Cairns; a tropical haven for backpackers and Aussies alike. A relatively new destination in the scheme of things, this little city tucked away at the top of Queensland has more to offer than you can shake a stick at. You’d do well to escape the advertisements proclaiming Cairns as ‘The Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef’, but there is so much more to see and do beyond the GBR. We spent about two weeks in total in Cairns, either side of our remote regional work in Cape York. To make the most of the area, we’d highly recommend spending at least 7 days in Cairns and renting a vehicle.
DAY ONE: CAIRNS LAGOON
One important thing to note if you are going to spend 7 days in Cairns is that you absolutely cannot swim in the sea or rivers. The tropics of Queensland are inhabited by some very large saltwater crocodiles, or ‘Salties’. These prehistoric-looking creatures are masters at camouflage and ambush attacks. It’s easy to assume that they aren’t around because you very rarely see them, but we spotted two in our time in and around Cairns. Trust us when we say that they are there.
The best way to enjoy the water and take a dip is at the Cairns Lagoon. Located on the Esplanade, is a huge public saltwater pool, with lifeguards and beautiful views out to sea. Free to access and with changing facilities and toilets, Cairns Lagoon is a great way to acclimatise to the heat of the tropics. Free fitness classes take place in the mornings, so make like the locals and get involved before lounging on the sand or grass around the Lagoon to people-watch.
DAY TWO: WATERFALLS
Grab your swimmers and hop in the car to explore the nearby waterfalls. A short drive west will take you out onto the Atherton Tablelands, which is where the famous Waterfalls Circuit is. Recreate your own version of Peter Andre’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ at Millaa Millaa Falls, or whip out your best hair-flick at the same waterfall to be the next Herbal Essences star. The route can be taken clockwise or anti-clockwise, but get there earlier in the day to avoid the coach tours.
Another stunning waterfall, Josephine Falls, is located just south of Cairns. There is a natural rock slide here when the weather hasn’t been too dry, but take note of the signs displaying information about the water conditions. The rocks can get slippery and the water can be very strong. This one also gets busier as the day goes on, so if you can, get there really early in the morning. We free-camped nearby and arrived at 7.30am, so we had the whole place to ourselves for quite a while.
DAY THREE: GREAT BARRIER REEF
You can’t spend 7 days in Cairns and NOT go out to the Great Barrier Reef. There are innumerable tours to choose from, ranging from helicopter tours to big party catamarans, to smaller tall ships. Shop around and work out what you want before booking anything. It also helps to be flexible with your dates as a lot of tour operators have standby deals or run cheaper trips on Tuesdays.
Snorkelling is usually included as standard, but some operators offer SCUBA diving too. Most include snacks and lunch. Be mindful that most of the trips are weather-dependent, so don’t leave it too late to head out to the reef. If a trip has to be cancelled because of bad weather, most operators offer you the chance to come back another day.
DAY FOUR: PORT DOUGLAS & PALM COVE
Considered to be Cairns’ more upmarket neighbours, Palm Cove and Port Douglas offer a super relaxed vibe and white sands as far as the eye can see. Grab a coffee in a boutique cafe opposite the beach in Palm Cove, then drive up to Port Douglas.
As it is on a headland, Port Douglas is one of the few places in Queensland that you can watch the sunset from. Take the stairs up to Flagstaff Hill from Four Mile Beach, then walk down the street and onto the grassy bank by the harbour. Enjoy the golden sunset surrounded by a handful of chilled locals, then grab a cocktail at one of the many bars along the main street.
DAY FIVE: SKYRAIL & KURANDA
Nestled between the leafy hills behind Cairns, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offers the most spectacular views of the coastline and the rainforest from above. Take a gondola up into the clouds, before spending the afternoon poking around Kuranda village. Make sure to explore the Kuranda Markets as well, wandering through the narrow laneways and immersing yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells of this magical place.
Descend from the mountain-tops on board the Kuranda Scenic Railway. This restored train takes an hour and a half to get back down into Cairns, stopping along the way for photo opportunities of the majestic Barron Gorge National Park.
DAY SIX: MOSSMAN GORGE
Just beyond Port Douglas, Mossman Gorge is the perfect spot for a rainforest dip. Nestled in the Daintree Rainforest, Mossman Gorge contains the oldest, continually surviving rainforest in the world. This means that you will literally be walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs. You may come across a cassowary too – if you do, make sure you give them plenty of space and ideally keep a tree between you! They are big birds and can be very territorial. But don’t worry too much, we lived in the rainforest for ten weeks and didn’t see a single cassowary until we went to Australia Zoo!
Park in the Visitor Centre car park and, for a small fee, take the bus up to the Gorge. There is a circular rainforest walk you can take too, but make sure you wear trainers and bug repellent. You can also go on a guided Dreamtime walk of the Gorge from the Visitor Centre.
DAY SEVEN: CAPE TRIBULATION
Known as the spot where the ‘rainforest meets the ocean’, Cape Tribulation is every photographer’s dream. We won’t lie to you though, we never actually stopped at Cape Trib. After spending the best part of three months in Cape York, where the landscape is either rainforest or ocean, we wanted to explore other areas in and around Cairns.
From having seen photos of it though, if we hadn’t spent any time up north, we would have been all over Cape Tribulation!
That concludes our advice for spending an incredible 7 days in Cairns. For a small place, it has a lot to offer, and the landscape around it is some of the most diverse in Australia. Make sure to add it to your bucket list!
by Kez and Sam from @sotodaywefound