The sun-drenched state of Queensland has been blessed with one of Earth’s most majestic wonders, the Great Barrier Reef which is the world’s largest coral reef. There are few who have not heard of the gigantic World Heritage-listed reef stretching over 2,300 km along Australia’s east coast. It is a massive underwater world that offers fantastic scuba diving opportunities. On the coast, small cities make their living on the thriving marine tourism. Especially popular are Airlie Beach and Cairns, both being good bases for water activities. With its crystal-clear warm water and its proximity to the reef, it is easy to understand why long-distance tourists are more than happy to plan a trip here.
There are plenty of options for discovering the reef. Snorkelling and scuba diving are ideal to combine with a longer boat trip that will take you out to the best places. The Great Barrier Reef is an ancient colourful creation that has slowly emerged over many thousands of years. Coral has formed a natural wall in the sea, consisting of living organisms such as sea anemones, fungi and starfish. The Barrier Reef is incredibly rich and classed as one of the world’s best places to dive. Over 1,600 fish species live in these waters. There are plenty of tour operators that happily will show you around. But the increasing tourism is hard on the reef and has caused great damage to the coral. It has been worn out and died in many places, so it has been decided to protect certain areas from human activities.
Cairns is in the tropics of North Queensland on the eastern side of Cape York Peninsula. The city was founded during the 1870s and was for a long time a simpler port for the export of merchandise. Thanks to its location and by having an international airport, the city has now evolved into a tourist resort. The sugar industry is still a significant source of income. New arrivals are often amazed when they discover that Cairns is neither cocky nor big. The number of residents is still modest and a few blocks from the bigshot casino, the rainforest is dense. There is an eclectic mix of native crocodile hunters and pale newcomers in their sun hats in the city. Tipsy backpackers as well as local artists stroll around in the humid heat along the main street where greasy fast food is served. The city is built on swamplands and lacks its own sandy beach. Instead, they have an artificial lagoon that is popular on sunny days.
Sights and experiences
Discover and explore
Cairns is synonymous with the Great Barrier Reef, resulting in a group of companies specializing in trips to the reef. Compare and ask questions before deciding which company to choose. Prices vary, and sometimes not everything you expect is being included. If you do not have your own diving certificate, you can learn to scuba dive during a several-day course. One of the better companies in the area is ProDive Cairns (prodive-cairns.com.au). There are also good options for those who prefer to snorkel. If you like to test your new skills, you can book a boat trip with Calypso Reef which will take you to several popular places along the reef (wotif.com/things-to-do/great-barrier-reef-snorkel-dive-cruise-3-reef-sites.a448211.activity-details). If you prefer an Aboriginal experience along the reef, join Reef Magic Cruises at Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel (wotif.com/things-to-do/dreamtime-dive-snorkel-cairns-indigenous-reef-experience.a564893.activity-details).
A fifteen-minute’s boat ride from Cairns lies Green Island (green-island.com.au), the most easily accessible of the islands in the Great Barrier Reef. The island is small, emerald-coloured and surrounded by turquoise sea. Green Island is a perfect destination for a day. Here you can find postcards-beautiful surroundings with swaying palm trees, lush woods and bright sandy beaches. And of course, snorkel-friendly waters. There are several boat trips daily, where you can rent snorkel equipment, for example with BigCat Cruises (greenisland.com.au). Fitzroy Island (fitzroyisland.com) is another option. The island is a small national park located a couple of tens-of-kilometres southeast of Cairns. The fast-ferry Fast Cat (fitzroyisland.com/getting-here) takes you to the island in 45 minutes. Once in place, sun, swimming, snorkelling and diving awaits. There are also good hiking trails in the rainforest to try out.
