Cairns, or as the Aussie's say, Cayyns(Not to be confused with film festival Cannes, Normandy Caens or tasty cans) is the big city to explore in tropical Far North Queensland; where there are only two seasons: wet and dry. What can you say about Cairns, but that it's a sweaty sweaty town? In fairness, it’s not quite as sweaty as Darwin, just a little bit more than Sydney and Melbourne. It’s humid, hot, and full of life all year around, and is a great destination to finish or begin your trip in Australia. If you begin your trip here, it's 2,400km direct to Sydney, or 2,600km along the coast- with some of the best of Australia to see and do in between. Cairns has a population of roughly 150,000 people, making it Australia's 14th largest urban centre, and Queensland's 5th largest, and with average temperatures in summer hanging around 26 degrees, and 23 degrees in winter, high temperatures are guaranteed in Cairns all year round.
Getting to Cairns is relatively easy, you have four options: You can fly to Cairns International Airport, with cheap flights regularly from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne with Tiger Air and Jetstar, although Qantas and Virgin also offer good deals. I use Skyscanner for flights; You can get a bus from further down the East Coast, such as with Premier Motor Service, Greyhound, or Loka/Stray Australia; You can get the train from further down the East Coast, with Queensland Rail; or you can drive in from the Bruce, or Carpentaria Highways. Obviously, if you want to get their quick, flying is the best option, and Cairns Airport is easy to navigate, with buses and taxis offering lifts into the city centre.
Some hostels also offer pickups, and pickups are free if you are staying at Gilligans. With regards to buses, Premier Motor Service pick up and drop off daily at the central bus station, while Greyhound's stop is beside the Marina. If your driving into Cairns, you'll be happy to know that there is tons of free parking, although it is illegal to sleep in your vehicles overnight outside of designated campsites.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to explore Cairns is the winter months between April and November, without a doubt. Between November and April is the height of wet season in Far North Queensland, and there are tropical cyclones that sometimes hit in this time, the most recent been Cyclone Yasi. Because of the risk of cyclones and tropical storms, if you are thinking of travelling to Cairns around this time than travel insurance is essential. April to November is the 'dry' season in Cairns: it's still hot, humid, and there's plenty of sun, with only occasional showers- the showers are actually a nice break from the humidity. The most popular time to visit Cairns for backpackers is probably September-November, when the rest of Australia is just coming out of its winter, and plenty of footy teams use Cairns for their yearly getaway around this time. Likewise, the end of November is also relatively busy, for people who are starting their East Coast travels and want to be in Sydney for Christmas, and the end of January, when all the people who were in Sydney for New Years and decided to travel are reaching the end of the East Coast. In terms of activities, in general rain and slightly choppy seas won't you from visiting the Barrier Reef, but it can delay things such as skydives and white water rafting.
Where to Stay
As a tourist city, there is no shortage of options when looking for somewhere to stay while you explore Cairns. In terms of hostels, there are a wide variety- Gilligans and The Jack are generally party hostels, with Gilligans especially known throughout Australia as the place to party. I recall a friend meeting a girl there, telling her he had a room with an amazing view, and proceeding to move his dorm bed out onto the balcony to avoid upsetting his dormmates- naturally this upset the staff more! This kind of thing happens in Gilligans, gets you a firm telling off from the staff, but is not unheard of. If you're searching for a more relaxed atmosphere, that are good quality, consider checking out Globetrotters International Cairns, or Northern Greenhouse, especially if you want a private room. Globetrotters is also amazing for freebees, and has its own private pool! Finally, if you're on a budget, somewhere like Global, Asylum, or Caravella Central all offer comparatively cheap dorm rooms. All the hostels work with local pubs and restaurants, and usually offer special deals with them- for example, meal deals, free pizza and chicken wings nights, or drinks promotions. In general, hostels all have wifi, kitchens, and shower facilities. If you're looking for somewhere to park your camper/car for the night, check out Travellers Oasis and Globetrotters- both have car parks inside.
