Cairns in tropical north Queensland is the perfect base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. You won’t be short of things to do in Cairns; besides the reef and rainforests, Cairns is surrounded by beautiful swimming spots, palm-lined beaches and waterfalls. Get your heart racing with some white-water rafting, see crocodiles, koalas and cassowaries or just relax in tropical gardens.
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Swim on the Great Barrier Reef
If you are in Cairns, you must go to the Great Barrier Reef. There are a couple of ways to do this. You can do a day trip to Fitzroy Island, Green Island or Frankland Island. From the islands, it is easy snorkelling from the beach, so they are a good option for families. There are lots of fish, you are a great chance of seeing a turtle and they offer other activities like glass bottom boat tours, guided snorkelling tours and kayak hire.
The other way to see the Great Barrier Reef is to do a snorkelling tour or dive trip to the outer reef. Here you will see the reef at its best with coral gardens and a huge variety of colourful tropical fish. Some operators have a pontoon moored on the outer reef. These are a great option if you want easy access to the water and extras like glass bottom boat tours.
Waterfall watching in the Atherton Tablelands
Exploring the Atherton Tablelands is a fun day trip from Cairns. The best way to see the area is to follow the Waterfall Circuit which has over a dozen spectacular falls. Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls are some of the best ones. You can also stop at Yungaburra to try and spot a platypus and Lake Eacham for a swim in the crystal clear water of the volcanic crater. The Mamu Tropical Skywalk takes you up into the canopy of the rainforest and you should stop and see the remarkable 500-year-old Curtain Fig. Day tours from Cairns will take you to many of these sights.
Relax at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
There is no beach in the middle of Cairns, but the Cairns Esplanade Pool is a fun and safe alternative. The pool is enormous. It looks out over the bay and is dotted with sculptures. There is plenty of shade around the lagoon and with toilets, lockers and BBQs you could spend a few hours here. Patrolled by lifeguards, it is a safe place to cool off and a convenient spot if you want to go for a walk along the Esplanade.
Spend a day Kuranda Rainforest Village
There are a lot of fun things to do in Kuranda and getting there is part of the experience. Both a heritage steam train and the Skyrail cable car go from Cairns to Kuranda. You get fantastic views of the rain forest and Baron Falls. Catching the Skyrail one way and the train the other is the way to go.
Once you get to Kuranda you can check out the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Bird World or the Kuranda Koala Gardens. Go for a cruise on the Baron River and see if you can spot a crocodile. Shoppers will enjoy browsing two markets full of art, craft and local produce. All the attractions are within walking distance of each other. Seeing Kuranda is a must-do day trip from Cairns.
Cool off at Crystal Cascades
Relaxing in a cool swimming hole surrounded by rainforest is a super relaxing thing to do in Cairns. Crystal Cascades is the closest of the river rock pools to Cairns, 25 minutes from the CBD. There are several different swimming spots and an easy walk to a set of falls. Along the walk, you might see the spectacular blue Ulysses butterfly. More adventurous walkers can try the short but slippery, rocky hike to nearby Fairy Falls. There are picnic shelters and BBQs near the carpark.
See more marine life at the Cairns Aquarium
If you can’t get enough of Cairns’ underwater world, go to the Cairns Aquarium. Young and old will enjoy this. There are huge tanks featuring sharks, rays and tropical fish. But you also see many of the freshwater fish, frogs, snakes and turtles that live in the region’s rivers and estuaries. There are talks across the day at several exhibits which really add to the experience, and you can pay extra to see the turtle hospital. There is a café and after hours dinner packages available. This is a perfect rainy day activity in Cairns.
Go bird watching at the Cattana Wetlands
There is a lot more to Cairns than reef and rainforest. The Jerrabomberra Wetlands are a beautiful place to explore about 15 minutes from the centre of Cairns. There are easy walks around Kingfisher Lake, Jabiru Lake and Kingfisher Pool where you can spot all sorts of birdlife, fish, turtles and flowering lily pads. The Feather Palm walk is a fun trail, the access-friendly boardwalk crisscrosses the creek beneath a canopy of beautiful palms (maybe put bug spray on for this walk). It is a lovely spot, there are picnic shelters and BBQs if you want to stay for lunch.
