A true oasis in every sense of the word, Cairns is a natural paradise home to World Heritage-listed rainforests and incredible touring routes.
With a population of 160,000, Cairns is Qld’s fourth-largest city after Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Townsville-Thuringowa. The steep, rainforested mountains of the Great Dividing Range almost touch the coast here (and literally do just to the north). The Great Barrier Reef also comes close to shore, making Cairns an ideal gateway for visits to the surrounding World Heritage areas.
An estimated two million holidaymakers visit the town each year and venture forth from here, and it’s the country’s second-most popular destination for overseas visitors after Sydney.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s definitely no shortage of accommodation in and around Cairns, from five-star resorts to hotels, holiday homes, B&Bs, caravan parks and backpacker places. Prices tend to be lower outside the May-October peak season but competition still keeps them reasonable, including weekly rates. Many vanners stay at caravan parks north and south of town.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Wags say that the wealth in Far North Qld is produced in Townsville and spent in Cairns. Few destinations offer such a wide range of sights and activities and Cairns lives and breathes tourism, but unless you’re a backpacker looking to party after the coastal trek up from Sydney, most of the attractions are in the surrounding areas rather than in the city itself.
That said, the artificial saltwater lagoon on the foreshore with its public barbeques is a pleasant alternative to the mudflat ‘beach’, while the nearby pier complex overlooking the marina is worth a stroll and has some passable upmarket restaurants (it’s not easy to find good meals in Cairns).
For a proper swim, the beaches north of town are an option, but only in the patrolled areas and, during the hot months, the stinger-net enclosures. Better still, follow the locals and head for magnificent freshwater swimming spots such as the Crystal Cascades south-west of town or the Lake Placid recreation park in the north-western suburb of Caravonica.
The Flecker Botanic Gardens and adjacent Centenary Lakes on the northern edge of town are not to be missed if you have even the slightest interest in flowers and plants. The informative mangrove boardwalk on the road to/from the airport is another flora highlight but don’t forget the insect repellent.
If you’re after physical activities, organised or otherwise, you’ve come to the right place. Bushwalking, cycling, birdwatching and wildlife-spotting, hang gliding and parasailing, fossicking, horse riding, 4WDing and any fresh and salt-water activity imaginable are all on offer.
Speaking of salt-water activities, the Great Barrier Reef is one of those places you must visit at least once in your life. An armada of craft of all shapes and sizes offers a wide range of options, including charters and scheduled day, overnight and extended trips by cruiser, wave-piercing catamaran or yacht.
Some operators cater for small groups while others carry upwards of 300 passengers. The latter tie up to huge pontoons where underwater observatories, glass-bottom boats, and/or semi-submersibles allow you to view the marine world without getting wet.
But by all means go for a snorkel during the tour, even if you’ve never done it before. It’s not hard and it’s a magic world down there. Just cover your back and shoulders liberally in suntan lotion and wear a t-shirt anyway.
NORTH OF CAIRNS
The Captain Cook Highway is one of the country’s classic coastal drives. It takes you out past the Northern Beaches with their holiday homes and resorts and then follows the winding coastline between the steep Macalister Range and secluded beaches towards Mossman. Mossman Gorge inland is worth visiting for its waterfalls and rainforest walks with local Kuku Yalanji guides.
But before you get to Mossman, a turn-off to the right leads to Port Douglas (at the turn-off, the Rainforest Habitat with its large, walk-through aviaries is one of the best places to see the region’s native birds, including a cassowary). Port Douglas was once a port for the inland goldfields that has managed to retain some of its laid-back charm despite massive resort developments in the 1980s, and is worth an overnight stay.
26km past Mossman is the turn-off to the vehicle ferry across the Daintree River and another Cairns region highlight: the road to Cape Tribulation. This goes through a fairy-tale world where ancient Gondwanan rainforest – with most of the world’s surviving relics of the first flowering plants – comes down the steep mountains right up to the beach, creating some of the most outstanding scenery you’ll see anywhere.
The first few kilometres of the road across Thornton Range are narrow, steep and winding, and you might think twice about towing a large van – although some people do and we had no trouble in a large-ish motorhome.
Along the way you can learn about the environment at the Daintree Rainforest Discover Centre and at several easy boardwalks such as the Jindalba Boardwalk near the Discovery Centre and the Marrdja Boardwalk near Noah Creek.
The bitumen ends at Cape Trib where 4WDs can continue along the Bloomfield Track to Cooktown.
The Great Dividing Range west and south of Cairns offers stunning scenery, from the wilds of Wooroonooran NP with Mount Bartle Frere (Qld’s highest peak at 1622m) to the lush dairy pastures of the Atherton Tableland. The elevation of the Tableland and its cooler climate makes it a popular escape from the often muggy coast at Cairns. The district’s towns have retained much of their early character and life here proceeds at a leisurely pace.
Many visitors make a day trip from Cairns up to Kuranda, taking the Kuranda Scenic Railway up the range and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway back down. Kuranda itself, a refuge in the rainforest near the stunning Barron Falls, has a worthwhile Butterfly Sanctuary and consists of wall-to-wall cafes, arts and crafts galleries, souvenir shops and covered markets that close down when the tour buses leave. It’s all a bit artificial – for the real thing, visit the Yungaburra markets on the fourth Sunday of the month.
Other attractions on the Atherton Tableland include the beautiful lakes in dormant volcanic vents, and the series of pretty waterfalls on the Waterfall Way near Millaa Millaa. Also worth visiting is Tinaroo Dam with Lake Tinaroo (water sports, camping areas).
If you have time, proceed along the Savannah Way/Kennedy Highway out of Ravenshoe into the inland savannah country and visit the Undara lava tubes. Another popular inland excursion are the caves at Chillagoe west of Mareeba, perhaps with detours to historic mining towns such as Herberton and Irvinebank where time has stood still.