Wedged between the Great Barrier Reef and ancient rainforests, the small city of Cairns, Australia is big on attractions. Adventure travel abounds, providing the perfect contrast to relaxing on sun-drenched beaches. From island hopping to bungee jumping and an award-winning dining scene, this is a balmy holiday haven for travelers of all tastes.
Cairns is located in tropical North Queensland, with its own international airport. This is an easy place for independent travel, via quiet roads lined with sugar cane fields. However, local tour companies will also ensure you see the top sights, both on and off the famous reef.
Luxuriate at Palm Cove
Cairns is surrounded by pretty beaches. However, Palm Cove offers its own style of barefoot luxury, as a hot spot for spa and wellness retreats. To go with the theme, the beach village hosts a number of upmarket restaurants, as well as boutique shops and galleries.
Exclusive Double Island is visible from the palm-fringed beach and close enough to reach by kayak in about 30 minutes. You’ll cross over Haycock Reef to spot eagle rays and sea turtles. Daily buses or shuttles get you to Palm Cove from Cairns City in half an hour and you’ll find water sports operators on Williams Esplanade.
Explore the Great Barrier Reef
There are plenty of ways to discover the world’s largest coral reef, with many breathtaking sites within a 60-minute boat trip from Cairns. Dive and snorkel tours, for both professionals and beginners, get you up-close and personal to over 6,000 magical underwater species.
From liveaboard cruises to day trips, tour companies like Quicksilver Cruises and Great Adventures offer equipment, reef education, comfortable vessels, and onboard dining. If you prefer to stay dry, glass-bottomed boat tours and fishing charters depart daily from Cairns Marlin Marina and the Reef Fleet Terminal.
Raft the Barron River
The Barron River offers scenic whitewater rafting through World Heritage-listed rainforest. Rapids range from class II to III, with dips, canyons, and falls to thrill beginners and families. Half the fun is discovering the names of upcoming rapids, like Kitchen Sink and Cheese Churn.
Just a 20-minute drive from town, the Barron Gorge National Park is an easy day trip, for both rafting and hiking through forest trails. Most rafting tours leave in the afternoon and include hotel transfers, from operators like Raging Thunder Adventures and Foaming Fury.
Hang Out at the Esplanade
Whether it’s swimming, strolling, dining or catching some rays, holiday action takes place on the Esplanade. Cairns Lagoon is the star attraction, with a sparkling swimming pool located on the waterfront amid harbor and mountain views. Picnic tables, exercise equipment, and playgrounds dot the grounds, giving it a social atmosphere year-round.
Everything from quaint cafes to takeaway shops, bars, and fine-dining seafood restaurants line the road. For shopping, the Night Markets kick off each night, with over 70 retail stores. As the area is a walker’s paradise, you’ll find everything within a short distance of most hotels.
Bathe at Babinda Boulders
Steeped in Aboriginal legend, Babinda Boulders is the spot to cool off in the tropical heat. Pristine water runs from Mount Bartle Frere, swirls over Babinda Creek’s giant granite boulders, and pools to create refreshing swimming holes. The most revered is the Devil’s Pool, complete with its own tragic myth of lost love.
The smooth drive to Babinda takes about an hour from Cairns and encompasses mountain, rainforest, and farm views on a spectacular road trip. You can also discover the boulders with the help of a local tour company, like Barefoot Tours.
Bungy Jump in the Rainforest
AJ Hackett Cairns is a complete destination in itself for thrillseekers. Plunge off the 50-meter Bungy Tower, or zip through the trees on the world’s fastest, multi-person jungle swing.
If you’re more of a spectator, relax on a viewing deck in a sun chair to take in the panoramic views, and enjoy a drink from the bar. AJ Hackett offers free transfers from hotels in Cairns, which is a 20-minute drive away. Just make sure you reserve your ride in advance and pack some extra courage that day.
Soar in a Hot Air Balloon
For a bird’s eye view of the natural wonders surrounding Cairns, it’s hard to beat an early morning hot air balloon ride. As the climate is so stable, the takeoffs are consistent. This makes Cairns one of the world’s best (and most affordable) places to do it.
