The city of Cairns is the gateway to exploring Australia's tropical north. This vibrant Queensland town is a major tourist destination for a few months each year in between wet seasons. Wet in this part of the world means getting soaked to the skin in torrential downpours, and the chance of floods or cyclones adding excitement to the holiday experience.
Wet season ends in late May and starts again about October, so rooms, rentals, and attractions are overflowing with visitors from June to mid-October. Consequently, late May or October are great times to visit. Humidity is low outside of wet season but temperatures are warm during the day. Tourist crowds are minimal, and there is a good chance of finding cut prices on accommodations and activities.
Self-catering is popular in Cairns, and it's a good way to stretch the travel budget. Sheridan Street, in the center of town, has several good options, although this is also the major highway, and road noise can be a pain; so I prefer going further afield.
About five kilometers from city center, Rainforest Grove on Moody Street is still within easy reach yet offers peace, tranquility, and turtles to feed at their home by a creek.
This five-day itinerary lets you see the best of the tropical north without breaking the bank or running you to the exhaustion point.
Renting a bike is a cost-effective way to get around Cairns, but remember that wearing a helmet is mandatory in Australia. I like a hybrid-style bike that makes it easy to tackle rougher terrain as well as city streets. Several local shops rent bikes to tourists. Try London Cycles at 155 Sheridan Street or All Day Bike Hire on Lake Street.
Once fitted out, head to the Botanical Gardens and Centenary Lakes, an easy 20-minute ride north along Sheridan Street. At Collins Avenue, turn left and cross the train line. The gardens are on your right with the main entrance clearly signposted. They are open daily, and entry is free.
Leave the bike properly locked at the street side bike stand as it isn't allowed in the gardens. Stop in at the information center to pick up a map for self-guided walks, or check times for scheduled guided tours.
The red-arrow walk is safe to do on your own, although it's a deceptive 1.3-kilometer hike that requires about an hour to do comfortably if you are reasonably fit. Those with limited mobility should note that there will be some necessary contending with steep sections and stairs.
The boardwalk to Centenary Lakes passes through a wetland area and crosses several small creeks before it reaches the lakes – one, a freshwater lake and the other saltwater.
The freshwater lake is a nice spot for a picnic lunch or the licensed cafe within the grounds is a good option.
Another choice for lunch or afternoon tea is Fusion Organics on the corner of Grafton and Aplin Streets. You'll pick up your bike and ride back towards the city along Sheridan Street to Aplin Street, turn left and ride one block. This friendly cafe serves vegetarian, gluten-free, and allergy-aware foods. There is a great range of rolls, focaccias and quiches, but be sure to save room for cake and iced chocolate.
Whatever dining choice you've made, after lunch keep to Aplin Street until you reach Cairns Esplanade and a large, free swimming lagoon. As Cairns itself is built on mud flats, there is no swimming beach in the city area. The lagoon is part of extensive redevelopment initiatives of the Cairns Esplanade. Spend some time wandering the wide cycling and walking path along the water's edge.
In the late afternoon, check out the markets close to the lagoon, which are open from 4:30pm to 11pm. Entrances are located off the Esplanade or from Abott Street.
Beside the lagoon is the reef fleet terminal, the joining point for most tours to the nearby islands that form part of the Great Barrier Reef. Green Island is one of the most popular, and there are several tour companies offering fast (45 minutes) catamaran rides to the island.
If you are based close to town, I suggest you get yourself to the terminal to organize your own tour rather than paying extra for the coach transfer service (A$12).
The Great Barrier Reef is one of those places you simply have to resign yourself to being one of the tour crowd. Trying to get out onto the reef on your own would be complex, foolish, and dangerous. Going with a recognized company gives you the safety of trained crew and practical back up if weather or conditions change unexpectedly.
Try the Eco Adventure to Green Island with Great Adventures (A$69), leaving the wharf at 10:30am and returning around 5:30pm.
Grab some lunch and a few drinks to take with you to the island, and if snorkeling is your thing, either hire at the shop on the island or take along your own gear. Lifeguards patrol swimming areas marked with red and yellow flags.
Depending on the time of year, check with the lifeguard or your boat crew about "stingers" as you may need to wear a lycra suit to protect yourself from the poisonous jellyfish that inhabit these waters from around November to May each year.
If you plan on snorkeling far offshore or you are not a strong swimmer, buddy-up with another traveler or stick close to patrolled areas.
