If you’re heading to Cairns, you already know you’re lucky.
After all, where else can you roll out of bed and face the day in a singlet and thongs while the rest of the country shivers through winter? Aside from the weather and the city’s great restaurants, attractions, clubs and shopping, here are ten of the best Cairns day trips that will introduce you to the incredible beauty of the wider Tropical North Queensland region.
Whether you choose to travel on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, by road up the winding range, or on the soaring Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, Kuranda is an absolute must-visit. Located just under 30 kilometres north-west of Cairns, the ‘Village in the Rainforest’ is exactly what it says on the tin: a charming village nestled within the lush UNESCO World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics rainforest.
The township is compact and easy to explore, but brimming with things to do. You’ll easily fill a few hours exploring the markets, shops and wildlife attractions — fabulous Birdworld Kuranda, the Kuranda Koala Gardens and serene Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. If you’ve got time, take a scenic boat trip on the river (crocs ahoy!) with the Kuranda Riverboat or head over to see the majestic Barron Falls.
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Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. No visit to Cairns in Tropical North Queensland would be complete without heading into the At…
This one’s less a day trip; more a ‘day of activity’. The Cairns Botanic Gardens are located about five kilometres north of the city centre in Edge Hill, and you could easily spend four or five hours losing yourself in this exquisite piece of paradise. There are a number of different sections, but those that will be of most interest to visitors are the main Flecker Gardens and the Centenary Lakes, which are separated by Collins Avenue.
The Flecker Gardens are the more ‘formal’ of the two (if you can apply that word to a verdant rainforest). Meander along trim pathways framed by ferns, palms, gingers and monster staghorns dangling from the limbs of trees. The gardens date back to the 1880s, so many mature trees provide the shade needed for this lush wonderland to flourish. Don’t miss seeing the Watkins Munro Martin Conservatory, which houses rare plants and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. Across Collins Avenue is the entrance to the Centenary Lakes Rainforest Boardwalk, where nature runs free.
Also north of Cairns is the charming resort enclave of Palm Cove, so it makes sense to combine your day at the gardens with a visit here. The drive from Edge Hill will take you about 30 minutes. Try and time your arrival for mid to late afternoon as the sun starts to drop and the oceanfront is bathed in a warm glow. Stroll along the beach and out onto the Palm Cove Jetty, then choose an eatery and settle in for sundowners and dinner.
The Atherton Tablelands are characterised by a spectacular undulating landscape, which encompasses some of Queensland’s most iconic natural attractions. They include the volcanic crater lakes of Eacham and Barrine, the Curtain Fig Tree, Lake Tinaroo and a circuit of spectacular waterfalls. The myriad botanical species and unique wildlife of the Tablelands provide endless fodder for nature lovers, while for foodies, its renown as the food bowl of the region rings true as you graze at gourmet food stores and farm-gates.
A little further afield at the Herberton Historic Village, you’ll discover a rich trove of relics dating back to the pioneering era.
Experience the splendour of North Queensland in all its magnificent glory in one place in the Wooroonooran National Park — a microcosm (although at 800 square kilometres, perhaps not so micro) of head-swivelling natural beauty. Wooroonooran is home to the Mamu Tropical Skywalk, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest canopy. You can also feed your soul and senses with a plunge into the crystal clear waters of Josephine Falls, Nandroya Falls, Behana Gorge and the Boulders.
If you’ve got the energy for hiking you can venture along circuitous trails through ancient rainforests, and scale the dizzy heights of Walsh’s Pyramid or Queensland’s highest mountain — Bartle Frere.
In the ancient, complex eco-system of the Daintree National Park, magic happens where the rainforest and the reef meet down by the sea. This vast protected region is a sacred Indigenous site and home to a mind-blowing number of the oldest plant and animal species on Earth. Possible activities include a visit to the original settlement of Daintree Village, crossing the river to Cape Tribulation on the Daintree River Ferry, or seeking adventure on the spine-jarring 4WD Bloomfield Track. You can explore the lush surroundings on guided boardwalk trails or soak up the solitude on pristine beaches. However you see it, Daintree National Park is an experience unlike any other on the planet.
At the end of what’s consistently voted one of the most beautiful drives in the world (and you can call in for an encounter with the less-than-friendly locals at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures along the way), Port Douglas is the jewel in the crown, the cat that got the cream, and the icing on the cake with a cherry on top! You’ll run out of clichés well before you run out of appreciation for this jaunty little seaside town that’s been winning the hearts of Cairns locals and visitors to the region for decades.
Beyond the obvious delights of Macrossan Street’s boutiques and the colour of the weekly local craft markets, you can experience traditional Kuku Yalanji culture on an Aboriginal owned and operated tour, ride the rails on the Bally Hooley heritage train service, and dazzle your taste buds in an array of award-winning restaurants.
For an I’m-short-on-time taste of the magic of the marine world off the North Queensland coast, Fitzroy Island is a sublime option. Situated just 40 minutes from Cairns Marlin Marina by launch, the island is home to a popular resort, gorgeous coral beaches and warm crystal clear waters that teem with life just metres from the shoreline. There are a range of facilities available for day use, including a bar/bistro and general store. Stinger suits, snorkelling gear and diving apparatus can all be hired from the beach hut close to the main jetty. The hut also runs glass bottom boat trips for those who prefer to stay dry.
Watch our video of this experience:
Welcome to The Big Bus tour and travel guide’s YouTube channel. In this video, we take you on a day trip to stunning Fitzroy Island in Tropical North Queensl…
Closer to the main reef system is Green Island — a tranquil coral cay that’s estimated to be some 6,000 years old, and is accessible on a day trip from Cairns by fast catamaran. The transfer time each way is around 45 minutes. Like Fitzroy Island, Green Island is home to a resort, but day guests are welcome. Laze on the crisp white beaches, snorkel off the shore, do a glass bottom boat trip or self-guided eco walk. Lunch and drinks are available for purchase from various outlets.
For those looking to immerse themselves in the full glory of the Outer Great Barrier Reef and spend the majority of their time snorkelling or scuba diving, a day trip from Cairns by high speed catamaran with Great Adventures makes it possible. Their permanently moored activity platform on the Outer Reef is equipped with everything you’ll need to take in the full majesty of the world beneath the waves. You’ll enjoy around three hours at the platform snorkelling, diving (additional cost applies), spending time in the underwater observatory or cruising in a semi-submersible craft. A buffet lunch of hot and cold dishes is included in the cost of your day on the reef, and drinks are available for purchase.
If you’re ready to mount a serious inland expedition, the trip out to the renowned Chillagoe Caves takes about three hours each way from Cairns and will see you traversing a number of contrasting landscapes. Chillagoe is rich in geological diversity and home to a breathtaking limestone cave system that was once part of an ancient reef. Above ground, there are remnants of the reef in the form of rocky ‘bluffs’, and below ground a world of epic caverns and chambers featuring stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones and the like. Ranger-guided cave tours operate daily and can be booked online or in town.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best Cairns day trips? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.