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Cairns is a naturalist's heaven cruise port. The city has everything you're looking for, from perfect beaches to a pristine rain forest. And of course, just offshore is the truly awesome Great Barrier Reef. You will find that the day passes much too quickly in Cairns (pronounced cans).
The emphasis in Cairns is clearly placed on nature and natural wonders. You'll find that most activities in town are geared towards getting you out to the reef or to exploring the nearby Wet Tropics Rain Forest. The sights here grace most Australian tourism brochures, and you'll be left wondering how you will be able to pull yourself away from here.
It's difficult to recommend an itinerary for your stay in Cairns, especially because cruise passengers are on such a limited time budget. As a result, you will have an impossible time fitting everything mentioned in this guide into such a short time. Your best course of action is to plan out your day in advance, deciding whether you would rather spend your time admiring the splendor of the Great Barrier Reef, gazing at the natural beauty of the rain forest, or enjoying an adrenaline high from any of Cairns excellent outdoor adventure activities. No matter what you choose, one thing is certain after you visit Cairns. You will want to come back!
Docking & Local Transportation
Cruise ships dock at the Cairns Seaport, which is located on Trinity Inlet. There is road access to the rest of the city, as well as water access to the Great Barrier Reef.
Buses are the most efficient way to get around town. Buses stop wherever it's convenient, rather than just at bus stops. So if you see a bus coming down the street, try hailing it just as you would a taxi. Or, save yourself the trouble by just hailing a taxi. Call Black and White Taxis (07/131-008) if you can't find one on the road. Within a walk of 5 to 10 minutes, you will find services such as ATM's, coffee shops, an Internet cafe, restaurants, a casino, shopping and representatives for land and water tours. Outside the terminal, to the right, is a map on a signpost, which shows two choices for walking, both of which meet after about 10 minutes. Either way, you can't go wrong. One choice is a paved path along the water toward restaurants in a building called The Pier, which overlooks a marina. The other choice is to cross Wharf Street and follow sidewalks toward the Esplanade. If you choose the Esplanade path, you'll soon pass an ATM, an Internet cafe, a casino and a travel agency with agents ready to book day tours.
Getting Around
On Foot: Most of Cairns' city tourist attractions are within a 20-minute walk from the port terminal.
By Taxi: Taxis are available at the port for such activities as the Tropical Zoo, which is about 25 minutes away. Taxis are metered.
By Rental Car (called "car hire" in Australia): Rentals are available. Remember to bring your driver's license from home. Driving is on the left side, as in England.
Things To do and See
The Cairns tourism bureau, Tourism Tropical North Queensland (51 The Esplanade, 07/4051-3588) is an excellent resource for helping to get you started on your way. The bureau provides tons of information regarding Great Barrier Reef excursions, as well as things to do while in town.
Of course, Cairns main attraction is the Great Barrier Reef. If you have never snorkeled or scuba dived before, this is your best opportunity to start. Contact Sunlover Reef Cruises (07/4050-1333) or Great Adventures (07/4044-9944) for reef tours. You'll be provided with snorkeling gear and lessons. You could also choose to book a helicopter tour over the reef. There are literally hundreds of great dive spots all around the Reef, and almost as many dive operators. Among the more reputable is Down Under Dive (07/4052-8300). You can also contact Dive Queensland (07/4051-1510) for a comprehensive list of the better dive operators.
Aboriginal culture is on display at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (Kamerunga Road, 07/4042-9900). This is one of the most comprehensive Aboriginal centers in Australia. Three shows depicting various facets of Aboriginal life will educate and entertain you. There are also lessons on spear and boomerang throwing, and a great gift shop that should satisfy most of your souvenir hunting while in Cairns. The Cairns Regional Gallery (Shields Street, 07/4046-4800) has a nice sampling of artwork from local artists. You can also consider enjoying a picnic lunch at Flecker Botanic Gardens (Collins Avenue, 07/4044-3398).
Cairns is home to two wildlife parks. Hartley's Crocodile Adventures (Captain Cook Highway, twenty-five miles north of Cairns, 07/4055-3576) is the best spot for a photo opportunity. Try to be there a little before four in the afternoon, when they will let you take your picture while holding a live crocodile. Wild World: The Tropical Zoo (Captain Cook Highway, 14 miles north of Cairns, 07/4055-3669) gathers all of the famous Australian animals in one place. See kangaroos, koalas, dingoes, wombats, crocodiles, and more!
Cairns Botanic Gardens
Australia's sheer size as an entire continent means that scenery changes drastically from north to south, east to west, and this is doubly true as far as the country's plant life is concerned. Cairns' tropical location means that the flora you'll encounter while in the region is a stark contrast to that on offer in the likes of Sydney, Melbourne or Hobart with their colder and drier climates – and there are few better ways to get a firsthand taste of this than at the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Sitting just outside the centre of Cairns, this highly accessible, expansive display of tropical plant life makes for a pleasant – and entirely free – way to pass a few hours in the city or take a much-needed break from the many other adventure activities on this list.
Officially called Flecker Botanic Gardens, the Cairns Botanic Gardens are home to a huge number of unusual plant varieties that you've likely never seen before; tropical flowers give off a wilder, primeval atmosphere that differs greatly from the standard manicured carnations and roses of other similar facilities, and it's a great way to step back in time a few hundred thousand years.
"Cairns' tropical location means that the flora you'll encounter while in the region is a stark contrast to that on offer in the likes of Sydney, Melbourne or Hobart with their colder and drier climates."
Their bloom colours are likewise quite unorthodox and vibrant; oranges and purple-reds sum up the tropics in a nutshell, while large, bright-blue Ulysses butterflies can often be seen flitting from plant to plant and adding their own hues to the proceedings. Other sights such as insect-eating plants, a bamboo garden and plenty of lakes and waterways are a constant reminder that “we're not in the Sydney CBD anymore”.
The Cairns Botanic Gardens are exceptionally well-maintained by their passionate grounds staff, which is admirable as a place with flora as wild as this could soon grow out of control. The gardens feature plenty of little secret, hidden walkways that take visitors to secluded, shaded areas of the facility and help to extend what may otherwise only be a 1-hour affair into an adventure that lasts just as long as you're willing to follow them. Couple this with a couple of lovely little cafes to grab a bite to eat or a coffee to enjoy while exploring, and it's a veritable oasis in the middle of the city. Insect repellent is also very much a must when visiting here – it's the tropics, after all, and mosquitoes and other 6 legged friends can make things less pleasant – and is supplied free of charge by the gardens, so be sure to slip, slop, slap before commencing your exporation on muggy days.
Regular buses run to the Botanic gardens from the Cairns city centre, departing roughly every 25 minutes, so if you're a nature enthusiast or simply looking for a way to get away from other, more “touristy” affairs for a while, it's a spot that's both enjoyably relaxed and easy to visit while in Cairns.
Cairns Hot Air Ballooning
It's a common sight to view the Great Barrier Reef with your head under the water, but one of the more underrated ways to take in the full vastness of its scale is, coincidentally, from high above instead. A hot air balloon flight with operator Hot Air Cairns can provide you with a tranquil and stunning view point that few other sightseeing opportunities can match – the combination of clear morning skies and the slow, drifting serenity of a balloon flight allows ample time to grab panoramic photos and memories that are much harder to obtain doing anything else. Hot air ballooning is an eerily peaceful experience; other than the volume of passenger/pilot's voices and the occasional bursts of heat directed into the balloon, the silence creates one of the most mesmerising atmospheres to simply revel in the wonder of the Queensland landscape undisturbed.
Cairns makes for a special hot air ballooning destination due to the tapestry of colours that come with a location that straddles the best of both rainforest and reef – the vivid greens and earthy colours of the Atherton Tablelands clash brilliantly with the vibrant blues of the surrounding ocean to form a spectacular view – particularly as the glow of the sunrise spreads out over the land below. Kangaroos and other Aussie wildlife can also often be seen on the ground in this region, adding an extra “Australian” touch to the proceedings.
"Cairns makes for a special hot air ballooning destination due to the tapestry of colours that come with a spectacular location that straddles the best of both rainforest and reef."
Options for balloon rides come in both 30 minute and 1 hour flavours, which both include return transfers from Cairns accommodation, with your length of flight choice almost entirely coming down to budget. Luxury options including deluxe transfers and breakfast packages are also available for those looking to indulge, and when coupled with the scenery on offer it makes for a highly popular package for celebrating special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, or even marriage proposals.
The one obvious sacrifice that has to be made in order to enjoy such an experience is the early wake up – expect to rise and shine at roughly 3-4am – but it's a necessary evil to take advantage of the best time of day and witness the Cairns sunrise. In short, hot air ballooning is one of life's true must-do experiences – and there are few better venues in which to take the plunge and do so that Cairns and Tropical North QLD. Famed for their friendly attitude and professional, efficient service, HotAir Cairns come highly recommended. If you're after a birds-eye view of the region, make sure your itinerary has a spot reserved for ballooning.
Visit Michaelmas Cay
“Pristine” is a word thrown around slightly too often in travel circles, but there are few better words to describe this little slice of reef paradise that's easily reachable from Cairns via a roughly 2 hour (strikingly scenic) cruise. A spectacular, tiny reef-island that's every bit the picturesque postcard-style destination you might expect from the Great Barrier Reef, Michaelmas Cay is a stretch of sand and coral surrounded by stunning waters that are brimming with marine life and make for some truly outstanding snorkelling amongst its characteristic blend of hard and soft corals. Crystal clear waters are the cherry on top of this island sundae, and visibility is typically at a premium here.

