Cairns is a pretty tiny town and there isn’t much to see there specifically. However, most travellers don’t come to this region to hang out in Cairns. They come for the lush rainforests, waterfalls and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Although spending more than a day would probably be advisable in some of the below places, you can definitely still do day trips if you’re there for a short amount of time. Here are some recommendations:
The Great Barrier Reef
The largest living organism in the world, the GBR was one of the highlights of my trip to Australia. To explore the GBR, you can join an organised tour – these include sailing or diving trips to the outer reef, helicopter trips to get an aerial view of the reef or visiting an island and snorkelling in the waters close by.
I used the company Reef Magic as they offered lots of options including helicopter rides, snorkelling, diving, helmet dives, a glass bottom boat and a semi-submersive too (for those who want to stay dry). This is a full day trip which departs from Cairns on a catamaran to the Marine World activity pontoon where the activities start. Parts of the reef that we went to seemed bleached (or so it seemed) which was tragic to see but there was lots of amazing sea life in any case and I also saw turtles! No matter what tour you take, definitely do your research and make sure you use companies that go to the outer fringes of the reef as those are likely to be least damaged.Kuranda (Atherton Tablelands)
The Atherton Tablelands offer small country towns, mountains (including Bartle Frere, Queensland’s highest mountain), lakes, rainforests and waterfalls.Kuranda is one of the towns that is easily doable as a day trip from Cairns. Getting to Kuranda is an adventure in itself and can be done in two ways (or a combination of both which is what I’d recommend) – the Skyrail Gondola (with a rainforest stop on the way) or the Kuranda Scenic Railway.In Kuranda itself, you should explore the many markets where you can purchase local handicrafts. There are also a few wildlife sanctuaries (including a butterfly, bird and koala sanctuary).
You could also take the Kuranda Riverboat that cruises along the Barron River or go for a walk on some of the walking trails. Grab lunch at Petit Cafe for a delicious crepe!
For a beautiful, sandy beach, head to the town of Palm Cove (mentioned in my previous post on Cairns). With its chilled vibe and a number of good cafes and restaurants, you could spend a few hours here relaxing.Port Douglas
If you have a car or are making your way up the coast, definitely check out Port Douglas which I heard great things about (but unfortunately didn’t have time to visit myself). A laidback, upmarket town with a white sand beach and lots of restaurants and activities to keep you busy (sunset cruises etc), this seems to be a great place to base yourself after spending a day or two in Cairns.
Port Douglas is also very close to the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest and the GBR (with the outer reef closer to Port Douglas than it is to Cairns so quicker to get to presumably!). Mossman Gorge is also not too far.
With beaches and rainforest walks on offer, Cape Trib seems to be an ideal place to stop off for a couple of days, offering both rainforests and reefs. Probably a bit too far (nearly 3 hour drive) for a relaxing day trip from Cairns but worth looking into if you have more time.