Cairns

72 Hours in Cairns, Australia: Where Rainforest Meets Reef

Cairns is perfectly situated on Australia’s eastern coast. Far up in north Queensland, it overlooks the marine wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef, and the tropical climates of the Daintree Rainforest.

Queensland seems to have it all- idyllic islands, ancient rainforest, wildlife experiences that cue Australia, and of course, the Great Barrier Reef.

One of the top activities we were excited for, planning our road trip around Oz?

Diving the Great Barrier Reef.

For both of is, it was a major bucket list item, and one we planned to both splurge on.

In fact, our interest in diving the reef was what convinced us to visit Cairns for three days. Generally, it’s advised not to fly for 12-24 hours before or after you dive. Translated to trip planning, that meant we’d arrive in Cairns on Friday, dive Saturday, explore Sunday and leave Monday morning.

Our venture to and from Cairns was easy, largely because it was en-route from Western Australia to Melbourne.

If you’re heading to Cairns from Sydney or Melbourne, there are plenty of flights daily, many of which are operated by JetStar, Oz’s budget carrier.

DAY ONE

Arriving in Queensland on an overnight flight from Perth, we were exhausted but also excited by the prospect of a day trip.

The decision to rent a car and explore on our own had been somewhat last minute- we didn’t reserve one until the week prior to our visit.

Looking back though, it’s impossible to imagine our trip without this portion.

We loved it almost as much as diving the reef.

Because we were short on time, we’d decided to cram in a lot in one day. If you have more time, I’d advise splitting the day up- spending more time in the rainforest and tablelands, and extra hours along the coast.

But, if you’ve only got one day to see it all- it is doable. Just be prepared for an extra long day.

After we picked up our car at Cairn’s airport, we drove up to the Atherton Tablelands.

The tablelands are part of Oz’s Great Dividing range, and incredible- rolling green hills, portions of luscious rainforest siphoned off from the main road, endless waterfall turn offs, local produce markets. It’s a beautiful, can’t miss region.

The drive up is easy, albeit windy- be sure to keep your navigation on so it directs you in offline mode. Throughout the rainforest roads, you’ll lose service for a bit.

We came up to the tablelands mostly to hike the waterfall circuit. Within 10 minutes of each other on the same road, you’ll find three, very different, but equally gorgeous waterfalls.

If we had more time in this part of Oz, I would have loved to stop at some of the farm stands we passed, perhaps find some cheese tastings to partake in.

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And while we saw three waterfalls, there are plenty more to hike to (for instance, Mungalli Falls, Pepina Falls).

Highlights of our morning, exploring rainforest

Milla Milla Waterfall: It’s not hard to see why these falls are popular. Once used as a backdrop in an Herbal Essence commercial, it really does feel like you’re swimming in a jungle pool (if you can brave the cold water).

We visited shortly after opening, and had the falls to ourselves for nearly 20-30 minutes. It’s an easy walk down on wooden steps, and not far from the upper lot.

Zillie Falls: Thundering falls in the midst of thick jungle- it’s only a short walk from the parking lot to see this incredible waterfall from above.

We’d heard you can hike to the bottom, but didn’t attempt it, because the trail looked rough and overgrown.

Elinjaa Falls: Right on the waterfall circuit, not too far from Milaa Milaa, these falls are also worth a stop. It’s a quick walk (10-15 minutes) from the parking lot on a trail that’s mostly developed.

Once you’re at the base of the falls, climb over the rocks in the pool, wander downstream, just take all of it in. This was our last waterfall stop of the day, but since we were here early (late morning), we still managed to have the falls to ourselves, as with our other stops.

Curtain Fig Tree: Essentially a tree in waterfall form. The tree is at least 500 years old, and beautiful to look at with its aerial roots hanging every which way. To reach the tree, it’s only a short walk through the forest- about 3-5 minutes from the car park.

With early afternoon drawing near, we started the drive down to the coast. This time, when we reached Cairns city limits, we drove north.

How we spent the afternoon along the coast

Driving Captain Cook Highway to Port Douglas is stunning.

