Cairns is the gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s most extensive coral reef system. The city of Cairns is the fourth-most-popular destination for international tourists in Australia for a good reason. While this is a small sleepy town, it hosts many attractions that are worth the journey. Most flock here to see the reef, but there are other attractions just as impressive.
Describing Cairns is difficult. Potentially because I had conjured up an image of Caribbean beaches, possibly because I thought it would be more tropical. I knew you had to take a boat to get out to it, but I expected the Caribbean like blue beaches. They exist but not in Cairns, which is where you want to be. I would describe this place like any small town on the north-east coast of American – small, quiet, and understated. However, the esplanade explodes at night, offering its own set of treats. We collected a couple of severe hangovers perusing the Esplanade and partaking in the festivities.
We flew to Cairns from Uluru. It cost us $898 for two one-way tickets. We spent four nights at the Cairns DoubleTree by Hilton for free. I used points to pay for our stay. We used Uber to get around, although this is a small town and you can walk to everything except the airport. I would say it’s relatively inexpensive considering the attractions. It was by far the most budget-friendly leg of our stay in Australia. The people here are super friendly, love the tourists, and go out of their way to assist you. It’s also tremendously safe.
Cairns Things to Do
You can book this independently; however, it’s smarter to book a combination package tour. If you do this, you can hit all transportation elements visiting Kuranda, “The Village in the rainforest.” We booked the trip via the hotel, and it cost about $120pp. You can choose different packages. We chose the Kuranda Classic Experience to experience the train ride up and the cable cars down. If you take the train up, you will pass Barron Falls and get to see the beautiful gorge. Once you arrive in Kuranda, you can explore the town or do the wildlife tour. We wanted to do the wildlife tour, but the line for tickets was insane, so we skipped it and did some shopping.
Great Barrier Reef
We booked a snorkeling day tour via the hotel with Divers Den. It cost us about $150pp and included lunch. This company was fantastic, one of the best tours I’ve taken anywhere! Check out their safety instruction video to know what to expect. This company has a great sense of humor, and so do all the staff. Once you have boarded, filled in the waivers and such off, you go to the reef. Once we got on our sting suit, it’s into the water. In the first two seconds, a shark greeted me. The shark was not a big one; it was a small 4-foot reef shark. It was swimming my way and passed me. I am petrified of sharks, but something was calming about this interaction. It could be because I was so determined to see the reef, or I had resided myself to the fact that they would be there. Most of the sharks stay at the bottom, and there were plenty of reef sharks to see.
Divers Den has several tour guides on board who will dive with you to show you all the highlights and explain your seeing. I didn’t expect this, so it was a pleasant surprise. There are turtles in addition to sharks; we saw three up close and personal, which was thrilling. Being face to face with a turtle in the wild is surreal. Exploring the reef was a bucket list moment. Sadly, we did not rent an underwater camera, which I regret. We hesitated, not knowing if it would be clear or if we would see wildlife. A mistake, and if we return, we will rent an underwater camera. Here are some photos of what we saw that I did not take:
The main street that faces the bay that all the hotels are on. Loaded with bars, restaurants, and shops. This place is packed and is where everyone hangs out. The food choices are abundant; you can find any cuisine. One place we liked was Café China inside the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino. You can eat inside or out, and we trolled from one side to the other, stopping for drinks along the way. The entire strip is only about a mile long, so you can walk up and down, taking in all the scenery. As you explore the Esplanade, you will find several war monuments, another unexpected treat. While you are here, check out Cairns Night Market for souvenirs, t-shirts, or leather goods.
What you need to know:
When visiting the reef, you can snorkel or scuba dive. You can also opt to get PADI certified.
If you dive or swim in the summer (our winter), you must wear a sting suit due to the presence of box jellyfish that can be deadly. If you get stung, you may stop breathing and suffer a cardiac arrest. Don’t be put off by this; the suits protect you.
You should bring an underwater camera or rent one. The water on the reef is crystal clear, and you will see tons of marine life.
Crocodiles do hang out in the bay; there are signs everywhere, so no swimming in the bay, folks!
There is a massive free saltwater outdoor public pool – Cairns Esplanade Lagoon. It’s near the harbor and offers a beach-like experience.
Cairns Closing Thoughts:
Cairns is not what I expected, but this made it more appealing to me. While there are tons of tourists, the small size of the place maintains the overall small-town feel. It’s not a “beach” destination, more of a bay, but again I found this pleasantly surprising. The Great Barrier Reef is a must. Even if you only stop in to take on the reef, this is a must. I loved Cairns. It was the perfect balance of small-town familiarity with large city attractions and amenities. From my perspective, don’t miss Cairns if you are heading to Australia.
Nikki Webster is a travel writer who covers how to travel while grinding a day job, how to travel without breaking the bank, hotels, cruising, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. She is particularly fond of Florida and writes extensively about the state. She flies around 60,000 miles per year and has visited 54 countries, 50 states, and six continents. You can read all about her travels at www.britonthemove.com.