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koala in a tree at kuranda koala gardens
The koalas were just waking up when we arrived

Top 4 Things to See and Do in Cairns, Australia

When travelers think of Australia, the three sights that come to mind are probably Sydney Harbour, Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), and the Great Barrier Reef.

Anyone who wants to see the reef will travel through Cairns (pronounced more like “Cans”).  While many people only pass through on their way to a dive boat, the city is actually worth a of couple days.

Here’s our take on the top 4 things to see and do in Cairns.

1. The Great Barrier Reef

This is the main reason travelers and tourists come to Cairns.  Despite spending 36 hours in transit from Toronto to Cairns, we booked a full day snorkeling and diving tour for our first day in Cairns with Reef Experience. We were picked up just before 7:30am for the 10 minute transfer to the boat.

We paid a bit extra for their “Top Deck” experience, which provided better food, a reserved table on the dive boat (in an air-conditioned room!) and, most importantly, a personal diving and snorkeling guide.  If you’re not a confident snorkeler or diver, this could be well worth your while.  Or if you just want to get the most out of your experience, as we did, it is worth the extra money.

The dive sites we visited were at the Hastings Reef (sites vary by day), about a 90-minute boat ride from the harbour.

View back towards Cairns from the dive boat
View back towards Cairns from the dive boat

The downside of any trip to Australia is that everything might kill you.  In this case, there was a risk of being stung by multiple types of deadly jellyfish (‘stinger season’ runs from November to May), some as small as a thumbnail.  So, we donned our flattering, blue stinger suits before jumping into the water.

Normally a dip in the ocean would be a welcome refreshment from the scorching sun, but not here.  The ocean was a balmy 29C, about the temperature of a warm bath.  On the plus side, it meant we could snorkel and dive for a long time without ever getting cold.

snorkeling the great barrier reef with a stinger suit
No one looks good in a stinger suit!

The boat stopped at the first site for about 3 hours.  This allowed us to snorkel for about 45 minutes, where we saw plenty of coral, several schools of fish, a few giant clams, and even a turtle.  The price of the tour includes one scuba dive per person (even for beginners), but since Christine didn’t want to dive, Trevor went for private guided dive for another 45 minutes.

snorkeling with a sea turtle on the great barrier reef
It’s always cool to run into a turtle in the ocean


Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef
Scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef

After a surprisingly scrumptious lunch on board, we went to the next site on the other side of the reef.  We snorkeled for another 45 minutes or so before getting back on the boat to enjoy some snacks and local sparkling wine on the trip back to Cairns.

For more serious divers, another option is a liveaboard boat.  These boats are moored out on the reef.  Divers can stay on the boat, allowing them to do up to 4 dives per day.  The boats also move between different dive sites each day to keep things interesting.

2. Day trip to Kuranda – Village in the Rainforest

If you love land-based wildlife as well, Kuranda is for you.  A 30 minute drive from Cairns, the village is really a grouping of souvenir shops, a few restaurants, and several nature attractions.  We went to the Kuranda Koala Gardens which showcases several freshwater crocodiles, kangaroos, wallabies, and of course a bunch of koalas.

koala in a tree at kuranda koala gardens
The koalas were just waking up when we arrived


hand feeding wallabies at kuranda koala gardens
Christine feeding a wallaby at Kuranda Koala Gardens


freshwater crocodile at kuranda koala gardens
The freshwater crocodiles don’t look too scary

Kuranda also has other attractions like a butterfly sanctuary and a bird exhibit.

The downside of Kuranda is it’s not particularly easy to get to.  We rented a car for the day (local agencies offer better value than the international brands) which made it very easy.  Public transit options are few and far between.  There are various tours available and the Kuranda Scenic Railway, which are both pricey.

3. Explore Port Douglas

Port Douglas, about an hour drive north of Cairns, definitely has a more resort-y feel.  The main shopping street is filled with a mixture of high-end boutiques and souvenir shops, as well as a range of casual restaurants and pubs.

The oceanfront is at either end of the main shopping area.  The beach we walked along was beautiful.  But of course, you can’t swim there!  The water is filled with poisonous jellyfish (or stingers as they’re called by Aussies) and the occasional saltwater crocodile.  There was a small area with nets in the water to protect swimmers, but we were skeptical.  If a 20ft croc decided it was hungry, we’re not sure the little net would stop it.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get too lucky with the weather.  But on a hot, sunny day, Port Douglas would be a fantastic place to sit on a patio with a cold beer.

4 Mile Beach in Port Douglas
4 Mile Beach in Port Douglas

4. Wander Around Cairns

Cairns is definitely a bit rougher around the edges than Port Douglas, but also seems geared a bit less to tourists.  There are many more affordable accommodation options, and the downtown core is filled with shops and restaurants with many patios.

View of the Cairns waterfront
View of the Cairns waterfront

The beach in Cairns is nothing to write home about, but you wouldn’t be able to swim there anyway.  There is, however, a large saltwater public pool on the oceanfront which seemed like a great alternative.

crocodile warning sign on the Cairns waterfront
Cairns has a long beachfront, but you can’t swim because of stingers and crocodiles!

Heading away from the central area, there are also some great walks around Mount Whitfield and the Botanic Gardens, although the heat and humidity made them seem much more strenuous than they were.

wallaby in the mount whitfield conservation park
Our first run-in with a wallaby on the red trail within the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park

To Sum Up…

We found Cairns was a great base to explore the region.  The airport is only a 5-10 minute drive from downtown, making it very easy to get to and away.  Accommodation is less expensive than nearby Port Douglas, making it more budget friendly.  And if you’re there for the reef, many of the dive boats leave from Cairns harbour.  If you have a bit more time, it’s possible to explore even further north to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest.

Overall, there is definitely plenty to see and do in and around Cairns. Enjoy!

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  1. That looks like so much fun! Sadly I’ve only ever been to Cairns once as a little kid – definitely time to go back! Safe and happy trails south.

  2. Pamela Buckingham

    Utterly gorgeous photographs, Christine and Trevor!! Brings back all the not-so-faded memories I hold dear from living and working in the Cairns/Green Island area back in 1980! I will say, for one who does not consider herself a beer drinker, after taking the train from Sydney, with a two-day stop in Brissy before re-boarding to Cairns, once I disembarked, to this day I have never enjoyed a pint of beer as much as I enjoyed that one (or two) in the Cairns Pub!! Never knew the wonders of a cold brew on tap could work such magic as it did in the heat of North Queensland!!

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