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Things to do in Cairns

Home > Sydney > Escape the City | Family | Lists | Tours | Travel
by Telani Kumar (subscribe)
A free-spirit studying psychology at the University of Sydney.
Published February 20th 2014
Ideas for Sydneysiders (and others) traveling to Cairns
Thinking of travelling to Cairns? I don't see why you wouldn't. Located in Far North Queensland, Cairns treats you to a tropical warmth all year round. It is a fantastic location to experience two different natural landscapes. On the one hand you have glistening blue waters along the coast and across the very nearby Great Barrier Reef. On the other, you have luscious green rainforest that go on for hectares, over mountains and alongside gorges. These features alone sound like very apt reasons to desire travel to Cairns.

Thinking about what exactly you should see and do while you are there? I recently ventured from Sydney to Cairns and have here for you some ideas about what to add to your Cairns bucket-list. I have made a list of a few places you should consider seeing, activities you should consider doing, and experiences you should gain.

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Fish spotted from a glass bottom boat over the Reef.


Before I talk about this list though, let me just make a mention of a good way to experience and stay in Cairns on a budget. A well-budgeted and rather adventurous way to explore regions around Cairns would be via campervan. For people looking to do a trip of this sort, there are several campervan companies.

Among these options, you have Britz, a company from which you can rent a campervan for about $672 per week (starting price). Another of the campervan companies that you can consider is Mighty Campers - with prices starting from around $456 for a week. Both of these make for a reasonably priced way to travel the Cairns region without having to worry about accommodation.

Alternatively, there are many accommodation venues in and around Cairns city. Honestly, you have a lot of variety to choose from, and I'd even go as far as to call Cairns accommodation capital. You have backpacker inns, hotels, resorts, or holiday apartments such as the Best Western Cairns Central where we stayed ($240 for 2 nights).

What to do?

There are plenty of tours, activities, and places to see in Cairns. I would say that Cairns is kind of like tour capital too. Here is a list to get you started, based on what I got up to whilst up in this tropical paradise.

1. Kuranda, Skyrail and Scenic Railway

We booked a fantastic half-day trip to Kuranda, for just $118. This works well as the 11.45am pick-up gives you a chance to sleep in, slowly get ready for the adventure, and then the chance to see a lot of beautiful rainforest scenery in the course of about 4 hours. Even better is that you get to see the rainforest, mountains, and gorge from several different perspectives.

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View from the Skyrail over the gorgeous sprawling rainforest.

First up on your itinerary in this package is the Skyrail - aka the cable-car that lifts you metres above the rainforest, mountains and gorge, giving you the most breath-taking view of this natural landscape. The cable-car has a few stops along the way before you reach Kuranda, your destination. These stops involve a short trail that give you an up-close and personal experience with the rainforest, as well as great views and photo opportunities of the gorge and waterfalls.

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Markets in Kuranda, the village in the rainforest.

The end of the line of the cable-car is Kuranda, a village that is nestled in with the rainforest. This is the second part of this trip. Take a short walk from the cable-car station and you will find a pub, cafes, new-age and boho shops, and markets with hand-made items. You will get around 1.5 hours to wander around here - although this is dependent on how long you decide to take on your stops along the Skyrail.

The third part of the journey is via the Scenic Railway train ride through the world-heritage listed rainforest. This is one unique experience. The train is a vintage, 1880's style steam-train. It toots and chugs through the forest, along the edge of a cliff for most of the way, giving you gorgeous views across the gorge - no pun intended!

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View out the window of the Scenic Railway train as we made a tight turn over a narrow bridge.

For more info, and to book this package, go to this link.

2. Green Island - Eco Adventure

Now, let's look at a way for you to experience the other kind of natural landscape that Cairns is famous for - the Great Barrier Reef. While this tour ($103 per person) doesn't take you to the snorkeling pontoon and other, further reaches of the reef that you may see in photos, it does give you a pretty cool overall experience.

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Clear and sparkling turquoise waters await you at Green Island.

