Cairns is touted as the “gateway to the Great Barrier Reef” and other destinations such as Kuranda and the Daintree rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia, although the city has little to offer to travellers besides tour agencies, a handful of restaurants, cafes, and backpacker bars, and a long walk along the esplanade looking out at the swampy shoreline. Its 150,000 residents are regularly outnumbered by domestic and international visitors.
Cairns is an adventure sports enthusiast’s paradise: every second shop is a tourist information centre with signs blaring “dive dive” or “tandem skydiving”. Its location close to the ocean, the mountains and the rainforest gives travellers lots of choices of activities.
Standby rates are ubiquitous: many of the more expensive activities, including scuba diving and skydiving, are up to $150 cheaper if you are prepared to go on standby for a cancellation.
- Swim in the artificial “lagoon” (a public swimming pool with some sand on one side) on the promenade near the pier. The lagoon is unfenced and free to use. A shallow depth (max depth 1.5 m) makes it ideal for families with children. The lagoon is a good place to cool off especially during “stinger season” between October and May (cf. Dangerous creatures in Australia) when swimming at local beaches should be avoided except inside the stinger net enclosures, which are no bigger than the lagoon itself. Note that there are also no beaches in central Cairns itself – one can catch a bus to the northern beaches, and there are swimming net enclosures at Holloways, Yorkey’s Knob, Trinity, Kewarra, Palm Cove and Ellis Beaches but the sand there is rather rough.
- Sun-bake or people watch on the grassy part of the promenade near the lagoon. On a sunny day, even in the middle of Cairns’s tropical “winter”, there will sometimes be more sun-bakers than there is visible grass.
- Have a barbecue on the promenade. Cairns has free barbecues scattered generously among the picnic tables on the grass.
- Go walking – Cairns is surrounded by rainforest clad mountains, and there are nearly 200 walking tracks in this World Heritage Area. Keen walkers should keep an eye out for Tropical Walking Tracks, found at local bookshops and adventure shops. It lists all of the tracks around Cairns as well as those between Townsville and Cooktown and has maps of them and ‘how-to-get-there’ directions as well.
For some serious airtime
If you are sick of the sea, head up in the air for skydiving, hang gliding or hot air ballooning. The Cairns region has some of the best weather for ballooning in the world and so trips go year round and are rarely cancelled. It’s also one of the cheapest places to go flying, anywhere.
The trips go inland to the Atherton Tablelands and take off at first light at Mareeba, finishing around 10AM and can connect directly to a Great Barrier Reef tour or drop you in Kuranda.
Hang gliders fly off Rex Point Lookout, halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas on the Captain Cook Highway. On weekends, it’s common to see multiple gliders soaring the sky above the scenic lookout, and the winter season provides consistent flight conditions.
- Airplay Hang Gliding. Airplay offers tandem hang gliding flights of durations up to 1 hr and a free outbound shuttle service. Lessons and full instruction are also available to those wishing to learn to fly.
- Ballooning with Hot Air. Includes a hot breakfast, champagne & transfers. $200.
- Champagne Balloon Flights. Offers a slightly cheaper trip that doesn’t include breakfast.
- Skydive Cairns. Tandem, single jumps, and AFF courses. One of the most beautiful plane rides up to 13,000 feet overlooking the reef just long enough before you lose your lunch on the way down.
- Tandem Cairns, Shop 10. Offers tandem skydives $270.
White water rafting
Rafting in North Queensland has the advantage of departures all year round, tropical water temperatures and ease of access to compliment breath-taking scenery and rapids. The region’s white water rafting adventures are suitable for all levels of fitness and enthusiasm. Ride through the planet’s oldest continuously growing tropical rainforests on rivers that still run totally wild.
- RnR White Water Rafting. Operating since 1984. The Tully River is Australia’s best and most famous 1-day white water rafting experience, with up to 5 hr of rafting over more than 45 grade 4 rapids through World Heritage Rainforest. The Barron River option is a great half-day tour, with up to 2 hr of rafting on grade 3 rapids. For something longer, the North Johnstone 4-day expedition is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Helicopter in, 4 days of grade 5 rapids and camping 3 nights under the stars in riverside rainforest clearings.
Many coach tours depart Cairns daily, with a couple of hundred to choose from. There are rainforest tours to Mossman Gorge, the Daintree River, Cape Tribulation, and the Cairns Highlands (Atherton Tablelands), specialised 4WD tours, city sights tours, tours to wildlife parks, outback tours.
- Tropic Wings Coach Tours. One of the largest and longest established coach touring companies in Cairns, operating since 1981. Operate full- and half-day tours to Kuranda including Kuranda Scenic Railway, Skyrail, Rainforestation Nature Park and Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree, Port Douglas, Atherton Tablelands and the ‘Outback’ .Extended tours available to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree.
- Jungle Tours. Day and extended tours to the World Heritage areas of Cape Tribulation and the Daintree – where the oldest rainforest in the world meets the Great Barrier Reef. Small groups travel with their informative guides on air-conditioned buses. Tours can include Port Douglas, The Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, cruising on the Daintree River searching for crocodiles and wildlife, swimming in the Mossman Gorge and exploring Cape Tribulation Beach. On extended tours, various levels of accommodation are offered, from backpacker dorms to deluxe resorts, with plenty of options to party and play. Activities vary from reef trips with Rum Runner, to horseriding, jungle surfing, and sea kayaking.
- Northern Experience Eco Tour. Visits the waterfalls, Lake Barrine Cater lake, the Curtain Fig tree, Famous Milla Milla falls, 2-course hot lunch and cheese/yogurt tasting at the Mungalli organic bio-dynamic dairy, rainforest of the Southern Cairns Highlands, plus the historic Spanish castle ruins and gardens of Paronella Park and Mena Creek falls, near Innisfail, and the Babinda boulders for a swim in clear mountain spring waters. Back to Cairns via Bruce Highway, sugar cane fields and Walsh’s Pyramid. Many photo opportunities. Small groups, max 20 passengers.
- Cairns information from wikivoyage.
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