If you're looking for a destination with warm weather, lush rainforest and unbeatable beaches, Cairns is the perfect base for your travels in northern Australia. This small city has made a name for itself as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but there is so much more to explore within a couple of hours' drive of the city.
Keep in mind that Cairns is located in the tropics, and the flooding that accompanies the wet season (from November to May) has the potential to put a damper on your travel plans. Australia's public transport network is also sparse in regional areas, so you will likely need to book a tour or hire a car for these day trips. Read on for where to go, what to do and how to get to the best destinations around Cairns.
Great Barrier Reef: Snorkeling and Diving
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef system and one of Australia's top attractions. It was named a World Heritage site in 1981 and receives thousands of visitors every year.
The shallow water means you can see much of the colorful coral, fish, and turtles while snorkeling, although divers will be able to experience a more expansive underwater world. Glass-bottom and semi-submersible boat tours are also available, as are scenic flights.
Getting There: The Great Barrier Reef extends for more than 1,400 miles down Australia's east coast. Many popular snorkeling and diving spots can be reached on day tours from Cairns, including Michaelmas Cay, Moore Reef, Agincourt Reef, Hastings Reef, and Green Island.
Travel Tip: If your budget allows, spending a couple of days on the reef is an incredible experience. Luxury resorts are dotted throughout the Whitsundays and other islands.
The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area protects the oldest tropical rainforest in the world: the Daintree. The Eastern Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal people are the Traditional Owners of the land in this part of far north Queensland.
Daintree National Park is divided into two sections, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation, filled with hiking trails and unique wildlife, like the endangered (and dangerous!) southern cassowary. Mossman Gorge is centered on a dramatic river, while Cape Tribulation is where the rainforest meets the sea.
Getting There: Depending on which part of the rainforest you plan to visit, the Daintree is around a two-hour drive north of Cairns. We recommend taking a tour from Cairns if you are unfamiliar with driving in tropical conditions, as roads are often closed during wet season.
Travel Tip: This is real wilderness, complete with crocodiles, stinging trees, and little to no cell reception. Check the park website for alerts or stop by the Mossman Gorge Visitors Centre and the Daintree Discovery Centre for more information.
Kuranda: Shopping and Sightseeing
Kuranda is a charming village tucked into the rainforest just north of Cairns. The local markets are open every day, with hippie-inspired clothing, handmade jewelry, souvenirs, and snacks. There are also plenty of cafes in town, plus walking trails and some excellent wildlife sanctuaries nearby.
Getting There: Kuranda can easily be reached by car or local bus in around half an hour from Cairns. The popular scenic route takes around an hour and a half, via the Skyrail cablecar or the Kuranda Railway through the rainforest (many visitors combine the two, taking the Skyrail to Kuranda and the railway back or vice versa).
Travel Tip: Although Kuranda is part of the Atherton Tablelands region, we recommend spending a day here and then another day on the other towns further from Cairns.
Atherton Tablelands: Natural Wonders
Inland from Cairns, the Atherton Tablelands region is packed with adorable villages, impressive waterfalls, and delicious local produce. Adventurous travelers can explore Millstream Falls, the Undara Lava Tubes, the Chillagoe Caves, or the Misty Mountains wilderness trails, then refuel with coffee from Skybury Tropical Plantation or hearty cafe fare at the Falls Teahouse.
Getting There: Daily bus services run from Cairns to Atherton, stopping at Smithfield, Kuranda, Speewah, and Mareeba. Connections are available to Dimbulah, Chillagoe, Herberton, and Ravenshoe. However, traveling by car or on a tour is the fastest and most convenient choice.
Travel Tip: The higher altitude of the tablelands means the region is often cooler than Cairns and the coast, providing a welcome escape from the tropical heat.
Palm Cove is an upmarket beachside suburb in northern Cairns, hosting dozens of boutiques, restaurants, resorts, and spas along a gorgeous stretch of white sand. The tranquil waters are perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking, and the famous palm trees offer plenty of shade.
Getting There: Palm Cove is a half-hour drive or an hour bus ride north of the Cairns city center.
Travel Tip: On the esplanade, Vivo is a great place for a luxurious brunch with ocean views.
Port Douglas is a pretty beachside town about an hour north of Cairns. It is home to Four Mile Beach, one of the most picturesque in the region, and is conveniently located between the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. In fact, Port Douglas is the only place in the world where two World Heritage-listed sites meet.
Port Douglas also has a thriving foodie scene along Macrossan Street, with cafes like Origin Espresso, restaurants like Sassi Cucina and the iconic Court House Hotel pub offering a wide range of excellent dining and drinking options.
Travel Tip: During stinger season (the period from around November to May when venomous jellyfish can be found off the far north Queensland coast), a net is set up at the northern end of Four Mile Beach to protect swimmers. However, the beach is sometimes closed completely, so make sure to obey the signs.
The majority of Fitzroy Island, just off the coast of Cairns, is covered by national park, with a small resort on the western side. The island's main beach, Nudie Beach, regularly ranks as one of Australia's best, but visitors can also make the most of hiking trails, snorkeling, kayaking, or even the ocean trampoline. If you'd rather keep dry, you can view the reef from a glass-bottom boat.
Getting There: The Fitzroy Flyer fast ferry takes around 45 minutes to reach the island and costs AU$80 per person return. There are three departures daily, and bookings are essential. Check the full timetable on the website.
Travel Tip: At the non-profit Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, you can meet some of the reef's most special inhabitants and support treatment for sick and injured turtles.
Between Cairns and Townsville, the small town of Mission Beach is a popular stop on the East Coast backpacker trail, and also hosts a couple of high-end resorts. The beach is surrounded by World Heritage-listed rainforest and a chain of offshore islands, with opportunities for sightseeing, snorkeling, skydiving, and whitewater rafting.
Travel Tip: Small towns across Australia are known for their large novelty statues, from the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour to the Big Merino in Goulburn. In Mission Beach, you can pose with the Big Cassowary at the corner of Tully Mission Beach Road and Wongaling Beach Road.