There’s so much to do in Cairns so there’s definitely some careful planning required if you’re considering visiting this once sleepy sugar-milling town, especially if you’re going to be restricted with time. Luckily we had a full week so there really wasn’t anything out of our reach and we knew we could easily do one thing each day comfortably.
So here’s my guide to Cairns, including how to get there, where to stay, gorgeous beaches you must visit, great food and of course all the thrill-seeking adventure you do not want to miss!
Cairns was the final leg of our East Coast tour and although we’d hit the roads the whole way so far we just didn’t have the luxury of time to continue, so we took a flight from Brisbane to Cairns, which took around 2.5 hours, and picked up a new hire car to make our way around Cairns.
However, if you are able to drive I’d definitely recommend considering it as you’ll get to explore the breathtaking Whitsunday Islands including every backpacker’s bucket list favourite; Fraser Island! We’ll definitely try and get up to Queensland again to experience these incredible beaches.
Where To Stay
The best way to determine where to stay while you are in Cairns will be the activities you intend to do while you’re here. While there is plenty to do in and around the city itself, many popular activities are located north as far as 140km such as the Daintree National Park and Cape Tribulation. Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll need to put in some driving miles if you want to work your way through the extensive list of tourist activities and highlights on offer, but luckily the very scenic roads make for fantastic viewing so you’ll never tire of the journeys.
We stayed in Port Douglas which was 66k north of Cairns and made the ideal gateway for all activities located north towards Cape Tribulation, in Cairns CBD and of course The Great Barrier Reef.
Some of Queensland’s most beautiful coastline is right here in Cairns, with a multitude of beaches popular with visitors. There are two main beaches that have developed in to major tourist destinations over the years, Palm Cove – a popular luxury honeymoon destination and Trinity beach – a favourite amongst families but you’ll find another six that make up what’s known as the ‘northern beaches’ and they’re all worth a visit. Four Mile Beach is the premier beach of Port Douglas and can be reached within a 5 minute walk of the main district. The four mile stretch is perfect for a long walk under the tropical sun, allowing you to work up an appetite in time for dinner!
You’ll reach all beaches from the Cook Highway with all providing enclosed swimming areas during stinger season but these aren’t 100% effective and some beaches may close if stingers are present. If you’d rather steer clear of the water during this season then I would recommend spending the afternoon at Mossman Gorge, a beautiful waterfall perfect for a dip!
As the culinary gem of Queensland, Port Douglas has so much to offer when it comes to food, which was just as well since we were there for 7 days. There were low-key cafes for breakfast feasts of all kinds including pancakes, smashed avo or bacon and egg butties as well as succulent five star dining with absolutely any type of cuisine on offer. The standout food, as with any coastal region should be, was of course seafood. We enjoyed countless amounts of it! If you’re looking for places to eat in Port Douglas then here are some of my favourite places:
On The Inlet
Seafood, Australian – $11-$40
Tropical cocktails, fresh local seafood and an unbeatable location with breathtaking waterfront views…this place is the perfect setting for dinner and we loved it enough to eat here twice during our stay. The staff were knowledgeable about the entire menu and provided a friendly and attentive service throughout.
The menu includes a great mix of seafood and plenty of choice for those after a meat dish all at reasonable prices. Starters were easily shared so we tried Black Lip Mussels and Pippies, Cajun Blackened Prawns, Tempura Soft Shell Crab and House Smoked Barramundi Rilette – all of which made perfect entrées. I had fish on both visits, first was the Barramundi with almond and mint couscous, ras el hanout vegetables, tahini yoghurt and eggplant jam and second was the Coral Trout with kipfler potatoes, broccolini, roasted truss cherry tomatoes and lemon caper butter, I’d recommend both!
Check out the rest of the menu and book a table here.
Salsa Bar and Grill
Australian – $24-$39
Known as the local’s favourite place to eat, it would’ve been rude to have left Port Douglas without trying it out so we went along on the evening of my birthday. We started off with cocktails so I chose a Watermelon Margherita from the specials board, which was delicious, and we were shown to our table. There was a food specials board with at least 3 or 4 starters and mains on top of the main menu so I immediately knew making a choice would be difficult!
My starter was interesting and came with what can only be described as a Rice Krispies Square but was definitely worth a taste, it was duck sang choi boa with cos lettuce, salted caramel rice (the rice krispy cake!) and Davidson plum chilli sauce. For main I had the Creole Jambalaya; a rice dish full of prawns, squid, yabbies, smoked chicken and crocodile sausage. It was gorgeous and I was glad my starter was quite light as there was a lot of it! I had to offer some to James in the end because I couldn’t finish it all. I didn’t think my stomach could fit anymore in but then I was surprised with a birthday dessert, complete with candle, so I had to have a taste of this incredibly light and fluffy chocolate soufflé which I certainly had no objections about!
The atmosphere was great at this place but I’d recommend getting in early as it can die down before it reaches around 9:30pm. However, we were visiting during the ‘off season’ so I’d expect the buzz to last all night when it’s busy.
