Things to Do in Cairns & the Tropical North
The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's greatest natural treasure, and the world’s largest coral reef. This underwater wonderland stretches for 2,300 km (1,426 miles) from Bundaberg to Australia's northernmost tip. At its closest, it's only 30 km (18.5 miles) away from the Queensland coast.
The Great Barrier Reef encompasses almost 3,000 individual reefs. Their multicoloured beauty is made up of 400 types of living and dead coral polyps, home to around 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 breeds of clams, 500 types of seaweed, 200 species of birds, 1,500 different sponges and half a dozen varieties of turtles.
The Great Barrier Reef is also dotted with around 900 islands, including coral cays such as Green Island and Heron Island, along with the Whitsundays sand islands. Fringing reefs surround the islands, while the outer reef faces away from the mainland and islands and out to sea.
Lapped by the sea 27 km (16.5 miles) from the mainland, Green Island is one of the most popular island day-trip destinations from Cairns. A true coral cay, the island is covered in rainforest and surrounded by coral reefs for snorkeling adventures. The island's luxury resort has a swimming pool for day visitors' use, along with a restaurant, snack kiosk and several bars.
While you're on Green Island you can visit the tropical aquarium, follow the self-guided island walking track, take a short stroll along nature boardwalks leading through the rainforest, and spot turtles swimming in the sea off the island's patrolled beach.
Opened in 1891, Kuranda’s Scenic Railway lies some 21 miles of picturesque landscape away from Cairns. This popular attraction passes by the breathtaking Barron Falls and equally impressive Stoney Creek Falls. While some travelers lament the dark tunnels and rocky crags, most agree that the incredible gorges, lush forests and roaring waterfalls make this experience worth the journey.
Friendly staff members and expert guides help to complete the experience by snapping family photos for you and offering a bit of background information about the railway’s history and construction. Their attentive nature and hospitable vibe almost make up for the train’s lack of air-conditioning—particularly noticeable on hot Aussie days.
Calm waters, crystal clear visibility and tons of tropical fish make Michaelmas Cay one of the best scuba and snorkeling destinations outside of Cairns. Underwater enthusiasts love the colorful coral found far below the ocean’s surface and the lively birds that fly high overhead. Time spent on a boat isn’t so bad either.
Leopard sharks, sting rays and sea turtles swim among the coral reefs, and since the sandy lagoon is protected from the elements, snorkeling conditions are ideal regardless of the weather nearby.
On a trip to Cairns, chances are your days will be filled with adventures outside the city, from diving on the Great Barrier Reef to hiking in the Daintree Rainforest. If that sounds like you, the Cairns Night Markets and Food Court provide the perfect place to shop, eat and even get a massage after a full day of exploring.
The Cairns Night Markets has 130 stalls selling everything from touristy souvenirs and T-shirts to blown glass, local honey and classic Aussie leather hats. An entire aisle of the market is devoted to massage parlors with reasonable prices, which could be a welcome relief after an arduous day adventuring. In front of the night markets is the 200-seat food court—think fresh seafood and a variety of Asian options, everything from sushi and kebabs to Malaysian soups and curries.
The sweltering heat of Cairns in northern Queensland is a sweating contradiction to the lush, fertile landscape of the Atherton Tablelands. An easy hour and a half drive inland, the towns of Mareeba and Atherton are an oasis from the heat and bustle of one of Australia’s larger tropical cities.
The Atherton Tablelands cover an area of 32,000 square kilometres and their altitude ranges from 500 to 1280 metres above sea level. The distinctive climatic conditions lend themselves to a diverse and arrestingly photogenic range of natural phenomena. No less than 12 species of birdlife are unique to the tablelands, which encompasses pockets of the forest that once covered it, now protected as National Park. With a high yearly rainfall, waterfalls in the area are abundant and active. Local attractions include platypus watching, boat cruises and hot air ballooning, and the region is famous for its produce markets and wineries.
Aussie wildlife can be hard to spot at the peak of rainy season. Luckily, there’s the Cairns Wildlife Dome—an all-weather immersion exhibit that puts travelers smack in the middle of a real indoor jungle.
Turtles, snakes and kookaburras wander freely among the forest, and while an up-close look at these small wonders makes for a memorable visit, it’s the Cairns ZOOm that has visitors leaving the dome grinning from ear to ear. The high ropes course consists of more than 50 challenges, including high-flying ziplines that cruise over crocodile-filled waters. Helpful guides offer plenty of educational information, and popular wildlife shows entertain, especially ones involving hand-tamed birds and fuzzy koalas.
