Things to Do in Cairns & the Tropical North
Encompassing roughly 3,000 individual reefs and dotted with almost 900 islands and coral cays (small sandy isles), Australia's Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s most unforgettable natural treasures. Snorkelers and certified divers flock here to see the unparalleled array of marine life.
Marooned off the coast of Cairns in north Queensland, Green Island is a tropical paradise of lush rainforest, white sandy beaches, and crystalline waters. The idyllic island is part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef National Park, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and harbors an extraordinary variety of coral reefs, exotic fish, and marine life.
Winding its way through the ancient rainforests, dramatic gorges, and UNESCO World Heritage-listed landscapes of Queensland’s tropical north, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is one of Australia’s most spectacular train journeys. Running 23 miles (37 kilometers) from Cairns in the south to Kuranda in the north, the route is a thrilling one. As it passes through an impressive 15 tunnels and across 37 bridges, the railway affords panoramic views of the Barron Gorge National Park.
Queensland’s Barron Gorge National Park extends from the town of Lake Placid, and the surrounding lowlands, all the way to the high Atherton Tableland. The area—which is full of beautiful forests, waterfalls, gorges, and wildlife—is easily accessible from the city of Cairns and is one of the most popular outdoor areas in the region.
Soaring through the treetops of Barron Gorge National Park, the 4.7-mile-long (7.5-kilometer) Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offers an unforgettable outdoor experience. Glide over North Queensland’s UNESCO World Heritage–listed tropical rain forest and enjoy unbeatable aerial views over its forests, gorges, and waterfalls.
Offering welcome relief from the sweltering temperatures of Queensland’s tropical north, the sweeping plateaus of the Atherton Tablelands lie within easy day-trip distance of Cairns. Covering an area of 20,000 square miles (32,000 square kilometers), the lush landscapes also provide scenic terrain for bush walking and bird-watching.
Forty-five minutes by boat from Cairns, Fitzroy Island has been many things — a Chinese Quarantine Station, a Mission School, a WWII coast-watch station...and today it’s all about its natural features — tropical rainforest and a fringe coral reef, part of the Great Barrier Reef system, where you can dive and snorkel in among green sea turtles, clown fish, and parrotfish.
A continental island that separated from the mainland in the last Ice Age over 8,000 years ago, Fitzroy Island covers just 4km — 97% of which is National Parkland that you can wander through on the walking trails through the forest and along the coast. The rest of the island is all about the white sand beaches, and on the sheltered western end you’ll find the island’s accommodation, a restaurant, Foxy’s Bar, and a conference and wedding venue. There’s also a diving school on the island, and options to go on glass bottom boat tours, SUP boarding, ocean trampolining, and kayaking. A relaxed walk is to the old lighthouse on the northwest point. On a clear day, from here you can look out past Cape Grafton to the Frankland Islands.
More than 1,500 tropical butterflies—from the electric blue Ulysses to the green and yellow Cairns Birdwing—call this world-class aviary home. Stationed in the heart of the Kuranda rainforest, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary has been impressing visitors with both its whimsical nature and state-of-the-art laboratory since it first opened in 1987.
Interested travelers can follow free 30-minute tours that include up-close looks at the caterpillar breeding nursery. Here, you can see newly born butterflies before they’re released into the aviary and learn about the stages of development that lead to the birth of these fanciful creatures.
The sanctuary’s laboratory is another popular stop that showcases efforts to keep the aviary well stocked. While just two percent of eggs survive in the wild, more than 80 percent mature here thanks to lab experts. Catch a peek at the hard-working scientists who keep this facility thriving.
Located in the village of Kuranda, this compact wildlife park gives you the chance to have close encounters with native Australian wildlife. Free-range enclosures are surrounded by lush rainforest and play host to kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and koalas, while freshwater crocodiles glide through a tropical lagoon.
The RainForeStation Nature Park is 100 acres of pristine World Heritage rainforest situated just half an hour’s drive from Cairns.
Here, visitors can get involved with nature by taking a ride through the tropical rainforest on an Army Duck Rainforest Tour, where an experienced guide will explain about the tropical plants and wildlife in the park. Elsewhere, the Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience will provide an insight into Aboriginal culture, with demonstrations in traditional-style dwellings.
Visitors can also get up close to native Australian animals within the Koala and Wildlife Park, where trained and enthusiastic wildlife keepers will lead their guests along boardwalks that enable close-up encounters of crocodiles, dingoes, wombats, snakes, kangaroos, and wallabies.
