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On our third trip to Cairns in Far North Queensland, we managed to spend a little more time checking out this gateway city to the Great Barrier Reef, The Daintree and the popular resort town of Port Douglas. Although there is plenty to do and see in Cairns itself it is advisable to take as many day trips as possible to see the amazing tropical north. Here I provide a Cairns must do 4 day itinerary that focuses on what there is to do and see in and around Cairns.
Cairns is majorly a tourist mecca and the place where most visitors come to experience the Great Barrier Reef – one of the natural wonders of the world. But did you know that Cairns was originally a gold rush town and port? It initially provided a transport route for tin and timber from the Atherton Tablelands that was shipped to southern ports.
Back in the late 1800s Cairns was mostly sandy bank lined with dense rainforest and mangroves. Following the gold rush era the flat coastal lands surrounding Cairns became major sugar cane plantations. It wasn’t until the mid 1900s that it became prized as a tourist destination.
Despite its beachfront location, Cairns city does not have sandy beaches, but there are mudflats, abundant with native birdlife. However there is a large manmade lagoon situated on the esplanade that is perfect for a swim. The sandy palm-fringed beaches that you see on social media are located north of Cairns. The Northern Beaches of Cairns are extremely popular with holidaymakers and includes spots like Machans Beach, Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Beach, Clifton Beach, Palm Cove and Ellis Beach.
Cairns is not only renowned for snorkelling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef, but also big game fishing and it has a thriving fishing and prawning industry. Cairns Marina is full of fishing trawlers and deep sea fishing charter boats. Sample some of the locally caught fish and seafood aboard the fishing boat moored in the harbour called the Prawn Star Seafood Restaurant.
These days Cairns is a sophisticated city with upmarket shops, bars, nightclubs, healthy eateries and cafes. There is a wide range of accommodation in Cairns to suit all budgets. As we were travelling in a motorhome we chose to stay at BIG4 Ingenia Holidays Cairns Coconut Resort, a 7 minute drive from the centre of Cairns.
On our first day we spent the morning strolling along the footpath along Cairns Esplanade, the Cairns Harbour and to the cruise ship port. Although I wouldn’t rate Cairns as the prettiest seaside city in Australia, it does have plenty of green spaces and parkland along the waterfront. The harbour is also very pretty with its variety of boats, yachts, charter boats and huge cruise ships.
Adjacent to the esplanade area is the city centre with plenty of shopping, eateries and a few pubs. The Cairns Art Gallery housed in a landmark heritage building, is located here, and offers a wide array of artworks and exhibitions. There are also touches of aboriginal artwork displayed throughout the mall.
Other places of interest are the Cairns Aquarium, Cairns ZOOM and Wildlife Dome, or if you’re into some highrolling try your luck at the nearby Pullman Reef Hotel Casino.
My husband enjoyed a swim at the Cairns Lagoon whilst I had a stroll around the CBD, sourcing out something fresh and healthy to eat for lunch. We both ate a delicious salad wrap on the lawn beside the lagoon.
We spent the remainder of the day strolling through the massive Cairns Botanic Gardens and we weren’t disappointed. The gardens have the best array of tropical plants possibly in the world. If you’re a budding botanist a fully guided tour through the garden is probably worth your while. There is also a cafe here where you can stop for a cold beverage and a bite to eat.
After spending a large part of the afternoon in the extensive gardens we returned to Cairns Marina and partook in an Aperol spritz (beer for my husband) al fresco on the lawns at the Salt House. From here we could watch the sun start to disappear over the horizon and the cruise boats return after a day on the reef. What a perfect end to day one in Cairns!
A trip to Cairns would definitely not be complete without a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. There are dozens of tour operators that take tourists out on the reef on a daily basis. We chose to go with Ocean Freedom, a 20 metre catamaran, that cruised out to Upolu Cay Reef and “Wonder Wall”, about one hour out from Cairns Harbour.
Unfortunately, being one who suffers from sea sickness, it wasn’t the best of conditions for me on this particular day. The seas were rough and choppy, even when we were anchored at the cay, I was horribly sick for the entire day!
My husband snorkelled at both sites, the second one being a drift snorkel back to the boat. I managed to go out in the glass bottom boat and saw some of the amazing coral and marine life. A quick dip overboard did actually help me feel a little better. From the boat we got to see two huge sea turtles and a hungry baracuda that circled the boat looking for food to be thrown overboard.
Scuba diving was offered on the boat, even to beginners. There was plenty of food and refreshments served during the course of the day by the attentive crew. Lunch was fresh prawns, smoked salmon, chicken and delicious salads.
After six hours on the reef we returned back to Cairns. On the trip back we were offered cheese platters and alcoholic beverages. It was a long day, and I must admit I was glad to back on dry land after being sick again on the rough ride back into the harbour.
