I used to live in Cairns when I was a kid so I may be a bit biased in favour of this diverse tropical town on the Queensland coast of Australia. It’s also smack bang on the Great Barrier Reef!
One of the things that amazes me about Cairns is how it’s centrally located to even more diverse locations.
It’s just a hop skip and a jump to places like Kakadu National Park and Uluru in the Northern Territory, and to most of Australia’s major cities.
Cairns is also relatively close to the outlying islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.
Now for all the readers from Europe or the States, you’re probably thinking I’m bonkers and that everything is miles away!
But I’m from the most isolated city in the world, Perth Western Australia, where the next nearest city is over 400km away – not even Hawaii can beat that! So for me, Cairns is pretty damn central!
Most of my best childhood memories were created in Cairns – from Dad popping off the .22 at cane toads in the backyard (more on them later), to Mum taking us on weekend trips to Kuranda.
I’d love to take you on a personal tour of my favourite Cairns experiences!
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
Have you ever watched a croc just sit, still as a statue, with his mouth open for hours on end?
That’s what I used to do when I used to come here as a kid. When the one I was watching finally closed its mouth with a super quick clacking snap, it startled me so badly I screamed the place down and had the staff running like someone’s life depended on them!
That’s not even the funny part … the croc was only about one foot long!!
Hartley’s is really big on conservation and has created a park that maintains the natural biodiversity of the region, including the natural habitats of resident wildlife species.
They’re also big on sustainable ecotourism. The buildings were designed to blend in with the landscape as well as being energy efficient and rainwater is collected and recyled.
The landscapes inside the enclosures have been created to be as close to the animal’s natural habitat as possible, purposely giving you the feeling that you’re watching them in the wild.
My favourite part of Hartley’s is the Discovery ride around Hartley’s Lagoon by boat where you get to watch (up nice and close) crocs launching themselves out of the water to grab raw chickens from the end of a pole.
Not many people have heard of one of Australia’s biggest flightless birds, the cassowary. At Hartley’s you can learn how cassowaries have evolved a complex and mutually beneficial relationship with the Queensland rainforest over millions of years on the Cassowary Walk. You even get to feed them by hand.
Fun fact – cassowaries are the only bird known to have killed humans. Wanna know they do it? Check out the video below.
Oh my god I can hear you all groaning now – not another Aussie animal that can kill you?!
The good news for you is that cassowaries are not only shy but also an endangered species so you won’t come accross any if you decide to hit a Cairns trail head!
Hartley’s crocodile conservation also extends to sustainable commercial croc farming for skins and meat. The farm is open to tourists as well so you can learn how it all works.
And yes you will probably find crocodile meat on the menu in Cairns restaurants! Are you game??
For more info on Hartley’s Creek Adventures just click here.
When I was a kid Mum used to take me, my brother and sister on the Kuranda train every few months. The train winds around the mountains on crazy stilt tracks and goes under them when it can, on the trip from Cairns to Kuranda.
The tunnels seemed very long as a kid, probably because there were no lights in the train back then, and we used to count “one, one thousand, two, one thousand” until we reached daylight again.
Kuranda has changed a lot since I was a kid!
They now have:
- Koala Gardens
- Birdworld is home to the largest single collection of free flying birds in Australia with over 75 species
- The Butterfly Sanctuary is the largest butterfly aviary in Australia and is home to over 1500 butterflies that are hand reared on the premises
- The Rainforestation is a tour through the rainforest on both land and water in an amphibious WWII Army Duck with an interactive Aboriginal experience
- Emu Ridge Gallery is famous for its fossils and gemstones and the star attraction is a 9m replica of an Allosaurus (apparently the last ones died out in Australia)
- The Venom Zoo has the world’s most venomous spider, Australia’s 5 most venomous snakes plus scorpions, centipedes, reptiles and Aussie tarantulas
I haven’t yet listed my two favourite experiences of Kuranda!
For me the big one is the actual train ride there!
The train was built in 1936 and it still has the original decor. The only thing that’s changed is that it now has lights so I no longer need to count “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” as I go through the under-mountain tunnels!
