Tropical Cairns is located in a beautiful part of Australia, Far North Queensland. It is the perfect location to explore the Great Barrier Reef, but not only. You can also explore the Wet Tropics of Queensland, and the Atherton Tableland. So you will need a bit of time to visit the area and discover its beauty. From Cairns to Cooktown, this article will give you the best spots not to miss along the coast. By land or by sea!
Things to do in Cairns
Cairns is the largest city in northern Queensland. It was founded in 1876 and named after William Wellington Cairns, Governor of Queensland. The area experiences a tropical climate and therefore the weather is very hot and humid in the summer. The dry season, from May to October is pleasant and warm. During the rainy season, from December to March, there are hot days with daily storms.
You will meet many backpackers in the area, some looking for work, others relaxing after months of hard work in the outback and many just passing through. It is a place for partying, diving, snorkeling and other water related activities.
The Cairns Esplanade includes a swimming lagoon where you can swim, sunbath or just enjoy the adjoining barbecue areas. Added benefit: WiFi is free! Many leisure activities are organised in this area, such as: yoga, works of art, concerts on weekends and many more.
Several shopping centres can be found in the city. The largest of these are Cairns Central shopping centre in the central business district, and Stockland in Earlville.
Do not miss the Cairns Night Market where you will find a food market and stalls selling all kinds of products (souvenirs, jewellery, accessories, beauty products, etc.).
The Great Barrier Reef
The largest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2000 kilometres from Bundaberg to Cape York Point. You can go diving and snorkelling all along the coast to take in the beautiful underwater scenery. In Cairns you will have the advantage of finding many companies that can take you on a trip.
Having experience elsewhere (the West Coast) we recommend scuba diving which will allow you to greatly enjoy a close up view of the reefs.
If you have time, the desire and the means, get you diving diploma (Open Water Diver) which will allow you to dive anywhere without having to pay for the ‘introduction’ course. An internship will normally take a minimum 3 days. It might be quite a financial investment, but it is worth it !
Main tours at the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef speaks to the imagination. Visiting it will exceed your expectations. Tour operators provide many ways of experiencing the Reef. Among the most popular you will find:
- Flights over the Great Barrier Reef;
- Trips to the Great Barrier Gate (Cairns / Port Douglas departure);
- Skydive over Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.
From Cairns to Cooktown
For those in a hurry many daily tours are organised. With a group of around twenty fellow travellers you will be taken in a minivan by a local guide.
- You do not have to prepare anything as everything is organised for you;
- you get to meet fellow travellers;
- quick overview of the whole region.
- limited freedom to explore places and points of interest;
- might be out of budget (although getting to these places on your own may be more expensive or even not possible without a vehicle…)
Of course everybody will have their own preference. For those traveling alone a tour is a great option to explore and meet some people!
You have to start by taking the Cook Highway north of Cairns. It is a touristic route that will offer you breathtaking views of the ocean. Many famous beaches stretch north from Cairns to Port Douglas (e.g. Trinity beach – a popular family beach, Kewarra beach – very popular with the locals, and Ellis Beach – one of the wildest!). Palm Cove is a small more developed town. It has many shops, bars and resorts. In addition, it has a beautiful campsite and a lovely supervised beach!
The Kuranda Scenic Railway is a 34 kilometers tourist train from Cairns that will introduce you to the rainforest and beautiful waterfalls such as Barron Falls. The journey takes one and a half hours to complete during which you will learn more on the history of the region and the railway. You can also take the Sky Rail for almost the same price. It is the longest and most ecological funicular (cable train) in the world and will take you on a 7.5 kilometer ride over the forest. It has two stops, namely Red Peak and Barron Falls. In Kurunda, well known as the Village in the Rainforest, you will find an aboriginal cultural center, the Koala Garden, wild birds, a small local market and many other local sights. We recommend you plan a day between the train ride and exploring Kuranda.
About five kilometers from the highway you will find the small coastal town of Port Douglas (3500 inhabitants) 70 kilometers north of Cairns. The city beach, Four Mile Beach, is perfect for swimming and sunset walks. For a beautiful view of the city and the ocean go to Flagstaff Hill lookout. It is THE place to go! Port Douglas is also one of the closest towns to the Great Barrier Reef and therefore serves as an excellent departure point for excursions!
Mossman Gorge will provide one of Australia’s most iconic Aboriginal experiences in Tropical North Queensland. It is the perfect option for visitors looking for a genuine, authentic engagement with Indigenous Australia. The Mossman Gorge Center houses a Aboriginal Art Gallery, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop. It is also possible to take the ‘Dreamtime walk‘ in order to learn about the aboriginal culture. Mossman Gorge Centre is opened from 8am until 6pm, ays per week.
You can also walk through the gorge by yourself and discover a suspension bridge at the end! It is possible to swim in the area so do not forget to take your bathing-suit! Alexandra Range Lookout offers a beautiful view of the rainforest and the coral reef (even better in good weather…)
Daintree National Park
Daintree National Park is a few miles from Douglas Harbour. To access it, you have to cross the Daintree River on a small ferry (17$ per vehicule). It departs every 15 minutes and the crossing take a whopping five minutes! The park covers 56.000 hectares and includes about 3.000 kinds of plants, some of which are extremely old and rare!
You can take a cruise on the Daintree River to spot crocodiles. A guide will explain all the subtleties of the rainforest and the animals that live here. If you are lucky you might see some! A unique 34 kilometres raid will take you through this beautiful park to Cape Tribulation.
Cape Tribulation is a huge beach lined with enormous palm trees. It is where the reef meets the rainforest. It is recognised as the most Northerly point of Queensland. You can surf through the jungle at the Jungle Surfing Canopy. There are five zip-line courses through scattered throughout the forest. Book in advance via the Visitor Center or via the website. You can also visit the Bat House which is a bat nursery. It is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 to 15:30. The entrance fee is 5$ per person.
West of Cairns you will find a plateau at the altitude of 700 meters. From the top you can admire beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife, including the rare Tree Kangaroo. The Tinaroo artificial lake is one of the most visited attractions in the area. Water sports, hiking and fishing are some of the more popular activities. If you go deeper inland visit Undara Volcanic Park (three hours drive from Cairns) to discover some of the longest lava streams in the world. You can also admire ancient volcanoes such as the Seven Sisters.
Located 13 kilometers east of Atherton, Yungaburra is a pretty little town with a very nice historical pub. On the road from Atherton do not forget to visit the Curtain Fig Tree (it is one of the largest trees in the area: an enormous fig tree with 15 meter falling roots that form a curtain). 25 kilometers south of Atherton you will find Dinner Falls (accessible via a boardwalk). Every fourth Saturday of the month the city is alive with an art and food market. As the area is packed with activities and interesting places to visit we recommend you to stay two or three days to fully enjoy all it has to offer.
To learn more about Cairns and the area:
Updated on 25/10/19 – Initially published on 05/03/18