Despite its location on the Queensland coast, Cairns doesn’t have any beaches within the city (the closest are just to the north). But you can still enjoy the sun and sand downtown at the Cairns Lagoon. This 50,000-square-foot lagoon is the highlight of the Cairns Esplanade and the perfect place to relax, swim and sunbathe without worrying about the box jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles that sometimes makes appearances in the near-shore waters.
With a maximum depth of only five feet, it’s a safe and welcoming spot for kids, visitors and locals alike, complete with fountains, sunshades, sandy beaches and nearby lawns and tables that are perfect for a midday picnic overlooking Trinity Harbour. The myriad shops and restaurants of the Esplanade surround the lagoon, so it’s easy to enjoy an hour or two by the water amid a day of shopping and sightseeing in the city.
Travelers in search of a tropical paradise need look no further than Cairns Botanic Gardens. This horticultural wonderland is home to more than 4,000 different species of flora from around the world. Clearly printed labels and informational brochures make it easy for every visitor to become an expert.
The lush grounds of this popular destination are ripe with thick ferns and brilliant foliage. Mile-high palms and towering shade trees cast cooling shadows across the lawn, perfect for escaping the midday sun, and the area’s peaceful landscape and quiet surroundings draw bikers, joggers and walkers. Indigenous-birding tours and an extensive orchid collection, as well as exhibition halls filled with exotic plants, are well worth the price of admission—free!
More Things to Do in Cairns & the Tropical North
Muddy’s Playground is a modern water playground that, despite its name, doesn’t cover kids in mud! Incorporating active, passive, educational and interactive elements in its play equipment, Muddy’s is hugely popular with Cairns locals. Themed around the waterfront it sits on, Muddy’s includes a range of equipment for kids of all ages, including bits that don’t even get them wet. Water play areas are in addition to a flying fox, a track ride, a rope bridge, multiple slides, sound chimes and many puzzle games.
In the wet area, a small stream on the southern end of the playground is perfect for supervised toddler play, and a fish area is great for little kids. The biggest attraction of the playground is the water jets that shoot water out of the ground at random intervals. Also in the playground is a disabled-use liberty swing. Muddy’s has two bathroom facilities, as well as picnic tables, barbecues and an expansive lawn.
One of the best ways to get to know locals while traveling is by visiting a farmers’ market, and in Cairns, Rusty’s happens to be one of the best in the country. What started in 1975 as a sparse handful of stalls has since ballooned into a long-running and beloved weekend marketplace. Every Friday through Sunday, more than 180 vendors gather a delectable array of exotic fruits, flowers and vegetables, not to mention cooked food stalls, seafood vendors, fresh baked bread and much more.
Whether you’re looking to stock up on fresh produce for your vacation, or you’d simply like to browse, the wares on offer are indicative of the down under melting pot of Northern Queensland, with indigenous foods from Australian Aborigines alongside unique produce from the Torres Strait Islands, and a mix of cultures from China, India, Papua New Guinea and beyond.
The Esplanade Boardwalk is the heartbeat of Cairns. Located along the scenic coast, this outdoor promenade is the perfect place for weary travelers to stretch their legs and take in the natural sights. The three-mile pathway winds through damp lagoons ideal for birding, past scenic points of interest and historic relics left behind from World War II.
Trendy shops, sidewalk restaurants and bustling pubs are all within walking distance of the well-traveled Esplanade. And nearby public BBQs and outdoor exercise stations are the prime spots for striking up conversations with locals, who love the Esplanade Boardwalk almost as much as visitors.
Forty-five minutes by boat from Cairns, Fitzroy Island has been many things — a Chinese Quarantine Station, a Mission School, a WWII coast-watch station...and today it’s all about its natural features — tropical rainforest and a fringe coral reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef system, where you can dive and snorkel in among green sea turtles, clown fish, and parrotfish.
A continental island that separated from the mainland in the last Ice Age over 8,000 years ago, Fitzroy Island covers just 4km — 97% of which is National Parkland that you can wander through on the walking trails through the forest and along the coast. The rest of the island is all about the white sand beaches, and on the sheltered western end you’ll find the island’s accommodation, a restaurant, Foxy’s Bar, and a conference and wedding venue. There’s also a diving school on the island, and options to go on glass bottom boat tours, SUP boarding, ocean trampolining, and kayaking.
