Cairns: A guide to exploring reefs and rainforests

For adventure and activities galore, head north to Cairns.

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Obtaining a UNESCO World Heritage-listing is no easy feat, let alone two. But in far North Queensland, the 2,300km long Great Barrier Reef meets the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical lowland rainforest. Cairns makes the ideal base for your discovery.


To get your bearings of the city, begin with a stroll along the Cairns Esplanade, a 2.5km foreshore walk. Here, enjoy the views of Trinity Inlet and the many public artworks, including sculptures in the Lagoon – a great place to swim and splash under the water fountains. You’ll also find playgrounds, including Muddy’s, with a flying fox, slides and a rope bridge to keep children entertained.

Port in Cairns
Port in Cairns, Australia. Copy space for text

Around town, visit the Cairns Art Gallery, Aquarium, and Bulmba-Ja Art Centre showcasing contemporary indigenous art. Rusty’s market also makes a great place to sample local tropical fruit.

In the evening, visit the Cairns Night Market, where you can buy everything from Akubra hats to boomerangs. Cairns is a multicultural city, reflected in the wide range of dining options. For great views, head to the Waterfront dining precinct. I ended my first night on a high note by joining a sunset dinner cruise with Spirit of Cairns for stunning views of the city skyline.


Start your day gliding high above the rainforest canopy for 7.5 km on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Get off along the way to join ranger led tours at Red Peak and Barron Falls to view the gorge and waterfall from the viewing platform. Look out for wildlife including Tree Kangaroos. On the day I was visiting, I saw a giant Cassowary.

Barron Falls in Kuranda.
Barron Falls in Kuranda.

On arrival in the village of Kuranda, visit the cafes, boutiques and markets which are open from Wednesday to Sunday. The markets showcase a variety of crafts and locally grown produce, including coffee, macadamia nuts and mango ice-cream. There are also attractions including Birdworld Kuranda where you can see 300 species of birds, and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary.

At the historic Kuranda Railway Station, hop aboard one of the Victorian-era carriages of the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which has been in operation since 1891. From here journey to the Cairns Central Railway Station.

Kuranda Railway Station

The Great Barrier Reef

To snorkel among the giant clams, colourful coral, tropical fish and sea turtles of the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll need to travel 2.5 hours from Cairns to reach the outer reef platform. An alternative is to head for the islands, which are 45 minutes away.

Colourful Coral and Tropical Fish in the Great Barrier Reef
Colourful Coral and Tropical Fish in the Great Barrier Reef.

Fitzroy Island offers walking tracks, golden sand beaches, and is surrounded by coral. I visited Green Island with Green Adventures – a tiny coral cay of just 12 hectares, which has a rainforest and white sandy beaches. I went snorkelling and viewed colourful tropical fish and coral from a glass bottomed boat. Later, I joined Isaac Mingura of Wunyami Tours for a cultural walking tour to learn about the significance of Green Island to the local Indigenous people. Isaac was knowledgeable and engaging, a definite highlight of my trip. 

Isaac Mingura from Wunyami Tours.
Isaac Mingura from Wunyami Tours on Green Island.

Port Douglas and the Daintree

The spectacular drive north to Port Douglas along the coastline is rated as one of Australia’s most scenic drives, providing incredible views of the Daintree Rainforest and golden sand beaches. Take your time to explore these beaches including Holloways, Yorkey’s, Clifton and the most well-known, Palm Cove.

On arrival in Port Douglas head up to Flagstaff Hill for breathtaking views across the Coral Sea and 4 Mile Beach, a broad expanse of palm fringed golden sand.

From a small fishing village, Port Douglas has grown into a sophisticated resort town with Macrossan Street offering beach chic boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. It is such a beautiful place that you won’t want to leave, which is why I recommend spending several nights here. The Great Barrier Reef and Daintree are also close by.

The Daintree

Begin with Mossman Gorge, part of the traditional lands of the Kuku Yalanji people, a boulder strewn valley where water washes over ancient rocks and swimming holes provide a place for a refreshing dip.

After crossing the Daintree River by barge, you’ll enter a pristine ancient landscape of old growth rainforest trees that stretches to Bloomfield Falls and Cape Tribulation.

So much more

After a week’s sightseeing, there was still so much more to see. The Atherton Tablelands offers charming historic villages, fresh produce, markets, hikes, and waterfalls. To the south is beautiful Mission Beach. Cairns is a destination that’s geared to tourism, and it makes for an ideal short break.

Travel Notebook

Getting there The Spirit of Queensland train travels 1681km from Brisbane to Cairns. Qantas, Virgin Australia, and Jetstar all fly there. Keep an eye out for sales.

Getting around Hiring a car is the best way to explore or travel by private charter, such as Dragon Tours Limousines. A coach also operates between Cairns and Port Douglas.

Tour operators offer convenient pickups from your accommodation and a wide range of excursions from canyoning to white water rafting and are recommended for 4WD tours of the Daintree. Day cruises to the reef and islands depart from the Reef Fleet Terminal.

Where to stay Cairns is the perfect tourism destination. From backpackers to 5-star hotels, a wide range of accommodation is available to suit all budgets. Avoid school holiday periods when rates increase and stay in the centre as the city is spread out. Recommended hotels include the Doubletree by Hilton, Novotel, Crystalbrook and Shangri-La, with Palm Cove and Port Douglas offering stunning resorts including Peppers Beach Club and the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort.

Suggestions If intending to swim, avoid summer when marine stingers inhabit the seas. Before booking your day on the reef, check for favourable weather conditions and calm seas. Also, be sure to visit Tourism Tropical North Queensland for planning your trip.

READ ALSO: Coober Pedy: White man in a hole

Petra ONeill
Petra ONeill
After growing up in Australia's outback she enjoys visiting remote destinations in Australia for the wildlife, vast open spaces and brilliant night sky and travelling overseas to exotic destinations to experience different cultures. Her bag is always packed and ready for the next trip

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