Hostel Prices: Dorm Room: $15pn- $35pn, Private Rooms: $50pn-$150pn
Things to do in Cairns
Firstly, you can't swim in the ocean from the shore near Cairns... Or you can, but you do so at your own risk- There's no beach, it's very swampy, and it's full of crocodiles and jellyfish. For those reasons, Cairns has a beautiful lagoon on the esplanade, that's completely free for all ages, and open all day every day. Otherwise, you can check out the aquarium in Cairns- It opened in 2017 and is the cheapest way to see fish from the Barrier Reef. There is also the Flecker Botanic Gardens, a short 4km walk from the city centre.
More of a shopper than a nature person? Cairns has weekly night markets, where you can get all sorts of weird and wonderful items at cheap prices. If you've just arrived in Cairns after travelling up the East Coast and have been aching for a touch of consumer heaven, you'll also be delighted to know that there is a large shopping centre smack bang in the middle of Cairns. And finally, Cairns is well known for its nightlife- Gilligans, The Woolshed, Salt House, and Pier Bar all offer deals on different nights of the week, Woolshed is great on Tuesdays/ Wednesdays/Weekends, Gilligans, Thursdays-Saturdays, and Salt House on Mondays. Different events hosted in Gilligans include bogan bingo, comedy shows, and ladies jelly wrestling, while there are frequently strip competitions in Woolshed, all in all making things nice and varied!
For coffee lovers, head to Cruze Coffees, 105 Grafton street- they have an amazing variety with the passionate coffee savvy staff who can get a taste right for you. In terms of food, if you want an amazing breakfast/brunch/lunch check out Lillypad at 72 Grafton Street- There is no way you'll ever need to order seconds here, the food portions are massive. Finally, if you're looking for good quality food and cocktails, the Waterbar and Grill Steakhouse can fit all your needs, and with a view over the cruise ships for the Great Barrier Reef and all!
Great Barrier Reef
2900 reefs, 2400kms longs, spreading over an area of 344,400kms, and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef must be seen to be believed. And Cairns is the premier gateway to visit it. There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about areas of the reef dying off due to coral bleaching, and this is true in some places, but the outer reef, in general, has retained its colour and life. There are a vast array of different boat companies to choose from, each with their perks and cons, so it's well worth reading into to get your value for money. For the sake of the Great Barrier Reef, we try to only support eco-friendly tours at Tripfarm.
A quick overview of reef tours: Cruise boats carry a minimum of 60 passengers, with some carrying up to 200. The route out to the reef takes between an hour and a half and 2 hours, depending on which reef you are visiting, and the seas between there can be rough, so seasickness tablets are advised. Most boats will offer water and suncream free of charge for their guests and include a tea/coffee for breakfast, and a buffet lunch in their pricing, along with all your snorkel and stinger suit hire (although there are exceptions to this). In general, day tours stop in two different areas on the reef for snorkelling. If you'd like more information feel free to contact us here.
If snorkelling and an introductory scuba dive is your thing, the outer reefs of the Great Barrier Reef are the best spots, so aim to go with a company that goes to Norman, Saxon or Hastings Reef. These reefs vary in depth and gradient, and are good for beginners, with plenty to see within the top 5 metres. Passions of Paradise are the tour I recommend here, and they often have great dive specials on! Be careful: If the crew think that you have consumed alcohol, they will not let you in the water- this includes extreme hangovers.
For more advanced divers, the outer reef contains some stunning ski slopes, seawalls, and tons of marine life, but also consider going to Port Douglas and getting a dive cruise that focuses on the Agincourt Ribbon Reefs, or, if you want to do the ultimate dive trip, check out Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, a 3-10 day adventure where you can dive with 60+ sharks at feeding time. Be warned though, it's not cheap!