You’ll soar over the Cairns Highlands and the Atherton Tablelands, with sweeping vistas of patchwork farmland, tropical fruit crops, mountain ranges and even kangaroos if you keep your eyes peeled. Most hot air ballooning trips launch near the township of Mareeba, with operators including Cairns Hot Air Balloon.
Tropical North Queensland is home to mighty saltwater crocodiles, some of which can grow up to seven meters long. They’re among the largest apex predators on the planet, so croc-spotting is always best done in the company of a guide.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is about 40 minutes north of Cairns City, with lagoon cruises specifically designed to observe the magnificent beasts. Or, hop aboard the M.V. Crocodile Explorer to discover the waterways and mangroves of Trinity Inlet, to see them in their natural habitat.
Sleep on the Reef
The Moore Reef pontoon is a popular day trip stop for dive and snorkel cruises, complete with its own waterslide. However, you can take the experience to a whole new level—and get the reef to yourself—on the unique Sunlover by Starlight overnight stay.
When everyone else goes home, only 18 guests remain to sleep under the stars in deluxe swags. First though, look forward to spectacular sunset viewing, dinner in the great outdoors, and the chance to see reef sharks hunting at night from the underwater observatory. In the morning, you’ll snorkel across a people-free reef.
Ride the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
To discover the oldest rainforests in the world, take a trip on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Six-person gondola cabins glide above the giant trees of the Wet Tropics, stopping at isolated Red Peak, thundering Barron Falls, and the charming mountain town of Kuranda.
The return trip is just as exciting when you ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway back down. It travels through handmade tunnels and across 37 bridges for panoramic rainforest views. Both trips are offered individually or as a package. They depart from Skyrail’s Smithfield Terminal and Freshwater Railway Station, with transfers from hotels available.
Snorkel at Fitzroy Island
A wild natural paradise, Fitzroy Island is largely comprised of National Park-protected woodland, rainforests, mangroves, and idyllic coral beaches. The calm, tropical waters and fringing reefs host clownfish, sea turtles, and enormous gropers just meters from shore, making it a prime spot for snorkeling.
It’s only a 45-minute cruise from Cairns onboard the Fitzroy Island Fast Cat, which departs Cairns Marlin Marina three times a day. To stay longer, choose a beach cabin at the Fitzroy Island Resort or book early to pitch a tent at limited spots in the Fitzroy Island Council Campground.
See the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary
The bright blue Ulysses butterfly is an iconic emblem of tropical North Queensland. You’ll see it at the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, among more than 1,500 others found throughout the region. It’s home to the world’s largest moth, the Hercules, along with Red Lacewing Butterflies and a seasonal Silkmoth display.
Tours, educational exhibits, and a museum allow you to explore the main aviary with paths winding through exotic plants and bubbling streams. There’s also a UV Light Display that lets you see through the eyes of a butterfly, in fluorescent color. Drive to its location in Kuranda Village in under an hour from town, or book a coach tour.
Sail to Green Island
A coral cay that formed over thousands of years, Green Island is a haven for stingrays, hawksbill turtles, sea eagles and about 28 species of forest birds. With safe anchorage for private and commercial boats, sailing here is one of the best ways to immerse in wildlife-spotting.
Daily sailings depart from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal, on a range of vessels from intimate yachts to sailing schooners for larger groups. Experience exclusive mooring on the reef and help the crew hoist the sails on Ocean Free, or catch a 45-minute ferry over and try windsurfing from Green Island Resort.
Relax at the Botanic Gardens
When you need a break from adventure activities, chill out surrounded by native Australian greenery at the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Created in 1886, it's home to some of the rarest plant species in the world, with tropical fruit trees, orchids, vines, and the pungent Amorphophallus Titanum flower.
A garden restaurant, meandering waterways, ornate bridges, and open lawns add to the relaxing vibe, for ambling strolls and picnics on the grass. Buses, taxis, and tours are available for the short drive from Cairns City, and admission is free.
Visit the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
From the deep sounds of the didgeridoo to legends of the Dreamtime, rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions are on display at Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park. Along with theatre, dance performances. and art exhibitions, have a go at boomerang and spear throwing during interactive experiences.
By night, the park lights up with a ceremonial fire and corroboree celebrations by the Tjapukai warriors. Catch a bus to its location on Skyrail Drive from Cairns City Place Bus stop, or take a quick drive or taxi ride from town.