Finding Tropical Queensland: Marooned in Paradise
Cairns (pronounced “cans”) is a vibrant, pulsing mid-sized city nestled in the heart of Tropical Far North Queensland, Australia. It is one of my favorite places in the entire country and a hub for exploring the region. Prepare for an unforgettable paradise filled with diverse experiences ranging from lush gardens and captivating art to the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, unique wildlife encounters, and breathtaking rainforests. I always recommend this region and tell people they cannot come all the way to Australia and skip it.
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Where to stay in Queensland, Australia
Elegant property located along the Great Barrier Reef with high-end rooms and suites.
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Pullman Cairns International
A sophisticated and contemporary 5-star hotel located in the heart of Cairns, Australia, providing upscale accommodations and impeccable hospitality for discerning travelers.
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Things to do in Queensland, Australia
Upon arriving in Cairns, settle into your accommodation and take some time to relax after your journey. Maybe start slow by visiting the Cairns Botanical Gardens, a serene haven of tropical flora and fauna in the trendy Edge Hill neighborhood. Stroll through the various gardens, including the Flecker Garden, Gondwanan Heritage Garden, and the Aboriginal Plant Use Garden, each offering a glimpse into the rich biodiversity of the region.
In the afternoon, make your way to the nearby Cairns Art Gallery, lovingly nicknamed “The Tanks,” an elegant space showcasing contemporary and Indigenous Australian art. Discover the vibrant local art scene and get inspired by the diverse range of exhibitions and collections on display. I remember we spent hours here!
A visit to the majestic Great Barrier Reef is a must while the last vestiges of this ecological wonder are still here to enjoy. Take a full-day cruise to the untouched outer Hastings Reef. This lesser-visited area under academic and strict biological supervision promises an intimate encounter with the reef's vibrant marine life and pristine coral formations, but only certain operators are recommended with this specific location. I can recommend a few to you, so don your snorkeling or diving gear and immerse yourself in an underwater wonderland. Swim alongside colorful fish, graceful rays, and perhaps even the gentle giants of the sea, the magnificent humpback whales during the migration season. Even the most hardened Aussie blokes will tell you they were brought to tears when seeing the Reef for the first time. The region is palpably unique and precious, home to fascinating wildlife and ecology that will command your attention, your respect, as well as your occasional caution.
In Cairns CBD (central business district), where you will likely base yourself, you’ll take note of the protected spectacled flying foxes – essentially strikingly large, gentle bats. As the evening approaches and the evening skies begin to change color, head to the Cairns Esplanade or the nearby Centenary Lakes to witness thousands of these flying mammals take to the skies against the tableau of the nightly golden hour. It's an awe-inspiring sight as they soar in search of food each evening. We’re talking full on swarming, winged monkey vibes from The Wizard of Oz, here! While you're in the region, learn about and be sure to glimpse the native cassowary, a large and strikingly beautiful flightless bird reminiscent of a small dinosaur with iridescent blue plumage. Consider visiting a wildlife sanctuary or the Daintree Rainforest, where you might be lucky enough to spot this rare creature in its natural habitat. Remember to admire from a safe distance, as they are a protected species.
For an unforgettable day trip, venture to the Atherton Tablelands and chase waterfalls in this region teeming with natural wonders. Discover the enchanting and commercially-famous Millaa Millaa Falls, known for its picturesque cascades and the opportunity to take a refreshing dip in the cool waters. I personally could have easily spent the entire day here without a care in the world. Other must-visit spots include the Curtain Fig Tree, Lake Eacham, and the charming village of Kuranda, which can be reached via the scenic Skyrail Rainforest Cableway.
While meandering through the picturesque tablelands, make sure to take advantage of sampling the amazing local cheeses and native produce available at the many roadside vendors. Don’t be surprised if no one is there to greet you – some of the rural entrepreneurs simply have an honor system, and it’s a thing here.
You can also explore the Daintree Rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located a short distance further to the north from Cairns. Experience a guided walk through the dense rainforest, spot unique flora and fauna, and cruise along the Daintree River to spot crocodiles and various bird species. This is the oldest rainforest on the planet, and it actually snuggles up to another UNESCO heritage site – The Great Barrier Reef – where they meet on the coast at Cape Tribulation.
You actually don’t need to go that far to have the same Robinson Crusoe-like experience. Just north of Cairns is the most picturesque seaside town of Port Douglas. While there, don’t miss the views at the uber-instagramable Four Mile Beach, especially from the viewing platforms near the Jalun Park Esplanade that look out over the beach and the pristine Coral Sea. You’ll have a great time meandering the shops and restaurant experiences available in town here.
Cairns offers a multitude of exciting adventures for every type of excursionist and traveler. You can also combine your visit with other iconic Australia.
Need to Know
Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my other Australia guides, Beyond Words in the Red Centre: Australia's Ancestral Heart and Australian Kaleidoscope: A 2 or 3 Week Expedition.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Australia.