For those who want to get their Open Water or Advanced dive licence on the reef, I can't recommend Deep Sea Divers enough- they're extremely professional, completely safe, and they have a brand new liveaboard ship, Ocean Quest, where you can try your hand at night diving during your certification. Other good companies include Cairns Dive Centre, and for those on a budget who don't want to do a liveaboard, Down Under Cruises.
If your prone to getting seasick and diving isn't your thing, consider a company that stays on the inner reef (Including Upolo Cay), such as Ocean Freedom. They also offer glass bottom boat tours as part of the price, and they visit a sand island on the Reef- one of the only companies to do so. They are without a doubt one of the best quality cruises you can do but come at an expense- $215 for a day trip. Finally, if boating isn't for you at all, but you still want to see the reef, consider visiting the floating pontoon there with Reef Magic Cruises- you can even get there by helicopter!
For those of you that are on a budget, and just want a snorkel, Fitzroy Island and Green Island are perfect for a day visit where you can chill out and do as you please, with less chance of seasickness as they are much closer to Cairns. I'd advise Fitzroy Island as it's less crowded, and you have options of kayaking or hiking on the island (Which also contains a turtle sanctuary), and there are free ocean trampolines to use. Expect to pay around $79 for return transfers from Cairns.
Although the Barrier Reef is the number one reason to visit Cairns, it’s not the only UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby. Cape Tribulation is located 110km north of Cairns, and lies completely within the Daintree Rainforest. Here lies the oldest continuous rainforest in the world- older than the Amazon. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the only place in the world where two world heritage sites meet- the rainforest touches the Great Barrier Reef around the Cape Tribulation headland, which sets the scene for some amazing photos. You'll find some of the locations around here have quite negative names- Cape Tribulation and Mount Sorrow, as Captain Cook had a rough time when he landed here, not like in Northern Territory where you find Mount Delight, Fanny Bay, and Three Knobs Creek!
As the oldest rainforest in the world Cape Tribulation is home to a huge array of wildlife found nowhere else, from 7 foot (2 metre) tall wild Cassowarys, to saltwater crocodiles, to 90% of Australia's butterfly species. Unique plant species also occupy Cape Trib's mangroves, from the heart-shaped leaves of the Gympie Gympie tree (The stings from the leaves are said to be like been burnt by acid and electrocuted at the same time), to the Wait-a-While vine, which picks you up on its sharp hooks, and you need to stop and untangle yourself, or risk getting stuck. Of course, when you are travelling with a guide, they will point these out for you, usually from a distance! Cape Tribulations beauty is not just in its flora and fauna though- the road was only completed in 1990, and the human impact here is minimum, which gives the area a great tranquillity, and shares an 'off the beaten track' ambience compared to more tourist filled places on the East Coast.
Getting to Cape Tribulation can be done by day from Cairns, with overnight trips also offered. Both day tours and overnight trips include a stop at Mossman Gorge Visitor Centre, an indigenous experience with a local, a chance to swim at one of the local swimming holes, a crocodile cruise on the Daintree River, guided bush and rainforest walks, and a stop at other viewpoints such as Alexandria Head. Uncle Brians Cape Tribbin and Active Tropics both do amazing one day tours. The overnight tours offer a range of places to stay, from the resort like (but backpacker priced) Beach House, to PK's Jungle village. Activities you can do here include Jungle Ziplining, Horse riding on the beach, or even visiting the Great Barrier Reef on a half day trip. Both one day and overnight tours can pick up and drop off in Port Douglas, and overnight tours don't normally include food, so budget to eat at the restaurant, or bring food from Woolworths in Cairns!
The Atherton Tablelands are located on a plateau due west of Cairns, and the towns here are considered to be the wettest towns in Australia, with Babinda most often winning the prize of the Golden Gumboot- with an average of over 4200ml of rain per year. Because of the huge amount of rainfall, this region is home to a number of amazing creeks and waterfalls, including what is often considered the most naturally beautiful waterfall in Australia- The Millaa Millaa Falls. The Millaa Millaa falls are best known as the location of Peter Andre's hair flick in the video of 'Mysterious Girl', and from Herbal Essences adds. Other famous locations include the Babinda Boulders (swimming pool with huge indigenous relevance), the Josephine Falls (A natural waterslide), and Lake Eacham (A volcanic crater full of turtles). The wildlife around Atherton is also diverse, so if you want to see a variety of kangaroos, wallabies, platypus, snakes, lizards, frogs, bugs, spiders, bats and birds, this is the place to do it.