Atherton Tablelands (athertontablelands.com.au) is the name of the mountain range spreading out behind Cairns. You can see the mountains shrouded in fog as they seem to watch over the city. Lush rainforests, plenty of waterfalls and an abundance of wildlife are to be discovered in the mountains. One of the more frequently visited resorts in the area is Kuranda (kuranda.org), which is a small town where local artisans and artists thrive. The nicest way to get there is with a steam locomotive that run from Cairns train station. The railroad was built in the late 1800s and the trip goes past beautiful waterfalls and over deep ravines. An hour and 45 minutes later you arrive. If you want to see the world’s oldest tropical rainforest from above, you can take a cable car down from Kuranda (wotif.com/things-to-do/kuranda-scenic-railway-skyrail-tour.a190107.activity-details). See the grand waterfalls of Barron Falls and learn about ancient plants and animals that existed long before the dinosaurs. If you want to gain greater insight into life in the jungle, you can book a day trip to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (wotif.com/things-to-do/kuranda-village-tjapukai-aboriginal-park-day-tour.a190097.activity-details).
If you want to get far away from saltwater and sandy beaches, hike up to Glacier Rock Lookout (cairnslifestyle.com/item/glacier-rock-lookout-cairns/). Walk through the rainforest in Barron Gorge National Park (npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/barron-gorge), barely 30 km north of Cairns for a rewarding panoramic view of the city. Expect a hike of up to three hours back and forth. Otherwise, a visit to one of Cairns zoos might be of interest (wotif.com/things-to-do/4-park-pass-cairns-zoom-wildlife-dome-rainforestation-nature-park-more.a473603.activity-details). If you are only in Cairns on a short visit, there are guided tours that will take you to the city’s most appreciated premises during a half day tour (wotif.com/things-to-do/cairns-highlights-tour.a184623.activity-details).
In the middle of the city between Grafton Street and Sheridan Street is Rusty’s Markets (rustysmarkets.com.au). Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the market is open from five in the morning until late afternoon. There are local fruit and vegetables in quantities at great prices. Located along The Esplanade is Cairns Night Markets (nightmarkets.com.au/for-tourists), which is open every evening between five and eleven. Come here for fresh fast food, small souvenirs and inexpensive massages. Or you can treat yourself by going to the Peppers Beach Club & Spa in Palm Cove (wotif.com/things-to-do/spa-facial-experience-at-peppers-beach-club-spa.a254934.activity-details).
There are many small restaurants and cafés to choose from in Cairns. At 9 The Esplanade you will find Gelocchio which serves divine Italian gelato, plain ice cream and frozen yogurt. Don’t let the size of the café or its bland decor fool you, there are lots of different flavours and Cairns’ undoubtedly best ice cream. The French restaurant C’est Bon (cestbon-cairns.com.au) is centrally located at 20 Lake Street. They are proud to only hire in chefs from France. Come here to eat a tasty lunch or dinner. Try their three-course menu and order a glass of bubbly. C’est Bon is in the upper price range, but the food and experience is worth it.
Good to know
There are many Visitor Information Centres in Cairns. Be on your guard as most are travel agents who only show information that they are being paid for selling. For activities, tickets and accommodation in Cairns & Great Barrier Reef you can for example take a look at wotif’s website (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Great%20Barrier%20Reef,%20Cairns).
Warnings and preparations
Since Cairns lies in the northern tropics it has two distinct seasons, the rainy season and the dry season. The rainy season begins in December and continues until March. During that timeframe, it is hot and humid regardless of the time of day and there is a risk of lightning storms and cyclones. The dry season normally falls between April and September and this is when the temperature drops. Between October and November, it is peak season for scuba diving. Keep up to date with the weather by the Bureau of Meteorology (bom.gov.au/qld/cairns). Another thing to keep track of is the deadly Box Jellyfish, which is also called a Stinger. They show up along Queensland’s north coast during the rainy season. Always follow instructions from the guides and do not bathe without a full-body swimsuit at this season. But keep in mind that wearing this does not give you a complete protection.
Cairns International Airport is located about 10 km north of the city (wotif.com/Flights). From the airport, you can choose between taking a taxi or a shuttle bus. Greyhound buses drive up and down along Australia’s east coast. Buses stop at the Reef Fleet Terminal in the centre of Cairns. You can rent a car to be picked up at the airport if you prefer (wotif.com/Car-Hire).
