In the shade of the Daintree and with the reef beckoning beyond the shore, Cairns tends to get overshadowed by what’s next door. It’s about time the vibrant city had its day in the sun.
With the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest as neighbours, Cairns is often seen as little more than a jumping-off point between World Heritage-listed icons. But bypass the tropical town and you’ll miss a destination on the rise. A revamped cityscape and pedestrian malls have brought new energy to the town, while the hinterland is paradise for four-wheel drivers, campers, mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners.
You need to do this...
With the rainforest-clad mountains of the Great Dividing Range on the western skyline, you should (temporarily) turn your back on the coast and head for the hills. Make sure you pack hiking boots or trail-running shoes so you can tackle the rugged paths that wind through the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. These trails are your best chance to come nose to beak with the country’s second-largest bird, the southern cassowary (there are thought to be fewer than 2000 in the wild). Of course, if you’re lucky enough to spot one, give it a wide berth – this bird is as ornery as it is beautiful.
The hike to Glacier Rock in Barron Gorge National Park is a personal favourite and well worth the sweat equity required. Take the eight-kilometre Douglas Track, which begins at the end of Stoney Creek Road and leads to a rocky outcrop with stunning views of Cairns and the islands beyond. For a less strenuous but almost as spectacular walk, follow the road through the national park to the Barron Gorge Hydro-Power Station, where waterfalls tumble onto the verge during the wet season (November to March).
About 30 minutes’ drive south of Cairns is Behana Gorge, where a boulder-lined swimming hole is fed by the waterfalls that cascade down the steep gorge. To get there, it’s an easy three-kilometre walk along a paved path – just long enough for you to properly appreciate diving into the cool rock pools fed by mountain streams.
To see some of the Wet Tropics area from above, board a glass-domed gondola at Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a 15-minute drive north of town. Thrillseekers can up the ante by booking an open-air gondola in which there’s nothing but a steel railing between you and the forest canopy below. On the way to Kuranda Village, disembark and join a boardwalk tour or simply stop to enjoy the views of Barron Falls, which are particularly striking after wet-season rain.
Take the Kuranda Scenic Railway to return to Cairns. The tracks follow a historic trail forged by tough-as-nails pioneers who cleared the first permanent route through the forest in the late 1800s. If you spoil yourself with a Gold Class ticket, you’ll enjoy snacks and sparkling wine in the comfort of a beautifully restored carriage.
Don’t have time to visit the Great Barrier Reef? You’re in luck because the reef has come to town, thanks to the recently opened Cairns Aquarium (cairns aquarium.com.au). Divers have collected live specimens and transported them to the tanks, where natural habitats have been re-created to educate visitors about protecting the precious ecosystem.
Cast your eyes seaward while you cool down at the Lagoon, a huge public pool on the Cairns Esplanade, and you’ll see a verdant shimmer on the horizon. This is the aptly named Green Island, a teeny coral cay 45 minutes by boat from the city.
The easiest way to get there is by boarding a Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises catamaran or by chartering a helicopter flight – if you’ve got deep pockets. You can learn to scuba-dive or go snorkelling, either from the beach or on the fringing reef. For something different, try “helmet diving” – you don a helmet filled with compressed air then walk along the seabed, surrounded by tropical fish.
Green Island is home to Marineland Crocodile Habitat, where a giant saltwater beast resides. At 5.5-metres long, Cassius is recognised by Guinness World Records as the largest croc in captivity. You’ll also see fascinating Melanesian artefacts and relics collected by the park’s founder, George Craig.
Sailors and scuba divers should book a spot on Passions III, a high-tech 25-metre sailing catamaran that regularly leaves Cairns. The vessel takes passengers to a selection of the 26 dive sites that the company, Passions of Paradise, has exclusive access to.