The other is the Riverboat ride where you actually get to spot freshwater crocs in the wild! Great photo opportunities!
Honestly I haven’t even listed half of the things you can do in Kuranda so head over to their website here to check out Kuranda Village, the Skyrail cable car, swimming holes, and atv-ing.
When I was kid I got to live on a deserted Fitzroy Island for 4 months. As a 9yo tomboy I was in seventh heaven!
Today’s Fitzroy is just as beautiful, a lot more modern and it’s no longer deserted. In fact it’s an island hopper and diver’s dream and only a 45 minute boat ride from Cairns.
Their website boasts ….
“A relaxed, friendly, barefoot destination”
Please wear shoes, at the very least thongs (for Aussies), flipflops (for everyone else) especially on the beach! It’s made of broken coral and it really hurts your feet!
The Fitzroy Island Resort is situated right where my old house used to be. It’s a beautiful boutique hotel and another place committed to the environment and sustainable tourism.
While Fitzroy has the usual island activities like camping, hiking, diving, snorkelling and glass bottom boat tours it also plays an important part in sea turtle conservation.
The Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is located on Fitzroy Island and they provide rehab and release to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles. Tours are open to the public and you can even volunteer there.
The Centre has also started a reef restoration project only a year or so ago.Yes the Great Barrier Reef has been dying off over the years, the effects noticeable even back when I was a kid. Click To Tweet
From what my fisherman dad told me, it’s due to the damage from cyclones and the crown of thorns starfish that kills off the coral that it feeds on. The dead coral is what created the barefoot ouchies on Fitzroy’s beaches.
Fitzroy is not very big so you can probably see most of it in a day but a weekend stay would give you the opportunity to experience every aspect of the island.
Ok so a little more reminiscing …
One day my dad decided to take the family over to Green Island (from Fitzroy) on the work trawler. Dogs weren’t allowed on Green Island and still aren’t, so my little dachshund cross had to stay behind.
As we weighed anchor and started to leave, my dog decided she wasn’t going to be deserted and began to swim out to the boat … in shark infested waters!
I’m sure you can imagine the scene, 9yo me balling my eyes out, my mum and sister watching on in horror, dad running the trawler in circles trying to scoop up the dog ….
Just don’t take your dog to Green Island ok?!
Green Island is also only a 45 minute boat trip from Cairns and is part of the Great Barrier Reef Heritage Area – which means they’re big on conservation too.
The diversity of wildlife and marine life on the island is astounding!
Even if you can’t swim, there are a lot of activities that give you the opportunity to see the underwater life of the reef, including things like glass bottom boats, underwater observatory, walking on the ocean floor, semi submarine rides and the Scuba Doo …
It’s also a great place for beginner snorkellers as the waters around the island are home to sea turtles, stingrays and fish in the seagrass and reefs close to the shore.
There are also souvenir shops, a dive shop, spa, cafes, restaurant and of course the Green Island Resort.
The island is small, it’s only a 1.6km walk around the entire island so it’s perfect for a day trip.
Growing up, we had friends in Atherton so we regularly got to visit the amazing Atherton Tablelands.
The Tableland is a large fertile plateau region about an hours drive inland from Cairns.
Formed by volcanic activity it’s incredibly diverse, with lush mountains, green valleys, lakes and streams, waterfalls and World Heritage listed rainforest.
It is a nature lovers paradise!
If you’re finding Cairns too hot, you’ll love the cooler temperatures and there is so much to see and do:
- all types of accommodation; caravan parks, bird watching cabins, B&Bs and hotels
- tours include wildlife, lakes, trikes, horseriding and wineries
- restuarants and cafes
- geological wonders
- art galleries, museums and pottery
Atherton Tablelands is a large area, over 600 square kilometres so you won’t get to see it all on a day trip.
The Tablelands are a diverse and hidden gem and you’ll really want to take some time exploring this amazing region!
The website for the Atherton Tablelands lists a ton of intimately local tours and destinations that you won’t find anywhere else online.
My favourite accommodation
My favourite accommodation in Cairns is the Dreamtime Travellers Rest.