While this low-lying vegetated sand cay is barely large enough to classify as a true island – most of the on-shore activities are kept to a small, 50 x 50m area – it's nonetheless a reef wonder due to the sheer variety of wildlife that inhabit its reaches both on and off shore. A large variety of sea birds make their temporary nests on the island, while the surrounding coral is protected and a large contributing factor to the diversity of marine life found within.
"Expect to see the likes of starfish, sea turtles, and an immense variety of colourful fish in the waters surrounding Michaelmas Cay, making it the ideal snorkelling venue for those who may not be too confident in the water."
Expect to see the likes of starfish, sea turtles, and an immense variety of colourful fish should you poke your eyes into the waters surrounding Michaelmas Cay, making it the ideal snorkelling venue for those who may not be too confident in the water or with the concept of scuba diving – all it takes is a few steps from the shoreline come face to face with some marine wonders.
Certain areas of Michaelmas Cay are restricted for human access – the entire cay is a listed National Park – and the number of tour operators who can take you there have likewise been limited in an attempt to preserve its condition from an excess of human or tourist influence. Regular tours are offered from Cairns out to the cay that strike a nice balance between an “authentic” reef experience and time saving – it's not quite as far out as the true “outer” parts of the Great Barrier Reef, but at the same time far away enough from the more mainstream tourist spots that you'll be able to get the best of both worlds. Trips to Michaelmas Cay take just under 2 hours one way from Cairns, and thus make a single, full day adventure highly doable.