Zinc Port Douglas
Seafood, Australian – up to $34.90
Centrally located in the Portico Building, Zinc Restaurant and Lounge Bar has a great outdoor and indoor restaurant area that provides a casual and relaxed dining experience to suit any taste. I hadn’t allowed myself to order calamari so far on this holiday since I have it so much at home but their calamari starter sounded unlike any I’d tried before so I gave in and it was well worth it. The vanilla and apple scented puree, lemongrass chilli oil and pineapple salsa gave the dish amazing flavour – a nice change to a typical aioli dip. We were both in a meat mood that night so for main I went for the Blue Cheese Crumble Crusted Beef Tenderloin while James had the Honey and Soy Glazed Twice Cooked Duck Legs and both were delightful, the tenderloin was so succulent and was a generous portion as well which meant there was no room for dessert.
One place we did miss out on (they were refurbishing at the time) but came highly recommended was Nautilus, so make sure you check that out if you’re in the area.
Cairns is not the place to visit and just chill by the pool all day every day. There really is no shortage of things to do in and around the magical oasis and with glorious weather all year round every one of them can be enjoyed no matter what month you visit. It’s difficult to describe this tropical region without using the word ‘beauty’ and when you see the huge list of adventure you can undertake it’s easy to see why. There’s far too many to mention, so below are all the things we did during our week long stay.
The Great Barrier Reef
Where do you start with The Great Barrier Reef? As I mentioned before, it’s been on my bucket list since I fell in love with diving in Thailand last summer and I don’t think I’m the only one. Even if you’re not a diver [and in some ways I actually think it’s better if you aren’t] then this is still a spectacular experience for those snorkelling.
As with any big tourist attraction there are plenty of different choices when it comes to tour company, length of trip, size of boat, luxury of service etc so make sure you do some research and know what you want from the trip. We knew we wanted to avoid the crowds and enjoy a quieter boat, so we passed on the tour that offered gimmicky experiences, like transparent glass bottoms, and opted for Poseiden cruises full day trip. The day, which started at 8:30 and ended back at the docks around 4:00, came complete with breakfast and seafood lunch and included three sites located on the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs, the most pristine and thriving area of The Great Barrier Reef all for a reasonable price [around $240 for snorkelling + $80 for 3 dives].
I must admit, I didn’t witness an abundance of fish and I do remember seeing some dive sites in Koh Tao that seemed more thriving, but the coral was definitely spectacular and all the more beautiful as you shallowed up during the dive so I would always recommend that you experience the reef for yourself if you’re in Australia. Plus, I did get to fulfil the first stage of my shark goals and actually SEE one! Actually, I saw three and it was amazing!
Daintree and Cape Tribulation
If there’s one things you should know about Cairns, it’s that there are two World Heritage sites; The Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics. But the most unique part about that is that they meet at Cape Tribulation which now forms one of the most popular destinations in all of Queensland. Think The Hunger Games, when Katniss runs from the rainforest suddenly onto white sandy beaches…except this is all natural.
There are plenty of activities to keep you occupied besides the nature and buzzing wildlife you’ll find. If you’re here for the day you could spend the morning ‘Jungle Surfing‘ to get your adrenalin pumped before lunch and then take a leisurely cruise down the river, croc spotting! Of course, the Daintree National Park offers numerous trails and walks which you could easily spend all day exploring as well.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
There’s nothing better than jumping aboard an old fashioned train on a scenic railway to make you feel like you’re starring in a Harry Potter movie and that’s exactly what I loved about the Scenic Railway. The journey back from Kuranda was magical to say the least! We were sat in quaint carriages and wound our way down from 328m above sea level, through tunnels, across a breathtaking bridge crossing and past unbelievable views of the Barron Gorge and rainforest.
There are just 4 train services each day – twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon so plan your day to make sure you don’t miss out. I’d recommend getting the best of both worlds and taking the Skyrail up [this will give you more flexibility of departure times in the morning] and then return on the railway once you’ve spent some time enjoying the village of Kuranda. You’ll need to get a bus transfer from Freshwater station back to the Skyrail pick up point to collect your car but this is all included in the price of an adult multi pass for $109.50.
We made it our mission to spot some good old Australian wildlife while we were travelling up the East Coast of Australia, but we hadn’t had that much luck. We’d seen the koalas at the Koala Hospital but struggled to spot one in their natural habitat and we certainly hadn’t seen any kangaroos bouncing around nearby…yet alone and crocodiles!
We definitely got luckier while driving around Cairns and managed to spot a few kangaroos, well Wallabies, grazing on the grass at a golf course. One even had a baby roo in it’s pouch, so cute! If you’re more about the big, bad and tough animals of Oz then a crocodile experience is the one! We took a crocodile river cruise tour while in Cape Tribulation which set off just along from Thornton Beach Cafe and it was fantastic, we saw a 4.5 metre male croc sunning on the riverbank and learnt so much from the tour guide who was great at making mangroves just as interesting as the crocs themselves!
Kuranda Village had multiple wildlife zoos and sanctuaries including the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld, Koala Gardens and Venom Zoo. We chose to visit the Koala Gardens to achieve our goal of cuddling a Koala but I would have loved to have made my way around all four. Find out more about the wildlife in Kuranda, Cairns here.
Something any adrenaline junky MUST do in their lifetime and especially while travelling the world. I expect there a very few people who would pass up the offer of a sky dive and I was no exception. We completed our Sky Dive with Sky Dive Cairns and had a fantastic experience – although if you’re not keen on being delayed multiple times you might want to look elsewhere.
Check out all the details about our adventure with Sky Dive Cairns including the GoPro footage here.