Up here, be sure to stop at Four Mile Beach, a gorgeous stretch of palm-tree lined white sand, as well as the Thala Beach Nature Reserve to discover palm tree paradise. 

Four Mile Beach, in particular, is a great place to stop for lunch. There are picnic tables, tons of palm trees to provide shade, and breathtaking views all around.

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While in the area, wander through Palm Cove, a very cute and peaceful beach town. 

We popped into Espresso & Co Cafe Bar for magics (steamed milk poured over a double ristretto), which proved to be the exact pick-up we needed. 

A note: If you’re going to swim at any of the area’s beaches, be mindful of signs for sea snakes, cros and stingers. We were warned multiple times to be careful in Queensland waters.

Before we knew it, it was evening, and time to drive back to Cairns to rest up for our next day of adventuring.

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DAY TWO

Found in the Coral Sea off the northeastern coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef reef stretches all the way from Queensland’s coast, up beyond the northern tip of Australia to the south coast of Papua New Guinea.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world for a reason. With over 350 types of hard coral and 90 species of soft coral, plus 1,500 types of fish, 6 types of turtles, 30 types of whales and dolphins, and 125 types of sharks and rays, it’s an astounding place.

Plus, it’s the only living structure on earth that can be seen from outer space.

We just felt like, you can’t visit Oz and not dive the Great Barrier Reef.

Once we were set on a single day cruise, we booked in with Silverswift after reading reviews, and having them recommended by friends.

Silverswift takes you to three outer reef sites at Flynn, Pellowe, Millin, and/or Thetford Reefs. Locations vary, based on the days condition. Sites are chosen for visual impact and ecological diversity.

Your day begins at 8:30 am (check in from 8 am), with a return to the marina at 4:30 pm.

We thought the timing was perfect- early, but not too early. Plenty of time to grab a coffee from one of Carin’s cafes in the morning.

And, a return at 4:30 pm meant we were hungry enough to think about dinner, and chose to head straight to a brewery- Hemingway’s at the wharf for pizza and pints.

It takes about 60-90 minutes to reach the outer reef sites. Once you’re there, you’ll spend 5-6 hours on the reef, with a little over an hour allocated for each stop.

One of the biggest reasons we went with Silverswift?

They’re mega accommodating of divers of all ability- seasoned or newbies.

Your purchase includes one dive, plus snorkeling at other stops with an option to add another dive on board.

We’d been told by friends, who were also first time divers on their visit, that the Silverswift team took them through all the diving basics, were patient with helping set up equipment, and stayed close, but weren’t overbearing, underwater.

At the first stop, we were part of the group that snorkeled.

Even snorkelling blew us away- it was incredible. When it was time to dive at the second stop, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

I’m aware we’re ultra spoilt- having our first dive, ever, being at the Great Barrier Reef.

But, wow.

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I know dive sites in the Red Sea and Belize are revered for being the best in the world, but it’s hard to believe it gets any better than what we saw.

We were so enamoured with our first dive, we signed up for a second dive at the third stop.

The boat, itself, is also great- plenty of space to sit; hot, freshwater showers; breakfast when you board; a great lunch buffet that caters to loads of food allergies and intolerances.

// Checking Off a Major Bucket List Item: Diving the Great Barrier Reef //

DAY THREE

We chose to spend this day in the city, and relaxing.

I also had a bit of work to do, so wandering the city in the morning, and then relaxing in the afternoon was the perfect plan for us.

In the morning, we woke early to check out Cairns cafe scene, hitting up:

  • Blackbird Laneway: Ace flat white, great pastries
  • Pantry 15: V good coffee, and don’t miss the açai bowls- they’re the best in Cairns
  • Anne’s Caphe: Nearly as good as the coffee I had in Vietnam, which is really saying something. Iced coconut coffee is a must-order

Before we headed back to our Airbnb, we also stopped at Rusty’s Markets. Rusty’s is legendary in Cairns- it’s a huge, semi-outdoor market, packed with produce, small food stalls, and a lovely Vietnamese coffee pop-up shop. The market has a decidedly Asian feel, which we loved- such a great assortment of Southeast Asian fruits, Vietnamese herbs, and delicious, Asian vegetables.