The cruise out to the cay is a sightseeing adventure in itself, and once there you'll have the chance to take part in a variety of activities – from getting up close with the (unusually tame) colonies of sea birds, doing the aforementioned snorkelling, or boarding a semi-submersible vessel that's ideal for those wanting to peer into the ocean without getting wet. If you're after a postcard-perfect experience that walks the perfect line between scenery and convenience, Michaelmas Cay ticks all the boxes.

Cairns Rafting
Who said all the watery fun that Cairns offers had to be experienced in the ocean? Look just a little bit inland, and the Cairns region provides adventurous visitors with the opportunity for thrilling aquatic adventures on its various surrounding rivers as the home of some of Australia's best white water rafting. All of the Barron, Russell and Tully rivers are located within reasonable distance of Cairns, and each river offers a slightly different take on the rafting experience featuring various grades of rapids and courses that range from scenic and ideal for families all the way up to high-octane, challenging Grade 4 affairs (with rafting being graded on a 1-4 scale; 1 is the easiest).

While there are different routes to take that can alter the difficulty grades of each river somewhat, the general order in terms of difficulty of each river goes:
Barron River (easier, closer to Cairns making half-day trips possible; good for families and those who want to take things easier while still having fun; allow around 2 hours worth of on-water rafting).
Russell River (good balance between difficulty and accessibility; less crowded than other rivers due to only a single operator running here; can be dependent on water levels and may not always be running)
Tully River (the “premier” Cairns rafting experience for both challenge and scenery; requires a substantial investment of time to experience; features largest number of rapids including some Grade 4.)
"Which river you select will depend on a combination of how confident you are in the water, how much time you're willing to invest, and how much you're looking to pay, amongst other variables."
Which river you select will depend on a combination of how confident you are in the water, how much time you're willing to invest, and how much you're looking to pay, amongst other variables. Regardless of your choice of rivers, rafting is a very team-oriented and social activity, and Cairns offers options that can suit all comers, with expert rafting guides on each itinerary who aim to make the adventure fun for visitors while still putting safety first. You'll be equipped with life jackets, helmets and other emergency equipment to ensure peace of mind and while – especially on the Russell and Tully Rivers – you can likely expect to capsize at some point, it's always well regulated and controlled.

Barron River rafting journeys are the shortest and thus ideal for those who don't want to devote an entire day, while the other two rivers offer an extended experience and include breaks for lunch for you to recharge and get your bearings. Most rafting itineraries include accommodation transfers/pickups as well, so you'll have everything you need to simply come along and enjoy the thrills that make Cairns' rafting so famous. Few other activities give you a dose of adrenaline while providing an intimate look at Tropical North QLD's rainforest like white water rafting do, so don't hesitate to get wet and wild during your time in Cairns.
Cairns Bungee Jumping
Cairns is known worldwide as an adventure destination, and there are few activities more symbolic of “Cairns” than bungee jumping. Whether you spell it "bungee", "bungy" or by any other method, Cairns was established as the home of bungee in Australia by operator AJ Hackett, and ever since it's become a rite of passage of sorts for young adults and adventure seekers of all ages alike. As Australia's only purpose-built bungee platform, it's a rush that is as unique as it is scary; in case you've been living under a rock for the past 30 years, the experience involves ascending the 50m-high bungee platform – which incidentally offers outstanding views of the surrounding rainforest and out to the reef, although your heart will likely be pounding a little too fast to fully appreciate it – and, once a safety harness is attached, taking the plunge and leaping off the side. Still with us? Good.

While bungee – which originated in New Zealand and has now become a phenomenon around the world – is a widely known extreme adventure these days, AJ Hackett Cairns put their own spin on the standard bungee experience by offering a veritable smorgasbord menu of 16 different jump styles to choose from. Regular, forward-facing vanilla jumps (a.k.a the “Swan Dive) are for the boring among us, after all – other more hardcore adrenaline junkies may instead choose to go backwards, jump off the roof of the tower, blindfold themselves or even ride a BMX bike off the edge as gravity takes effect!
"Simply put, you haven't truly “done” Cairns until you've swallowed your fear and done a bungee jump, so go ahead and take the plunge – you'll be more than glad you did!"
All this, of course, is all well and good for the strong of heart and bowel, but what is for many an otherwise very intimidating experience is made much easier but the friendly, casual and light-heated attitude of the Cairns bungee staff who do their best to lighten the mood while also being conscientious of what a life-changing moment this can be for first-time jumpers. There's also an undeniable sense of self-reassurance and confidence that comes as a result of completing your first bungee jump; the sense of overcoming your fears and simply “going for it” is an ego boost, to say the least.

