Cairns and surrounds, Queensland, Australia – $$$
Australia is full of diverse towns and cities that can satisfy any traveller’s wants and needs. You can stay in the mountains, in national parks, by the seaside, in big cities, country towns, or in the red desert. But one place that’s well known for where the rainforest meets the reef, where the hot summer sun greets waterfalls and butterflies in an almost perfect oasis, is Cairns, Queensland.
Sitting on Queensland’s tropical north coast, Cairns is 2419km from Sydney, or a 2hr 50min flight, 2842km from Melbourne, or a 3hr 20min flight, and 1711km from Brisbane, or a 2hr 15min flight.
With a population of over 160,000 people (2016), this region of North Queensland is not only a popular tourist destination, with plenty to do and see, but also a gateway to nearby regions. Like Atherton Tablelands, Daintree rainforest, Great Dividing Range, and the Great Barrier Reef. There is a strong indigenous culture in Cairns, where the original people of the land were the Yirrganydji people, a culture living off of rainforest and coastal land.
When to go:
Because Cairns is located in the wet tropics, the weather is usually hot and humid. Tropical rainfall happens quite often but has been and gone usually in an hour or so, and usually in the morning or at night, leaving you plenty of time to make the most of the day. The summers can be a little unforgiving, especially if you’re not used to the Aussie heat, and winter is usually the most popular time to visit. Every season in Cairns offers something different, and you can usually save a little coin by coming in the off-season, or shoulder season, mostly on flights.
Summer/Wet season, December-February/March:
The summer season hosts most of Cairns yearly rainfall. This makes for a lot of greenery and plenty of water running through the waterfalls but is also the time of year for the highest humidity. Visibility on the Great Barrier Reef is best during the summer months and has a lesser chance of heading out on a windy day, making boating conditions pretty great. With temperatures usually in the 30s (degrees Celsius) at high, and mid-20s at low, you’ll have plenty of chances to take a dip in the waters of Cairns and enjoy the falls circuits.
Winter/Dry season, June-August:
Cairns winter season is the least humid time of year, with temperatures still hitting the mid-20s at highs and 17-18 degree Celsius at lows, there’s still plenty to do, without the high humidity. One of the only downfalls is that the wind usually picks up, making boat trips a little rocky, and visibility on the reef less clear than the summer months; of course, this is mostly up to chance. Coming in the winter months is one of your best bets if you’re less keen on heat and humidity, but still keen on conquering the days.
Shoulder seasons, March/April-May, and September- November:
The shoulder seasons in any part of the world are usually my favourite. You get to sample the best of both worlds and flight prices usually drop a little to encourage more tourist activity. In these months you’ll get sunny days, rainfall, visibility, wind, cheap prices, and fewer people. You’ll get to sample the best and the not-so-best weather Cairns has to offer, all without the crowds.
Where to stay:
In my time in Cairns, I stayed at the Southern Cross Atrium apartments, in a studio room complete with ensuite, kitchenette, TV, king bed, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, and balcony overlooking the pool. The apartments are located just a 10min walk from the Esplanade and are practically next door to a large shopping centre where you can find grocery stores, shops, a movie theatre, and air-conditioning on a super-hot day.
The location of this accommodation suited my partner and I perfectly because we were close enough to everything, but also just far enough away from Cairns’ main strip, the Esplanade. We also purposely picked a self-sufficient place so that we could cook our own food, and store goodies for late night snacks, and pack lunches for day trips. This helped us save a fair amount of money, and was super easy considering the close location to the grocery store.
The complex itself was easy to navigate, had a total of three swimming pools, barbeque areas, gym, and offered a gated carpark inside what seemed to be a small oasis away from the main streets of Cairns, complete with lush greenery.
Things to do:
Cairns offers so many things to see and do for all ages and all travel types, so here are some of the greatest activities I enjoyed:
Stroll the Esplanade
The Esplanade in Cairns is easy to access and boasts plenty of places to eat, grab an ice cream, go shopping, stare at the ocean, check out the history, or head to the movies. Grab a drink at the bars along the pier, and drop some coins off to the local buskers, whatever it is you’re into for the day or night, Cairns Esplanade has plenty to do and see.
Just a 10-minute drive north of Cairns is the Cairns Kart Hire and Laser Tag centre. My partner and I went and hired a couple of Go-karts for Valentine’s day and proved that I’m not the speed demon I thought I was. A bit of an old dusty shed, this place still knows how to create fun, for the kids, or those of us that still feel like kids. They also have laser tag and escape rooms for all of your holiday fun.