Glass-bottom boat tours give you a chance to see the underwater world of coral and tropical fish, and these leave from the Green Island jetty.
Another view of the world below the water line is in the Underwater Observatory below the jetty (A$10) where assorted multicolored fish swim past the porthole windows.
Green Island also has its own swimming pool and restaurant as well as a much needed "human cage" where you can eat your food protected from the pesky small birds that boldly try wrestling it from your hand.
A short boardwalk leads from one side of the island to the other, and it may be wise to head to the quieter beach at the far end of the boardwalk for a little peace and quiet as well as some good photo opportunities.
Although there is accommodation on the island, most people return to the mainland for a quiet, relaxing dinner after this busy day under the tropical sun.
Cairns is well served locally with public transport – cheap, safe, and fairly frequent. Buses, on weekdays, run about every half hour, but you should check the timing and schedules beforehand. Fares vary depending on zones traveled, and correct change is needed, so make sure you have plenty in pocket. You may hail the bus either at an official stop or even along the way, but this day trip starts at the terminal in the city center at Lake Street.
Look for and catch bus route 2A departing at 8:15am. Ask the driver to let you off at the Cairns Tropical Zoo – about a 45-minute ride. You'll see the sign on the left of the highway after you pass through Trinity Beach.
Allow 3-4 hours to see everything at the zoo. Admission is A$31, but the ticket is good for a return visit any time over the next two days, and it covers special talks throughout the day. Don't miss the crocodile talk and the free-flight bird show. You can also feed a kangaroo or wallaby and have your photo taken with a koala (A$15).
I thought food at the zoo was expensive by local standards, so I suggest packing a sandwich and drink to save a few dollars. Or, you might go for lunch at the nearby town of Palm Cove. It's about a ten-minute ride on bus route 1X heading north from the zoo. As you get off, remember to check the return times.
Palm Cove is home to many luxury apartments, so unless you have dollars to spare for a stay, it is cheaper to do lunch at one of the many beach-side eateries. Of course, a pleasant walk along the foreshore is always free, and you should still have the afternoon left for a visit to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (A$31) on the way back to Cairns via the same bus number 1X.
Get off just after Smithfield Shops. If you catch the 2:14pm bus, you get to Tjapukai around 2:45pm, giving you enough time to see the full range of shows featuring creation themes, traditional dances, and bush medicines. Between 4:45 and 5pm when the park closes, you can try your hand at throwing a boomerang and watch a true expert demonstrate how boomerangs can return in a full circle back to their thrower. With the park closing, you'll have to catch a bus back to Cairns. Take any bus numbered 1X, 2, or 2A.
Catch bus route 1X, 2, or 2A heading north from the Lake Street terminal, and get off at the Skyrail base station, before Smithfield Shops and close to Tjapukai Cultural Park.
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a 7.5-kilometer cablecar ride above the treetops, giving you a magnificent birds-eye view of the rainforest as you pass a number of base stations. You get a brochure explaining what you see according to numbers displayed on the towers as you pass. Allow around ninety minutes for this part of the excursion, including time spent at the mid stations and viewing platform at Barron Falls.
At Red Peak station, knowledgeable guides lead tours along a boardwalk in the rainforest, providing, as they go, thought-provoking insights into the local plant and animal ecology.
I now know, for example, that plant seeds in this region only germinate after passing through the digestive system of the threatened cassowary bird. Shockingly, if the cassowary becomes extinct, the regrowth of the entire rainforest is in serious trouble!
The Skyrail ends in the picture-postcard town of Kuranda, with the main street a short walk from the end point of Skyrail.
Kuranda has numerous cafes for a lunch or snack break. The Windmill cafe, first on your right as you come up from Skyrail, is good for healthy salads, burgers, focaccia breads, and delicious ice-cream juices.
After lunch, spend some time exploring Kuranda's markets and shops before walking back to the nearby train station to catch the Kuranda Scenic Railway train back to Cairns. Two trains daily depart Kuranda; one leaves at 2pm and another at 3:30 pm.
The train winds its way through hills and forests towards Cairns. You can stay on the train past Freshwater station (from where many tour groups depart) and continue on right into the center of Cairns. The train journey takes about an hour and three-quarters and offers an alternative view of the area covered on the Skyrail gondolas.