The bungee complex – which sits roughly a 20 minute drive to the north of Cairns – also helps with this, as the atmosphere there is generally laid-back and conducive to a good time with BBQ facilities and live music to take advantage of. There's also an additional thrill option in the form of their Minjin Jungle Swing activity which will see you swinging in a wide arc through the rainforest at high speeds and can be done in a group, so there's plenty of variety in terms of what's on offer here. Simply put, you haven't truly “done” Cairns until you've swallowed your fear and done a bungee jump, so go ahead and take the plunge – you'll be more than glad you did!
Green Island Tours from Cairns
In terms of accessibility, Green Island just off the Cairns' coast is hard to beat for those looking for a quick and consistently enjoyable spot to do all the Great Barrier Reef essentials without having to devote a large degree of time or money to do so. While it can tend to be more “touristy” than other alternatives, there's a reason for this: Green Island takes a minimal investment for a delightfully beautiful return; it's a coral cay fringed by reef and famous for two main highlights: its high number of sea turtles which can be found in the surrounding waters, and its iconic “SeaWalker” helmet diving experience that has received recent international attention not just because of its wonderful, 360 degree look at marine life, but also due to local “photobombing” Parrotfish “Gavin” and his knack for striking a smiling pose in many SeaWalker photos (see below).
While the water quality is never going to be able to compare straight up with the Outer Great Barrier Reef, Green Island's snorkelling and other water-based opportunities are still superb and more than sufficient for all but the fussiest visitors, and there's a consistent effort made by the island and its tour operators to make accessing the sights of the reef as family-friendly as possible. Semi-submersible rides are a favourite among those with kids, providing a clear look at the fish and turtles that call the surrounding waters home, while glass-bottom boat roads are also a viable sightseeing alternative.
"Green Island - just off the Cairns' coast - is hard to beat for those looking for a quick and consistently enjoyable spot to do all the Great Barrier Reef essentials without having to devote a large degree of time or money to do so."
The snorkelling on offer is also perfect for beginners, and most tour options for Green Island also include snorkel hire packages, making it an ideal and budget-conscious option for introducing the little ones to this highly enjoyable act of marine exploration.
The island itself is also kept very clean while still being modern, which is impressive considering the sheer volume of tourists who make the short trip over from Cairns each year. This is doubly so given the rainforest that grows on the cay, which still draws an array of bird life despite the increasing amount of human traffic. This landscape is ripe for exploration as well, as there are a range of well-formed tracks on Green Island that take you on a path through the rainforest and provide a dose of greenery while you're drying off. Amenities on the island also warrant a mention, as it's been developed and modernised over the years to ensure visitors won't go lacking – a modern hotel, shops to buy snacks and souvenirs, public showers and lockers, and several restaurants can all be found on Green Island, making it a viable place to spend a full day – or two days, should you choose to stay overnight.
Considering that all it takes is a pleasantly scenic 45 minute cruise across the Coral Sea from Cairns to reach Green Island, if you're in Cairns and looking for a taste of the reef without having to overcommit money-wise – or if you've got kids along for the ride – then it makes for one of the safest choices for a Cairns experience in all but the busiest periods of the year.
Ride the SkyRail Rainforest Cableway
The Great Barrier Reef isn't the only natural wonder that Tropical North QLD is home to – while it might receive the majority of the publicity, its accompanying World Heritage protected rainforest is a green equivalent that is equally impressive in its own way. Hundreds of millions of years old, these dense rainforests form a backbone of the Cairns region and are filled with biodiversity, and Cairns' SkyRail Rainforest Cableway offers easily the best and most accessible way to travel over – and into – its green heart. An experience that aims to both get you from A to B, that is, from the base of the rainforest to Kuranda (the “Village in the Rainforest) and provide outstanding views above the treetops as the tropical landscape followed by the reef stretches out in the distance.
The SkyRail Rainforest Cableway consists of a 7.5km journey above the treetops, with passengers taken up in fully-enclosed cable cars capable of seating 6 people and providing 360 degree views, and pauses for stops at two different locations along the way – the first, at Red Peak station, provides the chance for a guided tour through the rainforest with a ranger who can point out all the history, ecology and other natural highlights that might otherwise go missed, while the second offers a look at the spectacular, gushing Barron Falls with several outstanding lookout points. The end goal of the trip up is Kuranda itself, which is a quirky little tourist village literally nestled within the treetops, and the ideal spot for a bit of exploration, a bite to eat, or grabbing a souvenir.
"The Cairns SkyRail is an experience that aims to both get you from A to B and provide outstanding views above the treetops as the tropical landscape followed by the reef as it stretches out into the distance."
The entire experience is both gentle and safe while also surprisingly long and thus good value for money – expect to spend about 1.5 hours each way on the experience. There's also the option to upgrade to a special “Diamond Car” cabin that has a glass bottom, allowing you to peer directly down into the rainforest canopy, which helps add to the sense of immersion and being surrounded by greenery. Once at the top you'll then have the choice of either taking the SkyRail back down to the bottom again, or taking the Scenic Railway train option which takes an alternate pathway through the rainforest – if you're short on time, the return SkyRail option is your best bet here. There are also other wildlife attractions in the treetops featuring local fauna if you're looking to make a full day of it.

The Cairns SkyRail Cableway terminal is easily reachable in around 15 minute drive from Cairns, and a variety of local shuttle bus companies run transfers to and from Cairns to the terminal, making both self-drive and public transport options available. While “your miles may vary” with how much you enjoy Kuranda itself, with the SkyRail the highlight is very much the journey rather than purely the destination – and it's one of the most unique journeys of its kind in Australia, making it another Cairns essential.
Visit Fitzroy Island
If you're a tourist to Cairns who is, somewhat ironically, wanting a slightly “less touristy” island exploration option than Green Island, then Fitzroy Island can make for perhaps a more ideal choice. With a reputation as more of a place for locals than visitors, Fitzroy Island provides a solid all-round island destination with plenty of activities that's also quite accessible from Cairns – although not as easily as Green Island – and thus requires more effort to reach for an often greater payoff. Due to a further distance from Cairns, the crossing to Fitzroy Island can thus be subject to wind conditions and rougher seas, however in the end you'll have reached what is an actual island rather than just a coral cay. It's this more solid infrastructure that provides a greater diversity of things to do on Fitzroy Island than Green Island.

