Cooktown is a quirky end-of-the road town that attracts unusal independent characters, escape artists, rovers, romantics and dreamers. Its the kind of place where anything is possible.
The first place to go is up Grassy Hill to get your bearings. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time. The landscape is epic - the town on one side of the wide curving Endeavour River and wilderness stretching out forever on the other bank.
Cooktown has some fine old buildings in Charlotte St, the main street which is apparently wide enough to turn a carriage pulled by 6 horses without backing up! True or not, the town truly has an old world ambience.
The town runs along the south bank of the wide Endeavour River. Charlotte St runs parallel to the river with an esplande running down to the wharf area. You can see the spot where The Endeavour was careened. The original tree to which she was tied has gone but the location is marked. It is a truly historic place because it was here that the near disaster was overcome and the mission was able to resume. If Cook and his crew had been unable to break free from the reef along with a 5' lump of coral more or less plugging the hole (and sheepskins filling the gaps), then the history of Australia might have been very different. Cook's voyage of discovery is probably the greatest journey ever made.
The former convent, St Marys, is a beautiful brick building built in the late 1880s by the Catholic Church at a time when Cooktown was more important than Cairns. It was not to last for long though as the gold diggers moved south and Cairns became the gateway harbour. The convent closed in the 1930s and was used by the US military during World War 2. The building was nearly demolished after being badly damaged in the 1969 cyclone but local protest resulted in The National Trust stepping in and the convent becoming the James Cook Museum. As well as displays covering Captain Cook's great voyage, the museum has a wonderful collection of local pioneer items that give a very good idea of what it was like to live in such an out-of-the-way place.
The Cooktown Botanic Gardens were first established in 1878 and probably reached a peak in the 1890s when formal lawns, stone paths, pools, walls and bridges over the creek running down from the hill behind Cherrytree Bay were established. A cottage for a gardener was also built and most of the planting of shrubs and trees took place at this time. It was not to last though. The gold from the Palmer River was running out, people were leaving Cooktown and the gardens were closed in 1917. In the mid 1980s the Cook Shire Council began restoration of the gardens. The path to Cherrytree Bay begins in the gardens.
Continue past the Cooktown Botanical Gardens to Finch Bay. A lovely stretch of sand below Mt Cook and bounded by giant granite boulders at both ends of the bay. A creek runs into the bay from the mangroves behind. Probably not a good idea to swim in the creek as a crocodile has been seen here but we have always swum in the sea quite happily.
Be sure to walk down to the wharf behind the Sea Breeze laundromat. It's still quite a busy little harbour for Mackerel fishermen and prawn trawlers. Grab a cup of coffee and a pastry in the patisserie overlooking the river and the jetty. The view is fantastic and there is always something going on. A yacht pulling in or a prawn trawler unloading or refuelling.
Cooktown is renowned for the good fishing. You can charter a fishing boat, hire a tinny or throw a line in straight off the wharf.
The same view that Cook had wnen he climbed Grassy Hill
Cooktown - the Endeavour River and Mt Cook: courtesy of Tourism & Events Queensland