There are surprisingly many accommodation options in Cairns. It is not difficult to find anywhere to rest your feet, regardless of budget. Prices rise markedly during peak season, but if you arrive during low season you can make real bargains. NRMA Cairns Holiday Park (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/NRMA_Cairns_Holiday_Park.htm) offers shady campsites as well as cabins for smaller groups. The park is located three kilometres from central Cairns. Only a short walk from the area is a bus stop with buses going into town. The hostels are among the cheapest in Australia and attract a large crowd of backpackers every year. Family-run Dreamtime Travellers Rest (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Dreamtime_Travellers_Rest.htm) is a quiet hostel located a short walk from Cairns shopping centre. It is small and cosy with its own pool, a pool table and helpful staff. Gilligan’s Backpackers Hotel & Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Gilligans_Backpackers_Hotel_Resort.htm) is popular among young backpackers. Big, loud and full of European twenty-something. A place for those who do not fear sleepless nights and who enjoy sharing rooms with a dozen others. They are said to have Cairns liveliest nightspot.
At a higher price, there are many different hotels and apartments to choose from. Jack & Newell Cairns Holiday Apartment Accommodation (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Jack_Newell_Cairns_Holiday_Apartments.htm) has more luxurious apartments with up to three bedrooms. With wide swimming pools, bright rooms and fully equipped kitchens, it is a good hotel in the heart of Cairns with a fantastic view of the waters of Trinity Inlet. Free Wi-Fi and barbecue grills are also available. The staff can help you to arrange activities. For families, Coconut Holiday Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/BIG4_Ingenia_Holidays_Cairns_Coconut_Resort.htm) is a tempting alternative. It lies in a lush area surrounded by the rainforest only a few minutes’ drive south of Cairns. There are different types of accommodation to choose from here. Larger families can for example be accommodated in spacious cottages. Expect clean and tidy. The area has a children’s playground with a small water park. There are many different facilities such as a tennis court, larger pool, kiosk and gym.
A Saturday in Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef
08:00 – Graffiti breakfast
Start the day with a breakfast in the centre of Cairns, visit Caffiend Café (caffiend.com.au) at 72 Grafton Street. It serves fine coffee in a hidden alley decorated with swirling graffiti art. Try a frothed latte along with a filling omelette, muesli or toast. Gluten-free options are available. Then stroll down to the pier to embark on a speedboat that will take you to lovely Green Island.
11:00 – Sun, beach, and snorkelling
After a 45-minutes trip it is time to go ashore on Green island which is surrounded by the reef. Rent snorkelling equipment at the information centre if you do not have your own. Cover yourself in a generous layer of sunscreen and pick the first best free spot on the beach. Swim out and discover the teeming life beneath the surface. The water is shallow, and the reef is not far away. If you feel like moving your legs, take a walk along the seafront promenade built up around the island, and walk through the rainforest.
16:00 – Ice cream feast and city-life
After spending the whole day underwater, it is time to return to the civilization of Cairns. From the pier, you go straight into town to feast on Australia’s perhaps creamiest Italian ice cream at Gelocchio, located on The Esplanade. Stroll among shops together with those who call the city at the rainforest their home.
18:00 – French flavours
The main meal of the day is enjoyed at the French award-winning restaurant C’est Bon (cestbon-cairns.com.au) at 20 Lake Street. If you have plenty of room in your stomach, order their three-course dinner. Choose from several different options. The menu shifts weekly. In addition, they have an impressive wine list with wines from Australia, New Zealand and of course, France as well.
20:00 – Nightcap
After a filling dinner, you end the evening by checking out The Esplanade’s night market. Bargain for souvenirs, look for crafts and get a cheap massage. There is no stress. The market is open until eleven. If you do not want to turn in quite yet, continue to Cairns well-visited nightspot Gilligan’s at 57 Grafton Street for a toast with backpackers and locals.