More Things to Do in Cairns & the Tropical North
Queensland's lush, tropical north is alive with colorful bird life, and you can experience the festive cacophony of chirps on a visit to Birdworld Kuranda. Over 60 different species of birds make their home in this enclave of forest and waterfalls, and the landscape is built to mimic the surroundings the birds would find in the wild. When walking the open-air aviary, there’s the chance a bird could simply fly up and land on your shoulder, or a curious parrot might cock its head sideways and inspect you while sitting on a tree branch. Visitors also have the chance to hand-feed birds under the supervision of the aviary staff. Keep an eye out to spot Amazonian macaws, kingfishers, and Australian black swans.
Cairns Aquarium is the only aquarium in the world to exclusively showcase aquatic life from Australia’s Tropical North Queensland, a region that borders the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rain forest, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Family-friendly and fun, the aquarium is home to 71 different exhibits of marine life.
Travelers in search of a tropical paradise need look no further than Cairns Botanic Gardens. This horticultural wonderland is home to more than 4,000 different species of flora from around the world. Clearly printed labels and informational brochures make it easy for every visitor to become an expert.
The lush grounds of this popular destination are ripe with thick ferns and brilliant foliage. Mile-high palms and towering shade trees cast cooling shadows across the lawn, perfect for escaping the midday sun, and the area’s peaceful landscape and quiet surroundings draw bikers, joggers and walkers. Indigenous-birding tours and an extensive orchid collection, as well as exhibition halls filled with exotic plants, are well worth the price of admission—free!
The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park offers a fascinating insight into Australia’s diverse Aboriginal heritage. Visitors can discover the 40,000-year history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and experience the Tjapukai people’s arts, traditions, and foods.
Granite Gorge Nature Park showcases the unique landscape west of Cairns and celebrates Australia’s Northern Savannah wilderness. Ancient volcanic activity defines the landscape, forcing huge granite boulders above grounds in all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes. Walking tracks traverse through the boulder field, letting visitors get up close and personal to these massive monoliths. Granite Gorge is a fantastic place for bird and wildlife watching. Wild rock wallabies inhabit the gorge, and visitors are able to see them in their natural habitat, including the rare and endangered Mareeba unadorned rock wallabies. Possums, gliders, Frilled Neck Lizards, Quolls, echidnas and more also call the gorge home. Over 200 species of bird live in the Northern Savannah region, including tawny frog mouths, kookaburras, and more, with migratory species such as koels arriving every spring.
As well as its namesake boulders, Granite Gorge is dotted with deep, cool swimming holes. Too far inland to be inhabited by the crocodiles that are common around the coast, the swimming holes are home to nothing more sinister than turtles and fish, and are perfect for a relaxing swim.
Despite its location on the Queensland coast, Cairns doesn’t have any beaches within the city (the closest are just to the north). But you can still enjoy the sun and sand downtown at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. This 50,000-square-foot lagoon is the highlight of the Cairns Esplanade and the perfect place to relax, swim and sunbathe without worrying about the box jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles that sometimes makes appearances in the near-shore waters.
With a maximum depth of only five feet, it’s a safe and welcoming spot for kids, visitors and locals alike, complete with fountains, sunshades, sandy beaches and nearby lawns and tables that are perfect for a midday picnic overlooking Trinity Harbour. The myriad shops and restaurants of the Esplanade surround the lagoon, so it’s easy to enjoy an hour or two by the water amid a day of shopping and sightseeing in the city.
17,000 years ago, a large volcano erupted in Australia’s north-east corner, near what we now know as the city of Cairns. The core was blasted from this volcano leaving a huge crater, which filled with rainwater over time to create Lake Barrine.
From less-than-peaceful beginnings, Lake Barrine has become the perfect place for a relaxing getaway. A massive body of fresh water tucked within opulent cool rainforest, Lake Barrine is a family friendly, low-key holiday destination with opportunities for hikers, photographers, and wildlife enthusiasts.
Visitors looking for relaxation can indulge in tea, scones, jam and cream at the lakeside teahouse, built in 1926, and wander the lush, manicured garden surroundings. Guided boat tours to view the Lake’s distinctive ecosystem are available, while the picnic grounds provide the perfect spot for a family lunch. The clear waters of Lake Barrine make an enjoyable swimming spot for swimmers of all levels of fitness and experience.
