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3 days in Cairns

As well as being the major access point for adventures on the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns offers exciting journeys to a rainforest village, Aboriginal experiences and lots of adrenaline-pumping activities.

By Sue Gough Henly

What to expect

  • Dive into Great Barrier Reef adventures
  • Enjoy an interactive Aboriginal experience at Tjapukai
  • Explore beaches, markets and rainforests

Fast facts

  • Time: 3 days
  • Distance: 200 kilometres (124 miles)
  • Transport: car, boat and train
  • Price: $$$

Discover the underwater wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. Soar over the rainforest on a Skyrail adventure and weave through the jungle past gorges and waterfalls on a historic railway. Enjoy an intimate and powerful Aboriginal experience. And kick back and savour the relaxed lifestyle in Australia's major tropical gateway.

Day 1: City, Aboriginal and adrenaline experiences

Cairns lagoon, Cairns, Queensland

Start the day with breakfast at Caffiend, a laneway cafe plating up dishes such as chilli eggs and French toast, with cold drip coffee and coconut lattes. Visit nearby Rusty’s Markets (open Friday to Sunday) for tropical fruit, gourmet bush tucker, seafood and plantation coffee and tea, as well hand-made soaps, chocolates and crafts. Get your heart pumping by zooming over a crocodile on a zip-line or hold a koala at the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome. Cool off in the expansive saltwater lagoon on Cairns Esplanade, the city’s social and recreational hub, before enjoying an alfresco lunch at Yaya’s Hellenic Kitchen or The Raw Prawn.

Explore the tropical gardens, rainforest and mangrove parkland at Cairns Botanic Gardens. Visit its Tank Arts Centre, a contemporary arts facility housed in three converted World War II oil storage tanks. Alternatively, enjoy white water rafting on the Barron River, go hot air ballooning or do a snorkelling or sea kayaking trip to the closest island, Fitzroy, with Raging Thunder Adventures. More adrenaline activities include bungy jumping and tandem skydiving. Have a bush tucker inspired meal at the Flame Tree Bar & Grill before an evening experience at Tjapukai, where you’ll meet the Bama Aboriginal rainforest people. They will paint your face to link you with local clans before you enjoy a corroboree dance and storytelling celebration. (Daytime offerings include boomerang, didgeridoo and spear throwing lessons, bush tucker demonstrations and dance performances.) Stay at the gracious Pullman Cairns International Hotel within easy walking distance of the cruise terminal and the Cairns Esplanade.

Day 2: Great Barrier Reef

Green Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s most magical marine environment. The largest living structure on earth, it is made up of more than 400 kinds of corals and is home to 1500 species of tropical fish, plus whales, dolphins and turtles. Among the many day trips, here are three options. 

Ocean Spirit offers a full day adventure on a stable motor catamaran to the bird sanctuary of Michaelmas Cay. Guests snorkel right off the beach, perfect for families and people who are new to snorkelling or who are not strong swimmers. A marine biologist gives a video presentation and there is fish feeding plus the chance to take a reef tour in a semi-submersible boat. You can also try an introductory dive.

Reef Magic offers a full day trip on a fast, stable catamaran to a pontoon at Moore Reef. Activities include semi-submersible tours, glass-bottom boat tours, snorkelling, fish feeding and an onboard marine biology presentation. There's also an underwater observatory and a kids' swimming enclosure. The snorkel platform opens into a clear, shallow lagoon, perfect for beginners. As well as introductory and certified scuba dives, you can try helmet diving (in which you walk on the ocean floor without getting your head wet), guided snorkel trips and scenic helicopter flights.

Great Adventures departs Cairns on a stable catamaran for a full day or half day trip to Green Island National Park. The closest reef destination to Cairns, Green Island is also home to a rainforest. There is something for everyone here, including snorkelling, a glass-bottom boat tour, swimming at the beach and island pool and a self-guided eco island walk. Other offerings include diving, parasailing, scenic helicopter flights and the Marineland Melanesia Crocodile Habitat, where you can hold a baby croc and see Australia’s largest captive crocodile. You can combine this with a trip to Reef Adventures’ pontoon on the Outer Reef.

Go shopping for local crafts at the Cairns Night Markets before enjoying an adventurous menu featuring native game, herbs and seafood at the contemporary Ochre Restaurant.

Day 3: Rainforest views and tropical seaside charm

Kuranda Scenic Railway, Cairns, Queensland

Explore the crafts market and galleries of the mountain village of Kuranda, where the journey is as spectacular as the destination. The 90 minute Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda glides above the rainforest canopy and descends into two rainforest stations along the way, where you can walk among palms and giant ferns. To return to Cairns, take the two hour Kuranda Scenic Railway, which goes across historic bridges through dense rainforest, winding past waterfalls and the stunning Barron Gorge.

Drive 30 minutes to nearby Palm Cove and have a swim in the netted enclosure or enjoy a spa treatment. Relax at one of the many alfresco cafes along the paperbark tree-lined main street, which overlooks the Coral Sea. Dine on the deck of the superb Asian fusion restaurant Nu Nu.

Make your trip happen

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