A vibrant, cosmopolitan city, with a lively and sophisticated dining and entertainment scene, Cairns has long-since transcended its frontier outpost reputation and evolved to become much more than a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and wild north.
Yet it’s easy to forget you’re actually in a city, with the laidback and unpretentious aura that prevails in the tropical capital. The climate – combined with a steady flow of backpackers, international visitors and interstate holidaymakers – creates an easy-going vacation vibe even around the CBD.
Business is brisk, but it’s all done by people wearing shorts and typically revolves around one recreational activity or another. Beyond the odd ocean-overlooking hotel, there are no highrise office blocks and rush hour is far less hectic than happy hour.
Cairn’s youthful population enjoys a range of outdoor activities by day and a bouncing nightlife once the sun dips. The beaches and coves that surround the city – from Trinity to Yorkey’s Knob and Palm Cove – are idyllic.
The town centre retains its historic colonial character, but there are modern and innovative flourishes across town too – including a free open-air waterpark on the seafront that’s raucously popular with young people.
Magnificent Tablelands form Cairns’ backdrop – with stunning Barron Gorge National Park easily accessible via the Skyrail that transports you from the city to the rainforest canopy in minutes – but the CBD gazes out over the Coral Sea.
The Esplanade and Marina are the focal point and social heartbeat of Cairns, and along the palm tree-lined sea front you can enjoy everything from sensational locally sourced seafood to a range of international cuisine.
Tropical Cairns has two seasons: the Wet (October to march) and the Dry (April to September). Most people find it more comfortable to visit during the Dry, when it’s also possible to swim in the sea without wearing a stinger suit, but there are less crowds and better waterfalls in the Tableland rainforests during the Wet – the Barron Falls are particularly impressive.
Everyone visiting Australia (except New Zealanders) needs a visa. Nationals of 32 countries (including Singapore, the UK, the US, Japan, Canada and most European countries) can get an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA), which most travel agents/airlines can arrange at the time of booking. When travelling independently, people with a passport from Singapore (or Brunei, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Republic of South Korea and the United States) can apply for an ETA (AUD$20) online here: www.eta.immi.gov.au/ETAS3/etas. Independent travellers with a passport from a European country can apply for a free eVisitor visa here www.immi.gov.au.
From the airport a taxi to the city centre will cost AUD$25–30; taxis are metered. The airport shuttle bus costs AUD$15 each way. People staying at certain backpacker hostels can get discounted shuttle rates between the airport and city centre, starting from $10 return. See http://cairnsbackpackershuttle.com.au.
Sun Palm Transport offer a free bus service linking Cairns Airport with the Sun Bus public transport network, which stops on Sheridan Street, where you can catch buses to the city or the Northern Beaches for $2.20. See www.cairnsairport.com.au.
Box jellyfish and saltwater crocodiles live in the ocean and some creeks, rivers and billabongs all year round – observe warning signs and avoid swimming unless you know for a fact that these highly dangerous creatures are not present. The period between November and June is called stinger season in the Australian tropics because the water contains small creatures collectively known as marine stingers – some of which, such as the Irukandji, can be extremely painful or even lethal. Obey signs and wear stinger suits if swimming during this period. Keep hydrated and beware prolonged exposure to the sun – always use sun protection (factor 30 and above) and wear sunglasses and a hat. Some hazardous snakes and spiders can be present in the city’s parks and gardens – avoid touching anything unfamiliar. Petty crime does happen – keep an eye on valuables, particularly when eating and drinking at outside cafés, bars and restaurants.
The Australian dollar (AUD$) is used throughout Australia.
|Board shorts (long swimming/surfing shorts)||Boardies|
|Speedo-style men's swimming costume||Budgie smugglers|
|Pub grub||Counter meal|
|Are you serious?||Fair dinkum?|
|Really rather good||Grouse|
|See you later||Hoo roo|
|The answer to everything||No worries|
|Alcohol (typically beer)||Piss|
|Small measure of beer (about half a pint)||Pot|
|Saltwater/estuarine crocodile (the big, bad bitey ones)||Saltie|
|Large measure of beer (about two-thirds of a pint)||Schooner|
|Bottle of beer||Stubbie|
|Can of beer/small boat||Tinny|
|Good result||You beauty!|
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Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Offering both day and night time experiences, this award-winning park tells the story and explains the lifestyle of the Indigenous people of Tropical North Queensland’s rainforest region. Visitors of all ages can enjoy the interactive opportunities here, including learning to play the didgeridoo, hunting and sampling bush tucker, and lessons in how to throw a spear and boomerang.