Those who would prefer to be more active should explore the World Heritage rainforest that surrounds Lake Barrine, where a network of walking tracks allows for anything from a short stroll to a 5 km hike. The 1,000 year old Twin Kauri Pine trees are the area’s most popular attraction, some over an incredible 45 metres tall and 6 metres in girth. Local wildlife is diverse and abundant, with water dragons, snakes, birds, turtles, eels, all kinds of birds, and even the musky rat-kangaroo are all commonly spotted.
Part of Australia’s UNESCO-listed Great Barrier Reef, the sandy island of Michaelmas Cay—now a bird sanctuary and national park—is a nesting site for thousands of seabirds, from common noddies to sooty terns. Marine creatures such as leopard sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles also call the offshore coral reefs home.
Explore the world’s oldest tropical rain forest, the Wet Tropics UNESCO World Heritage Area. Stretching along the northeastern coast of Queensland, the area is renowned for its rich biodiversity, spectacular scenery, and rugged terrain, including lush rain forests, deep gorges, and waterfalls.
When it comes to popular activities in Cairns, it’s the snorkeling, scuba diving, and Great Barrier Reef that often draw the most attention. Here at Behana Gorge waterfall, however, it’s obvious that Cairns has far more to offer than simply what’s out in the ocean. Once only known to Queensland locals, Behana Gorge has recently become a popular spot for visitors, who travel 35 minutes from Cairns to swim in the pools and splash in the water beneath the tumbling falls. The hike, however, is not for the timid, and a moderate degree of fitness is required to reach the falls at the end. Though the one-way distance is only 2 miles, expect to spend at least an hour on the steep, uphill trail, where the reward is the chance to swim beneath the falls and splash in the crystalline waters—enjoying a hidden corner of Cairns that very few visitors see.
Aussie wildlife can be hard to spot at the peak of rainy season. Luckily, there’s the Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome—an all-weather immersion exhibit that puts travelers smack in the middle of a real indoor jungle.
Turtles, snakes and kookaburras wander freely among the forest, and while an up-close look at these small wonders makes for a memorable visit, it’s the Cairns Zoom that has visitors leaving the dome grinning from ear to ear. The high ropes course consists of more than 50 challenges, including high-flying ziplines that cruise over crocodile-filled waters. Helpful guides offer plenty of educational information, and popular wildlife shows entertain, especially ones involving hand-tamed birds and fuzzy koalas.
One of the best ways to get to know locals while traveling is by visiting a farmers’ market, and in Cairns, Rusty’s Markets happens to be one of the best in the country. What started in 1975 as a sparse handful of stalls has since ballooned into a long-running and beloved weekend marketplace. Every Friday through Sunday, more than 180 vendors gather a delectable array of exotic fruits, flowers and vegetables, not to mention cooked food stalls, seafood vendors, fresh baked bread and much more.
Whether you’re looking to stock up on fresh produce for your vacation, or you’d simply like to browse, the wares on offer are indicative of the down under melting pot of Northern Queensland, with indigenous foods from Australian Aborigines alongside unique produce from the Torres Strait Islands, and a mix of cultures from China, India, Papua New Guinea and beyond.
The picturesque mountain town of Kuranda is tucked into forest-clad hills 16 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of Cairns in Queensland, Australia. The journey to Kuranda is part of its appeal; visitors get spectacular views of lush forests and towering waterfalls, whether traveling there by train, skyrail, or road. The laid-back town is known for its outdoor markets, eateries, wildlife tours, and alternative vibe.
It’s often the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef that draws visitors to Cairns, but the natural beauty found back on land is another great reason to visit. Lush, green, and with a touch of wilderness, this tropical city has a rainforest feel only a few miles from the coast. One of the best places to experience this scenery is at the Flecker Botanic Gardens—specifically inside the swampy section known as Centenary Lakes.
Connected to the main Botanic Garden by a boardwalk along the water, the Centenary Lakes house a flotilla of water lilies and over 130 species of birds. The park around the freshwater lake is perfect for a midday picnic, where ducks and turtles casually stroll the manicured, park-like grounds. The adjoining section with the salt water lake is where the park gets a little wilder, as dense mangroves and a rainforest boardwalk create a true wilderness surrounding. While rare, salt water crocodiles have sometimes been seen poking their eyes from the lake, which adds a legitimate degree of adventure to wandering the forested grounds.
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