Hi there fellow Australian Backpackers exiled to this distant country or in preparation of your departure! I am Claire, 28, back in France from a year spent in Australia during which I traveled more than 15.000 kilometers in this country full of surprises and majestic landscapes. Tropical Cairns in a beautiful part of Australia. It is the perfect location to explore the Great Barrier Reef. This article will include the best spots not to miss from Cairns to Cooktown along the coast. By land or by sea!
Things to do in Cairns
Cairns is the largest city in northern Queensland. Tropical and therefore very hot and humid in the summer. I went there in the ‘winter’ and it was very sunny and the temperature was very pleasant, I dare not imagine the summer…
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.
I recommend staying at the central YHA. It is close to many activities (shopping center, bus station, etc.) and also serves as a travel agency for excursions in the region. Handy if you do not want to run around! Activities are organised every evening (pub night, movie night, pizza party, …).
Near the ocean that you cannot swim you find a lagoon. It provides a kind of artificial beach close to a park where all kinds of activities are organised, such as: yoga, works of art, concerts on weekends… Added benefit: WiFi is free!
Go to 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 200o kilometers 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) I strongly 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 in my opinion!
To help you choose a package, here is an overview (not exhaustive) of some tours that depart from Cairns. As the activities proposed by touroperators are often the same, I prefer to provide information that sets them apart from one another. Know that the rates include all the amenities you may need: Food throughout the day, hot and cold drink, toilets, showers, equipment (mask, snorkel, suits …).
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. Pros:
- 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 I think a tour is a great option to explore and meet some people!
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 kilometer tourist train from Cairns that will introduce you to the rainforest and beautiful waterfalls (e.g. Barron Falls). 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. It will take you on a 7.5 kilometer ride over the forest. It has two stops, namely Red Peak and Barron Falls. In Kurunda itself you will find an aboriginal culture center, a zoo (Koalas!), wild birds, a small local market and many other local sights. I would 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 (3000 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 therefor serves as an excellent departure point for excursions!
Walk through the gorge with a suspension bridge at the end! You can swim in the area so do not forget to take your bathing-suit! You can also visit Mossman Gorge Center which houses as Aboriginal Art Gallery, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop. It is also possible to take the ‘Dreamtime walk‘ in order to learn something about the aboriginal culture.
Alexandra Range Lookout: 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 (22 AUD/13 GBP). It departs every 15 minutes and the crossing take a whopping two 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 observe 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 kilometer raid will take you through this beautiful park to Cape Tribulation.
It is a huge beach lined with enormous palm trees. It is where forest meets sea. You have the opportunity to 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. Bat House is a bat nursery. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:30 to 15:30. The entrance fee is 5 AUD /pers.
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 if alive with a art and food market. As the area is packed with activities and interesting places to visit I would recommend staying two or three days to fully enjoy all it has to offer.