Tours of the Tablelands are generally day tours from Cairns, but there is an overnight option with On the Wallaby. Uncle Brian's and Waterfall Wanderers provide solid day tours, with Uncle Brian's standing out as a day filled with sing-a-longs, ridiculous games, and guaranteed entertainment. In fact, I remember someone offering me a mankini to wear on this tour.. All tours provide a lunch in the middle of the day, are a great way to meet new people if you've just arrived in Cairns, and are the best way to go chasing waterfalls! I'd advise doing one of these tours the first or second day you arrive in Cairns, especially if it's before your East Coast travels- you'll make some great friends here.
As the adventure capital of Australia, exploring Cairns will bring a host of other activities you can do: Australia's only bungee jump platform and 50 metre swing with AJ Hackett, white water rafting on the Barron/Tully River's with Raging Thunder, the Tully river which is the highest grade river you can raft in Australia without a licence, canyoning in the Crystal Canyon or Behana Gorge, also with Raging Thunder, flyboarding in Cairns Marina, full day or half day APV driving around Cairns, fishing trips on both the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns Estuary, Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail to Kuranda National Park, Kuranda Butterfly Sanctuary, Harleys Crocodile Park for some up-close encounters with crocs, aboriginal didgeridoo experiences in Tjapukai, skydives and hot air balloon rides in Cairns and Mission Beach, scenic flights over the Barrier Reef... There is no shortage of activities in Cairns!
Although Cairns is located in Far North Queensland, and surrounded by sugarcane fields, it's difficult to find farmwork in the city itself. For those searching for farmwork Cairns is a good base to meet similar people, but try heading north to the Daintree Rainforest, where you can work in the National Park for your second year visa. Heading into the Atherton Tablelands is also popular- bananas, avocados, apples, and potatoes are all harvested here. Bananas are year round, and always in demand as it's a hard physical job, while avocados are February to June, and usually a bit easier on the muscles. Tolga is another banana and sugar area, but avoid Tolga Country Lodge if at all possible- they've been under investigation since 2019. Finally, heading further south to Innisfail, there are plenty of banana farms around the town, and it's a popular hot spot for backpackers looking to complete their regional work. Papayas and other tropical fruits are also picked here, but be warned- the work isn't easy, and the hostels are nowhere near the quality of the hostels you'll find in the tourist areas of Aus!
For a guide on how not to do your farmwork, you can read my story here.
Hints and Tips for Cairns
Buy tours as a package- there are so many things to do in Cairns, that companies often group the tours together at a slight discount. So if you know what you want to do, book them all together! They can normally be left open-dated if you plan on waiting a while.
Work for accommodation- if you're planning on finding a job, or waiting a few weeks in Cairns, hostels are always looking for staff to work for accommodation. Personally, I recommend Globetrotters, but I'm slightly biased ;)
Plan on visiting the Tablelands/Cape Tribulation? Rent a car and go as a group- it'll end up much cheaper, you'll have much more freedom, the only thing you'll miss is the information a guide provides.
Uber/Get hostel bus to the airport- much cheaper than a taxi, coming in around $10 instead of $30.
Looking to become a dive master? Dive boats often look for people to work on board in exchange for 2-3 scuba dives a day.
Rusty’s food market is open most mornings- well worth checking out, and the vendors drop their prices around 1 pm- they don't want to throw their fruit out!
There are meal deals everywhere- just ask around and you'll be amazed at the discount vouchers you can find.
If someone approaches you on the street- chances are they're trying to sell you something-it always pays to shop around in Cairns.
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