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Cairns

Photo by Lee Mylne

Cairns Itineraries

Atherton Tablelands Food Trail

Best Picnicking near Cairns

Best Road Trips from Cairns

Cairns for Romantics

Cairns in 3 Days

Cairns: Where to Eat, Play and Stay

Queensland's gateway to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR)

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A tropical city that proudly showcases the natural beauty of its environs Cairns is the energetic heartbeat of Tropical North Queensland. Built on the shore of the Coral Sea, Cairns is a modern city that attracts sun seekers and fun seekers year round. It’s the gateway to two World Heritage icons the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics Rainforest, of which the Daintree Rainforest is the shining star.

A magnet for travellers for eons, Cairns is the logical jumping off point for the reef and rainforest. But Cairns has much to offer as a destination in its own right, particularly if you ask a local to reveal some of the treasures readily overlooked by travellers following the regular tourist trail.

Cairns Marlin Marina is the hub of reef and island trips and is a great starting point for your Cairns adventure. Mix up your Cairns adventure with day trips to close islands such as Green and Fitzroy Island, while others island and reef adventures (such as the Ribbon Reefs of Lizard Island) are more suited to overnight cruise or dive charters.


Start with these Cairns Itineraries

Atherton Tablelands Food Trail … The highlands are known as the food bowl of north Queensland for good reason
Best Picnicking near Cairns … Favourites within easy reach
Best Road Trips from Cairns … From day trips to epic multi-day adventures
Cairns for Romantics … Perfect spots to bring a picnic and bottle of bubbly
Cairns in 3 Days … It’s all action in this sunny, sophisticated coastal city
Cairns: Where to Eat, Play and Stay … Top picks for making the most of Cairns and the northern beaches


Adjacent to the marina is a boardwalk waterfront precinct where you’ll find upmarket restaurants, casual cafes, funky bars and designer boutiques with views of the mountains of Yarrabah across boats moored on Trinity Inlet. Connected to The Esplanade Lagoon by walking paths shaded by landscaped gardens, this area is popular for picnickers, sunbathers, walkers and joggers at all times of the day or night.

The Atherton Tablelands, approx. one hour west of Cairns, are a beguiling alternative to coastal attractions. Drive up the Kuranda Range or Gillies Range roads which snake and twist upwards to an elevation of approximately 1,000m above sea level. The climate is noticeably cooler up here, particularly during the dry season winter months (June to August). The Atherton Tablelands are known as the food bowl of north Queensland with rolling hills dotted with dairy farms, fruit orchards and banana, coffee and tea plantations. There are also wild tracts of natural rainforest with hiking and mountain bike trails creating a popular adventure playground for active outdoors types. Waterfalls are in abundance and are usually at their cascading tumultuous best late from late February to March.

The northern beaches of Cairns are popular thanks to waterfront dining hotspots overlooking landscaped tropical gardens (Palm Cove is a standout and Trinity Beach is a popular local’s hang out). Drive north another 45 mins and you’ll reach delightful Port Douglas. With its laid-back village vibe, swanky hotels, cafes, boutiques and restaurants shaded beneath a tropical canopy of coconut palms, Port (as the locals call it), is the kind of place you could easily settle into Port for a week or more.


When To Go

With it’s international and domestic airport connecting Cairns globally, the tropical city is a year round destination. The main thing to consider when to visit Cairns is a boring little topic called the weather (see Weather & Climate for more info). Determining when to go, it might be best if you first consider what sort of activities you want to participate in.

If you’re into ocean swimming, the Wet season is not for you. Marine stingers are in coastal waters during this time and ocean swimming is limited to swimming within stinger nets (there are a number of them at Cairns beaches). If on the other hand you’re into waterfalls and floating down a freshwater stream in the rainforest the Wet season is the best time to visit!

The Dry season is generally considered the best time to visit Cairns. The humidity is low, the marine stingers have taken themselves elsewhere and the city is pumping with events, festivals and shows.

How Much Time To Spend

As long as you can! This is a tough question to answer. The Great Barrier Reef can be ‘done’ in a weekend if you fly to Cairns or take an island stay such on Fitzroy or Lizard Island. But really, you’ll only be scratching the surface. That’s like spending an hour with the Mona Lisa and saying you’ve ‘done’ France. Cairns is worthy of a week or more, using it as a base to explore the Great Barrier Reef, the Atherton Tablelands, the Savannah outback region or even Cape York.

