over an elevation change of 800m over the same distance. That’s one turn on average every 72 metres.

There’s so much more to see and do in the Tablelands, so extend your trip for a few more days and see what else you can enjoy here.

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