Cairns attractions

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About

Located in sunny, tropical Far North Queensland, Cairns is a world famous tourist destination. I lived in the Northern Beaches of Cairns for nine years (from 1995-2004) and my parents still live there, so I try to visit at least once a year. I live in Brisbane now, and it's amazing how many foreign tourists ask me about Cairns. Several people now have asked me for advice on what to see in Cairns, and so I decided to write out my advice here, rather than re-type it again and again in e-mails!


About Cairns

Cairns is a popular tourist destination thanks to its tropical climate and proximity to many attractions in particular: The Great Barrier Reef (1 hr boat from city), Atherton Tablelands (2 hr drive), Kuranda (rainforest village 30 mins drive) and Daintree National Park (2.5 hr drive).

Things to Do

Unfortunately most visitors won't have time to see all the tourist attractions. If you only have a few days to play with this is what I'd recommend:

  1. Day 1 - Spend what's left of day walking around the city center and the "Esplanade".
  2. Day 2 - Day trip to the reef. (~$200)
  3. Day 3 - Day trip to Kuranda - taking the train up, and skyrail down. (~$100)
  4. Day 4 - Drive to Northern Beaches and relax.

TIP: Forget about Cape Tribulation - it's a very long drive (3 hr one-way) to an fairly over-rated beach so I'd recommend you visit nearby attractions first!


Cairns City Center

About the city center

Many tourists are surprised when the learn that Cairns itself is built on the edge of a gigantic mangrove inlet on what was once a swamp. The city itself has no beaches (except a crappy little artificial one at the start of the Esplanade) - the main Esplanade looks onto mud and if you want to see and swim at a real beach you have to drive 30 kilometres north of the CBD! Cairns was only settled in 1876, and it's only in the last few decades that it has experienced phenomenal development - due mostly largely to tourism and the construction of an International Airport. The floodplain on which Cairns is built is very flat, but beside it is the Great Dividing Range, which forced Cairns to expand north and (to a lesser extent) south, rather than inland to the west.


The layout of the CBD

The main CBD is fairly clean and designed with tourists in mind. I've shown a map of the CBD which gives you an idea of where the "action" is, or see Google maps here. A walk along the Esplanade is actually quite nice, complete with a artificial beach and lagoon at the South end - although the lagoon gets very crowded indeed during the tourist season. Near that is "The Pier" market place (which is actually pretty dead these days despite started well), and South of that is the Marina where all the reef cruise boats depart. Walking away from the water you'll see the "Reef Casino" building with a glass dome on top. Two streets away from the Esplanade is the main "city place" is at the intersection of Shields and Lake Street is a good reference and surrounded by lots of nice little shop. If you walk another three streets along Shields street you'll see "Cairns Central", which is one of our largest shopping complexes adjacent to a couple of dodgy pubs.  :-)

If you have time to kill I'd definitely recommend a nice walk along the Esplanade, and if you like shopping Shields and Spence street are the streets you want.


Public transport

Public transport in Cairns is crap. Walking around the CBD is fine, but if you want to go anywhere else in Cairns the only bus service we have is called "Sunbus" and not only are there too few buses and bus routes but they are ridiculously expensive. Furthermore we only have one major taxi company called "Black and White Taxis" and they charge pretty high too.

As an example: to go one way from Cairns to the Northern Beaches is: ~25 kilometers takes about half-an-hour to drive. By taxi: 25 mins but >$80! By bus: >1 hr (diverting into several beaches) and cost >$15 for an adult. ... and Sunbus doesn't even go to Kuranda!... although there is a coach service called Whitecar coaches which go from Cairns to Kuranda, Mareeba and Atherton.

If you do plan on seeing more than the CBD I'd highly recommend hiring a car!

Accommodation

Since my parent own a place in Cairns I've never needed to book accommodation, so I have no idea sorry! I know there are lots of places around the CBD, ranging from cheap backpacker hostels to five star hotels... or you could chose to book a hotel in one of the Northern Beach suburbs. If you have any recommendations please say so!

RECOMMENDATIONS FROM FRIENDS:

  • A great place to stay is the Nothern Greenhouse backpackers. Rooms in a 6 bed dormitory cost $25 - a bargain, cause it includes fridge, toilet, shower in the (clean) room, breakfast, free pool table, free internet (although the content filter blocks most pages). Pier/Esplanade and shopping mall only 7 mins by foot. Two thumbs up. - T. Richter.