Playgrounds for travelling families
If you are travelling with children, there are some amazing playgrounds along the Cairns Esplanade. The Figtree Playground is near the cruise ship wharf. The playground is built around a giant strangler fig tree which creates a magic place for kids to climb and explore. But Muddies is the biggest and best playground in Cairns. It is a couple of blocks from the Esplanade Pool. There is a water park, flying fox and all sorts of things to climb, swing and slide on.
Relax in the Cairns Botanic Gardens
If you want a rest day in Cairns, check out the Cairns Botanic Gardens. The Gardens are beautiful, the colourful formal gardens and Rainforest Garden Boardwalk are relaxing to walk around. The highlight is The Conservatory – a huge glasshouse with an amazing variety of weird and wonderful-looking plants. There are butterflies flitting around through there too. There is a restaurant and café at the gardens, you couldn’t find a more tranquil place for lunch and a cool drink.
Swim at Cairns’ Northern Beaches
If you are in Cairns and want to feel some sand between your toes, go to the Northern Beaches towns of Trinity Beach and Palm Cove. Less than 30 minutes north of central Cairns, these are beautiful spots. The beach almond trees that line the esplanade at Trinity Beach and the Palms at Palm Cove create a great atmosphere. The are netted areas where it is safe to swim year round. There are also plenty of cafes and coffee shops where you can get something to eat and relax for the day.
Swim in rock pools at Behana Gorge
This is another beautiful swimming hole option, 35 minutes south of Cairns. The pools and falls at Behana Gorge are spectacular but you do a bit of work for them, there is a 3.5km undulating track to the swimming area. For your effort you can choose from several swimming spots at the base of small waterfalls. On the walk you you’ll see colourful butterflies, goannas and maybe a cassowary. It is a lovely spot if you don’t mind the walk. These swimming holes can be hazardous in Cairns rainy season.
See Australian wildlife at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure
This is a great way to safely see some gigantic saltwater crocodiles. Harleys Crocodile Adventure is 40 minutes north of Cairns. You can drive yourself or there are tours from Cairns. You can go for a cruise in the crocodile lagoon and see them being fed, the Crocodile Attack Show is fantastic. There are also nature walks where you can see cassowaries, kangaroos, koalas, emus, kookaburras and range of other Australian wildlife.
Visit the Australian Armour & Artillery Museum Cairns
If military history is your thing, you must get to this privately owned museum. It is the biggest of its type in the southern hemisphere with over 200 armoured vehicles including tanks, armoured personnel carrier, armoured cars and a range of specialist vehicles. There is also a big display of artillery. The guided tours are fascinating and there is a chance to ride in some of the vehicles too. It is an amazing collection that will appeal to travellers who like their history.
Try White Water Rafting
This is one of them most exciting things to do in Cairns. With so much rain, it is not surprising that Cairns is one of the best places in Australia to go whitewater rafting. Half and full day tours run from Cairns to the Barron River where you can take on the rapids.
Swim at Babinda Boulders
One hour south of Cairns, the Babinda Boulders is one of the safest freshwater swimming spots near Cairns. There is easy access in and out of the water, picnic grounds, BBQs and toilets. It is a beautiful spot where the clear water tumbles over enormous boulders before settling down in a shallow swimming area. A short walk takes you to Devils Pool, a spectacular area where the water makes its way between the rocks. With Mount Barle Frere, Queensland’s tallest mountain, is a dramatic backdrop.
Explore the Daintree Rainforest at Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge marks the southern end of the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest rainforest in the world and part of a Unesco Heritage site. Only 75 minutes from Cairns, you can follow an elevated boardwalk along the Mossman River to a swimming area. There are also several viewing areas where you can watch the river rush between boulders. You can do a longer rainforest walk here to take in the beauty of the forest. You can also book a tour with an indigenous guide to get an appreciation of their connection to the forest. There is a good café at the visitor centre from where you catch the shuttle bus to the gorge.
Guest Author: Natalie and Steve manage Curious Campers, a popular Australian travel website featuring experiences, wildlife encounters and road trips for people wanting information and inspiration while travelling in Australia. You can connect with Curious Campers on their Facebook group Experience Australia.
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