It’s the first backpackers place I’ve ever stayed and I couldn’t recommend it more highly!
It’s a green sustainable hostel, with a very colourful, bright, tropical atmosphere.
Private and group rooms come with free breakfast, bookings come with airport pickups and they have great discounts on heaps of tours in the area.
Right accross the road is a 24 hour supermarket if you want to take advantage of the full kitchen facilities.
For bookings click here.
So I mentioned cane toads at the beginning of this post but I think I’d better mention that it’s actually illegal to shoot them in your back yard! Anywhere else is fine. Baseball bats are often used too.
Sounds like we Aussies are a nasty bunch doesn’t it?
The truth is, cane toads are NOTHING like toads found anywhere else.
They were originally introduced as a (failed) biological defence against the sugar cane beetle that was destroying cane fields. Queensland’s biggest export is sugar cane.
Cane toads have poison sacks near their ears on each side of their head. The poison is deadly – it only takes a dog to lick a toad’s skin to have a heart attack.
The toads use backyard swimming pools to lay their eggs, which poisons the water, so pools in Cairns and other parts of Queensland, often have cane toad proofing.
There is no Australian wildlife species that is immune to the cane toad’s poison.
As it insidiously invades the rest of the country, despite strict state line quarantine regulations, it’s wreaking havoc on local habitats and populations, and has now made it to the other side of the country.
It’s the biggest import disaster Australia has ever had.
So don’t touch the “frogs”!
On a side note, the tiger mosquito that carries the dengue virus is found in Queensland, so make sure you get your hands on personal insect repellant that contains DEET. You’ll find some in any pharmacy and probably the local supermarket as well.
The mosquito that carries dengue, also carries Zika, the chikungunya virus and yellow fever.
Here’s how to keep yourself dengue free:
- wear long sleeved clothing
- use mosquito repellants containing DEET, IR3535 or Icaridin
- use a mosquito net if you’re sleeping during the day
- close window and door screens
- put the air-conditioner on
- spray household flyspray under beds and other furniture in rooms
- use mosquito coils
If you come down with dengue in Queensland, you are in very safe hands! Although I would strongly recommend that you don’t (travel insurance is always a must)!
Aside from the fact that it’s not nice, you only end up with antibodies for one of the strains. There are four strains of dengue so if you contract one of the other strains you end up with dengue hemorrhagic fever which can be deadly. Don’t let mosquitoes bite!
Both my kids picked up dengue the first time I took them to Bali and the Queensland Govt Health Dept was the only place that knew anything about the virus and they knew a lot. (I called both the World Health Organisation and the CDC at the time and neither of them could help me!).
For more information on travelling Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and the diverse state of Queensland, check out these two books from Amazon which I think are the most relevant.
Cairns is hot and humid – the average annual maximum temperature is 29°C (84.2°F), with 62% humidity.
It rains all year round (it’s the tropics!) but summer is considered the rainy season and can be prone to tropical cyclones. Don’t let the cyclones put you off! It’s all part of the adventure 😉 But DO pay attention to all official warnings.
To be honest, visiting Cairns any time of the year is fantastic but you’ll get more crowds in summer. So if you don’t want the crowds and if you’d prefer less rain and humidity, then go between April and September.
Always obey swimming signs, whether it’s a waterhole, river or ocean:
- Crocodiles are in all types of water
- Never dive into a waterhole – they hide broken tree branches and debris
- Aside from sharks, stonefish and deadly jellyfish, our oceans can have some serious rips – always swim between the flags and never over estimate your own abilities!
The sun burns your skin quickly here due to the hole in our ozone layer.
We have a saying here in Oz … “slip, slop, slap”; slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat.
Even if you use 30+ sunscreen you’ll still get a fab tan (and you won’t end up in hospital with first degree sunburn!)
As with all places, there is diversity and beauty … and things to watch out for.
This is true for Cairns as well.
Hopefully I have prepared you for an adventure of a lifetime!
If you’ve ever been to Cairns, please comment below and tell me what your favourite experience was!
If Cairns is high on your bucket list and you have questions, ask me in the comments below or message me here 🙂 I’d love to help you!
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