You’ll want to eat here…
Cairns punches above its culinary weight, thanks to its access to seafood and proximity to the Atherton Tablelands, the food bowl of North Queensland. For fruit and vegetables so fresh they’re dusted with soil, don’t miss Rusty’s Markets, between Grafton and Sheridan streets. Held from Friday to Sunday, Rusty’s has everything from dragon fruit and durian to coconuts and coriander.
Lovers of French pastries and bread should head to Le Crouton boulangerie (07 4058 2451) in Freshwater for chewy baguettes and flaky croissants.
Back in the CBD, Grafton Street has some great cafés. Look for the street-art- strewn laneway that leads to Caffiend, which many locals say serves the best coffee in Cairns.
Another top place for a caffeine hit is nearby Billy’s Coffee, where charismatic Papuan national Billy Hoade brews. A passionate roaster, he received a bronze medal at the 2016 Golden Bean Awards. Warning: there’s not much food served here, only great coffee.
At The Flying Monkey Café (0475 309 060) on Sheridan Street, the waitstaff are so laid-back they’re almost horizontal. Distressed-timber doors have been repurposed into tables and low-slung couches and a weathered piano give the space a share-house feel.
Handily situated next to Cairns Art Gallery, Perrotta’s at the Gallery has a great deck that’s a perennial favourite. The all-day menu features treasures such as a Campari-cured ocean trout salad with pickled red onion, rocket and fennel, served with crisp black-ash flatbread on the side.
Health-conscious diners will enjoy the meat-free, clean-eating, plant-based fare at Lafew Teahouse & Kombucha Bar, which touts itself as a “vintage-style teahouse with a twist”. Or for Insta-worthy novelty and seriously good fish and chips, dine aboard the Prawn Star, a no-frills trawler docked at Cairns Marlin Marina.
At Waterbar & Grill Steakhouse at the Shangri-La Hotel, you can enjoy views of the marina while tucking in to one of the best steaks in town or the restaurant’s legendary lamb ribs. If seafood is more your thing, don’t miss the chilli-salt squid with rocket and garlic aïoli at North Bar and Kitchen, also at the Shangri-La Hotel.
For beachfront dining, drive half an hour north along the Captain Cook Highway to Palm Cove, where small bars, restaurants and cafés are clustered along the palm-lined boulevard. Fine-diner Nu Nu is the top pick, offering “titbits” (try the XO bun with Hervey Bay scallop, pork and ponzu) and decadent mains (such as red curry with wild-ginger pork belly, ginger caramel and a young-coconut salad). You’ll dine among coconut palms, overlooking the sand and the Coral Sea.
These are the places to stay…
Art Deco lodging house meets 1930s Queenslander at Floriana Guest House, a beguiling architectural mishmash on the Cairns Esplanade.
There’s also Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort, a caravan park on steroids. The kids will love the water park and jumping pillow, while you’ll enjoy the resort-style swimming pool, spa and tennis court. The property includes three-bedroom condos, two-bedroom villas, camp sites and caravan spots with ensuites.
Book a top-floor Harbour View Suite at Pullman Cairns International for views of boats bobbing on Trinity Inlet.
At Moore Reef on the outer Great Barrier Reef, there’s a permanently moored pontoon where you can unroll a swag beneath the starry sky and fall asleep to the sounds of the sea. The two-day Sunlover Reef Cruises package includes snorkel safaris and glass-bottom boat tours to otherwise inaccessible parts of the reef.
Cairns Harbour Lights is a modern, apartment-style hotel in the CBD. It’s a short walk from the Lagoon pool, waterfront dining precincts and Reef Fleet Terminal, where most cruises depart.
The Shangri-La Hotel is wedged between Cairns Marlin Marina and the crowds of sun-drenched holiday-makers at the Lagoon. All rooms have balconies (those on the ground floor have patios) so you can soak up the downtown action without leaving your suite.
Nearby, there’s the Hilton Cairns, where a gorgeous pool sits amid lush landscaped gardens. The Hilton is a popular wedding venue, thanks to its unique chapel, which is made of glass and perfectly positioned on the shore.