Reef

About the reef

The Great Barrier Reef is probably the single greatest attraction of Cairns and although the boat trip out is fairly expensive ($150-250 pp) it's something you should definitely do. Due mostly to global warming and the crown-of-thorns starfish, the reef isn't as spectacular as it was even a decade ago, but even thought the coral has lost a lot of color the fish are still plentiful and, depending on reef conditions, you'll probably love it anyway.


Best times

The best time to visit the reef is Sep to Nov as this is the calmest and clearest time (generally). Dec to Apr is wet, rough and murky and can have high wind periods (cyclones and the like), and May to Aug is the dry winter period but has the highest persistent winds and rough conditions.


Good companies

A day trip to the reef can cost anywhere between $150 and $300 per adult, depending on the company.

There are many companies to choose from and reefs to visit from inner continental islands (like Green Island, Low Isles) to outer reef (Agincourt, Michaelmas Cay, Moore Reef, Hastings Reef and so on) - and also a choice of boats from small launches which tend to be a bit slow and hence one has less time out on the reef, to medium boats (like Sunlover), to large catamarans (like Quicksilver and Great Adventures) and which are a smooth ride, get you there quicker and hence maximize your time on the reef.

Personally I'd recommend Great Adventures - they have huge stable catamaran boats and gigantic outer reef pontoons with pretty decent snorkelling gear, glass bottom boats and a great seafood lunch buffet (all inclusive). If you wanted to go for a day trip I'd recommend the "Green Island & Great Barrier Reef Adventure", which lets you spend 2 hours on Green Island and ten 3 hours snorkelling at their Outer Reef platform. This costs just under $200 per adult, and a discount for locals.


The islands on the reef

The two main islands people visit and stay at are Green Island and Fitzroy Island.

Green island is a beautify rainforest coral cay island - it takes only 30 minutes to walk around the whole thing - but it has good snorkelling off the beaches, and a neat little crocodile park (which I think is $10 to enter). Because of its size it's best suited for just lounging around on the beach and snorkelling. There is a resort on the island, Green Island Resort, but it's very expensive (almost $500 per night for 2 people).

Fitzroy Island is a much larger island - taking a few hours to walk around. Unlike green island, which is flat, Fitzroy is fairly mountainous for its size and some good hiking trails including a lighthouse track, summit track, boulder lookout, secret garden track and nude beach track. It also has some nice beaches, including coral beaches (covered with small chunks of coral), and decent snorkelling, and can be popular with groups of young people because, unlike Green Island, it has picnic facilities and you're allowed to camp there... and the resort there Fitzroy Island Resort is half the price of the one on Green Island. More info on Fitzroy is here.


Additional Tips

Make sure you take plenty of sunscreen (even it it's overcast), a good hat, sunnies and a water bottle. If (like many silly Caucasians) you get sun-burnt on the reef you'll turn red and be in agony by nightfall and the rest of your week ruined - so I can't reiterate enough the importance of applying sunscreen to every inch of your body every few hours - nose, ears, shoulders, feet, back and underside of legs (the latter too especially since they are exposed while you swim). If you burn easily you might want to leave the reef until the day before you leave. A day at the reef is very tiring - if you have time give plan to spend most of the next day relaxing!

Booking a reef trip is something you should do AT least the day before. It's easy to do online, but if you want more assurance most of them have offices in the Cairns CBD between the casino and pier.

Your time out on the reef is limited, so wear your swimmers under your clothes to avoid wasting time changing. Wear thongs on your feet and apply sunscreen on the boat. If you've never been snorkelling before you might want to acquire a some snorkelling gear (snorkel, mask and fins) and practise beforehand so you don't spend half your trip swallowing salt water! If you have your own snorkelling gear (even a cheap pair) remember to bring them, because even if your company provides free goggles they are likely to be pretty crappy. If you travelling around Nov you might be lucky enough to see hump-back whales, so keep a camera handy.


