Having grown up here, and being tourist guide for friends on numerous occasions, here are my top tips and must-do’s for a trip to Cairns and surrounds:
1. Cairns – Spend a day or so to enjoy the lifestyle of the region. The best area to stay is in town or along the Cairns esplanade. To visit the reef and town of Cairns, you will not need a car as the Reef Terminal and Cairns centre are within walking distance. Enjoy the Night Markets (located along the esplanade), shopping at Cairns Central for common retail brands and Myer, boutique stores located around City Place and the city streets, and the many bars and restaurants.
o The Pier – many dining options available along the waterfront. My personal and long-time favourite is Donini’s , by far my favourite Italian restaurant ever!
o Salt House – located near the Pier – this place offers the best views, vibe and atmosphere. With dining available over the water, this place is ideal for afternoon drinks and live music on weekends, or a romantic dinner.
The Esplanade – wander along the esplanade where there are many dining options to suit everyone.
2. Great Barrier Reef – Book this trip when you arrive in Cairns. The main determinant when selecting a suitable day is the wind. This is hard to determine weeks (or months) in advance. Even if it is raining on land, it may be clear and fine out on the reef. If the wind is low, the boat ride will be less bumpy, and the water will be clearer. The best bet is to find a local tour booking agent in the centre of Cairns, or at your accommodation, and discuss with them which day will be best to book in a trip, taking into consideration the time you have available. My favourite spots to visit are Michaelmas Cay and Upolu Reef. Absolutely beautiful!
3. Visit the nearby islands – Green Island and Fitzroy Island can be visited over a full day trip or there is accommodation available on the islands if you wish to stay (recommended). With daily transfer boats, either island will provide a fantastic
experience. You can snorkel from the island shores, take a glass bottom boat out, or relax around the pool. Enjoy the break!
If you have extra time, you can book to go Deep Sea Fishing, skydiving adventures and diving courses.
For these next highlights, you will need transport, such as a hire car or tour.
4. Port Douglas – Located 1 hour by car from Cairns, the drive alone to Port Douglas is worth the trip!
Winding along the coast with magnificent views, it is easy to see why this is a favourite tourist destination, and well-loved by the locals. On the way to Port Douglas is Palm Cove (30 mins drive from Cairns), a beautiful picturesque beach hub, well visited by locals and recommended for tourists. Palm Cove (and Port Douglas) offer many award winning restaurants and accommodation options, ranging from camping grounds to 5 star beach resorts (splurge if you may – it is well worth it). I often enjoy stopping off at Palm Cove on the way to Port Douglas for a morning or afternoon
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Hire an underwater camera for your own pictures.
tea and a wander along the boutique stores. If you have time (which you should make), enjoy a laze on the beach. One thing about the Far North is that everything is in slow motion. Do not rush anything! Just relax…
Once you arrive at Port Douglas, explore Macrossan Street (the main street) where you will find various dining options and boutique stores. If you visit Port Douglas on the weekend, you should visit the markets, where there are many things on offer typical of the local region. Another must-do is to visit Four Mile Beach lookout in Port Douglas. Beautiful!
5. Daintree – From Port Douglas, you can venture further north, where you will discover the Daintree – ‘where the rainforest meets the sea’. A world heritage site for a reason, this is highly recommended!
Visiting Port Douglas and the Daintree can be done through a tour departing from Cairns or Port Douglas. This is recommended to ensure you visit the best spots. Otherwise, if you prefer to drive, you can find out from tour agents or the locals where to go, (and
trust me, there are many ‘best kept secrets’ to visit and explore).
6. Kuranda – This rainforest village located just 20 mins drive from Cairns is a great gateway to explore the rainforest and highlands of Cairns. You can visit ancient rainforests, waterfalls, and go bush walking to take in the scenery. Either way, you will be impressed with the surrounds. The Kuranda markets are great on the weekends with local produce and artefacts, such as wood, honey, paintings and clothing.
7. Atherton Tablelands – From Kuranda, drive along to the Atherton Tablelands (Malanda, Mareeba, Yungaburra, Tolga, Lake Tinaroo, Lake Barrine, Lake Eacham) – this region is a Cairns local’s weekend escape. Local’s often take their boats up to Lake Tinaroo for recreational sports. Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham are ancient volcanic craters. You can walk around the lakes and discover the lush tropical surrounds and wildlife. I personally love Lake Eacham for swimming with the platypuses. Also great for picnics!
If you have extra time:
8. Undara – If you have extra days remaining (minimum
2 days, including overnight stay) and wish to experience the outback, it is highly recommended to venture to Undara. Here you will discover unique lava tubes running underground, due to multiple volcanic eruptions around the area. Stay overnight in unique accommodation, such as historic train carriages converted into hotel rooms, or camping. Enjoy a bush breakfast around a fire, before embarking on your tour of the lava tubes. This is a well-worth it experience of the Australian outback.
Whatever you decide to do, enjoy the culture of the Far North – Slow down, unwind and relax!
I hope this helps anyone planning a trip to North Queensland. Please feel free to add any comments, suggestions, or recommendations!
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