With lush rainforests, big rivers and the Great Barrier Reef just off the coast, it is no wonder that Cairns is a major tourist destination in Queensland, Australia. Beautiful scenery, proximity to some of the most beautiful parts of the GBR in the world and lots of opportunities for adventure and trouble making, Cairns is beer and barbie Mecca—a place of sunshine, hard partying, warm weather year-round and plenty of backpackers looking to have a great time.
Along with boasting a beautiful lush landscapes and easy access to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is also rather renowned for its great nightlife as well as its adventure activities like bungee jumping, skydiving and white water rafting. With so much catered towards travelers and plenty of fun things to do in Cairns, no person should be left wondering what to do in Cairns.
1. Go white water rafting
There are three major rivers near Cairns that are all popular among white water rafters. Three different operators—Raging Thunder, RnR Rafting and Foaming Fury—run the tours of the various rafting rivers (Russell, Tully and Barron). While all 3 rivers boast class 5 rapids, conditions on the various rivers changes depending on season and flood control. However, in a tropical region that gets plenty of rain (something’s got to keep those jungles green), rafting is a popular and fun activity you can enjoy near Cairns.
2. Visit the Daintree Rainforest
The largest continuous area of rainforest on the Australian mainland, the Daintree National Park is a protected area of lush rainforest located north of Cairns. The park, which encompasses around 1200 square kilometers, is not only a World Heritage site, but is also home to a large variety of plant and animal life—including marsupials, frogs, birds and more.
Considered the oldest rainforest in the world, the Daintree forest is over 135 million years old and has more than 430 different species of bird, including 13 species that are found nowhere else in the world. There are several day hikes that allow travelers to explore sections of this giant rainforest on their own, in addition to guided tours that can help teach you about the flora and fauna on your way.
3. Snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef
The traditional jumping off point for those looking to snorkel and dive the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a popular place to catch a chartered tour or boat out to the reef. There are several companies that offer a wide variety of different kinds of charters out to the reef. You can choose between day-trips or overnight trips, which range widely in price anywhere from around $100 to much much more.
>> Catch a day-trip with a Sunlover Reef Cruise
>> View photos from snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef
If you aren’t yet certified to dive, but can’t imagine a trip to the Great Barrier Reef without doing so, you can easily pick up you certification in a few days at Pro Dive Cairns. Pro Dive offers a 5-day learn to dive course, which gives you your open water certification and gives you the opportunity for several open-water dives out on the reef. Pro Dive also has an Ecotourism rating, which means you don’t have to worry about damaging all the beautiful underwater scenery while you are checking it out. (oh, and make sure to say hello to Steve for me).
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4. Go on a aboriginal walking tour
During my stay in Cairns, I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a special walking tour given by Linc, an aboriginal man from the Walker clan whose family has lived on the northern Queensland coast for centuries. Linc and his family give private, customized walking tours onto the low tide flats and mangrove groves in search of dinner. As you walk, you can not only take in the stunning scenery of the tropical northern Queensland coast, but you also learn about medicinal plants, fish, crabs and how his people have lived off this land for thousands of years.
The walk was beautiful, fun, interesting and educational. You get a glimpse of not only aboriginal culture, but you also get to learn more about the northern Queensland ecosystem and the plants and animals that make their home there.
5. Go Sky Diving
Long known as a major tourist destination and home to adventure, skydiving is a popular activity among visitors to Cairns. There are several sky diving operators out of Cairns, all of which offer introductory tandem dives for those who have never jumped out of a plane before. Cairns is an ideal spot to skydive not only for its beach landings and gorgeous scenery, but also because the warm climate allows sky divers to jump year round.
While certainly not a cheap activity, it is sure to be a once-in a lifetime experience. I had never seriously considered sky diving and even found myself tempted to jump out of a plane taking in views of the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef as I free-fell.
Prices start at $210 and go up to $295 for a tandem dive (depending on how long of a free-fall you’d like).
>>Check out Sky Dive Cairns website
6. Get wild at the Woolshed
Long before I stepped into the infamous Woolshed bar and restaurant, I had heard murmurings of this backpacker party institution in Cairns. As it turns out, this bar is legendary not only in Cairns, but all over Queensland. The restaurant has cheap, big portioned dinner specials, which draws tons of hungry backpackers in the door looking to fuel up before a night of drinking.
By about 10 p.m., the Woolshed starts to fill up with a crowd of international tourists and the bar quickly spirals into a huge dance party. Dancing on tables, wet t-shirt contests and lots of backpackers looking to get down and dirty, the Woolshed was accurately described to me as “sex on a stick.” In fact, as a local told me, “if you can’t take someone home from the Woolshed, there is something seriously wrong with you.”
7. Work on your tan at Mission Beach
Located south of Cairns, Mission Beach is the closest mainland point to the Great Barrier Reef. The beach is a14 km long, pristine sandy beach, with fantastic views of Dunk, Bedarra and a handful of other islands just offshore. There is a small township here, where you can learn more about activities like sea kayaking or scuba diving, though many would be perfectly content soaking up the rays and taking in the beautiful surrounding scenery.
You can stay in Mission Beach, though most will be coming from Cairns. If you have a car, Mission Beach is located less than an hour from Cairns and is most easily accessed y car. If you did not rent a car or camper van for your trip, there is a company that offers a coach transfer service called Mission Beach Dunk Island Connections, which takes scenic routs between Port Douglas, Cairns, Dunk and Bedarra Islands.
8. Go Bungy jumping
Bungy legend and pioneer AJ Hackett (the crazy guy who was arrested for jumping off the Eiffel Tower in 1987), operates a bungy jumping hotspot in Cairns. Hackett has set up a popular bungy post in Cairns, and has a spectacular jump platform, which is the only platform in the world to offer 16 different jump styles—from traditional swan dives to riding off the roof on a BMX bike. The Smithfield Tower was completed in August 1990 and was only the third commercial Bungy jumping site in the world.
For adrenaline junkies looking for the real deal in Bungy jumping should definitely pay a visit to Hackett’s operation. Jumps start $125 AUD.
>>Check out AJ Hackett Cairns website for more information.
9. Visit the Johnston River Croc Farm
I realize that kangaroos are not particularly exotic or exciting animals for Aussies, who see the plethora of the jumping roos everywhere they go. This did not stop me from wanting to see one up close and personal during my trip Down Under. If you also want to check out crocodiles, gators and dingoes, then a trip to the Johnston River Croc Farm located southwest of Cairns is well worth your time.
The knowledgeable croc wranglers dangle rats dangerously close to crocodiles intimidating jaws, pick up gators, let you feed kangaroos, and let you make friends with the dingoes all while teaching you all about the local Aussie wildlife. You also get to hold a baby croc (with mouth taped shut of course).
10. Go hot air ballooning over the Atherton Tablelands
Considered the hot ballooning capital of the southern hemisphere, Atherton is just a short drive from Cairns in the scenic tablelands of tropical northern Queensland. Queensland Balloon with Hot Air has a ballooning package that includes a 5 am pickup in Cairns, a hot breakfast and champagne toast for about $220 AUD.
The balloon takes off from Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands. Enjoy the picturesque landscape at sunrise, enjoy 30 minutes floating in your hot air balloon, time to really breathe in the wide-open spaces and is concluded with breakfast and champagne in scenic and popular resort town of Port Douglas. Checking out the gorgeous scenery from high in a balloon makes these balloon tours a worthwhile experience.
>>Check out Queensland Balloon with Hot Air’s website for more information
top photo by jontuplin on flickr