Kuranda

About Kuranda

Kuranda is a small rainforest town just 25 kilometres north of Cairns on the edge of the Atherton Tablelands. Kuranda village is surrounded by tropical rainforest and the Barron river and the main street of is well setup for tourists with plenty of shops, art galleries, regular markets and other attractions - you might even decide to take a second day to explore it properly (see here). The 700 or so people who live there include a lot of "rainforest hippies" and also indigenous Australians (descended from the Djabukai tribe which once roamed the area) so you'll probably see a lot of colorful characters as well as a tonne of tourists. The best way to experience Kuranda however is to go up the range on the Kuranda Scenic Railway and come down on Kuranda Skyrail.

Kuranda scenic railway

Kuranda scenic railway runs all the way from Cairns to Kuranda. The train line has a very interesting history (which you will hear about on the commentary inside the carriage), but nowadays is used primarily to take hundreds of tourists. The train slowly snakes its way up the range and takes about 1.5 hours, but features some great views and a nice 15 minute stop at the Barron Falls Lookout. I believe a one-way adult ticket costs ~$35 (which you should book the day before) but you get good discounts if you are a student or pensioner. The two train goes up the range at 8:30 and 9:30 and there is a station in town and another at Freshwater. There are several special offers which include skyrail and even bus transfers, but you'd probably have to call to work it out. Kids and history buffs will especially enjoy the trip. Last time I went was March 2008 and we shared a whole carriage with only a few people, so plenty of room to stretch out. PS: The gold class carriage doesn't look like it's worth an the extra money!


Kuranda skyrail

Skyrail is a 7.5 kilometre long cable-way running above the Barron Gorge from the Cairns suburb of Caravonica to Kuranda. It's popular for very good reason - it offers stunning views of rainforest, the Barron River and out across Cairns - it has won awards and I believe it's still the longest cable car in the southern hemisphere. Each gondola cabins has 6 seats and the ride is very smooth, although for me I'm a little scared of heights and tense up whenever the car goes past a tower (it bumps just a little over the tower) - some almost 40 meters above the ground! The rainforest canopy below is spectacular and there are two stops along the way: Red Peak station which has a great little rainforest boardwalk, and Barron Falls station with a close view of Barron falls and nice little "Rainforest Interpretation Center" featuring some nice info and a few interactive touch screens. A skyrail experience takes about 1.5 hours each way and a one-way adult ticket is $40. They also do a lot of packages which include Kuranda train and/or Tjapukai (more on Tjapukai below). I recommend doing the "train and skyrail" and suggest catching the train up and skyrail down because it's great to see all the way to the ocean as you come over the range in a cable car. I believe the cars stop running at ~3:40, so try to get there by 3 don't miss the last one!


Kuranda shopping

The main drag has a LOT of shops... most of them: art shops (some featuring some fantastic aboriginal art and rainforest paintings), jewellery shops (almost all of them trying to flog opals!), clothing stores (featuring lots of hippie stuff) and souvenir shops (selling the usual Australian stuff - boomerangs, cane-toad purses, overpriced hats etc.). The markets are quite impressive though: apparently there is a huge one every Sunday, but every day of the week there are bound to be lots of stalls around with a big emphasis on rainforest stuff - and lots of didgeridoos for sale. If you like shopping you'll could easily spend your whole day looking at the various shops and stores along the main street (stopping at a pub for lunch), and once you get to the end you'll discover yet another set of markets, the information center (which has a great free map of the area) plus all the other attractions, but then you'll realize the day is over and walk the 10 minus back down the street to the skyrail or train!


Other attractions

As well as shopping Kuranda features: a river walk (30 mins - should be quite nice), rainforest walk (45 mins), Kuranda Riverboat Cruise (45 mins), Birdworld (30 mins - not too expensive), Butterfly Sanctuary (30 mins - which is great), Koala Gardens (30 mins), Batreach (30 mins), Australian Venom Zoo (30 mins), Hummer Ride (2 hrs), Rainforest Walk (1 hr). Now I'll admit I haven't done most of these, but they are all there if you are keen!


Additional Tips

As you can see there are lots of things you can do in Kuranda, but as soon as you get your hands on a map you'll see everything is very close together, and the best thing to do is book your train and skyrail a couple of days before and plan on doing just one or two things - maybe shopping and a walk - if you try to do squeeze in much more you'll ruin your experience. Kuranda is a laid back little town so I'd suggest taking your time seeing what's there, looking at a few art galleries, having lunch at the cafe and taking it a bit easy so as not to exhaust yourself! Even though it's elevated, Kuranda is usually fairly hot by day so I'd recommend just a shirt and shorts as well as comfortable shoes and a hat.



