You've flown into Cairns for a long weekend getaway. Now what? Here's how to have an unforgettable experience filled with sightseeing, connecting with nature, and soaking up the laid-back way of life in Queensland’s tropical north.
Of course, Cairns is famous as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – the only natural structure visible from space – and much of local life centres around the water, but during this weekend you will also traverse rainforests, go island hopping and delve into the natural and indigenous history of this fascinating region of Australia.
With three days on the clock, Mariusz Pecak from Travel Spiced Life gives us his handy itinerary for an adventure you’ll want to relive over and over again.
Day One: Up and Away in Kuranda
The first day is all about leaving the world behind and entering into a land of pure fantasy. Nestled in the mountains 25km northwest of Cairns, Kuranda prides itself as the “Village in the Rainforest”.
There are several ways to reach Kuranda, each one offering mesmerising views of the immersive, mountainous rainforest. To really soak up the natural wonder of the journey, leave the car in Cairns and weave through the Barron Gorge on the breath-taking Kuranda Scenic Railway.
The unique Kuranda Scenic Railway winds through miles of World Heritage-listed rainforest, climbing 327 metres along its winding route. Enjoy the audio commentary along the way, pointing out natural highlights and sharing the history of this monumental railway. You’ll also receive a printed guide to keep, with a useful map of Kuranda, ready for your day of exploration.
If you can, treat yourself to a Gold Class ticket on the 9:55 am departure from Freshwater Station. The Gold Class experience lifts the journey even further, with luxurious lounge-style chairs and exclusive tea and snack service in the traditional golden-era carriage.
Once you disembark the train, it’s time to make the most of this spectacular destination. Kuranda is, quite literally, teeming with nature. Start your visit at the Butterfly Sanctuary – home to over 1500 intricately decorated tropical butterflies, including the largest butterfly in all of Oz – the Cairns Birdwing.
It’s not just butterflies you’ll be marvelling at today, but before making friends with more feathered creatures, it’s time for a spot of shopping. Kuranda Heritage Markets are the place to get your locally crafted souvenirs and meet the (human) rainforest community. The market is a shopping mall like no other! The covered market is flanked by rainforest, and the gorgeous array of crafts and delicious local produce all demonstrate why the local community is so proud of their village and its remarkable setting.
Grab a bite for lunch at Frogs Restaurant in the market. Feeling adventurous? Try the Crocodile and Green Mango Curry – perhaps the safest way to meet one of the more notorious locals.
After lunch, you’re conveniently close to two of Kurunda’s most popular attractions for animal lovers. Birdworld Kuranda is home to a staggering collection of exotic birds, free-flying in a large, natural habitat. Birdworld delivers a feast of colour, with vibrant feathered friends flitting between trees, frolicking in ponds, and dancing in the mist of landscaped waterfalls. Get up close and personal with the majestic and cheeky inhabitants of Birdworld, including the star of the show, the Southern Cassowary – a rare sight indeed. Mid-afternoon is a great time to visit if you want to miss the midday crowds.
For a famous Australian cuddle, it’s off to the Kuranda Koala Gardens. Get your photo taken with Australia’s cutest animal, as well as meeting wallabies, wombats, quokkas, gliders… and even crocodiles (don’t tell them what you had for lunch). Kuranda Koala Gardens is one of the few places you can get a professional photo of you holding a koala, but avoid the crowds if you want to get this popular keepsake.
It’s sad to leave Kuranda so soon, but your journey back to Cairns will be one of the most memorable you’ll ever have. The Kuranda Skyrail is a 1.5 – 2-hour cable car, descending gently over the ancient rainforest below. If you’ve got enough puff left in you for an invigorating hike (and you’re not weighed down with too many goodies from the market), experience the Rainforest Discovery Zone alongside an expert Ranger, at Red Peak. Further along, the Skyrail route, take advantage of the stop at Barron Falls and have your camera ready for the most immense views of the waterfall and surrounding panorama. Skyrail terminates at Smithfield, which is a short 15-minute drive from Cairns and is served by a regular bus, or a keen line of taxis.
Day Two – Island Hopping
After a full-on day of wildlife high in the mountains, today it’s time to lap up the waves. It would be rude of us not to appreciate the gem blue waters that Cairns is so famous for, and there’s no better way than to dabble in a spot of island hopping.
Top of the list is Green Island, an exclusive destination with beautiful scenic beaches, and even a crocodile attraction if you need a daily fix of famous Aussie animals. Great Adventures run a speedy catamaran ferry from Cairns to the islands throughout the day. Get one of the earlier boats to get the best of the beaches.
Given that Green Island sits at the heart of the Great Barrier Reef, you’ll probably want to rent out some snorkelling gear and visit the colourful world of Finding Nemo beneath the sparkling waves. You don’t need to swim out far – the jetty is a great spot to start.
Another island worth visiting in the area is Fitzroy Island, 29km southeast of Cairns. Fitzroy Island is an emerald jewel, enrobed in a shimmering turquoise sea. For animal lovers, the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre will be an exciting addition to your trip. Scuba Diving facilities offer more adventurous divers the opportunity to explore deeper areas of the Great Barrier Reef. If you’re looking to stay dry, consider jumping on board the glass bottom boat for a unique tour over the reef.
If you’ve never taken a ride in a helicopter, today is your day. Instead of catching the ferry back to Cairns, wow yourself with a bird’s eye view of the reef as you circle this special Australian natural wonder from the sky.
Today’s balance of relaxation and revitalisation will leave you with plenty to relive over dinner back in Cairns ahead of your final day in town tomorrow.
Day Three – Local Highlights and Indigenous Legacy
Start the day at Cairns ZOOM & Wildlife Dome. They have a half-day tour packed full of heart-racing activities that have a definite local twist to them. Zipline over crocodiles, climb the exterior of the giant glass dome for the best views in town and tackle the high ropes. This is a wildlife-themed adventure for the whole family, with courses for all abilities.
While your in this part of town, check out the super-popular Cairns Lagoon at the Cairns Esplanade. Enjoy free swimming facilities at the Lagoon – without the crocodiles – all year round. You’ll also be able to catch some free fitness classes in and around the water… or just make use of the barbeque facilities if eating’s your preferred form of exercise.
To round off your three-day trip to Cairns, book onto a guided Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk at Mossman Gorge. Here you can appreciate the beauty of the Gorge combined with the local indigenous culture, still very much alive today. The hiking tour starts with a traditional “smoking” ceremony to ward off bad spirits and cleanse the soul. Through the journey, your guide will introduce you to important indigenous customs, including traditional uses of rainforest plants, and engrossing tribal legends. The indigenous culture is so central to this part of Queensland, that it is a fitting send-off to share this final afternoon in the region with Queensland’s first nation community.
Back in Cairns city, book yourself a table at Ochre Restaurant for dinner. This fine dining experience serves up the very best of Cairns on every plate. Elegant dishes, celebrating locally-sourced ingredients and classic indigenous flavours. Chargrilled Kangaroo sirloin is a mouth-watering alternative to your standard beef steak, or try the Tempura Gulf Bugs if Cairns brings out your adventurous side.
Staying a little longer?
Seeing everything in Cairns within three days is impossible as there are so many more places to visit.
For your next trip plan a day in Port Douglas, go for a drive in the magnificent Atherton Tablelands, spot a cassowary in the Daintree Rainforest and, if you feel even more adventurous, collect your camping gear, drive to Cape York and put your feet on the northernmost point of Australia.