High and Low Season

High and Low seasons can be a little ambiguous on the Great Barrier Reef simply because it is so vast. The further north you travel in Queensland the more tropical the seasons become.

In the Cairns region, the Wet and Dry  seasons tend to influence High and Low seasons. As a rough guide, the Wet season (approx Nov to Mar) is the Low season, except during the Christmas/New Year period when it is the High season. The best time of year in the north is during winter (which is the Dry season), and this is when hotel and tour operators generally charge the highest prices.

Bargain hunters should look at February for the cheapest prices.

Weather and Climate

Tropical North Queensland enjoys enjoy a pleasant warm climate year round. There are generally two seasons in the Tropics – ‘the green (otherwise known as the wet)’ and ‘the dry’ seasons.  The Green/Wet season is generally hot and humid with the first rains usually arriviing around November with the season endings around April.  Average Green/Wet season temperatures range from min 22°C-max 31°C (72-88F).  The Dry season (May-October) is mild subtropical climate with temperatures ranging from 18-26°C (65-79F).  Cairns Highlands and the Atherton Tablelands, being at altitude, are generally a few degrees cooler than on the coast.

June – October: The coolest months in the tropics are June-July with temperatures ranging from min 17°C- max 26°C (63-79F) and also the season with the least rainfall. Daylight hours are not significantly reduced in winter, so outdoors activities reign all year round.  Temperatures start to warm up in August-October with min 19°C – max 28°C (66-83F), but the sunny days are cooled with a refreshing sea breeze. The water temperature of the Great Barrier Reef reaches around 23°C (74F) during this period.

Cairns sits within Australia’s cyclone belt and may be susceptible to tropical storms and cyclones generally between November to March.

Events and Holidays

Queensland Holidays include:

May (1st weekend): Labour Day
Show Holidays are observed in Cairns in July – check with Tropical Tourism North Queensland for this years date.

National Holidays include:

January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (26):  Australia Day
March/April: Good Friday and Easter Monday
April (25): Anzac Day
December (25th):      Christmas Day
December (26th): Boxing Day

On national public holidays, banks, post offices and liquor outlets may be closed or open for limited hours. There are also be additional holidays in each state or territory.

Time Zone

To check the local time in Brisbane, click here.

Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) covers Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, and Tasmania. Central Standard Time (CST) is used in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and Western Standard Time (WST) is the standard in Western Australia. When it’s noon in New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania, it’s 11:30am in South Australia and the Northern Territory, and 10am in Western Australia.

All states except Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia observe Daylight Saving Time (DST) during spring and summer. At 2AM on the first Sunday in October clocks are advanced one hour. On the first Sunday in April at 2AM, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. However, not all states switch over to daylight saving on the same day or in the same week, so it pays to check if you are travelling at these times.

What To Pack and Wear

Smart casual clothing is required in most resorts, hotels, restaurants and bars. For the evenings something more formal will be useful.  Pack cool, clothing that will protect you from the sun, including a hat, sunglasses and water resistant sunscreen. Bring at least one swimsuit, a light-weight long sleeve shirt, sandals or protective shoes if your itinerary includes beach or islands. A comfortable wind-proof jacket may be useful after reef/water activities.

This clothing is suitable for most of the year, although you may want to add a jacket or sweater for the winter months June-August, particularly when touring the Cairns Highlands/Atherton Tablelands and mountainous area. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended for everyday wear and sturdy enclosed shoes or hiking boots with a good sole are a must when walking or hiking in the National Parks. A light rain jacket and a small umbrella are useful for travel in the Green season.

What it Costs

Adventures in Cairns range from free to uber expensive and everything in between. There are as many ways to explore Cairns and surrounds as there are coral reefs themselves (that’s 2,900 for those who are doing the maths).

You could camp out on a Great Barrier Reef island 30 mins from Cairns for as little as $5.50pp per night and be within earshot of resort guests paying hundreds of dollars a night. Fitzroy Island Iwe’re looking at you. Being a tourism hub for the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns has a gazillion accommodation options. Backpacker hostels are in abundance, so too are apartment style hotels as well as most of the usual chain hotels from budget to luxury.

