Last updated 24 August 2021
The best day trips from Cairns
for when we can play again
When a popular play has only a few nights left before the end of the season, there is typically a last-minute rush for tickets for final performances. When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted there will be a rush for tickets to Cairns.
Because not only is Cairns a tropical paradise, it is the launching pad to many of North Queensland’s best features.
Balmy weather, empty beaches, palm trees, ancient rainforests with waterfalls and home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world – the Great Barrier Reef – it’s not hard to figure out why Cairns is Australia’s fourth most popular destination for International Tourists (that’s pre-Covid-19.)
While its unlikely Cairns will ever be ‘sold-out’, you do not want to miss out on any of Cairns popular day trips including:
- A snorkel or dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef
- Port Douglas
- Daintree Rainforest
As Director of this story, I’m giving you my ‘theatrical’ spin on the top things to see and do near Cairns.
- Luxury Hotels
- Cane fields
- Tropical Islands
Casual attire, beach gear, sunglasses, hat, footwear: thongs or sandals. (Don’t forget the sunscreen!)
Minimal stage lighting is required thanks to the high volume of sunshine. The average monthly hours of sunshine in Cairns = 200! October is the ‘sunniest’ month and February has the least amount of sunshine (above 150 hours is still a high number, especially if you’re from one of the sun-deprived southern states of Australia 🙂 )
- Tour operators
Cairns International Airport the gateway to a tropical paradise
Act One Scene One:
Stepping beyond the sliding door of Cairns Airport and straight into the warm embrace of the tropics, sunglasses in position, I instantly slip into holiday mode. The relaxed vibe is buoyed by my fellow tourists’ chosen mode of dress: casual. I note that thongs (the footwear kind) are standard with more than half of the arriving visitors. I’m in that category too wearing my comfy Birkenstocks
Cairns is close to everything
Act One Scene Two
Besides the agreeable temperature and friendly locals, another feature about Cairns I love is that nothing is too far away. It’s only 4.8 kilometres to the Cairns esplanade from the airport to my home for the next few nights, the Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort.
Riley’s reception has plenty of natural light streaming in from the glass walls into the open plan area. My eyes are drawn to their statement pool just beyond the lobby lounge chairs. I’m enviously eyeing off the guests in the water. I hope to be there soon.
Check-in is effortless. I’m handed my room key, made from recycled timber, one of the many eco-friendly initiatives of the boutique hotel. Here’s my full review of the Riley.
Be mindful and safe at Crystalbrook
The Crystalbrook Collection has become Australia’s first cashless hospitality company in response to COVID-19. Riley has a mindfully safe program donating $5 from every direct booking to Beyond Blue.
Guests can destress with relaxing Spotify playlists and meditations, as well as yoga, barre, Pilates and art classes on the in-room iPads.
Things to do in Cairns with kids or big kids (adults)
Before I write about day trips from Cairns, I want to mention the experiences you can do in Cairns without having to leave the city.
For those not quite old enough or anyone unable to snorkel or dive on the reef, the Cairns Aquarium provides an underwater experience without the need to get yourself wet. And it’s a fabulous place to escape the humidity for a few hours. From the Riley, the Aquarium is an easy two-minute walk.
Over three levels, the Aquarium has recreated various habitats from rainforests, mangrove flats and coral reef systems to give an intimate view of the creatures that inhabit these areas. Their focus is on education, with two-hour tours taking visitors on a journey exploring the creatures of this unique region. Inside the tanks and enclosures are marine and rainforest wildlife you may never see, even if you do venture into the water or the rainforest.
One of the Aquarium’s founders, Daniel Leipnik was on hand to guide our group around the aquarium. As we wander into a darkened room with a floor to ceiling tank, I’m mesmerised by a sawtooth shark serenely gliding past.
“This is the tallest marine tank in Australia,” explains Daniel. “At almost ten meters tall with 300,000 litres it has 1000 different specimens and 78 different species. These are the fish that love those deep areas and it’s a place where the divers don’t often get to see because the waters can be quite treacherous.”
I wonder if fish can see their gawking audience and ask Daniel if they take any notice.
“The Humphead Maori Wrasse interacts with people,” Daniel says. “This fish will probably follow us as we make our way down to the next level.”
He’s referring to the bluefish with the oversized lips and humpy forehead. And it does follow us down to the next level, proving some fish are curious creatures.
In another room known as the Touch Tank, we meet Oscar Croshaw, one of the ‘Aquanuts’ the name given to the marine biologists and scientists who work at the Aquarium. In this room we can touch a starfish or a sea urchin on display and ask Oscar random questions about the reef. Oscar is from Sydney but came to Cairns to study his master’s degree in Science at James Cook University and his passion for these marine creatures comes across as he enthusiastically answers our questions.
A handful of professional artists live in the Cairns Region. As you wander around Cairns, keep an eye out for street performers, buskers and Indigenous dance troupes that make up Cairns’ dynamic arts community.
Bulmba-ja building is a theatre, gallery and creative development space for indigenous arts. The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park celebrates the world’s oldest living culture with tours providing traditional Aboriginal cultural experiences.
The mountain village of Kuranda (25 kilometres northwest of Cairns) has arts, craft, rainforest walks, and the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to easily occupy a half-day or day.
Open Friday to Sunday, Rusty’s Markets has around 180 stalls selling tropical fruit, vegetables, flowers, fresh bread, pastries and bric a brac like clothing and jewelry. This tourist icon is vibrant, busy and fun and the perfect place to grab a snack (I recommend an ice-cold tropical smoothie) and a colourful Cairns t-shirt souvenir.
Walking along the Esplanade, look out for the large fish sculptures atop poles on the foreshore of Trinity Harbour. These silver creatures are part of the 4,800 square metre saltwater lagoon where young and old can swim all year round. And the best part – there is no need to worry about crocs or stingers. The lagoon is patrolled by Lifeguards during opening hours. If you or your kids don’t want to leave the lagoon area for lunch, opt for a picnic in the nearby park grounds. You could throw a towel down in a shady spot under a Banyan tree and make use of the barbecue facilities and tables.
- Thursday to Tuesday 6.00 am to 9.00 pm
- Wednesday 12.00 pm to 9.00 pm (closed for weekly maintenance until midday)
- Public holidays 6.00 am to 9.00 pm
Entry to the Lagoon is free. Toilet and shower facilities are located in the amenities block beside the Lagoon.
This quiet cove is a twenty-minute drive from the Cairns Esplanade. Framed by a headland at each end, this is my kind of beach, where you won’t be fighting any crowds to find a spot for your towel. L’Unico Trattoria Restaurant is popular with locals and is the ideal place to sit and relax over lunch or dinner overlooking the ocean.
Cairns Day Trips
Act Two Scene One
At the top of the list of most visitors to Cairns will be an outing to the Great Barrier Reef. One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the reef is made up of 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays.
Around 30 tour boats depart daily from the Cairns Marina for the Great Barrier Reef (make sure to check their websites for post-Covid timetables.) Families, couples or solo travellers can enjoy a day at Fitzroy Island, Green Island, or a number of pontoons on the outer reef.
Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel Cairns are a new Indigenous tour operator taking visitors to two spectacular outer Great Barrier Reef sites. Moore Reef is approximately 45 kms from Cairns Marina (90 minutes) and further out is Milln Reef a 1.2 kilometre healthy stretch of coral.
Indigenous Sea Rangers provide cultural awareness, with members of the four tribes that share the Sea Country of the Great Barrier Reef, telling Dreamtime stories and singing songs accompanied by didgeridoo and clapsticks on the journey out to the reef.
At Moore Reef, you can explore the underwater world with included snorkelling and glass bottom boat experiences, or choose to an extra activity like an introductory or certified dive.
Hop on the 45-minute high-speed ferry to reach picturesque Fitzroy Island inside the protected Fitzroy National Park. At Welcome Bay and Nudey beach you can snorkel over coral reefs straight off the sand. Check out their conservation efforts at the Turtle rehabilitation centre.
Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef
Set sail from Cairns aboard Ocean Spirit, a 32 metre sailing catamaran, to the pristine reef environment of Michaelmas Cay. Encircled by a fringing reef teeming with colourful marine life including sea turtles and giant clams, Michaelmas is also a protected seabird sanctuary for migratory birds. Access to the cay is restricted to preserve this special environment.
During our journey to the Cay, 43 kilometres northeast of Cairns (90 minutes) inside the air-conditioned downstairs section of the catamaran, Leah Johnson our onboard Marine Biologist gives a lengthy talk about the marine life and the environment. The cay is one of the most significant bird sanctuaries on the Great Barrier Reef and at the height of the breeding season there are up to 20,000 birds nesting on the small sandy outcrop.
When the crew anchored our Ocean Spirit Catamaran near the sandy shore, the sky was swirling with hundreds of birds. Thankfully the cacophony coming from the small cay (360 metres long and 50 metres wide) was not too loud for me to miss the shout, “Manta ray,” from a crew member. I looked to where he was pointing and saw the black wings of a large manta ray casually swim by our boat.
According to the crew member, that was the first manta ray seen for the season. We’re feeling very lucky with that sighting and I’m hoping it continues with a green sea turtle.
As the smaller boat drops us at the cay, when you step onto the sandy shore, the sound of 1000s of birds from the rookery is overwhelming. Beyond the roped off restricted access area birds hop, swoop and preen each other without a care in the world for who’s arrived on their beach for a sticky beak. (pun intended 🙂 )
I sat down at the water’s edge pulling on my fins and adjusting my goggles. I was glad to leave the noisy island for some quieter underwater reef exploration. When I spied a green turtle swimming through the crystal clear water I squealed with excitement, gagging on the intake of water at the same time. It’s not every day you see one of these majestic creatures calmly going about their business.
After 20 minutes its time to leave the great crested and sooty terns to return to the boat for lunch followed by a tour in the semi-submersible.
Sparkling wine on the journey back to Cairns and some memorable photo moments with the other tourists enjoying the sun on the open deck topped off a superb reef day trip.
Act Three Scene One:
Following the coastline from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is a picturesque stretch of highway, called the Great Barrier Reef Drive. I was hypnotised by the endless blue shades of the Coral Sea stretching towards the horizon (obviously I wasn’t in the driver’s seat.) The windy road twists and turns for many kilometres. It didn’t bother me, but others in our group felt a little car sick. So, if you’re prone to car-sickness, make sure to add a few pit-stops along the way.
A stop that should be more than just a ‘pit-stop’ is at Port Douglas, the resort capital of Tropical North Queensland. An easy hour’s drive from Cairns many visitors will spend a fun day in Port Douglas (PD.) Rainforest on one side and ocean on the other, PD is the closest town to the Daintree Forest and the Great Barrier Reef.
There are numerous reef tours from PD, including Low Isles – 15 kilometres north-east of the town and a quick 30-minute boat ride.
During the months of July and September, dwarf minke whales make an appearance at Agincourt Reef. Silversonic have a permit allowing guests to swim with these whales (strictly supervised of course)
Beyond the reef, you can take a guided walk through the Daintree Rainforest or go croc-spotting on a riverboat cruise. Macrossan Street is the town’s high street. With over 50 restaurants and cafes dining options are plentiful, including the Marina with water views and plenty of yachts.
A further 20 kilometres north of PD (twenty-minute drive) is the sugar town of Mossman. Two kilometres outside the town is the 56,000 hectare Mossman Gorge and the entrance to one of nature’s majestic treasures, the Daintree National Park. Inside the park, you can walk trails through the rainforest
When the curtain closes
I could keep writing but every play must have a finale. Port Douglas befits this play’s ending.
The audience is on their feet requesting more.
And I promise there will be more. I haven’t covered Cape Tribulation. Yet!