If you’re up for adventuring on your last day in Cairns, keep your car rental and head to-

  • Mission Beach: About ~2 hours south of Cairns, Mission Beach is made up of four, idyllic beach villages. There are no chain stores or traffic lights on Mission Beach- it’s truly a seaside country town, where you can slow down and hang out
  • Fitzroy Island: We debated long and hard about going to Fitzroy Island- I was all for it, it looked so perfect. But, in the end, we were worried we’d be overdoing it, and wanted to build in a day to relax before heading to Melbourne, where both of us would be working. Although we can’t personally vouch for its splendor, Fitzroy looks like paradise. The island is surrounded by white sand beaches and some of the best coral in the barrier reef
    • Three boats a day head to Fitzroy Island from Cairns- 8 am, 11 am and 1:30 pm. Returns depart Fitzroy at 9:30 am, 12:15 pm or 5 pm. The ferry, the Fitzroy Flyer, should be booked in advance, especially in the high season
    • Most people who snorkel do so from the main beach at Welcome Bay, but if we took the trip, friends recommending taking a short stroll through the rainforest to reach Nudey Beach, which is more secluded
    • While on the island, you can also hire kayaks or go paddle boarding (rent from Fitzroy Island Dive & Adventure Centre), and don’t miss grabbing lunch from Foxy’s bar, which oft has live music
  • Kuranda: A lot of visitors to Cairns take the railroad or skyrail to the Rainforest village of Kuranda, a picturesque village in the nearby mountains. The town’s historic markets are said to be quaint, but visitors mostly rave about the transport to and from Kuranda, and the sweeping landscape vistas
  • More time in tropical, north Queensland? Head to the Whitsundays, tiny islands off the coast, for an overnight stay in paradise

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Extra Oz Travel Tips

Language: English, with some quirky slang thrown in for good measure 

Safety: Never once, traveling across Australia did we feel unsafe. Still take the normal precautions, like locking your car at night and keeping an eye on valuables, but I’d compare most of the cities and places we visited to small and big cities in the UK and US

Currency: Australian Dollar

While in Oz, I paid for most things with my Revoult card, as many things are contactless payment. I did carry a small amount of cash with me to cover tiny purchases- like a pack of gum here and there

Budget: Oz gets flak for being expensive, and while it is costly in comparison to nearby Southeast Asian countries, I found things to be a bit more affordable than in the US or UK. 

As with other destinations, there are ways to scale back on spending- eating meals in, staying in hostels or camping, limiting alcohol, and so on.

Getting To Cairns: Assuming you’re visiting from Sydney or Melbourne, as most people do, there are several flights daily. 

Once at the airport, we rented a car for a day, but if you’re only staying in the city and going on arranged tours, you won’t need one.

Where to Stay: We stayed in a private room with en-suite bathroom in someone’s home. When we visited Cairns, it was peak tourism season, which meant accommodation was actually on par with pricing for what we paid in Sydney and Melbourne during the off-season. 

When to Visit: Unlike other parts of Oz, Cairns is best experienced in winter- it’s milder, less rain. 

We visited in the midst of the peak season- mid-August. This meant we had clear skies, and hot, but relatively mild temperatures. Our dive conditions were wonderful, albeit the water was a bit cold. And, an added bonus to diving when we did- far less likely there’ll be jellyfish in the water.

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Australia. 

WiFi Access: WiFi was average in Cairns, we sought out an Airbnb with high-speed internet, so it is possible to find, albeit tougher than the likes of Sydney and Melbourne. 

Driving through the rainforest and along the coast, you’ll likely lose service for stretches of time. And, in restaurants or cafes across towns, you’ll have a hard time finding free WiFi- only a handful of the places we visited offered it.

SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at WA’s airport with Optus. When we arrived in Cairns, my SIM was still active. I’d purchased with Optus, who was running 50% off deals, making a 30-day SIM with loads of data pretty affordable (~£15).

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Have you ever been to Cairns? Is it a part of Australia you dream of visiting one day? 

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