About 1400 km north of Brisbane lies the modest city centre of Cairns, otherwise known as the gateway to Australia’s tropical north. Cairns is often seen as the underdog in comparison to Brisbane and the Gold Coast, as any who strive to make the journey up to this laid-back coastal city won’t expect to find any theme parks, rowdy nightlife, or overt tourist attractions along the way.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to see and do in and around Cairns. In fact, thanks to the city’s proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, there is actually an abundance of outdoorsy activities to fill up even the largest of trip itineraries.
Sadly, our trip to Cairns was only just a week long. We’ve provided a rough outline of our own trip itinerary below so that all our fellow travellers can get a good idea of how to make the most of your time in Australia’s idyllic tropical north.
Day 1: Settling into our beachside accommodation
The first thing we searched for after booking our flights was luxury Cairns accommodation with some coastal views. As the city of Cairns looks out onto the Great Barrier Reef, there’s really no shortage of beachside accommodation options with breathtaking views of the Coral Sea. With this in mind, the best path forward when finding your Cairns accommodation is taking some time to figure out exactly what stretch of Cairns’ coastline you’ll want to explore the most.
We ended up selecting Crystalbrook Flynn in Cairns as our homebase during our time up north. Not only is this luxury accommodation option in the heart of Cairns’ city centre, but it also happens to be just a stone’s throw from ferry services to Fitzroy Island, which is an attraction we absolutely wanted to add to our trip itinerary. The Crystalbrook Flynn also offered a heated outdoor pool which we wasted no time in jumping into after, of course, taking a dip at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.
Day 2: Taking a tour of the Great Barrier Reef
Day 2 saw us getting up nice and early to head off on a guided scuba dive and snorkelling tour of the Great Barrier Reef. Our selected tour spanned six hours over the course of our day, with stops at Flynn Reef to the east of Michaelmas and Upolu Cays National Park, and Norman Reef that’s just to the north of the Michaelmas and Hastings Reefs.
Both of these reef stops saw us getting up close and personal with all the tropical fish species like parrotfish that call the reefs home, as well as some green sea turtles who were busily feeding. Thankfully, weather conditions on our tour day were very mild, meaning that the waters surrounding reefs were a brilliant aquamarine and as clear as we could have hoped for. With such great snorkelling conditions, our waterproof camera was able to be filled right up with some superb and well-lit underwater shots.
The ferry brought us back to the Cairns Marina in the late afternoon, at which point we were dying for a hot meal and a big dessert to balance out all the swimming and diving we did over the course of the day. After a quick shower at the hotel and a change of clothes, we went walking through Cairns city for a bite to eat. A desire to stay by the water’s edge led us straight to Salt House, an Australian-style eatery that boasted an expansive menu that included freshly caught seafood dishes like seared scallops, tiger prawns, and grilled barramundi.
Day 3: Visiting Fitzroy Island
Our day trip to Fitzroy Island started with an early morning walk to the Cairns Marina in time to board the 8am departure of the Fitzroy Flyer. This scenic boat ride is only 45 minutes long, making it the perfect warm-up for a full day of island exploration. The Flyer will take you around Yarrabah and the East Trinity Reserve that juts out from the mainland just south of Cairns, so be prepared to take in the sight of lush, green hillsides as you make your way north-east and then back south on the way to Fitzroy Island.
Upon disembarking from the Fitzroy Flyer, we spent a little time exploring the island’s gorgeous coral-ringed beaches which included the main coastline that houses the docks as well as Nudey Beach that can be found just to the southwest. Following a good wade in the shallows, we walked across the sand towards the Fitzroy Island Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. A tour of the centre will let you take a glimpse into all the marine conservation initiatives surrounding Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.
Our time at Fitzroy Island also included a glass-bottomed boat tour of the island reefs, where we were able to witness reef inhabitants without disturbing them. Be prepared to be patient, however, as the boat engine and all your fellow tour participants must remain dead silent until the fish return to flit beneath your feet.
Day 4: Driving To Port Douglas
Despite the fact that the driving distance from Cairns to Port Douglas is only about 70 km, day 4 of our trip didn’t see us arriving at our accommodation until about 4 in the afternoon. The reason for this is simply because there are an abundance of hiking trails, lookout points, and other sights to see along this idyllic coastal drive, including the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
The cableway takes you deep into the heart of the southern Daintree, making it the perfect introduction to visiting the Daintree from Port Douglas itself. The cableway itself is 7.5 km long and takes approximately 2.5 hours to travel from the terminal just outside of Smithfield to Red Peak and Barron Falls, and then back up to Smithfield. Be sure to factor in time that you spend exploring the rainforest between your cable rides as well.
Other stops made along the way to Port Douglas include Wangetti Beach, Rex Lookout, Palm Field, and Pebbly Beach. Be sure to pack some extra towels in your car, because you can absolutely expect a lot of swimming in between hitting the road.
Day 5: Trekking through the Daintree
Day 5 of our trip saw us finally getting to walk under the towering canopies of the ancient Daintree Rainforest. The rainforest has actually been visible to us from virtually every destination we’ve covered over this trip, except of course Fitzroy Island. The reason for this is because the Daintree Rainforest has a total area of approximately 1200 square kilometres, spanning from just south of Cooktown to Port Douglas. Protected forest areas like the Kuranda State Forest can also be found along the way from Port Douglas to Cairns, and whilst these regions aren’t technically part of the Daintree, they do connect up and help enhance the overall biodiversity of the region.
We took advantage of the Daintree’s Canopy walk and enjoyed mesmerising bird’s eye views of the rainforest from the Canopy Tower. Following this bracing, elevated stroll, we returned to the Daintree Village to take a walking tour. Seeing the forest from the trees and then from the eyes of our guide allowed us to truly immerse ourselves in the tropical north’s ecological history, rediscovering a feeling of gratitude that we felt for the first time during our Great Barrier Reef tour.
Whether you’re exploring the forest from the treetops, from the sky, or up close and upon the forest floor, chances are you’ll be blown away by the sheer beauty of the Daintree, the forest’s rich colonial and Indigenous history, and all the flora and fauna that call this world heritage site home.
Day 6: Shopping and surfing at Palm Cove
On the last day of our trip, we traded in the fresh air of the Daintree for the bracing sea breeze once more by driving down to Palm Cove. A quick morning surf set the tone for a fantastically energetic day of walking, exploring, and most of all, shopping!
Palm Cove is home to a handful of boutique stores, souvenir shops, and a range of happy cafes and local eateries, making this particular getaway destination the perfect space for winding down after a fairly active trip to Cairns. We enjoyed a stroll down Williams Esplanade as well as a lunch under the Melaleuca trees that line the length of Palm Beach.
Following a day out in Palm Cove, we loaded ourselves back up in our rental car and hit the road once more, this time heading south to bring us back to Cairns Airport in time for our flight home. All up, our tiny vacation in Australia’s tropical north was filled to the brim with a variety of ecotourism experiences, as well as plenty of opportunities for rest and relaxation. What more could you want from a coastal getaway?