People come to Cairns because it’s both the largest city in North Queensland and its marina is one of the best spots from where to cruise to the Great Barrier Reef. There are a few things to do around town – the Cairns Aquarium, swimming at the lagoon on the Esplanade, Cairns Museum – but to see the best of this tropical part of the world, it’s worth hiring a rental car to explore further.
Not sure what to do? Check out some of these options and go on an adventure.
South of the City
Erupting from the forest in the northern reaches of Wooroonooran National Park is Walshs Pyramid and it won’t take you too long to realise how it got its name. It’s a steep climb to the top, so it’s best to attempt it early in the day, but at the top you can sit back and enjoy the epic views of the valley.
The good news is Walshs Pyramid is close to Babinda Boulders if you need to cool off. These huge rocks create pools of clear water in Babinda Creek and, even on a hot day, the water is usually extremely cold. It takes a minute or two to get used to it, but once you’re acclimatised to the chill, it’s bliss to float beneath the rainforest canopy folding over the pools.
There are some other incredible waterfalls not too far away, so get back in the rental car. Water crashes 60m over the edge of Nandroya Falls into the pool at the bottom. You can swim here too, or take on the circuit walk, where you’ll pass smaller waterfalls hidden in the rainforest.
A Popular Pair
Set above the sea, the village of Kuranda offers a cool change from Cairns, 30km away. Its mountainside position makes it a retreat from high temperatures, but it also has the atmosphere of a hippie haven in the trees. The must-do activity here is Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Flying over the rainforest is mesmerising, but the full impact occurs when you travel over the top of Barron Falls.
Apart from that, it has two art and craft markets and is home to Birdworld, the Koala Gardens and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary for those who want to get close to wildlife.
And while Kuranda is high in the mountains, Port Douglas is on the coastline. On the way there, consider stopping at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, home to Australia’s most feared animal, the saltwater crocodile. Cruise the lagoon to see the salties being fed then explore the rest of the park. There are cassowaries, kangaroos, koalas, wombats and lots of other reptiles.
Cairns isn’t a huge city, but Port Douglas is an even more laidback spot. If you can, time your visit for a Sunday, when the hugely popular Port Douglas Markets take over Anzac Park. This is the place to go if you want to buy handcrafted crafts and souvenirs, fresh tropical fruit or some locally made ice-cream to cool your roll. Stroll down Macrossan Street to check out art galleries and boutiques but be sure to stop by the Court House Hotel. Even if you’re the designated driver, this grand old pub is a great spot for lunch. On your way back to Cairns, be sure to stop at Rex Lookout for a 180-degree panoramic view of the Coral Sea.
Most people heading on a road trip from Cairns, drive down the coastline. Instead, point your rental car down the Gillies Highway towards the Atherton Tableland where you’ll find the town of Yungaburra. Arriving is like taking a step back in time because it’s remained almost unchanged since 1910. Visit the huge fig tree with its curtain of roots and be sure to stop at the platypus viewing area, where the cute residents usually make appearances around dawn and dusk.
Go Even Further
Further north of Port Douglas you’ll come to Mossman, a town surrounded by fields of sugar cane. Stop by Janbal Gallery where Kuku Yalanji artist Brian ‘Binna’ Swindley practices his art and leads workshops. Out of town, go to the Mossman Gorge Centre to join a Dreamtime Walk, where the guide describes more about the Kuku Yalanji way of life, including bush food, plants used for medicine, and the relationship Indigenous people have with the forest.
Beyond Mossman is the Daintree Rainforest, one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth. It’s been growing here for about 180 million years, making it the world’s oldest rainforest by at least 10 million years. Spend some time beneath its canopy then go to explore beach, rivers and villages.
At Lower Daintree, join Solar Whisper for a tour on the only zero emission vessel on the Daintree River. Keep a good eye on the riverbanks because you’re not only likely to spot one of the big saltwater crocodiles that live in many northern rivers, but also snakes, crabs, kingfishers and other birdlife. And, because the boat is almost silent, it doesn’t disturb the wildlife, which is great for capturing photographs.
When you arrive in Cairns, hire a rental car so you can explore even further.