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Port Douglas - where even the doc wears shorts

Renata Rubnikowicz kicks off her shoes and dons a wetsuit at the Great Barrier Reef

If he'd lived in Australia, John Steinbeck would have written about Port Douglas. It's a sleepy town on the Queensland coast, an hour's drive north of Cairns. Even though there's a glitzy marina full of expensive yachts at the end of its one main road, hardly anyone wears shoes - it's easier to walk through the occasional tropical downpours without . And few bother to lock their doors. The good news for teachers is that August is a great time to visit Queensland: you get the benefit of the tropical heat in one of the area's driest months.

When I was there, the Iron Bar was advertising Toad Races on a Thursday night, and a blues band played at the pub on the harbour on a Saturday. I loved the excellent restaurants, the friendly people in the shops and bars, and the attitude - laid-back, even by Australian standards. Port Douglas is the Oz version of Tortilla Flat or Cannery Row. Where Cairns is the party-party backpackers' centre, Port Douglas is the place for calmer days and an excellent starting point for trips up to Cape Tribulation, where the tropical rainforest begins in earnest and the "freshies" (freshwater crocodiles) hang out.

Port Douglas's main attraction is that it is also a fine place from which to cast off for the Great Barrier Reef. Plenty of dive companies are eager to help you to explore the wonderland of coral that runs down the continent's north-eastern coast.

Should you have a rainy day, Cairns is near enough for a day trip on the Skyrail rainforest cableway, which takes you from just outside Cairns up to Kuranda - known as "the village in the rainforest". Hop out of your cable car halfway up for a guided tour of strangler figs and other rainforest plants. At the top, a boat trip on the Barron River alerted me to giant, brightly coloured moths and the birds, the calls of which had made the soundtrack to my cable car ride - far more memorable than the souvenir shops of the village.

Queensland is one of the most tightly regulated areas in the world for diving, so you can rest assured that any company you choose will look after you properly, whether you just want to go snorkelling or take the full sub-aqua rubber route. They also run training courses in local pools so you can get used to the equipment, and it's surprisingly easy to emerge after just a few days' teaching and a handful of practice dives with your world-recognised Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) qualification.

Diving instructors and snorkelling guides will explain life on the reef as well as keeping you away from the occasional danger, such as the crown of thorns sea star, which is covered in toxic spikes. At first, I was frightened when, as we moored far out to sea by the reef, the first thing I saw was a brightly coloured, polka-dotted fish the size of a coffee table (a Maori wrasse). I soon realised it was about as threatening as a Disney cartoon and plunged off to find smaller fry, no less neon-coloured. After a half-hour dive, the wrasse, waiting to say goodbye, seemed like an old friend. Why had I been scared?

Before embarking on my beginners' sub-aqua course, I had to have a full medical but, this being Port Douglas, the doc wore shorts and bare feet and entertained me with a long and unrepeatable joke about three men and the Pope. I knew Steinbeck's ghost would approve, too, of the captain of my boat, a one-eyed desperado with a black eyepatch who turned out to be a graduate in marine biology. He didn't wear shoes either.

A three-week stay in Australia including international flights and transfers, five nights' accommodation in Sydney, a six-day tour of Ayer's Rock and the Olgas, and six nights' accommodation in Port Douglas costs from pound;1,931 in JulyAugust. For reservations and further details, telephone Travelbag: 0870 890 1458 or visit www.travelbag.co.uk.A ticket including flights from London to Sydney, Sydney to Alice Springs, Alice Springs to Cairns and Cairns to London costs from pound;1061.90 per person in August. For reservations and further details please contact Qantas at www.qantas.com.au or call the enquiry line on 0845 7747767.The Australian Tourist Commission (www.australia.com) can supply a travellers' guide to the country, order on 0906 863 3235

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