The trip involves a much earlier start than Kuranda, picking you up around 7.30am, but this only works in your favour as it gives you maximal time once you reach your destination. You catch a ferry from Cairns' ship terminal to Green Island. This place is stunning and looks like it could be any flourishing, tropical island around the world. You will be left here for most of the day to swim in the sparkling sea water, to laze by the island's resort-like pool (which has food and a bar super close by), and to explore the natural beauties that the island has to offer.

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Green island and the beautiful water that surrounds it.

The water here is swimming with sea-life. We even spotted some sea-turtles and reef sharks from the jetty. Be cautious when entering the water, particularly of the rather elusive and hard-to-spot jellyfish which can potentially be very painful and in some cases, deadly. There are stinger suits available for hire, and if it's stinger-season, I highly recommend wearing one of these despite their lack of attractiveness as a safety measure.

This package allows you to choose from either a rental of snorkel gear, or a glass-bottom boat tour. For a pretty cheap price though, you can pay for the alternative. I recommend doing this so you can get the most out of your time here on the island, and so that you can experience the waters of the Great Barrier Reef from different perspectives. The boat takes you out further than you can snorkel so that you can see more lively coral beneath. Snorkelling from the beach on the other hand gives you the chance to get a bit more personal with the sea-life swimming around you.

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The vegetation on Green Island, is as expected, very green and feels rainforest-like.

For more info, and to book this package, go to this link.

The two tours I have listed above, by Cairns Tours are well-priced. Each of them are under $150 per person and would be something to highly consider as a backpacker, or if you are intending to see as much as you can on a lower budget.

3. Exploring Cairns City

Of course, another thing that won't cost an additional cent - unless you decide to stop for drinks, munchies, or retail therapy - is taking a self-guided tour around this fairly low-density, holiday-vibe city.

With the campervan, it'll be easy to drive from one place to another. Driving isn't really necessary though, you can take a fairly easy walk between the main points of interest in this city.

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A view of Cairns city - and the seaside that it sits along.

For one, you can take a walk along the coast, which has an extensive park alongside it. Another thing that you may consider checking out is St. Monica's Cathedral. We were told that it has the largest single-themed stain glass window series in the world. In other words, each of the vibrant and intricate stain-glasses in the serene hall depict for you, a story - the story of creation and peace.

4. Cairns Night Markets

I've mentioned a few things to keep you occupied during the day time around Cairns, but what if you are looking for something interesting to see or do at night? Especially on a budget? Well, Cairns Night Markets is just the place.

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Welcome to Cairns Night Markets.

Dozens of stalls with souvenirs and handmade goods are at your shopping feet. Jewellery, soaps, dream-catchers, and more, are all here. The place is buzzing with locals and tourists, giving a really fun night-life vibe.

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Colourful dream catchers are abundant here.

If you're looking for dinner or drinks, the Esplanade end of the Night Markets contains a food court. This place is actually perfect for backpackers or anyone who's trying to dine in Cairns on a budget. Cheap Italian food, kebabs, and Asian food can be found here, with also cheap alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages available. I remember my friend and I bought an 'all-you-can-fit-on' plate from a self-serve Chinese take-away outlet for about $15 - and boy did we fill it up with more than enough hot, delicious food for the both of us.

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Coconut drinks.

Once done with dinner, and perhaps shopping, you should head to the opposite end of the night markets to the food court. Here you will find a small set of cute and yummy dessert shops. Will it be churros, crepes, or a coconut to top off your night?

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Churros with hot chocolate sauce at the Night Markets.

So here you have a list of things to consider when planning your trip away to Cairns. There are also some useful pointers here to consider if you are doing a backpacker trip, or trying to do accommodation and activities on a budget. If you decide on hiring a campervan such as the Britz or Mighty vans, then it will be easier for you to travel the area surrounding Cairns itself. I'm sure there are lots of other natural hotspots that you could visit at your luxury. It'll also be easy for you to travel up to Port Dougless, another tourist hot-spot, and another port from which you can visit the Reef and surrounding rainforest. Hope that you enjoy Cairns, the tropical climate, the natural landscapes, and the interesting nightlife as much as I did.

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Midori splice cocktail by the Green Island pool.
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Why? Holiday. Adventure. See some lovely natural landscapes.
When: Anytime
Where: Cairns, Far North Queensland.
Cost: Dependent on chosen accommodation and day-trips.
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