A combined round-trip ticket for Skyrail and Kuranda railway is A$80. Both are available as part of "packaged tours" that include transfers from your accommodation, but it is almost as easy to do your own organizing and transport, and it's cheaper. Just remember to stay on the train all the way back to Cairns. If you get off at Freshwater Station with the package tourists, you will have a long trip home.
Hire a car for this day so you can really get out and explore without the limitations of a bus timetable. Car-hire companies are plentiful, with lots of competition for your business.
I used East Coast Rentals and found this company easy to deal with, honest and reliable. There were no problems making changes to my rental agreement when I asked, and they offered a free lift back to the airport afterwards.
With any rental, I take a long look at the small print and make sure I understand the terms and conditions, particularly around insurance coverage. In this region for example, you are often not covered for roof damage which can be costly if you've parked under a coconut tree and one falls on your car.
Check your map for directions and aim north for a drive along Captain Cook Highway past Holloways, Trinity, and Clifton Beaches. There are plenty of places to pull over safely for photos along this road.
Pass through Palm Cove and continue on to Port Douglas for a look at how the rich and famous spend their holidays in this region.
If you do this drive on a Sunday, there are markets in Anzac Park, near the waterfront. The main street offers lots of places to eat, from small cafes and take-away shops to fine dining. There is also a supermarket on the left as you face the water as well as many clothing shops. Without stops, the drive from Cairns to Port Douglas is about an hour, but allow two and a half to three hours for stops and lunch in Port Douglas.
From Port Douglas, head north to Mossman Gorge, about another 20 minutes' drive. From the town of Mossman, turn left into Johnston Road and proceed for five kilometers. You are asked to drive slowly and show respect for the Aboriginal community in the gorge area.
Mossman Gorge is part of the famous Daintree National Park, a precious and protected rainforest wilderness area. From the car park you can do a 10-minute river circuit walk or a one-hour rainforest circuit.
Don't venture too far on your own around here without taking time to learn about walking safely in the rainforest.
From Mossman, you can take the road towards Mareeba, a small township in the Atherton Tablelands and then continue onwards towards Atherton itself. This drive will take you through some picturesque countryside. Remember, it gets dark around 5pm, and some of these roads can be a bit intimidating in the dark, especially if it rains and you are on your own.
Alternatively, return to Cairns via the Captain Cook Highway, stopping off at some of the northern beaches along the way. Trinity Beach Bowls Club welcomes visitors on Tuesday and Friday evenings from 6:30pm for "barefoot bowls," a lighthearted chance to try out lawn bowling.
Trinity Beach also has a great open-air cafe on the corner of the Esplanade and the main street, or Pizza Trinity is a cheerful if rather pricey restaurant for tasty gourmet pizzas.
The Boating Club at Yorkeys Knob Beach also welcomes visitors for a drink and meal at their bistro. You'll be asked to sign in with identification.
From either Trinity Beach or Yorkey's Knob Beach, it's an easy 20-minute drive back to central Cairns.
Many visitors to Cairns regret not allowing more time to fully explore the region. If you have a few extra days, add a trip to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree River to the north of Cairns or head down to the stunning Mission Beach to the south.
Standby Cairns: Last-minute deals on accommodation and tours. Tel. toll-free within Australia: 1-800-807-730, +61-(07)- 4051-4066.
Mariner Gables Holiday Apartments, 77 Moore Street, Trinity Beach, Queensland 4870. Tel. +61-(07)-4057-8417. Self-contained townhouse units located near the beach, about 20 minutes from Cairns center. Rates: From A$110, townhouse.
Rainforest Grove Holiday Resort, 40-42 Moody Street, Cairns, Queensland 4870. Tel. toll-free within Australia: 1-800-816-366, +61-(07)-4053-6366. Self-catering units peacefully located about 5 km from Cairns center. Rates: From A$318 (3 nights), one-bedroom unit.
Fusion Organics Cafe, Aplin and Grafton Streets, Cairns.
Pizza Trinity, 77 Vasey Esplanade, Trinity Beach.
Boating Club Bistro, Yorkeys Knob Beach.
Sunbus. Public bus schedules, routes, maps, and fares.
All Day Bike Hire, Lake Street. Tel. +61-(07)-4031-3348.
London Cycles, 155 Sheridan Street. Tel. +61-(07)-4041-2700.
Cairns Bicycle User Group. News, bicycle information, events.
East Coast Car Rentals. Tel. +61-(07)-5592-0444.