Whether it’s hiking, boating or tracking wildlife, the lush hills and scenic passes of Barron Gorge National Park make up the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts to explore this natural Australian wonder, which lies just beyond Cairns city limits.
Overnight travelers can set up camp at nearby Speewah Conservation Park before setting out on one of Barron Gorge’s popular hikes, which range from an easy 1.2 kilometers to more challenging excursions between the park’s three main trailheads. Commercial rafting trips along the Barron River let daredevil travelers explore less accessible parts of the lower gorge, while wildlife lovers can find tree-kangaroos, flying foxes, spotted-tail quolls and even the endangered southern cassowary along the river’s edge. Visitors often stroll along the banks of Lake Placid in the lower Barron Gorge, and the popular Skyrail Rainforest Cableway takes visitors high up into the park’s rainforest canopy.
More than 1,500 tropical butterflies—from the electric blue Ulysses to the green and yellow Cairns Birdwing—call this world-class aviary home. Stationed in the heart of the Kuranda rainforest, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary has been impressing visitors with both its whimsical nature and state-of-the-art laboratory since it first opened in 1987.
Interested travelers can follow free 30-minute tours that include up-close looks at the caterpillar breeding nursery. Here, you can see newly born butterflies before they’re released into the aviary and learn about the stages of development that lead to the birth of these fanciful creatures. The sanctuary’s laboratory is another popular stop that showcases efforts to keep the aviary well stocked. While just two percent of eggs survive in the wild, more than 80 percent mature here thanks to lab experts. Catch a peek at the hard-working scientists who keep this facility thriving.
The Rainforestation Nature Park is 100 acres of pristine World Heritage rainforest situated just half an hour’s drive from Cairns.
Here, visitors can get involved with nature by taking a ride through the tropical rainforest on an Army Duck Rainforest Tour, where an experienced guide will explain about the tropical plants and wildlife in the park. Elsewhere, the Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience will provide an insight into Aboriginal culture, with demonstrations in traditional-style dwellings. Visitors can also get up close to native Australian animals within the Koala and Wildlife Park, where trained and enthusiastic wildlife keepers will lead their guests along boardwalks that enable close-up encounters of crocodiles, dingoes, wombats, snakes, kangaroos, and wallabies.
If part of your Australian dream vacation includes cuddling with a koala, Kuranda Koala Gardens is where your wish comes true. It’s one of only a few places in Australia where you can hold a koala, so if you have your photo taken, you’re assured bragging rights.
Koalas aren’t the only cute and cuddly animals that call Australia home. At Kuranda Koala Gardens you can also hand-feed kangaroos and wallabies, or spend some time in Australia’s only walk-through snake house, home to pythons and an assortment of deadly snakes, along with dragon and monitor lizards. The resident freshwater crocodiles are also a hit with visitors.
Birdworld Kuranda is one of the largest free-flight aviaries in Australia. Built in 1995, Birdworld was designed to show visitors the beauty of birds in their natural environments. More than 500 birds are housed in the aviary, from all over the world. Cassowaries, parrots, lorikeets, Macaws from the Amazon, the Australian Black Swan, finches and more fly freely around the sanctuary. Of the 75 species that live in the aviary, 19 come from exotic locations, and many – including cassowaries and Macaws – are endangered.
As the birds in Birdworld have are used to people, they’re quite tame, and can be hand-fed. The best time to see the birds is in the morning, or after lunch, when there are less people. The sanctuary is landscaped to look like a natural rainforest, with ponds, waterfalls, and both native and exotic plants.
17,000 years ago, a large volcano erupted in Australia’s north-east corner, near what we now know as the city of Cairns. The core was blasted from this volcano leaving a huge crater, which filled with rainwater over time to create Lake Barrine.
From less-than-peaceful beginnings, Lake Barrine has become the perfect place for a relaxing getaway. A massive body of fresh water tucked within opulent cool rainforest, Lake Barrine is a family friendly, low-key holiday destination with opportunities for hikers, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts. Visitors looking for relaxation can indulge in tea, scones, jam and cream at the lakeside teahouse, built in 1926, and wander the lush, manicured garden surroundings. Guided boat tours to view the Lake’s distinctive ecosystem are available, while the picnic grounds provide the perfect spot for a family lunch. The clear waters of Lake Barrine make an enjoyable swimming spot for swimmers of all levels of fitness and experience.
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