Fitzroy Island is thus a destination for the more discerning traveller, offering the likes of hiking, sea kayaking and a range of bars and cafes in addition to the standard snorkelling and lazing in the sunshine – although there are plenty of secluded places to do that here, too. Fitzroy Island is also far larger than Green Island, and comes complete with not only tropical rainforest, but additional spectacles in the way of dense woodlands and stony coasts that are a joy to explore.
"If you're a tourist to Cairns who is, somewhat ironically, wanting a slightly “less touristy” island exploration option than Green Island, then Fitzroy Island can make for perhaps a more ideal choice."
This larger size and additional distance from Cairns also means that the population of snorkellers is far less dense than on Green Island, making it easier to get that feeling of escapism that marine exploration is supposed to provide. Fizroy Island is thus quieter and more of a true “getaway”, which is what many choose Tropical North QLD for in the first place.
Fitzroy Island has a great variety of walking tracks to keep visitors occupied on land, with its main Summit Walk that takes you on a path through the forestry, leading up to the island's lighthouse and providing a great outlook. After you're done exploring, Fitzroy Island's Foxy's Bar makes for a great place to kick back with a drink and soak in stunning reef views, while the island's recently-completed 5 star luxury resort provides an elite accommodation option for those looking for an extended stay. This recent development on the island has made it a hugely popular spot for honeymoons and other special occasions, while those looking to ease the burden on the wallet have the option of booking a spot at Fitzroy Island's camping ground.

Add to all this Fitzroy's lovely Nudey Beach – the perfect spot for relaxation – and it's a tempting package that makes the extra time and effort to get here well worth it. While there's no true definitive answer to which out of Fitzroy Island Green Island is truly “better” as it depends on your main holiday purpose, Fitzroy gets the nod here simply due to its tendency to be less crowded and still reasonably close to Cairns.

Cruise to the Outer Reef
As the Great Barrier Reef is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience, an argument can easily be made that it's worth investing the time and money to get the best possible experience during your time here, and thus there are few other options in Cairns that can match forking out the dough to make the trip to the Outer Great Barrier Reef. Yes, it requires the greatest amount of overall effort, but the Outer Reef – due to a variety of factors – simply tends to be more beautiful overall than the fringing reefs that surround the reef's islands. A trip further out gives you the best chance to see coral, fish and other marine life at their best and brightest, and assuming you're not requiring the comfort of lazing on a sandy beach as part of your trip, you'll have everything you need here for a truly unforgettable experience.

Divers in particular stand to gain the most with a trip to the Outer Reef rather than one of the islands; numerous popular dive sites that have been hand-picked by tour operators for their stunning array of marine life abound, and there are multiple quality companies to choose from who have their diving operations down to a tee.
"Yes, it requires the greatest amount of overall effort, but the Outer Reef - due to a variety of factors - simply tends to be more beautiful overall than the fringing reefs that surround the reef's islands."
The likes of SilverSwift, Quicksilver, DownUnder Cruise and Dive and Great Adventures all provide itineraries that take prospective divers to the likes of Flynn, Milln, Thetford and Moore reefs, with each site providing a slightly different focus – some with spectacular soft corals, others with a wider array of fish, or perhaps different marine life such as turtles and rays. The range of underwater canyons, gorges and coral gardens on the Outer Reef is simply staggering, and multi-day tours are available that include a variety of different dive sites to ensure you get the full range of aquatic experiences.

Those with no interest in diving can still make the most of their time on the Outer Reef as well; the majority of Outer Reef trips take guests to moored pontoons and activity platforms designed to take advantage of some truly great spots on the reef, with plenty of just-off-the-boat or on-board activities to take part in for less confident swimmers. While these can sometimes be crowded affairs – particularly during peak season and on the larger vessels – they're never unpleasantly so, and are set up to provide all the amenities one could need for an extended stay on the reef without needing an island to do so. Hot showers, spacious sun-decks and buffet lunches are all staples of most itineraries, while underwater viewing windows and snorkelling equipment round out the offerings.