Tanks Art Centre
An eccentric and unique modern art and performance space, creatively housed in three massive World War II oil-storage tanks. These three tanks were built for the Royal Australian Navy in 1944 and camouflaged here to store crude oil during the war. In the early 1990s, talk of removing the tanks caused a massive outcry, so it was decided to redevelop the site into this unique and heritage-listed arts space.
Cairns Tropical Zoo
One of Australia’s best wildlife experiences, Cairns Tropical Zoo has an extraordinary variety of creatures large and small for visitors to observe and, sometimes, interact with. Here you can cuddle a koala and feed kangaroos, but the big attractions are the animals of the tropical region, from the big (and frankly frightening) saltwater crocodiles through to the dinosaur-like cassowaries.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
Soar across the top of the tropical rainforest canopy in a glass cable car, from Smithfield (20 minutes from the CBD) to Kuranda, a pretty little town up in the cooler climes of the Tablelands. Break your journey by exploring the two rainforest mid-stations, where you can enjoy ranger-guided boardwalk tours and check out interpretation centres, lookouts and historical displays.
Cairns Wildlife Dome
An excellent option for a wet-weather day, this indoor wildlife centre has a number of animals, including the star: Goliath, a 4-metre (13ft) estuarine crocodile. But there are also bird shows, koalas and more. You can even take a zipline ride above the crocodile enclosure. Visit at feeding times for the best experience, and allow at least an hour to explore. Tickets are valid for five days.
Greet the dawn with an early morning paddle around Double Island from the picturesque beach at Palm Cove, just north of the city centre. Even beginners can complete a circumnavigation of the idyllic island, which sits just off the beach, and it’s not uncommon to spot all kinds of marine wildlife, including turtles, rays and – if you’re really lucky – even whales. Cool down afterwards with a swim and a snorkel. Palm Cove Watersports ( www.palmcovewatersports.com), hire sit-on-top sea kayaks and snorkelling equipment. If you fancy taking on a new challenge, try stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) with Paddleboarding Cairns ( www.paddleboardingcairns.com.au), who take tours around Palm Cove and Yorkey’s Knob.
En route back to the CBD, in Smithfields on the edge of the rainforest, you’ll find AJ Hackett (www.ajhackett.com), where a leap from the Bungy Tower and Giant Minjin Jungle Swing will shake you properly awake.
Cairns is the spiritual home of mountain biking in Australia, and the tracks at Smithfields will host a stage of the 2016 World Cup and the UCL MTB World Championships in 2017. Explore the tropical trails before the planet’s best riders arrive by hiring a bike or going on a ride with Cairns Mountain Bike Tours (www. cairnsmountainbiketours.com).
Grab a well-earned lunch and prepare to be be picked up for an afternoon’s white-water rafting on the Barron River. Foaming Fury (www.foamingfury.com.au) will take you on a wild ride through beautiful Barron Gorge National Park, bouncing you over Grade III rapids.
Palm Cover, Smithfields, Barron River
Kick off your kid-friendly day (also suitable for big kids) by hitching an early morning ride through the World Heritage-listed rainforest behind Cairns on the Kuranda Scenic Railway (www.ksr.com.au), passing the wonderful waterfalls of Barron Gorge National Park en route to the Tableland town of Kuranda.
Stay and explore before returning to Smithfield (20 mins from Cairn’s CBD) via a stunning voyage on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway (www.skyrail.com.au), which skims you over the top of the rainforest canopy in a glass cable car. Break the journey by hopping out at two rainforest mid-stations, where you can enjoy ranger-guided boardwalk tours, interpretation centres, lookouts and historical displays.
At the foot of the Skyrail, around Caravonica Lakes, don’t miss Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (www.tjapukai.com.au), a sensational culturally immersive experience that takes you inside the lives of the Indigenous people of the rainforest. Here you can learn to play the didgeridoo, taste some bush tucker and throw a spear.
The next stop has to be Cairns Tropical Zoo (www.cairnstropicalzoo.com.au), where you can get close to all kinds of wonderful animals, including crocodiles, dragons, koalas, wombats and dingos.
Can’t get enough of crocodiles? Check out Cairns Zoom at the all-weather Wildlife Dome (www.cairnszoom.com.au) on top of the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino, where you can even zipline over a saltwater croc!
Finally, after all that action, grab an ice cream and end the day by exploring Cairn’s excellent esplanade, complete with a free-to-use open-air lagoon where kids can splash around without worrying about stingers at any time of year.
Kuranda Scenic Railway, Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, Cairns Tropical Zoo, Wildlife Dome