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 and Leah Dobihal
What to expect
- Dive into Great Barrier Reef adventures
- Enjoy an interactive Aboriginal experience at Tjapukai
- Explore beaches, markets and rainforests
- 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: Explore Cairns
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.
Cairns is also the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the world's most magical marine environment. If you can't wait to get in the water, you can spend the day on a snorkel or scuba tour. Ocean Spirit, Reef Magic and Great Adventures each sail to different reefs and islands.
For a different perspective of this ancient underwater world, book a tour with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel. Discover the creation story of the Great Barrier Reef with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel’s Indigenous rangers, who have ancestral connections to the sea country you'll visit. They will also guide you on a snorkel tour of two premium reefs so you can better understand the ancient relationship between man and marine life.
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: Kuranda and Port Douglas
For those headed to Kuranda, you'll enjoy a journey 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. When you reach Skyrail's Barron Falls Station, don't miss The Edge Lookout, a steel and glass platform that provides panoramic views of the waterfall as it cascades into the deep rainforest-lined chasm of the Barron Gorge. To return to Cairns, take the two-hour Kuranda Scenic Railway, which goes across historic bridges through dense rainforest, winding past pounding waterfalls and the stunning gorges.
If you're ready to explore more of the reef, depart Cairns early for the one-hour drive to Port Douglas. Grab a day tour to the incredible outer reef. Calypso, Wavelength and Quicksilver all offer full-day adventures.
After returning from your reef cruise or arriving from Kuranda, indulge in some tropical relaxation. Unwind at one of the town's day spas, including Niramaya and Port Douglas Day Spa, or stroll down Macrossan Street, the main strip dotted with cafes, restaurants and shopping. You're sure to pass somewhere delicious for dinner, like the much-loved Italian hotspot of Sassi La Cucina and contemporary Australian eatery Watergate.
Day 3: the Daintree Rainforest
Enjoy an easy morning in Port Douglas before departing for one of Australia's most magnificent natural wonders, the Daintree Rainforest. After the 1.5-hour drive, you'll arrive among the winding vines and vibrant leaves that make the Daintree a must-visit. You can explore the vine-covered scenery on your own, or take advantage of the profound knowledge of the land's traditional Aboriginal owners. Take Adventure North Australia’s Daintree Dreaming Tour, where Kubirri-Warra brothers Linc and Brandon Walker splash you through their saltwater homeland to spear crabs that are later cooked up in their mother’s house and eaten at a shared table. Follow in the footsteps of ancestors of the Kuku Yalanji Rainforest Aboriginal people with Walkabout Cultural Adventures, where you’ll see directional markers subtly crafted into tree trunks by hunters, discover bush medicine growing under your nose and much more.
After you've deepened your connection with nature, perch yourself in a luxury tree house overlooking the Mossman River. At Silky Oak Lodge, you can relax and rejuvenate in the on-site spa, or soar over the rainforest in a hot air balloon or helicopter.
Finish your trip with the drive back to Cairns, or continue your journey with a cruise to the breathtaking Whitsunday Islands, where you can witness some of Australia's most beautiful reefs and beaches.
Make your trip happen