At the very least, with a day trip to the outer reef you'll spend anywhere between 4 and 5 hours actually enjoying this Natural Wonder of the World, however 3 and even 5 day trips that incorporate on-board accommodation, meals and even diving lessons are available for those looking for an extended experience. How long it takes to travel to the Outer Reef from Cairns is dependent on both the vessel you travel with and their choice of mooring site, however expect anywhere from 1.5 to 2 hours' trip one way as a conservative estimate.
While it's by far the most expensive option for most travelers and it's understandable if people prefer to island-hop, if the best diving, water quality, and coral viewing are top priorities for your trip to Cairns then a trip to the Outer Reef should be a the top of your itinerary.
Outdoor Activities
Cairns definitely rewards the outdoor enthusiast. Scores of companies have sprung up in recent years, offering all kinds of outdoor activities. Raging Thunder Adventures (07/4030-7990) offers everything from whitewater rafting to horseback riding and parasailing. It's an exhausting and exhilarating way to spend the day! Whitewater rafting on the Tully River is a favorite among experts and novices alike. Bungee jumping is offered by A.J. Hackett Bungy (07/4057-7188). If all of this sounds like a little much, hit the links at Paradise Palms Golf Course (Clifton Beach, 07/4059-9999). Or, do some sunbathing at Clifton Beach.
Outlying Attractions
Cairns Tropical Zoo       Get a dose of your favorite Aussie wildlife here—some kind of talk or show takes place about every 15 or 30 minutes throughout the day, including koala cuddling and snake handling (have your photo taken for an extra A$18) and saltwater crocodile and lorikeet feedings. Other animals on show are kangaroos (which you can hand-feed for A$1 a bag), emus, cassowaries, dingoes, and native birds in a walk-through aviary. The park also runs a nocturnal tour, during which you can see many of the more elusive creatures. The park’s 3-hour Cairns Night Zoo tour (Mon–Thurs and Sat; www.cairnsnightzoo.com) starts at 7pm and includes a wildlife spotlighting walk, during which you can pat a koala and a possum and feed kangaroos; a stargazing interlude; a barbecue dinner with beer and wine, billy tea, and damper; and dancing to an Aussie bush band.
Captain Cook Hwy. (22 km/14 miles north of the city center), Palm Cove.   tel. 07/4055 3669. www.cairnstropicalzoo.com. Admission A$33 adults, A$17 children 4–15 (valid for 3 days). Combination tickets with Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures A$62 adults, A$31 children. Cairns Night Zoo tour A$99 adults, A$50 children 4–15 (more if you want transfers from Cairns or the northern beaches). Daily 8:30am–4pm. Closed Christmas Day; open 1:30–5pm Anzac Day (Apr 25). Free parking. Bus: 110 or 111. Transfers from Cairns through Beaches Meet and Greet (  tel. 07/4059 2713).
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures     Hartley’s is the original Australian croc show and quite possibly the best. Its fantastic natural setting is a 2-hectare (5-acre) lagoon surrounded by melaluca (Paperbark) and bloodwood trees that are home to 23 estuarine crocs. The best time to visit is for the 3pm “croc attack”show, when you can witness the saltwater crocodile “death roll”during the 45-minute performance. At 11am you can see these monsters being hand-fed or hear an eye-opening talk on the less-aggressive freshwater crocodiles. If you are really brave (braver than me!), you can also have a “Big Croc Experience,” where you get to pole-feed a large crocodile yourself. Available twice a day at 10:30am and 1pm (bookings essential), you’ll be one of six adults (16 and over) to take part in each group (but your friends and family can come along to watch). The cost is $125 per person. There are tours of the croc farm at 10am and 1:30pm; at 2pm there is a snake show; 4:30pm is koala-feeding time. Cassowaries are fed at 9:30am and 4:15pm. There are also croc- and snake-handling opportunities and heaps of other interesting things to see and do.
Captain Cook Hwy. (40 km/24 miles north of Cairns; about 100 m off the highway).   tel. 07/4055 3576. www.crocodileadventures.com. Admission (good for 3 days) A$35 adults, A$18 children 4–15, A$88 families of 4. Daily 8:30am–5pm; 1:30pm–5pm Anzac Day (Apr 25). Closed Christmas Day. Free parking.
Wildife Passes
Wildlife enthusiasts who plan to visit several of the attractions in the Cairns region can save a few dollars by buying a Four Park Pass, which gives entry to the Cairns Wildlife Dome and three Kuranda attractions: the Rainforestation Nature Park, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, and The Wildlife Habitat (all owned by the same local family). The discounted price of A$80 for adults, A$40 for children, and A$200 for a family of four is a savings of A$29 per adult or A$73 per family. The pass is valid for six months and doesn’t have to be used on consecutive days. Buy it at any of the participating parks. A Kuranda Wildlife Experience pass offers discounted admission to Birdworld, the Kuranda Koala Gardens, and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. It can be bought on arrival at any of the three sanctuaries for A$46 for adults and half-price for children.
Day Trips to the Reef
For an introduction to the Great Barrier Reef, most visitors take one of the large-scale tour boats. These motorized catamarans can carry up to 300 passengers each and tie up at their own private permanent pontoons anchored to a platform reef. The boats are air-conditioned and have a bar, videos, and educational material, as well as a marine biologist who gives a talk on the Reef’s ecology en route. The pontoons have glass-bottom boats for passengers who don’t want to get wet, dry underwater viewing chambers, sun decks, shaded seats, and often showers. But be aware that you will be in a crowded environment. And if you are prone to seasickness, make sure you take some preventive measures before you set out!
An alternative is to go on one of the many smaller boats. These typically visit two or three Reef sites rather than just one. There are usually no more than 20 passengers on board, so you get more personal attention. Another advantage is that you will have the coral pretty much all to yourself. The drawbacks of a small boat are that you have only the cramped deck to sit on when you get out of the water, and your traveling time to the Reef may be longer. If you’re a nervous snorkeler, you may feel safer on a boat where you will be swimming with 300 other people.