On day three we decided to take the trip to Kuranda via the Scenic Rail on the way up the mountain, and returning by the Skyrail. The train journey takes ninety minutes and snakes it way up the mountain through dense rainforests, rocky escarpments, cascading waterfalls and breathtaking views over the coastline of Cairns.
The train stopped for a short while to allow us to take a peek from the lookout at the magnificent Barron Falls and the Barron River in the valley far below. There was plenty of water gushing over the falls on this day since the recent heavy rainfall.
We jumped back on the train and resumed our journey towards the village of Kuranda. This small mountain village is brimming with interesting and unique arts and crafts, shops and markets. We discovered that the market stalls and shops offered an array of leather goods, aboriginal paintings and artefacts, jewellery and hemp clothing. There are also many cafes, a hotel, and market stall eateries offering a range of delicacies.
We easily filled in the few hours in Kuranda by strolling around the shops and galleries, taking a walk down a trail to Barron Falls, visiting Butterfly House, and just sitting and relaxing in one of the sidewalk cafes. Alternatively, the lawn area in the parks beside the river are a very pleasant place to sit and enjoy the rainforest vegetation, the birdlife and breathe in the fresh mountain air.
We returned via the scenic Skyrail and soared down the mountain in the gondola with a bird’s eye view of the rainforest beneath us. We stopped at Barron Falls for a different perspective of the falls from the Edge Lookout. Further down we stopped at Red Peak where we took a walk on the rainforest boardwalk and visited the Rainforest Discovery Zone.
After a big day visiting Kuranda we returned to Cairns and had drinks and dinner at the Cairns RSL Club that is located along the Esplanade with waterfront views.
On our last day of our Cairns holiday we decided to drive the 40 kilometres northwards to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures park. The scenery along this iconic Great Barrier Reef drive to the park is definitely worth it! There are coastal views and palm fringed beaches galore and you’re surrounded by the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, where the rainforest meets the coast.
Hartley’s, from its humble beginnings as a tea house in 1934, evolved into crocodile show, a zoo and the first place in Australia to breed crocodiles in captivity. The park takes in a huge area with more than 2.5 kilometres of timber boardwalks and pathways that take you on a journey through eucalypt woodlands, notophyll rainforest and wetlands.
Apart from hundreds of saltwater and freshwater crocodiles there are Komodo dragons, alligators, cassowaries, wombats, koalas, emus, snakes, lizards, kangaroos and wallabies. There are also a variety of daily shows including the crocodile attack show, snake show, cassowary feeding, and koala talk. Or you can book your own private animal encounter with koalas, crocs, reptiles or some of the mammals in the park.
On arrival at Hartley’s we were given a free ticket to board the crocodile cruise that does a circuit around the horseshoe shaped billabong. There is an educational commentary given during the cruise about the crocodiles that inhabit the billabong. Some of the crocs are fed chicken carcasses on a stick, that they have to leap out of the water to get. It was very exciting and riveting to see these prehistoric creatures jump up out of the water!
The crocodile attack show was the standout. There were several brave rangers that dared to tempt the crocs out of the pond to feast on chicken carcasses. The largest beast was 6 meters in length. Others had to leap out of the water to catch their meal. It was a truly heart stopping experience.
We easily passed the day here, stopping to enjoy a hearty lunch at the cafe that overlooks the billabong, and afterwards a browse in their souvenir shop.
On our way back to Cairns we stopped briefly at Palm Cove and sauntered out onto the long jetty and strolled along the famous palm-fringed beach. We also drove into Trinity Beach where we enjoyed a cold beer at the beachfront tavern.
Our four days in Cairns went by all too quickly. We certainly stacked a lot into our stay. We discovered that this Far North Queensland city has come of age. It revealed that it has the sophistication that rivals some of Australia’s more populous cities and is a great holiday destination for those wanting to escape the cooler climates in the southern states.
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 6 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now in her early 60s. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Tweed Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Kathy enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, photography, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.
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Debbie HarrisNovember 21, 2022
Thanks Kathy, I haven’t been to Cairns but have heard good things about it and your post was very useful for making plans to go one day.
KathyNovember 21, 2022
Cairns is a great city to visit during the dry season but I wouldn’t attempt it during summer and the wet season. We really enjoyed our time here this time around. I think having the motorhome made it easier to drive around so we could include Port Douglas, the Cassowary Coast and Atherton Tablelands in this visit.
oneearthNovember 21, 2022
Amazing places to be visit during the dry season… Thanks for sharing the beautiful places to enjoy summer..Nice post!
KathyNovember 22, 2022
Yes Far North Queensland and Cairns do have a lot to offer visitors and this is the reason it is so popular during the dry season. Thank you for your comment.