Things to do in and around Cairns
Cairns Port Esplanade and port.
• Scuba, snorkelling, swimming, glass-bottom boats: The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most famous coral and fish viewing places in the world, though in all honesty, it’s nowhere near the best – Egypt’s Red Sea, Belize or even Ningaloo Reef on Australia’s west side are healthier and more colourful.
Plenty of good value scuba courses available, with sleep-aboard boats on the reef for the last couple of days. 4 days is the minimum time needed.
• Boomnetting: sitting in a hammock slung under a sailing boat’s bowsprit so waves wash over you.
• Beaches: If you really need beaches then a short bus ride will get you to white sands and coves of Trinity Beach or head for Port Douglas, but Cairns’ new, free, salt-water lagoon on the foreshore is magnificent, as is the tree-lined esplanade and massive kid’s playground.
• Fishing: everywhere.
• Sea kayaking and snorkelling: splash out at Fitzroy and Dunk Islands.
• White water rafting: on the Tully (serious rapids) and Barron (kid’s stuff) Rivers all year round, with good value tours and grades for all abilities.
• Golf: Several excellent courses, mostly near Port Douglas.
• Hiking: the cool, green Atherton Tablelands or Hinchinbrook Island’s 30km east coast through heathland, beaches, rainforest and mangroves.
• Tours: waterfall and gorge tours, crocodile cruises. e. g. Palmerston National Park.
• Rainforest Excursions: There are 3 day to 3 week tours into Australia’s most accessible ‘jungle’, the Daintree Rainforest, as far as Cape Tribulation, with huge, spacey insects and strange trees guaranteed. Watch where you tread!
• Biking: plenty of good routes, also bike tour operators complete with support vehicles.
• Driving: The Cairns area is loaded with spectacles and experiences and well worth a few days car hire to avoid the ‘Everyone back on the bus now’ loudhailer package traumas.
• Cape York – further north – is a favourite place for full-on 4×4 action.
If Cairns is a little downmarket for you, try posh Port Douglas, 80kms (50 miles) north. Good for most of Cairns’ activities – though not prices – Port Douglas also offers several golf courses and sits beside Four Mile beach.
Cairns shorefront, northeast Australia.
In addition to Cairns’ successful waterfront makeover recently the town offers an attractive tree-lined esplanade and extensive shady kid’s playground beside the muddy shore, just try not to stagger onto the adjacent mud after too many beers at the hilarious toad races.
Cairns is loaded with accommodation of all types but the core of the town is clearly the lagoon so try to get a place within a couple of blocks of it unless you don’t mind hanging out in your hotel’s pool and eating in their restaurant.
Short Trips out of Cairns
Cairns’ original raison d’etre was The Great Barrier Reef and various agencies still transport thousands out the the reef every day on all sorts of craft ranging from vast tourist-packed catamarans to neat little sailing yachts. However, whilst the reef – at about 2, 300kms long – is the largest on the planet, a World Heritage site and the only living thing visible from space, the view from sea level or below is less impressive.
Rainforest Boardwalk, Cairns Botanic Gardens. Photo by brewbooks.
Some tourists are happy just to chill out in Cairns’ superb salt-water lagoon with changing rooms, beach, trees, grass, fountains and all for free! But if you must move. . . Cairns offers over 600 tours every day.
The Great Barrier Reef is 18 million years old. Stretching for 2, 300km this planetary wonder is a must see but don’t expect too much, whether snorkelling, diving or glass bottom boating. You can’t see the size from sea-level, just the faded glory.
Tons of tour operators ensure competitive prices and tailored tours but remember you’re looking at at least an hour each way on potentially bouncy seas.
Serious scuba divers should head north to the Ospreys or south to Ayr and the Yongala wreck.
Cairns rainforest cableway, Daintree. Photo by Louise Marshall.
The Daintree Rainforest, where tropical rainforest meets coral reef in north Queensland is pretty tame on a day trip, but go a bit deeper over several days with a good guide and you will find flora and fauna that may surprise you.
Most mammals are nocturnal (possums, tree kangaroos) but there are plenty of colourful birds, parrots, kingfishers, cassowaries, as well as ornamented lizards, frilled dragons, frogs, snakes and butterflies that slither or flutter through the dense forest of rose gums, palms, ferns, and strangler figs.
• Kuranda village via the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and back via the Scenic Railway, with bird and butterfly reserves and a touch of tourist shopping in between seems to satisfy some less adventurous visitors.
• Atherton Tablelands: this cool, green plateau is a popular for hikes and offers a pretty train trip but it a little too ordinary for the Bugcrew.
• The Captain Cook Highway: to the north, passes by some gorgeous, deserted coastal areas where the Barrier Reef closes in on the beach.
• Daintree Rainforest National Park to Cape Tribulation: the rainforest area is a couple of hours from Cairns and is prettiest at Mossman Gorge, with good marked walking tracks. Croc picture-shoot boat trips are popular from Daintree, but for real jungle experiences you’ll need more than a day trip to go deeper.
• Hinchinbrook Island: the world’s largest island national park is not far south – with great bushwalks through heathland, beaches, rainforest and mangroves.
• Crystal Cascades: a fine forest/waterfall area 15km north of Cairns.
• Aboriginals: there’s a fair introduction to the aboriginal culture at Tjapukai Aboriginal Centre a few klicks north of Cairns.
A trip that may be less colourful than expectated is the Kuranda Skyrail event, a day starting with the throughly sanitised but worthy aboriginal theme park – the Tjapukai Cultural Park, then a 7. 5km Skyrail ride over the rainforest to totally tourist overloaded Kuranda – though if you can manage to stay overnight the town changes for the better after the last train leaves.
Kuranda offers rainforest walks, markets, and various wildlife sanctuaries, aka zoos. The return to Cairns may be on the Scenic Railway – again, pictures of those follow.
Cairns best seasons
The best time to be in Cairns is May-June or September-October, when rainfall is least, humidity is a little less oppressive and average daytime temperatures tend to be quite hot (around 28C/82F) as opposed to withering (31C+/88F+).
May-November has least clouds and rain but July-August is winter down south and school holidays so expect prices to be high, accommodation scarce and activities full. Heaviest rainfall – and this is a tropical city so we mean HEAVY – buckets down January- March. That being said, rain tends to arrive all at once so it’s both spectacular and short-lived.