Cairns: Where to Eat, Play and Stay

Photo by Tourism Tropical North Queensland

Top picks for making the most of Cairns and the northern beaches

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Make the most of your visit to Cairns. Food, shelter, entertainment – there’s not much that we humans need. Especially on holidays. Actually, we need quite a bit of each when we’re on holidays! A tropical city strong on tourism and hospitality Cairns delivers on all counts.

The major hub for visitors to the northern Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a small tropical city with big city street-cred. Surrounded by rainforest clad mountains Cairns is a pretty cool place to hang out before or after Great Barrier Reef adventures. Here’s some suggestions to get you started.

Where to Eat in Cairns

Adjacent to Cairns Marlin Marina is a swanky waterfront precinct called The Pier. Here you’ll find elegant restaurants, casual cafes, funky bars and designer boutiques spilling onto the boardwalk. Ba8 is good for pre-dinner drinks or after dinner nightcaps.

The Hilton also has a waterfront position – Mondo’s has a casual vibe with tables and chairs scattered beneath shady trees overlooking the cruise terminal.

Call into Salthouse for dinner, drinks or just to chill out and listen to live music a couple of times a week. Popular with locals, there’s lots of alfresco seating, comfy couches and a really cool vibe on the edge of the marina. The Mojito’s aren’t too bad either.

The alfresco boardwalk is the perfect spot for lunch, afternoon sundowners or dinner, as well as some retail. Connected to The Lagoon by walking paths and landscaped gardens it’s also a pretty popular route for walkers and joggers at all times of the day or night.

Further afield try Ozmosis in Edge Hill for lunch or breakfast. If you’ve a hankering for real French baguettes or pastries to die for Le Crouton in suburban Freshwater has the goods. They also have a stand at Rusty’s Markets (open Fri – Sun) on Sheridan St if you can’t make it to the ‘burbs.

Cairns northern beach suburbs such as Trinity Beach, Holloways Beach, Machans Beach, Yorkeys Knob and Palm Cove are worth exploring for beachfront restaurants and bars. Palm Cove is worthy of an entire weekend and is home to some of Cairns finest hotels and restaurants. Try Nu Nu’s, Vivo or Beach Almond for starters.

More 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

Where to Play in Cairns

The outlying reefs and islands have an irresistible appeal and are of course the reason most visitors flock to Cairns. But there are plenty of reasons to make Cairns your holiday base from which to explore the Great Barrier Reef as well as exploring by land. An international tourism hub, spend some time in downtown Cairns and you’ll soon notice that’s popular with travellers from all over the world.

Ocean Free Cruises operate two vessels and are highly recommended with knowledgeable crew that are passionate about the delicate environment they work in. Ocean Free Cruises offer a boutique-style cruise product with a personal touch. They have their own moorings away from the crowds at Green Island, allowing guests to snorkel and dive this popular coral cay simply by hopping over the side of the boat.

Quicksilver Cruises are one of the biggest cruise operators in the region with vessels departing daily from Cairns and Port Douglas. If you can’t find a Quicksilver tour to excite you, well you’re probably best to stay in bed.

The Esplanade Lagoon is a cool waterfront swimming pool surrounded by shady landscaped gardens. Open every day, it’s Lifeguard patrolled and best of all – it’s free! The lagoon style saltwater swimming pool is a welcome cooling alternative to the adjacent tidal mudflats. The lagoon pool has shallow wading sections for toddlers as well as deep water for lap swimming or playing around. Free water fitness classes are offered daily too. Relief for sun-ravaged bodies is also on hand at divine Mii Spa at the Pullman Cairns Hotel.

The 20m tall glass dome atop the Reef Hotel Casino is home to Cairns Zoom, a tropical wildlife oasis and interpretive zoo that showcases north Queensland flora and fauna. Wildlife and birds roam freely so that visitors can interact with birds, reptiles and other wildlife, depending on the time of day. There’s also a zip line and rope course strung across the dome. One of the highlights is zip lining across the enclosure housing Goliath, a 4m saltwater crocodile. There’s also an external Dome Walk offering a unique perspective of Cairns for adrenalin junkies.

West of Cairns

The Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns are a beguiling alternative to coastal fun. Take the road up the Kuranda or Gillies Ranges which snake and twist upwards to an elevation of approximately 1,000 metres above sea level. The climate is noticeably cooler up here, particularly during the dry season winter months (June to August). Waterfalls and walking trails are interspersed with rolling dairy farmlands, fruit orchards and banana plantations. The Tablelands are equally suitable for a day trip from Cairns or for a few days of rural bliss.

A web of rainforest trails weave through the Atherton Tablelands, which are popular with mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners. The book Tropical Walking Tracks of North QLD offers info on trails in the area.  Road cyclists will find the Captain Cook Highway (also known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive) between Cairns and Port Douglas one of the most scenic bike rides on the planet (though it’s not for the newbie cyclist as the shoulder is narrow to non-existent in many places and the road is notorious for accidents). For good reason it’s chosen as the route for cyclists in the annual Cairns Ironman event (it’s the one day of the year that the road is closed to vehicle traffic). A challenging ride can also be had up the Kuranda Range Road, which ascends from sea level to around 600m.

Where to Stay in Cairns

Pullman Reef Hotel & Casino is a few minutes walk from the waterfront and is a self-styled entertainment precinct with a casino, restaurant and bars. The Sports Bar is home to the largest LCD screen in the southern hemisphere and broadcasts major sporting events. Vertigo is open late for dancing.

Nearby other five star hotels include the Hilton and Shangri-la, as well as apartment style Harbour Lights and Towers. All enjoy enviable waterfront locations with views of ocean, islands and Trinity Inlet. Mid range hotels in great locations include Mercure, Doubletree by Hilton and Rydges Esplanade. Also on the Esplanade is a quaint little traditional hotel called Florian’s Guesthouse. If you’re after something a little bit quirky and the complete opposite to a cookie-cutter chain hotel this is your kinda place!

There’s an enormous range of backpacker hostels, short stay apartments and budget to mid-range hotels as well – far too many to list here!

At A Glance

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