Most day-trip fares include snorkel gear—fins, mask, and snorkel (plus wetsuits in winter, if you want one)—free use of the underwater viewing chambers and glass-bottom-boat rides, a plentiful buffet or barbecue lunch, and morning and afternoon refreshments. Diving is an optional activity for which you pay extra. The big boats post snorkeling scouts to keep a lookout for anyone in trouble and count heads periodically. If you wear glasses, ask whether your boat offers prescription masks—this will make a big difference to the quality of your experience! Don’t forget that you can travel as a snorkel-only passenger on most dive boats, too.
Great Adventures:(tel. 07/4044 9944; www.greatadventures.com.au) does daily cruises from Cairns in fast, air-conditioned catamarans to a three-level pontoon on the Outer Reef. The pontoon has a kids’swimming area, a semisubmersible, and an underwater observatory. The cost for the day is A$214 for adults, A$110 for children 4 to 14, and A$544 for families. You spend at least 3 hours on the Reef. Hotel transfers are available from Cairns, the northern beaches, and Port Douglas for an extra cost. The boat departs the Reef Fleet Terminal at 10:30am.
You can also depart Cairns with Great Adventures at 8:30am and spend 2 hours on Green Island en route. This gives you time to walk nature trails, rent snorkel gear and watersports equipment, or laze on the beach before continuing to the Outer Reef. This cruise costs an extra A$20 per adult and A$10 per child, or A$50 per family.
Sunlover Cruises :(tel. 1800/810 512 in Australia, or 07/4050 1333; www.sunlover.com.au) motors large, fast catamarans to Moore Reef on the Outer Reef. The day costs A$209 for adults, A$99 for children 4 to 14, and A$536 for families of four, including transfers from city hotels and about 4 hours on the Reef. This trip includes a glass-bottom-boat ride and semisubmersible viewing. Introductory dives cost A$125 for one dive or A$190 for two. Certified divers pay A$80 for one dive or A$125 for two, including all gear. The cruise includes lunch and leaves from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns at 10am daily.
For a more intimate experience, Ocean Freedom(tel. 07/4052 1111; www.oceanfreedom.com.au) gives you the option of a motor cruise or a sailing tour—in both cases with limited numbers to ensure you don’t feel crowded. Ocean Freedom is a high-speed launch that gives you 6 hours on the reef with no more than 75 passengers and takes you to two Reef sites including Upolu Cay. The day starts at 7:30am at the Reef Fleet Terminal, returning at about 4:30pm. The cost is A$185 adults, A$100 children, and A$517 for a family of four and includes glass-bottom-boat rides, all snorkeling gear, and lunch. You can do an introductory dive for A$105 or, if you are certified, dive for A$70. This is a really great way to see the Reef. On the sailing trip aboard Ocean Free (www.oceanfree.com.au) you’ll be one of only 35 passengers. Ocean Free sails at 7:30am, bound for Pinnacle Reef, an exclusive mooring on the eastern lee of Green Island. The cruise costs A$140 for adults, A$90 for children, and A$418 for a family of four. Introductory dives cost A$85 and certified dives A$65. The friendly crew give you all the help you need.
Ocean Spirit Cruises      (  tel. 1300/858 141 in Australia, or 02/8296 7377; www.oceanspirit.com.au) operates two sailing catamarans that take no more than 150 passengers to Michaelmas Cay, a lovely white-sand cay on the Outer Reef surrounded by rich reefs. This trip includes a 2-hour sail to the cay, a guided snorkeling safari, and a guided beach walk—plus the usual reef ecology talks, semisubmersible rides, lunch, and transfers from your Cairns or northern beaches hotel. You also spend your out-of-water time on a beautiful beach, not on a boat. You get about 4 hours on the Reef. The cost is A$207 for adults, A$132 for children 4 to 14, and A$550 for families of four (but check online for specials). Introductory dives cost A$110, all gear included. The trip departs Reef Fleet Terminal at 8:30am daily. Transfers from Cairns, the northern beaches, and Port Douglas cost $14.
You can also take a coach transfer from Cairns or Palm Cove to join the Quicksilver Wavepiercer (  tel. 07/4087 2100; www.quicksilver-cruises.com), based in Port Douglas, for a day trip to the Outer Reef . Transfers cost A$26 per adult or A$13 per child, A$65 for families of four.
Great Adventures, Quicksilver, and Sunlover also all offer helicopter flights over the Reef from their pontoons—a spectacular experience! There are fly-and-cruise trips as well.
For divers
Tusa Dive   ( tel. 07/4047 9100; www.tusadive.com) runs a custom-built 24 m (72-ft.) dive boat daily to two dive sites from a choice of 15 locations on the Outer Reef. The day costs A$235 for divers and A$185 for adults or A$105 for children ages 4 to 14 for snorkelers, with wetsuits, guided snorkel tours, lunch, and transfers from your Cairns or northern beaches hotel. If you want to be shown the best spots, you can take a guided dive for an extra A$10. Day trips for introductory divers cost A$245 for one dive or A$285 for two. The boat takes a maximum of 60 people, with a staff-to-passenger ratio of one to five, so you get a good level of personal attention
Eating Out
After spending the day exploring all of Cairns natural beauty, you're likely to develop quite an appetite! Not to worry, because Cairns has plenty of restaurants to choose from. Stuff your face at Mediterraneo Trattoria (74 Shields St., 07/4051-4335), where the large Italian portions can satisfy even the heartiest of appetites. Red Ochre Grill (43 Shields St., 07/4051-0100) uses what the land has to offer, with menu specialties including kangaroo meat and wild mushrooms. Kanis Restaurant (59 The Esplanade, 07/4051-1550) offers excellent service that complements a diverse menu. For the freshest seafood in Cairns, pucker up to the Fishlips Bar and Grill (228 Sheridan St., 07/4041-1700).
Cairns isn't too big on nightlife, and quite frankly, you will probably be too tired after your daytime adventures to care too much. However, if you insist on living it up when the sun goes down, try Gypsy Dees' (41A Shields St., 07/4051-5530) or Nightclub 1936 (28 Spence St., 07/4030-8888), in the same hotel as the Hotel Sofitel Reef Casino.
You don't have to leave the city to have a good time in Cairns; while most people will travel here for the sightseeing there's an equal amount of fun to be had at the numerous pubs, bars and nightclubs that can draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world in to enjoy some entertainment after dark. There's a reason why Cairns was listed in our Top 3 Destinations to Visit in your 20's – the fact that it's so easy to access the spectacular Great Barrier Reef combined with an energetic nightlife scene makes it the obvious choice for younger adventure seekers who'd rather stay local than make the draining flight abroad.

