Three Days in Cairns, Australia: Coral Reefs & Rainforests
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Where the Reef Meets the Rainforest – Cairns’ slogan is all too accurate. This tropical north Queensland city is the gateway to both the Daintree Rainforest (the oldest rainforest in the world) and the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Natural Wonders of the World! While you could spend a week or more taking in the warm sea air around Cairns, three days is the perfect amount of time for a getaway to check out the major sights.
A quick FYI for the non-Australians, Cairns is actually pronounced “cans.” Yes, similar to that beautiful French town on the Mediterranean that hosts a film festival. And yes, people will look at you with confusion if you pronounce it how it is spelled. But yes, you also probably won’t nail the pronunciation with the same twang as the Aussies at any point during your stay. In all honesty, it might be better just to stay in Palm Cove or Port Douglas, places with self-explanatory pronunciations (just kidding). Actually, these two cities near Cairns have many positives as a home base, but we’ll go into that later.
Day 1: Beaches and Relaxation
Many visitors travel to the Tropical North for relaxation and a bit of sun. Whether you are getting off a 1-hour or 16-hour plane ride, why not spend the first day taking in the beauty of the area in a reclined position. Chances are you will be staying in one of the amazing resorts along the coast. Take advantage of the pool or the many day spas nearby. Enjoy al-fresco dining with views of the Pacific.
You cannot swim off most of the beaches on the mainland in the summer due to fear of stingers/jellyfish or crocodiles. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing, as you can often find a beach completely empty. Walk along the beach, layout and get some sun, or watch the sun rise above the water.
If you find lounging about overrated, here are some extra activities in the area to add to your itinerary:
Spend an extra day snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is massive. There are multiple snorkeling sites or islands that can be visited from Cairns or Port Douglas. Green Island is 15 miles off the coast of Cairns and offers great snorkeling and a huge variety of other activities right off the beach. Fitzroy Island has just as great snorkeling but is a lot less crowded.
Railroad or Skyrail to the Rainforest village of Kuranda. Kuranda is a picturesque village in the mountains above Cairns. While the town’s historic markets are worthy of visiting alone, the transport to and from Kuranda might be the real highlight. You can reach Kuranda either by scenic train or a cable car, crossing the rainforest.
Day 2: The Daintree Rainforest
Do I need a rental Car?
Nearly all of the activities in the Cairns area can be done by tours that include transportation. If you prefer not to drive, you can get by fine without hiring a car for your stay in Cairns. However, it’s advantageous to have a car for your own flexibility. Renting a car will allow you to explore the Daintree at your own pace with the sights and hikes that you want to visit. You can make extra stops at the Wildlife Habitat or Mossman Gorge. You can also save money by avoiding tours when you can. You won't be able to drive yourself out to the Great Barrier Reef, but with a car, you will be able to stay outside of the radius of the hotel pickups and meet at the dock.
We rented a car through Avis for $130 AUD ($90 USD) for 3 days (automatic transmission, crossover) with pickup/drop-off at the Cairns Airport. We only needed to get gas ($25 USD) once before returning the car. Despite this being our first foray into driving on the left side of the road, we had no difficulty with the roads or signage in this area.
Thanks to jet lag and the relaxation from the day before, we got an early start to our day of self-driving Daintree. This will be a busy day and some places might get busy in the afternoon with tour groups. Wake up a bit earlier to have the first few stops to yourself. The drive from Palm Cove to Port Douglas is incredibly scenic, hugging the coastline. Before entering the Daintree Rainforest, we made a stop in Port Douglas to look at the town and visit the Wildlife Habitat to see Australia’s iconic animals.
When planning out our trip to Australia, I had a couple of must-sees. Places like the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney, and Twelve Apostles, of course. But I also wanted to see and interact with kangaroos and koalas (ethically). While we chose not to hold a koala, the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas is one of the few places you can. The Wildlife Habitat is an interactive zoo with birds, kangaroos, crocodiles, and other native Australian animals. When we visited, they had some trees down due to a recent cyclone and many exhibits that were a work in progress with unsightly fences. One of their most popular experiences is having breakfast or lunch with the tropical birds.
They also have a large area with freely roaming kangaroos that you can feed. A bag of the kangaroo food costs a dollar but is quite big and the whole family can feed the kangaroos to their heart’s content just with sharing one bag. You can see many different species of kangaroo and wallabies hopping about or lounging in the sun.
They have a few large aviaries for tropical birds, a few of which I have never heard of. Including the impressive cassowary, a large endangered bird similar to an emu but far more colorful.
The place itself is quite small, but if you listen to many talks by the keepers or the other activities they have, you can spend hours here.
It is worth a visit if you have kids or want to hold a koala and feed kangaroos. The price is a bit more than I’d want to pay, but we don’t regret visiting (especially for the kangaroos). If you are staying in the area, you can come back again the next day with the same ticket.
