On the northern tip of Queensland, Cairns is your gateway to the heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree, one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Take a dip in a natural swimming pool surrounded by waterfalls or paddleboard through Mossman Gorge then head back into town for an ultra-fresh seafood platter and a Davidson Plum gin cocktail. Here are the best things to do in Cairns.
Image credit: Tourism Tropical North Queensland
Put your hole self in1/21
Southerners tend to worry that Tropical North Queensland waterholes are crawling with crocodiles but there are plenty that are too small and freshwater for a croc appearance to be likely. A short drive north of Cairns, Crystal Cascades is a refreshing cool green pool surrounded by small waterfalls. An hour’s drive south of the city you’ll find the stunning jade-green Josephine Falls swimming hole, which you reach via a stroll through butterfly- and bird-filled rainforest.
Image credit: Image courtesy Crystalbrook Collection
Stay in the middle of the action2/21
The Crystalbrook hotel group has not one but three properties in Cairns. Flynn, with its pool bars and street-food kiosks is youth-focused, while Bailey is arty and sophisticated, though set away from the waterfront. Riley sits somewhere in the middle; its bright white exterior and central pool give it a cool Mediterranean vibe, aided by its marina location and water views.
Image credit: Image courtesy Windswell
Rejuvenate in the rainforest3/21
If you’ve got a strong core, there are few more tranquil ways to explore nature than on a stand-up paddleboard. This wellness-focused tour from Windswell lets you glide through Mossman Gorge with no sounds but the dip of your paddle and the buzz of the rainforest. You’ll be encouraged to try a little on-board yoga and even slather yourself with a body scrub made of ochre from the riverbank as you cool off with a dip before the tropical-fruit buffet lunch.
Image credit: Image courtesy Silky Oaks Lodge
Get out of town4/21
Luxury aficionados have been waiting a long time for this one – the Baillie Lodges takeover of Silky Oaks Lodge in the Daintree. The team behind Longitude 131 at Uluru and Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island do immersive elegance like no other. Silky Oaks, on the banks of Mossman Gorge, is due to open at the end of 2021 and like all Baillie Lodges, will include a suite of experiences that speak to the land it sits on: Indigenous cultural walks, river snorkelling and nature safaris.
Image credit: Image courtesy Eco Tour
Dive with a conscience5/21
Most Great Barrier Reef divers simply observe the World Heritage-listed marine world but the new Eco Tour from Passions of Paradise lets you observe and conserve. Like most of the other tours departing Cairns you’ll head out to two outer reefs for dives but once there, a Master Reef Guide will take you below the surface and give instructions on how to assess the reef’s health and monitor The University of Technology Sydney’s coral planting program.
Image credit: Image courtesy Nunu
Book the restaurant that’s worth the drive6/21
The absolute beachfront village of Palm Cove, about 30 minutes north of central Cairns, hides one of those rare restaurants where the food is as good – or better – than the view. Chef Nick Holloway of Nu Nu is a magician; his tropical-inflected, South-East-Asian-inspired dishes are sweet, sour, smoky, tangy layers of delicious and taste even better when you’re gazing through palm trees to the beach.
Image credit: Image courtesy Three Wolves
Knock back the town’s best cocktail7/21
Given its tropical location, you might expect Cairns’ best drinking spot to be a tiki bar or waterfront pub. In fact, the town’s coolest bar Three Wolves, tucked away down a laneway, is unexpectedly intimate and moody. Pick a cocktail that features one of their house gins, made at the distillery next door, or specialty whiskies; the Plum Runner with Wolf Lane Davidson Plum Gin is a strong contender.
Image credit: Image courtesy Oaks Kitchen & Garden
Take a fresh-air tropical cooking class8/21
At the end of a palm-lined driveway in what looks like an ordinary suburban street about 45 minutes north of Cairns, Oaks Kitchen and Garden is an open-air cooking space surrounded by a fragrant, abundant edible garden. The property’s green thumb, Rachael Boon, walks you through her jungle – you’ll try everything from holy basil to turmeric leaves – then chef Ben Wallace guides you through a class creating incredible South-East Asian curries and salads.
Image credit: Image courtesy Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel
Explore the reef with First Nations guides9/21
The Cairns waterfront is brimming with Great Barrier Reef tour companies, each eager to sign you up and get you on board. Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel is one with something special; it enhances the journey to the reef’s outer edge with Indigenous history, sharing Dreamtime stories about the creation of the reef and the sea creatures that live there. It’s worth paying the extra charge for a personal guided snorkel with a marine biologist, who’ll point out underwater wonders you might otherwise have overlooked.