The Northern Beaches

About the northern beaches

I lived for nine year in the Northern Beaches of Cairns (Trinity Beach and Clifton Beach) and so this is a little biased, but if you need a day to relax (and you have a car) you should check out some of the beaches north of Cairns. Cairns itself has only mud and mangroves, so to see the nice beaches which you might see in advertisements for Cairns you have to drive 20-30 minutes north along the Captain Cook Highway and then turn right off one of our many giant roundabouts into one of the beach suburbs. Unlike the CBD, which is often full of Japanese tourists and European backpackers, most of the people out here are locals who generally are not fond of hordes of tourists, so act like a local if you can! Without driving TOO far north, the best beaches I suggest are: Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach and Palm Cove (each with its own pubic toilets and stinger net during stinger season). Each has its own advantages/disadvantages.

Stinger season is November to May (although sometimes it might start a little earlier) and during this time it's very, VERY foolish to swim off a beach unless you're inside a stinger net.

Some of the beaches

Palm Cove Palm Cove is the most famous of the Northern beaches. Almost the entire length of the beach is full of shops, upper-class restaurants and luxury resorts. What makes this beach particularly attractive though are the numerous palms trees and beautiful big Melaleucas (paperbark trees) spread along the beach; in many cases the store fronts have been built around them. Although most of the shops are too expensive for locals to actually buy stuff, there is also a jetty at the northern end where lots of locals fish, and the occasional boat departs to the nearby Double Island. Palm Cove is definitely worth a look at - even if it's just to browse the shops... think of it as a smaller version of Port Douglas (which is another 30 minutes drive North).  :-)

Kewarra Beach If people aren't your thing, then the two beaches south of Palm Cove are usually much quieter. Only a couple of years ago I'd recommend Clifton beach over Kewarra beach, but due to large swell most of the sand on Clifton has been swept away and they had to build a long rock wall too protect the houses next too the beach. Kewarra beach is connected Clifton beach - separated only by a small estuary (which is usually shallow enough to walk across) - but has significantly more sand. The advantage of Kewarra is that you'll often get the whole beach to yourself. It is a little tucked away, but there is a tiny little car park, playground and BBQ area... and in front of that is a life guard tower (which I've never seen used) and the stinger net (during stinger season). The best thing is that there is a small resort nearby, and so are usually deck chairs and a hammock setup... so hey - may as well put them to use if no-one is around. Kewarra is nice if you want some privacy or a nice long walk.

Trinity Beach

Down one more beach is Trinity Beach - offering a nice compromise between the touristy Palm Cove and quiet Kewarra beach. Most of the beaches south of Trinity are nothing special, but at the Southern end of Trinity is a nice little walk out along the rock escarpment where you have a pretty decent chance of seeing a green turtle swimming offshore. When you first get to the beach (arriving via Trinity Beach Road) there is a nice little fish and chip place on the left and a great restaurant which does wood-fired pizzas on the right.... actually there are a few good restaurants along this beach. Unlike most other beaches, Trinity has several picnic tables next to the beach and also auto-start BBQs. Much of the year there seems to be a guy in the middle of the beach hiring out a little catamaran and sea kayaks, but not very cheaply that's for sure!

Additional Tips

Once again sunscreen is paramount! Definitely you should have a swim, but remember that sunscreen often washes off in the water. Bring along a big towel, swimmers, a hat, sunglasses, and a book to read.

If you only have a few hours for beach-going I'd recommend checking out Palm Cove, but if you have a whole day you can easily drive south and check out some of the other beaches and pick yourself up some fish and chips for lunch along the way.

Be warned that it's usually only a dozen days of the year that the water is turquoise blue, crystal clear and calm like you see on the postcards/websites.... typically the water is quite dark and after a big rain beaches near mangrove patches (like Kewarra) are often full of sediment (leaves etc)!

Sadly a lot of sand has disappeared from most of the Northern beaches; so at high tide the beaches are quite narrow - <5 meters in places. I remember a time when Trinity Beach was >20 meters wide and almost flat... not any more. That said, there is still plenty of room to set up a beach towel and relax... and unless it is raining the beach is usually lots of fun!

SOME FINAL WARNINGS:

  • Make sure you swim between the flags and if it's stinger season only swim inside the nets.
  • It's rare for stuff to get stolen, but keep your stuff clustered together and within sight.


Other Attractions

Tjapukai

Tjapukai is an "Aboriginal Cultural Park" and pretty much the only one of its kind in Australia. The word Tjapukai means "people of the rainforest", and the park showcases cultural dances, artifacts and displays of the Tjapukai people. The building is 20 mins north of Cairns adjacent to the main Skyrail terminal. I know lots of Japanese tour groups go there and it has won lots of awards, but I've always been a bit sceptical. In 2008 I went there for the first time with my girlfriend for the "night show" and I have to say it was pretty good... it was ~$80 per adult (less if local discount) and went like this: After waiting in the gift shop, we were ushered into a big room with some nice paintings and artefacts, and after ten minutes looking around suddenly a sound and lighting show begins. I'm not convinced it was a "traditional" sound and lighting show, but it was a nice touch. Next we were taken outside where we got clap-sticks and walked around singing as they started a fire using traditional fire sticks, then some other stuff (I won't give it all always), then taken into another huge room for a buffet. The food at the buffet was pretty fantastic I must say; although you can't help but notice that instead of serving kangaroo, barramundi and damper they served pork, bassa and miso soup - so the food was definitely not authentic! During dinner a group of six performers performed cultural dances on stage. I've seen a few proper corroborees when I was growing up in the Northern Territory, and what I saw on stage seemed very half-arse by comparison, but since the food was great I don't think it really mattered.... if I had to perform the same routine in front of Japanese and American tourists every day of the week I'd be pretty half-arsed too. It's not cheap, but it's nice to know that you are supporting a locally-owned Aboriginal company. From what I've seen, people who go to the "night show" usually enjoy it, but people who go to the "day show" are usually disappointed.

Cape Tribulation

As mentioned early, I think "Cape Tribulation" itself is a pretty over-rated beach. Taking a trip to Cape Tribulation is more about the drive itself. Along the way you will cross over the (crocodile inhabited) Daintree River on a cable ferry and drive past some great beaches (some empty) and beautiful rainforest. You'll also pass a really nice little ice-cream stop, and you might like to stop briefly at Mossman George or Port Douglas. Unfortunately the drive is 3 hours, so your stops will be limited!

Port Douglas

Port Douglas is a good alternative for people who don't want to drive 3 hours to see the Daintree rainforest. Port Douglas is only 1 hour North of Cairns, and features the famous Port Douglas Sunday Markets (8:00-1:00). Port Douglas is notoriously expensive compared to Cairns (for accomodation, food etc), however fun to visit for a day for people who like shopping, or exploring a coastal town. Port Douglas has its own trips to the Great Barrier reef, but is better known for five-star hotels!

White Water Rafting

If you are feeling adventurous there are three White Water rafting companies in Cairns: Raging Thunder, RnR and Foaming Fury

All three companies seem to do half days on the Barron River (20 mins drive North of Cairns City) and full days on the Tully River (apparently the best location, but 1.5 hours south of Cairns). I haven't done any White Water Rafting here unfortunately, but it's on my to do list and I've heard good things about Raging Thunder (although it's just a little more expensive). All three companies have very similar prices/deals: ~$100 for a half-day or ~$150 for a full day plus a $25 rafting levy (for insurance etc).

Cairns Tropical Zoo

Cairns Tropical Zoo is a nice little zoo / wildlife park opposite Palm Cove - on the right side of the Bruce highway 30 minutes North of Cairns City. It's been almost a decade since I went Cairns Tropical Zoo (in fact it was called Wild World back then), but it wasn't bad pretty good. The price has gone up to $31 per adult since then, but if you haven't fed Kangaroos, patted Koalas, seen Casowarry or held snakes it's still a pretty good day out.

In this area there are a couple of other attractions including:

  • Outback Opal mine - free, although I've never been sorry.
  • Cairns Night Zoo - >$90, but is only open at night and looks pretty corny.
  • Paradise Palms Golf Course - which has no mini-golf sadly, but I mention it because it's opposite my house and it has a 25m swimming pool which is usually empty and often free.



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