Time Spent: 1.5 Hours
Cost: $36 AUD ($25 USD)
Daintree River Ferry
To get into the Daintree National Park, you will need to cross a small river on the Daintree ferry. It is about a 30-minute drive from Port Douglas to the ferry. The ride on the ferry itself takes at most a minute or two. It not that wide of a river. When you look at time estimates when getting direction to Daintree, you will likely see inflated times due to the potential for a wait to get on the ferry. We had started early enough (even with the visit to the Wildlife Habitat) that when we arrived at 10:30 am, we got immediately on the next ferry. It is a small cable ferry that holds about 9-12 cars. You are not allowed to get out of your car, but you wouldn’t have time to unbuckle your seatbelt before you reach the other side. Depending on where you are parked on the ferry, you may or may not get a nice view of the river as you cross. Would a bridge be easier and save you the $28 fee? Yes, yes it would. But it is an experience, I guess. If you are leaving later in the day, add an extra 30 minutes in your itinerary for the wait to get on the ferry. On our way back across, it was about a 15-20 minute wait.
Time Spent: 10 minutes
Cost: $28 AUD return
Daintree Discovery Centre
The Daintree Discovery Centre is a great start to exploring the oldest rainforest in the world. It is located in a beautiful section of the rainforest just 15 minutes from the ferry. The centre includes 5 connected walks through the rainforest at different heights to appreciate different levels of the forest. Included in the price are audioguides so you can walk at your own pace. You are also given a paper guidebook to keep and refer to on other walks in the Daintree.
While I have a background in ecology already, learning about the specifics of Daintree and the wildlife in this part of the world was new. As part of the walk, there is a 23m tall tower to get you above the canopy. The other walks include an aerial walkway, an animated dinosaur section, and a cassowary walk along the ground. This is not a zoo, so you will likely have to be very lucky to see a cassowary walking in the forest during your visit. We were not so lucky, but glad we had seen one at the Wildlife Habitat an hour earlier to have something to picture as the audioguide talked of them.
When we visited (around 11 am) there were only 3-4 other groups on the complex. The place is a bit smaller than I expected, but with so little people, it was quiet. You got to hear all the bird calls from the trees around you and the crunching of leaves from small ground animals a few meters away. Note, that we also visited during a heat wave (with the humidity, it felt like 110ºF or 43ºC) a week before Christmas. The leisurely walks along the boardwalks left us drenched in sweat, but visiting the Daintree was certainly worth it.
There are longer and more fascinating walks further in the national park (that are free), but the Daintree Discovery Centre does provide a good background for what you’ll see later. If you are not so interested in the ecology or already know the basic information on the Daintree, you might want to skip this place to avoid the entrance fee.
Time Spent: 1.5 Hours
Cost: $35 AUD ($24 USD)
Daintree Ice cream Company
A 5-minute drive from the Discovery Centre, the Daintree Ice Cream Company was much needed on this hot day. This Ice Cream shop serves exotic tropical fruit ice cream, sourcing their ingredients from the forest and orchard around them. They serve their ice cream in a large cup that includes 4 different flavors. All of these cups are pre-scooped to make the process faster, so you cannot change out the flavors that are on offer that day. Likely you will not have heard of at least half of the fruits in the cup, but trust me, it is worth it. It is just delicious. The ice cream is creamy and the flavors are extraordinary with some reminiscent of familiar tastes. If you are chocolate-fanatic like Eric, and can’t imagine enjoying non-chocolatey ice cream – don’t worry, the Wattleseed provides a lovely chocolate taste.
Time Spent: 15 minutes
Cost: $7.50 Aud per cup (Cash only)
Maardja Botanical Walk
This is just one of the four short boardwalks through the forest that are completely free to visit. It was also our favorite. There were two other cars in the parking lot, but we did not encounter another person on the whole 45-minute circular trail (1.2km). It felt serene having such a beautiful place all to ourselves. Along the walk, you see multiple different stages of the forest, from the thick rainforest to the eerie mangroves.
Halfway through the boardwalk is a viewing path form out over Noah Creek that was a bit underwhelming. The real joy of the place is the rainforest along the way. The boardwalk itself is wide and well-maintained.
Time Spent: 45 minutes
There are a few camping grounds along the way, some with access to a beach. We packed our lunch and had a picnic at one of the picnic tables along the drive.
Dubuji Boardwalk & Myall Beach
Dubuji (meaning place of spirits) boardwalk is another great circuit through the rainforest with sections of large ferns, mangroves, and vines. Busier than Maardja, the paths at Dubuji are just as wide and well-maintained. We saw a few large lizards just off the path in the swampy area.
A friendly word of advice: We didn't look at the map before starting on our walk. Along the way, we found a few path options without any signs directing which way to go. We chose wrong. It meant a slightly longer walk to the beach with some backtracking, but we found our way.
The car park for the Dubuji Boardwalk doubles as the access to Myall Beach. You can get to the beach at the end of the Dubuji trail or by taking a separate, more-direct walk. Myall Beach is one of the most gorgeous beaches in the area. Chances are you’ll have the place to yourself. Stay clear of the water – saltwater crocodiles hide in the water.
