Cairns, Queensland – Australia

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 Carribean 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.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure and privacy policy for more information.

Cairns Logistics

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 they go out of their way to assist you. It’s also tremendously safe.

Cairns Things to Do

Kuranda

You can book this independently; however, it’s smarter to book a combination package tour. If you do this, you can hit all elements of transportation 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 so that we could 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 simply 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 what you are seeing. I didn’t expect this, so it was a pleasant surprise. In addition to sharks, there are turtles; 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 the 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 Esplanade

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 an 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:

  1. When visiting the reef, you can snorkel or scuba dive. You can also opt to get PADI certified.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Crocodiles do hang out in the bay; there are signs everywhere so no swimming in the bay folks!
  5. 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.

Looking for more posts on Australia? Start here:

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.