It's thus extremely popular with backpackers and has a lineup of pumping clubs and bars oriented around this market – if you're on the youngish edge of the scale you'll have plenty of opportunities to let loose. The majority of Cairns' nightlife takes place in the city centre oriented around the popular dining and drinking hubs of Grafton and Shields Streets – and it's here that the city is at its most raucous, with multiple venues offering night experiences that carry on into the wee hours of the morning.
"Simply put, if you stick to the areas around Spence Street, Grafton Street and Sheridan Street you'll be spoiled for choice here; plus given the nightlife district's relatively compact size it makes venue-hopping an easy and viable experience."
Your choice of Cairns nightlife venues will likely depend on what kind if night you're after - great, internationally renowned DJ shows can be viewed at the Velvet Underground venue at the Reef Hotel Casino; wild nights full of international backpackers can be had at The Woolshed, Gilligan's or long-running venue The Heritage, while those wanting to knock back a beer or three can head to pub/clubs such as The Jack or the Pier Bar. Simply put, if you stick to the areas around Spence Street, Grafton Street and Sheridan Street you'll be spoiled for choice here; plus given the nightlife district's relatively compact size it makes venue-hopping an easy and viable experience. Cairns clubs have a 3am lockout time, so be sure you've chosen the venue you want to stay in until sunrise as you'll be denied entry when trying to enter thereafter.
Despite the rowdy nature of some of Cairns' nightlife scene, it's generally quite a safe party city and the closeness of most accommodation in the city helps to keep both the cab prices and associated headaches to a minimum.
Cairns has an abundance of great shopping locations, from markets offering locally made products to shopping centres with all the latest fashions from your favourite chain stores. There's a bunch of great fashion boutiques offering international and Australian clothes that will have you well dressed and well heeled for a day out on the beach or a night out at a local bar.
There are heaps of souvenir shops that sell photographic prints, pearls and all types of Australiana products that you can take home to remind you of your trip to Cairns. You might also like to check out some art galleries for something a little more special. See below for a list of the most popular shopping hotspots in Cairns. If we've missed any, please let us know, or submit a free listing to our Cairns directory.
Cairns Night Markets one of Far North Queenslands most popular tourist attractions. The Night Markets boasts 130 stalls and a food court. The centre is also air conditioned. This is the perfect place to get handmade local gifts & souvenirs."Inspired by similar international markets in Hawaii and South East Asia, the Cairns Night Markets were created as a way for local traders to promote their North Queensland souvenirs to the demanding tourist market."
The markets are open everyday from 4:30pm to 11pm. 71-75 The Esplanade, Cairns, QLD 4870 Phone: 07 4051 7666 Website: http://nightmarkets.com.au/
The Pier a refreshingly different shopping experience. Located overlooking Trinity Bay and the Marlin Marina, next to the Esplanade and a short walk to the International Reef Fleet Terminal, The Pier is unlike any other shopping centre in Cairns where you will find local fashion labels, beauty treatments, funky footwear, and an array of specialty shops to suit all your needs. You can pick up a bargain or just relax and dine overlooking the marina. The Pier adjoins the 5-star Shangri-La and Events Centre and is home to several top rated professional offices.
Visit the Pier @ Shangri-La, Cairns’ only waterfront destination for unique tourism, retail, and dining experiences. Pier Point Rd, Cairns Qld 4870 Phone: 07 4052 7749 Website: www.thepier.com.au
Cairns Central -- There are over 180 stores at Cairns Central Shopping Centre which makes it the largest shopping centre in Far North Queensland. There's all your favourite chain stores as well as Myer, Target, Coles JB Hi-Fi and Birch, Carroll and Coyle cinemas. You can shop all day and stop off at the food court which has a range of cuisines for you to choose from. The centre is open Monday to Sunday and different stores have different trading hours with Coles being open until 9pm each evening.Cnr Mcleod & Spence Sts, Cairns Qld 4870
Phone: 07 4041 4111 -- Website: www.cairnscentral.com.au
DFO is fairly new to Cairns and is located just outside the city centre and open 7 days a week. DFO Cairns is one of the only places you'll find in North Queensland which sells top brands from all over the world. You'll find Ralph Lauren, Guess, Oroton, Quicksilver as well as a number of Health, Beauty and Gift shops. You will also be able to buy from Brumby's Bakery, BWS, Coles, Sanity Music and a number of cafes and fast food stores. 274 Mulgrave Rd, Cairns Qld 4870 Phone: 07 4051 7444 Website: www.dfocairns.com.au
Smithfield Centre
Smithfield Shopping Centre is like most suburban centres in your home city with ladies and mens fashion boutiques, footwear stores, hair and beauty stores and then also butchers, bakeries and the major shops like Coles, Woolworths, Dan Murphy's and Kmart. You will be able to get everything for your holiday in Cairns whether you're stocking up on food and drink for your apartment or if you need a new outfit. The centre is open Monday to Sunday. Cnr Captain Cook & Kennedy Hwys, Smithfield Qld 4878 Phone: 07 4038 1006 Website: www.smithfieldcentre.com.au
Stockland Cairns is located outside the CBD in the suburb of Earlville and is home to over 125 specialty stores which sell everything from ladies fashion, footwear to home wares and gifts. There is also the major stores which makes this centre a one stop shop like Woolworths, Coles, Target, Big W and Amart. You can also catch a movie at the Birch Carrol and Coyle cinemas. 537 Mulgrave Rd, Cairns Qld 4870 Phone: 07 4041 4111 Website: www.stockland.com.au
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