"Look left – on the bank, under the big tree."
By his laidback tone, our driver could have been talking about sheep. But no: he was referring to two large crocs basking in the sun.
For southerners visiting the Far North, croc spotting adds yet another edge to a place seemingly teeming with the exotic. The truth is, Far North Queensland is a foreign country - even outside of this era of closed borders. From giant crocs that can be spotted from a car window, to the oldest rainforest in the world (yes, including the Amazon), to that living dinosaur that is the cassowary – the Cairns & Great Barrier Reef region is unlike any other.
Whether you are here in the dramatic Wet with its sultry days and nights that feel like they might explode, topped off with teeming late afternoon rain and spectacular storms; or the Dry - sunny days that run into each other and are never too hot, there is no better place to escape the everyday, something on everyone's minds south of the border.
And now is the time to go, with fewer crowds and no queues. But with so much to see - the Great Barrier Reef and its many islands, the Daintree and Cape Tribulation, the Kuranda Scenic Railway, Mossman Gorge, to name a few - it pays to plan if you're a first-timer.
I only have a couple of days so I narrow my choices: the Great Barrier Reef – a must – and a new attraction that appeals to a love of all things tropical, as well as my stomach, the Daintree Food Trail. Yes, surf n' turf.
If the Queensland tropics are another country then the Great Barrier Reef is another planet.
Alien life forms bob around, scoot past or meander through the ribbon reef coral beds beside Quicksilver's Agincourt Reef Platform, a 90-minute boat ride from Port Douglas. Giant clams, striped, spotted and shimmering butterfly, parrot and angel fish, brain coral, turtles, small sharks - there is so much to see in these underwater gardens that it can overload the senses. But amid the madness is an almost human encounter with a white damsel fish dubbed "Farmer Jo" by the marine biologists aboard our Quicksilver Reef boat.
His "turf" is a 25 square metre patch of sand marked by a slight discolouration caused by algae which he harvests for food. This tiny fish lets nothing onto his precious paddock and patrols it constantly. When our biologist snorkelling guide dives down to drop a piece of broken coral within his boundary, he immediately picks it up, carries it metres outside his patch and spits it out before heading back on patrol. We can almost hear his "hurrumph" of indignation.
There are many ways to interact with the reef from the platform. You can snorkel, scuba dive, or learn to dive and there's also helmeted ocean walking – a type of space suit for this other world. If you prefer to stay dry you can dive down in a semi-submersiblen and see the underwater world glide past in the underwater observatory. Or you can watch frenzied fish feeding sessions from above, as well as below the surface. But prepare to be butted, poked and prodded by curious fish that zoom in to the platform for a bite.
We opt for a snorkel tour with a biologist guide who leads six of us through the coral gardens where she points out interactions among sea life we would never spot by ourselves and spouts interesting facts. Who knew there's a mushroom coral that secretes its own sunscreen at low tide?
COVID-19 restrictions are in force so the cruise boats are not crowded. Lunch and morning and afternoon tea is included, as are stinger suits, and underwater cameras are available.
It's the next day and it's fish again – but a whole different kettle of them. We're on land and I've just caught a 90-centimetre barramundi. Granted this is sustainable farmed barramundi so I have reeled it in from a pond. I'm relieved when it's thrown back to live another day, and this helps assuage any guilt when we sit down minutes later to barramundi sashimi and sake.
Hook-a-Barra at Wonga Beach, about 30 minutes from Port Douglas, is the recreational side of the Daintree Saltwater Barramundi Fish Farms, which has been producing hand-reared barramundi for more than 10 years.
It's also a stop on the Daintree Food Trail – a self-drive gourmet adventure where you follow a food map to taste your way at small farms, orchards, fisheries and other gourmet and artisan producers from Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation.
Don't want to drive? Former chef Pete Davidson's Port on a Plate follows the trail but allows curious foodies to kick back while he does the work. He'll pick you up from Port Douglas and escort you through farmland, stopping to collect produce and meet those who grow and make it. Then he'll cook a two-course lunch from the ingredients you've gathered, which is why I'm sampling barramundi sashimi Pete has prepared.
Pete had a very "FNQ reason" to switch from his former business - leading kayak treks through Cape Tribulation - to the more food-orientated Port on a Plate. He became spooked by crocs, including one that seemed to be stalking him. "It was definitely time to return to my first love - food."
Before our barra fishing expedition, Pete took us to the home of the Kefir Queen, Penelope Wiltshire, who pickles and ferments ingredients at the fermentary at her home in Port Douglas.
She takes us through her sprawling garden and we sample salad leaves of moringa ("high in vitamin C and protein, good for the liver and the hair") and the pink-flowering cranberry hibiscus with its pleasantly tart flavour ("the leaves are high in B vitamins").
Penelope has learned a lot about plants from older local gardeners and shares her growing, picking and fermenting knowledge via workshops in her booming backyard business.
Her fermented natural probiotic products, including water kefir and kombucha, pickles, kimchi and sauerkraut and salad sprinkles are on sale at local markets and also at the local institution Scomazzon's Farm Store, which has been in the Scomazzon family for generations.
The covered patio of this small store, set among farmland, contains baskets of local paw paw, citrus, bok choy, kale, chunks of ginger, long green and yellow beans, black russian tomatoes, bananas and bunches of garlic with straw-like fronds.
Penelope's kimchi, preserved lemons in Himalayan salt and pickles are on a shelf, as are local teas from the Daintree Tea Chest – with blends such as chocolate chai and Daintree vanilla. There's plants for sale plus a fridge full of locally-made pies – coral trout and prawn, jungle curry – and roast vegetable and goats cheese quiches.
Pete has his eye on the Alice in Wonderland-like giant pink, yellow and ivory oyster mushrooms from the Good Shroom Co. We grab a tray, head to his van and are back on the road, past yellow-topped canefields criss-crossed by railway tracks used for generations to cart the cane.
We pass the Sweet Farm which produces chocolate, sugar cane juice, cocoa, vanilla and has its own gum tree plantation to feed koalas at Hartley's Crocodile Adventures.
We pass through Moss Vegas (Mossman) with its heritage-listed Exchange Hotel and the nearby Mossman Gorge Centre, gateway to the famed gorge and home to the oldest continually surviving rainforest on Earth.
But today is all about food, so the final stop on our half-day tour is the Shannonvale Tropical Fruit Winery. As I sip mango white wine and jaboticaba dry tropical red, Pete disappears into his portable kitchen. It's time for a second course: barbecued barramundi, salad vegetables adorned with the Kefir Queen's seeds, freshly-baked local bread and those coral-pink mushrooms, whose shapes and colours take me straight back to yesterday's underwater gardens.
Jane Richards was a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland and Virgin Airlines.
QuicksilverGreat Barrier Reef Cruises depart daily from Port Douglas at 9.30am. Cost: Adults $266 Children $134 or a family ticket $666. Includes 90 minute return boat ride to Agincourt reef; full lunch and stinger suit; a $7 environmental charge applies. Phone (07) 40872100. See quicksilver-cruises.com
Daintree Food Trail, see daintreefoodtrail.com
Port on a Plate operates Tues-Sat, 9am to 2.30pm, includes lunch. Pick up from Port Douglas. Cost $160 per person. See portonaplate.com.au
Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort, Cairns; see crystalbrookcollection.com/riley
Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple Resort & Spa; see pullmanportdouglas.com.au
Virgin was operating daily flights from Sydney direct to Cairns or via Brisbane before borders closed.