Taking a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef could set you back not much than the cost of dinner or you could do a week long dive trip or luxury cruise likely to require taking out a second mortgage. Again, it depends what you want to do and how you want to do it.

Our suggestion is to check out the recommended Itineraries which all offer a guide to costs.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $AU.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-70 per person
$$$ => Tickets $70 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $200 for a double
$$ => Rooms $205-300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-$35 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $35-$80 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $80 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $20 per person
$$ => Tickets $20-$50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $50 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

 Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping, and the major companies like Hertz, Budget, Avis and Europcar all operate around Australia, alongside smaller local companies that are worth investigating.

There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Ride-sharing company Uber is relatively new to Australia and is currently under scrutiny by state governments where it operates.  It currently operates in Sydney, Canberra (from Oct 30), Melbourne, the Mornington Peninsula and Geelong in Victoria, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Rides are ordered through a smart phone app, it’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to Australia goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical —Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.

Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to Australia. Divers including the Great Barrier Reef or other Australian diving destinations should also ensure they have the appropriate insurance.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Currency

Australian dollars come in $1 and $2 coins, and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes.  Each is a different colour, so they are easy to tell apart. Other coins are 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents. The $1 and $2 coins are gold, all the others are silver.

Prices sometimes end in a variant of 1 or 2 cents (for example, 52 cents or $1.78), a relic from the days before 1-cent and 2-cent pieces were phased out.  In these cases, prices are rounded to the nearest 5 cents, so 52 cents rounds down to 50 cents, and 78 cents rounds up to 80 cents.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is always appreciated, but is not widely practiced or expected in Australia. It is usual to tip around 10% to 15% or round up to the nearest A$10 for a substantial meal in a restaurant, but certainly not mandatory. Some taxi passengers round up to the nearest round figure in a cab, but it’s okay to insist on every bit of change back. Tipping hotel porters and housemaids is sometimes done, but no one tips bar staff, barbers, massage therapists and spa employees or hairdressers.

Other costs:

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and chemist shops (pharmacies/drugstores) will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.

Transportation

Cairns is serviced by international and domestic airport with airlines connecting the city globally.

Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar Tigerair, Rex, Skytrans and Hinterland Aviation operate domestic flights.

International airlines servicing Cairns include Air New Zealand, Air Niugini, Cathay Pacific, China Easter, China Southern, Hong Kong Airlines, Jetstar, Qantas, Philippine Airlines and Silk Air.

Getting There

Fly into Cairns International Airport which has domestic and international connections from global and domestic airlines.

Cairns is well serviced for self-drive travellers via the Bruce Highway from Brisbane or via the Savannah Way which links Cairns ultimately with Broome in Western Australia. Cairns is also the gateway for self-drive 4WD adventures to Cape York. All major car and campervan rental companies have offices in Cairns. The Captain Cook Highway (otherwise known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive) is 140km of scenic drive between Cairns and Cooktown – see road trip itineraries for more information.

The Cairns Cruise Terminal is located downtown and is utilised by cruise liners who regularly call into Cairns harbour year round. The adjacent Cairns Marlin Marina is the marine hub for charter boats exploring the Great Barrier Reef on day trips or extended multi-day cruises.

Cairns is on Queensland Rail’s network with regular long distance rail services operating between Cairns and Brisbane.

The city is bicycle friendly and has a network of bike paths. Famous Smithfield Mountain Bike (host to regular World Championship events) is located within 15mins of downtown Cairns.

Getting Around

A public bus service runs across the city operating 7 days a week. Rental car and campervan companies are well represented in Cairns.

The Scenic Kuranda Rail departs daily for the rainforest village of Kuranda. Combine a one way scenic rail trip with Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for a fabulous option to view the rainforest within easy access of downtown Cairns.

The city is bicycle friendly and has a network of bike paths. Famous Smithfield Mountain Bike (host to regular World Championship events) is located within 15mins of downtown Cairns. Other mountain bike parks are located in the Atherton Tablelands and Port Douglas.

Scenic helicopter and light aircraft flights over the Great Barrier Reef operate from Cairns Airport. Hot air balloon flights are on offer in the Atherton Tablelands.

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