Open from 9 am to 10 pm 7 days a week, a single race will set you back 40AUD per person, and goes for about 8 minutes. You’ve got to be 150cm tall to ride on your own, so I only made it by 8 centimetres! My partner and I just showed up and jumped in a kart, so bookings aren’t super necessary, and pro tip – don’t forget enclosed shoes! They have spares for you to wear but I was sporting a pair a few sizes too big.
Things to miss:
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
While a croc park might seem like a good idea to take the kids, or to get up close to some crocodiles, the locals seem to be reluctant to send anyone there. My partner and I were told stories likening it to a crocodile farm, where some crocs are kept in enclosures with each other when experiencing natural times of heightened aggression when in the wild they could escape each other. This results in plenty of crocs losing limbs, becoming agitated, and in serious cases, being used for material goods. Of course, I can’t say whether this is right or wrong, but for my personal preference, I like to see animals in the wild, instead of in zoos or enclosures.
If you’re going to jump on a boat and cruise out towards the Great Barrier Reef, a lot of tours will also include trips to outer islands. One of these islands is Green Island, and I was considering a tour option with this included. After reading a lot of reviews and asking around, it seems as if the beauty that once was Green Island has died off, and there isn’t much to see or do, even in the water. Of course, this is all up to your own discretion whether or not you choose to go there, but we gave it a miss and did plenty of other fantastic things instead.
Mossman Gorge is 77km or just over an hour’s drive from Cairns city. A beautiful tropical rainforest, and an important part of Indigenous culture, Mossman Gorge is a great place to spend the day or just part of the day. The cultural centre greets you after parking in the car park and hosts heritage information, café, and general store, as well as being the pick-up point for the bus in. The shuttle bus departs every 15 minutes between 8 am and 5:30 pm daily, and cost 9.50AUD for an adult’s round trip. The shuttle service is highly encouraged, the road leading into the heart of the gorge is considered narrow and dangerous for pedestrians; and once that humidity sets in you’ll be running for the bus’ air-conditioning. The gorge is perfect for bushwalking and indigenous cultural tours/walks, as well as swimming in the streams when conditions allow.
Falls circuit of Atherton Tablelands
Just outside of Cairns, on a 2hr 30min trip to the furthest one, the falls circuit is home to plenty of lush waterfalls and bushwalking trails, ready for you to take a dip in the cool waters and a picture of yourself having the best day ever. The town probably most central to the falls circuit is Millaa Millaa, hosting a pub, a general store and takeaway, a few friendly locals, annnnnd not too much else.
Josephine Falls is 77km, or about an hour’s drive, south of Cairns city and is well worth it. This was one of the first falls my partner and I went to and I can honestly say I didn’t want to leave! The freshwater glows in the sunlight, but you can find breezy spots shaded by the rainforest. It was only a very short walk from the carpark to the falls, and one of the most gorgeous trips from Cairns. Come prepared with towel and swimmers, and be ready to jump onto the natural rock slide. Local kids were leading the way, showing us how to best experience Josephine falls, with a fast natural rock slide, slipping straight into the bottom pool.
Located 1hr and 40min drive from Cairns city, the drive offers a good look at the scenery offered in the wet tropics. Operating since 1987, and running six times daily in peak season, Bruce’s Croc tours of the Daintree River are probably the best of the best. It’s no secret that crocs live and thrive in and around Cairns, so why not get up close and personal without disturbing their natural habitat. Bruce’s tours keep in mind that these animals are beautiful beasts who deserve to be treated with respect, so there’s no feeding or prodding, no loud engines or speakers, and no glass cages or chasing. You get to float up the Daintree River for an hour, marvelling at the enormity of it, while on the lookout for crocs cruising around as they please.
Costing only 27AUD each for an adult, our tour boat had only about six of us on it, and the fun, informative, and very Aussie, guide. We got a pair of binoculars each and had the chance to see five crocs, including babies, mothers and the biggest one on the river. Croc sighting is dependent on the time of year, the water levels, and the mood of the crocs, but even the river cruise is a good trip.
Preserving nature and not disturbing the animals is super important to me, my partner, and Australia, so that’s why we chose to go with Bruce’s and it was the best decision yet.
Raging Thunder White Water Rafting
This tour cost 138AUD and includes accommodation pick up from Cairns, rafting gear and guide, an intense day of fun on grade 2-3 rapids on the picturesque Barron River, and tea and coffee while you look through photos of you freaking out on some rapids. This was one the best activities my partner and I got to enjoy in Cairns, the staff were fun and informative, and it’s perfect for the beginner-adventure seeker.
Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
It’s hard to go anywhere in northern QLD and not enjoy the natural scenery and great weather. The Daintree is one for the nature lovers, and the drive from Cairns is long but spectacular. Be on the lookout for cassowaries, and soak in where the rainforest meets the beaches. There are plenty of activities to do in Cape Tribulation, so you might want to consider booking a cabin or lodge and spending a few nights.
It’s very obvious by now that tripping around Australia is a lot easier when you self-drive. If you have the option to bring your own car you should, but if you need to hire a car here are some options. I did a fair bit of research before hiring a car, because my partner and I are both under 25 years of age, and we didn’t want to spend a lot of money. Some places offer better rates but have higher bond prices, and others offer higher rates for drivers under the age of 25.
We originally were going to go with Rent-a-Bomb, a car hire service that allows drivers to rent used cars to trip around local areas for lower fees and lesser insurance rates. But we found that because we wanted to go a lot further than their cars are usually used for, and for that the bond was a lot higher than we expected, we went with East Coast Car Rentals. We both were able to drive despite being 21 and 23 at the time, had low bonds and insurance rates as well as daily rates, and central locking, electric windows and air-conditioning.
Best tips for safety:
Now that you’re all geared up to go to Cairns there are some serious tips to consider. As with any part of the world, you should do your research on the customs and rules of the area, respect the locals, familiarise yourself with the road rules, and learn a little about the wildlife. Here are my top additional tips for safety and information in Cairns.
- Tropical north QLD is home to a fair amount of Crocodiles, and it’s not to be taken light-heartedly. If there are signs telling you to steer clear of some waterways or beaches, please obey them. Avoid camping on the beach, or close to waterways, as crocs are cunning and smart and have been known to love a little human dinner.
- Along the lines of wildlife, north QLD is also home to the Cassowary, a very large and beautiful flightless bird that can really pack a punch if agitated. Watch out for them when you’re on the road, as you wouldn’t want one to collide with your car, and you’ll get to observe them much better when they’re calm (from a distance).
- As always in Australia, be mindful of dangerous snakes. The weather in the tropics means there are plenty of snakes about – this is not to say they’re lurking around every corner waiting to strike, but just make sure you’re usually wearing shoes, and checking the spaces around you especially in the bush. You shouldn’t encounter any in Cairns itself.
- Stinger season! Stingers are small invertebrates that float around in the ocean and can cause a lot of pain if their stingers come into contact with your skin. The one lethal one is the box jellyfish, but patrolled beaches will usually close the beach if they know these are present.
Stingers get blown in by the wind and it’s in your best interest to avoid them. You can usually see a small blue bubble-like figure floating on top of the water to spot them. Stinger season is from November – May/June but being so common in QLD, the locals and tour guides are equipped. You can hire stinger suits on most of your water sports tours if you’re around in stinger season, and there are plenty of signs and warnings to let you know when you can and can’t swim.
- If you’re going to scuba dive at any point on your trip, make sure you remember that you must wait 24hrs between scuba diving and boarding a flight. Instructors won’t let you dive if you have a flight to catch in the morning, or that day, so make sure you do it at the beginning or middle of your trip.
- In times of heavy rainfall, some waterfalls and streams can be overflowed or running fast and hard. It is important to pay attention to safety and closure signs when heading out to falls and streams to know when you should and shouldn’t swim.
- Australian summers are home to a fair number of mosquitoes, but as long as you arm yourself with a good repellent, you should be fine. I always take Bushmans with me (40% deet/heavy duty) because I am FOREVER being bitten, especially in South East Asia and here in Australia. No mossie, fly, tick, or leech can grab at you with this stuff on. I even have multiple cans in my cupboards.
- Cairns city itself has a small beach, but no one really swims in there, because of the small risk of crocodile interaction, and really, it’s not that great of a beach. Instead, they have a man-made lagoon swimming pool, free from croc threat, and complete with some grassy areas to sunbake or read a book. So head in there to cool off.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this destination guide to Cairns and surrounds, Queensland, Australia, and have some great activities to add to your itinerary. Don’t let the tips on harsh weather and wildlife scare you off, these are just safety precautions. If you follow the signs and use your logic, Cairns can be a fantastic holiday destination for you and your family/friends.
Enjoy Cairns, where the rainforest meets the reef!
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