Time Spent: 1.25 Hours
After Myall Beach, we found Cape Tribulation Beach a bit underwhelming. It was still a stunning beach, but a little crowded. At low tide, Myall and Cape Tribulation beaches are connected. If you have more time or are staying in the area, you can walk between the two. We just treated it as a quick stop and got back in the car.
Time Spent: 10 Minutes
After Cape Tribulation, we turned back around and headed back towards our hotel in Palm Cove on the road we came upon.
Day 3: The Great Barrier Reef
Visited the rainforest, now for the reef! The Great Barrier Reef has been at the top of my bucket list for years. It was one of the driving factors for visiting Australia. So why not check off two bucket-list activities in one go? To maximize our experience at the reef, we chose a joint Helicopter and Snorkeling tour. The Great Barrier Reef is the perfect place for a first-time helicopter flight. It is also one of the more affordable places in the world to do so.
Words cannot explain how incredible an experience it was. But, helicopter rides are not for everyone, so you can also spend the entire day snorkeling and cruising between reefs.
Helicopter Ride over the Great Barrier Reef
We arrived at the general aviation part of the Cairns Airport to meet up with the helicopter team. After being weighed with our belongings, a short safety video, and some waiting, we hopped on the helicopter. The helicopter seated 6-7 people, with one in the co-pilot seat (luckily I scored this seat on our ride). The large helicopter windows had an open section so you can take photos and video without a glare. Each passenger had noise-canceling headphones with a microphone to talk with the pilot or family members.
Once we got an all-clear with the airport, the helicopter took off and crossed the runway. Then just a minute later, we were out over the ocean.
The ride was an enthralling 30-minutes of traveling from reef to reef, circling around each one. From that height, you can appreciate the amazing patterns and variety in each of the reefs. You can also spot giant turtles, whales, or dolphins.
We did a one-way helicopter ride to the reef, where we would meet a boat to snorkel off. We landed on the tiniest of landing platforms in the middle of the ocean, just as the boat arrived. The large boat had over a hundred people who cruised out to the reef.
Snorkeling at Hastings Reef
The transfer to the reef boat was incredibly smooth and we had a staff member guide us through getting our snorkel equipment and out in the water as fast as possible. We had about 90 minutes to snorkel at Hastings Reef and honestly, that was the perfect amount of time before wanting a break.
We were given flippers, a snorkel mask, and a stinger suit to prevent jellyfish stings. Snorkeling can be a bit tiring after a while, so you can borrow a pool noodle or use of the buoyant rest platforms out in the water.
The boat was crowded with people, but once you get in the water, you can swim off on your own away from others. The snorkeling was hard to beat – countless tropical fish and varieties of coral. Our only disappointment was not seeing any turtles.
The rest of the crowd on the boat ate lunch prior to arriving at the reef (while we were out on the helicopter). We were given re-heated meals during our cruise back to Cairns. The meal was average, but that wasn’t what the experience was about. The Great Barrier Reef was incredible – from both the sky and below the water.
The boat ride back to the Cairns pier took a little over an hour. We were then provided slightly-unorganized transportation back to the helicopter pad, where we parked our car. Once back to our hotel, we made full use of the resort before sadly leaving Queensland early the next morning.
Where to Stay: Cairns vs Port Douglas vs Palm Cove
Within a few minutes drive of the airport
Largest city with the largest variety of restaurants, bars, nightlife, and shops
Most tours depart and provide transportation from Cairns hotels
Cheapest accommodations, with both larger hotels and many hostels
Good for backpackers, those wishing to save money, party people, or visitors staying for only a day or two.
Less of a relaxing, vacation atmosphere
Where to Stay in Cairns:
Nice beach nearby
Some tours depart and provide transportation from Port Douglas hotels, including some Great Barrier Reef tours.
Close to the Daintree Rainforest
A sizable town with upscale shops and good restaurants
Ideal for families – nice beach with plenty of varied activities close by
An hour drive to Cairns and the airport
Most expensive accommodations
Fewer options for Great Barrier Reef tours that depart from Port Douglas.
Most resorts are outside of town (30+ minute walk)
Where to Stay in Port Douglas:
We stayed in Palm Cove and would choose to do so again. While a smaller town, it had the vibe and amenities we were looking for.
Small town atmosphere with all of the shops and restaurants along one street
In between Cairns and Port Douglas, and only a 20-minute drive to the airport. A fair distance from both Daintree and tours of the Great Barrier Reef.
Cheaper accommodations than Port Douglas but more pricey than Cairns.
Great beach-side restaurants
Ideal for couples
Few tour companies are based in Palm Cove, so you may need to pay extra to get picked up from a Palm Cove hotel or drive to Cairns yourself.
Coles supermarket close by, but not directly in town.
Most shops and restaurants close earlier than those in the bigger cities.
Where to Stay in Palm Cove: