Cairns is Australia’s gateway to northern Queensland. From here you can visit the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree rainforest, the Atherton tablelands, Cape Tribulation, and much more. Cairns is a pretty typical tropical city in that life focuses here on relaxing, staying cool, moving slowly, and enjoying nature. Cairns is small with a population of about 120,000 with a city center encompassing a few streets of shops, restaurants, and bars.
Despite it being overly touristy, I liked Cairns. It’s easy to get around, the atmosphere is very relaxed, there’s good food, and most importantly, there’s a lot to do here. I could spend a few weeks in Cairns, relaxing by the lagoon (read: giant swimming pool), eating at the restaurants, enjoying the weather, and using it as a base to see all the sites in the region. The five days I spent was simply not enough. Some of the activities you can do around Cairns:
Dive the Great Barrier Reef – The only natural thing able to be seen from space, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the best place to dive in the world. Cairns is the biggest jumping off point for dive trips to the reef. Trips cost between $170 and $250 AUD for the day. I loved my dive trip. I was blown away at how great the diving was and the abundant wildlife and coral. I’ve always wanted to see the reef and it did not disappoint.
Visit the Daintree Rainforest – The rain forest north of Cairns is the oldest rainforest on the planet, dating back to dinosaur time. There are a number of day trips here but the best way to optimize your time is to visit the area on the way north towards Cape Tribulation. The area is great and makes for a beautiful day of swimming and hiking. My only regret is that I only had one day there as it would have been nice to spend a few days hiking all the trails.
Take a trip up north – Cross the Daintree river and continue up into Cape Tribulation, Cooktown, and Cape York. These towns are great jumping off points for dive trips to the reef, jungle walks, and overall, lounging. There isn’t anything to do up here except relax, enjoy nature, read a box, and avoid jellyfish.
See lots of waterfalls – South of Cairns, the Atherton tablelands have a plethora of waterfalls. Day tours are long and you’ll leave early and get back late but you’ll see a ton of great waterfalls, especially the famous Millaa Millaa Falls. If you go, go with Uncle Brian’s tours. They are an incredibly popular tour and, though the day is long, the tour is great and the drivers really engaging. I’ve never been on such a wild day tour in my life. My friend’s and I left quite happy.
Do extreme sports – If hiking, diving, and swimming, is too mundane for you, there’s always AJ Hackett’s bungy jump or a sky dive. AJ Hackett also has a swing that takes you 100 meters up and then launches you. It’s like the pirate ships at carnivals except you don’t spin around. AJ himself was there when I went to visit. As you know, I hate heights. My feet stayed firmly planted on the ground but he did get me to do the swing. There’s a video of it with me screaming and yelling profanities.
Inside Cairns, you won’t find much action. The lagoon gets fairly crowded, especially on the weekends. There are the botanical gardens, though they are a bit of a walk from the center. The restaurants near the waterfront are extremely good and equally pricey. At night, the city has a lively bar scene thanks to all the backpackers who come into town.
I wish I could have stayed longer in Cairns. I enjoyed the vibe of the city, the number of things you could do while there, the good nightlife, and the good restaurants. Cairns is definitely one of my favorite Australian cities.
Disclaimer: Queensland Backpacking Association got me Uncle Brian’s tour for free.