Reef to rainforest: Here’s the things the locals say you should do in Cairns
The best of Australia all within a few hours’ drive? Yes we Cairns.
When the humidity of the tropical north gives you its life-affirming hug, you know this will be a holiday that hits differently. Cairns offers an array of things to do to suit pretty much any holidaymaker, and locals know best.
That’s why we’ve hit them up for their favourite things to do in and around this beacon of far north Queensland.
Go for the reefs, rainforests, romance, relaxation and family-friendly fun. Stay for the warm welcome, delicious food and drinks, and absolutely glorious weather.
These are the things the locals say you just can’t miss when you holiday in Cairns.
Ease into it in Cairns…
Depending how long you’ve got in paradise, we recommend starting things off with a morning stroll along Cairns’ Esplanade to find your feet and take stock of what the tropical north has to offer.
Start at the opposite end to the Lagoon (there’s free parking available) because after you’ve walked up an appetite you can stop in at Guyala Cafe. There’s great coffee and brekkie options, and the locals love the Pina Colada Waffles Stack, Chilli Crab Omelette and Lemon Myrtle Eggs Benedict.
If it’s the weekend, head over to Rusty’s Markets and get a taste of exotic fruits, seafood, international foods, bric-a-brac and hand-crafted goods at more than 180 stalls. The locals love coffee from Annee’s (an iced coffee bar with a cult following), pastries from Frenchie’s and fresh tropical fruits from literally any stall.
If the littlies are getting unruly, Muddy’s Playground is a great (and free) place for the kids to blow off some steam. It’s on the esplanade, and you can grab some lunch in the form of burgers or tacos at Muddy’s Cafe.
When you’re sufficiently Muddied out, head over to Cairns Aquarium and let the kids’ imaginations run wild in an underwater world of tropical beauty. We’d recommend the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre Tour where you can get up close and personal with one of the coolest creatures in the sea.
Chill out with a sunset swim at the Lagoon (the kids will love this one) and then head out among any one of Cairn’s tantalising restaurants and eateries.
Snorkel, dive and fly over the Great Barrier Reef
OK, we’ve given you a day to settle in. Now it’s go-time.
A must-do in Cairns is snorkeling or diving the Great Barrier Reef. It is a wonder to behold, and you’ll have to stop your jaw from dropping (you know, being under water and all) the first time you see the bursts of endless colour in the coral and marine life
There’s an array of options and operators to choose from, and there are half day and full day cruises available that take you out into open water. For a super cool reef experience why not add a helicopter ride to your dive? You can cruise out via boat and fly home, or vice versa. You’ll see the Great Barrier Reef in all its wonder from both air and sea, and you’ll save a stack of time while you’re at it. Check out Down Under Cruise & Dive for options.
If you’re worried about your kids walking off a boat directly into the ocean, there are more family-friendly options that will keep the kids amazed and nearer to land. Try a half-day trip to Fitzroy Island where they can swim and snorkel among the colourful fishies just metres from the beach.
Drive and explore between Cairns and the Daintree
There’s just as much to see and do on land (and above it) around Cairns. It’s home to some of the most picturesque flora and fauna in the world. The Daintree Rainforest is the place Sir David Attenborough described as “the most extraordinary place on earth”. Magic.
You can book a full day tour and experience it as part of a group. But if you’re with the littlies it may be best to hire a car and make your own way, even over a couple of days if you don’t want to pack it all into one hectic day.
Start with a nice short hop from Cairns to Kuranda. It’s about a 30-minute drive, and you’ll find the excellent Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway. They can both take a bit of time to do, so allow a few hours depending on which experiences you choose. Locals recommend taking the Skyrail out and railway back in to really get the full experience.
From Kuranda take the coast road to Palm Cove (30 minutes). There is a glorious stretch of beaches to stop at, and Palm Cove has a plethora of restaurants along the beach, making it a great spot for lunch and dinner. The locals love quaint little bar Third on the Left, which has a cracking selection of wines, boutique share boards and delicious toasted sandwiches. For more family-friendly fare, hit up Lucky Fish. What’s not to love about crispy fish and chips while relaxing by the beach?
About a 40-minute drive further and you reach Port Douglas. Port Douglas speaks for itself with its array of fancy dining options but if you land on a Sunday you should definitely check out the Port Douglas Markets (8am to 1.30pm). The market is surrounded by shady, swaying palms and overlooks the Coral Sea, and the offering from vendors ranges from handmade bric-a-brac and craft through to food, coffee and local produce. If you need chill, a must-do is Four Mile Beach (it’s not just a clever name) where you can while the day away.
After Port Douglas has seduced you with its wares, it’s just a 25-minute drive from Port Douglas to Mossman Gorge.
Get set for your first taste of the magnificent Daintree Rainforest. Here you can take your pick from walking trails that snake through the calming rainforest, suspension bridges that swing in the rainforest canopy, and cool spots to stop for a restorative dip. Stop in at the Mossman Gorge Cultural Centre, a First Nations ecotourism experience that tells the story of the Gorge through the eyes of the people who have called it home for hundreds of years.
OK, it’s time to go deeper into the Daintree. It’s the longest stretch but the 1 hour 40 minute drive from Mossman Gorge to Cape Tribulation – including a ferry ride across the Daintree River – is well worth the trip. If you’re keen on crocs, stop at the Daintree River and go on a crocodile spotting tour.
Welcome to the oldest rainforest in the world. Spend your time wandering the various boardwalks (the Marrdja and Dubuji walks are absolutely magical and not too taxing). Spot a cassowary, go zip-lining through the canopy, immerse yourself in the unique plants and wildlife, and stop in at the various lookouts that show where the rainforest meets the sea. The Mount Alexandra Lookout is our pick. It’s a breath-taking view across the daintree and out to the Great Barrier Reef – an outlook 15 million years in the making.
The return drive to Cairns takes about three hours. Hopefully the kids sleep the whole way!
Eat, drink and be merry
You’re back in Cairns after a huge few days. Now it’s time to relax, refuel on some local fare and imbibe with the best of them.
For great breakfasts and coffee, the locals love Guyala Cafe on the Esplanade, Noa in Edge Hill, Nu Nu in Palm Cove for breakfast with cocktails (yum), Bang & Grind on the Esplanade, and Wharf One, near Hemingway’s Brewery about a 10-minute walk from the Esplanade.
For lunch and dinner, try Prawn Star where you’ll be served fresh seafood on a boat in the Marina; Villa Romana, a Cairns institution that serves delicious, well priced Italian food on the Esplanade; Salt House at the Marina, where lunch is a relaxed affair and dinner gets a party vibe with DJs; Dundees at Cairns Aquarium, where you can dine in front of a floor-to-ceiling fish tank (Aquarium entry fee applies); or just opt for takeaway fish and chips from Fishpoint and take it down to the Esplanade to eat.
For drinks and great food nothing goes past the rooftop views at Oak and Vine Cairns, set atop Oaks Cairns Hotel. Great, a deeply relaxing setting with glorious views over the Esplanade.
You can also try Salt House, The Conservatory Bar, Three Wolves Cairns and Hemingway's Brewery.
And there you have it – you’ve experienced Cairns like a local. Now what’s next on your bucket list?