Image credit: Image courtesy Prawn Star
Feast on seafood on the sea10/21
Eating a seafood platter on a docked fishing trawler sounds touristy but somehow the kitsch at Prawn Star works. While the main focus is the serious business of quality seafood, which includes mountains of prawns, oysters and sashimi, the hosts keep up a practised banter that veers into charmingly cheesy. With a cold beer in hand and the sound of cracking prawn shells, it’s hard not to go with the good vibes.
Kid around a little11/21
Snorkelling and scuba diving are largely off-limits to little ones but Cairns Aquarium is filled with underwater experiences that don’t involve getting wet. The new behind-the-scenes Marine Life Encounter offers the chance to hand-feed cownose stingrays and check on rescued marine turtles at the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. If machines and movement are more your kids’ thing, the Kuranda Scenic Railway Rainforest Experience is a thrilling train journey through the trees that includes a trip on the sky-high Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
Image credit: Image courtesy Third On The Left
Curate your own cheese platter at a hideaway bar12/21
Another secret Palm Cove spot, Third On The Left specialises in wine, cocktails and good times. They don’t serve full meals but you can put together your own cheese board; there’s always a selection of brie, cheddar and blue that go beautifully with a solid wedge of sourdough from Wild Yeast Bakery at nearby Trinity Beach.
Image credit: Image courtesy Nautilus Aviation
Snorkel from a deserted island13/21
The Vlassof Cay Experience from Nautilus Air helicopters sees guests choppered 40 kilometres off the Cairns coast to Vlassof Cay, a tiny patch of deserted sand surrounded by reefs. There, you’ll have two hours to swim, snorkel and snack on the included gourmet picnic hamper (with sparkling wine) or simply bask in the humbling sense of being a speck in the vast Pacific Ocean.
Image credit: Image courtesy Salt House
Laze and graze at a waterfront bar14/21
There’s something about eating alfresco beside the water that makes you want to take your time and sure, why not, order that extra glass of chardonnay. Salt House epitomises the seaside vibe with a bar menu designed for relaxed grazing, featuring shareable bites like bao buns, ceviche and croquettes or a classic bucket of fresh prawns.
Image credit: Tourism Tropical North Queensland
Follow the market15/21
Rusty’s Markets touts itself as a tourist attraction but plenty of local chefs and food-lovers put it on their regular shopping rounds, which comes as no surprise when you get there. It’s like a tropical orchard: dozens of different kinds of tomatoes, rambutans, melons, chillies and pineapples so sweet you can smell them from the entrance. Grab a Vietnamese banh mi and a cup of homemade ginger beer before strolling among the diverse stalls.
Image credit: Image courtesy Noa
Breakfast away from the buzz16/21
If you’re staying in the centre of town, especially at one of the larger hotels, it’s easy to rely on the good old buffet for breakfast. But Cairns locals go a bit further afield, to somewhere like Noa in Edge Hill, where the breakfast boards – piled with egg, bacon, avocado, haloumi, preserved lemons, pickles, fruit, you name it – are like having a buffet all to yourself.
Image credit: Image courtesy Yotspace
Secure your spot on a superyacht17/21
The MO of superyacht charter company Yotspace is to book by the cabin rather than the whole vessel. Their six-night snorkel and cruise adventure to the outer reefs on board the eight-guests-only Phoenix One makes a stop at Lizard Island and includes all meals, beverages and use of water toys like sea scooters and waterskis. In June and July, you might find yourself swimming next to curious dwarf minke whales, who visit the Ribbon Reefs regularly at this time of year.
Image credit: Image courtesy Cairns Brewery Tours
Hops to it18/21
Queensland has an ongoing love affair with microbreweries and Cairns is no exception. Let someone else take care of the driving and directions while you sample the best on a half-day microbrewery and distillery tour with Cairns Brewery Tours. It includes transport, commentary, lunch and plenty of the frothy stuff.
Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Get to the art of the matter19/21
The main reasons anyone comes to Tropical North Queensland are the sun, sea and rainforest. But when you need a midday breather from the humidity, the Cairns Art Gallery is a diverting place to retreat. From August 2021 to February 2022, the gallery is featuring an exhibition of more than 100 rainforest bird and plant paintings by botanical artist William T. Cooper. Think of it as a way of immersing yourself in the natural world without the need for hiking boots, sunscreen or insect repellent.
Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo
Hike to the sunrise20/21
Hiking around Cairns is best attempted in the early morning, when you’ll be greeted by the beauty of the sun’s rays inching across the water (if you pick the right spot) but you can be home before the sweltering heat of the day sets in. The walk to the summit of Earl Hill, near Trinity Beach, is steep but worth the exertion; at the top you can see all the way to Double Island and Cape Kimberley in the Daintree.
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