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  • Whitsunday-Islands-Great-Barrier-Reef-1 - Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef, teems with spectacular marine life. Shot taken on Langford Island looking toward Hayman Island.
  • Australia-Cairns-beach - A beautiful beach in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
  • Great-Barrier-Reef-coral-fish - Sail with Silver Discoverer and discover one of the great snorkeling and scuba diving sites on the planet in the Great Barrier Reef.
  • RCI-Aus-Mosman-Gorge - Mosman Gorge and Daintree Rainforest are calm, pleasant excursions north of Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
  • Australia-Cairns-Little-Kingfisher - Little Kingfisher at Centenary Lakes, Cairns, Australia.
  • Australia-Cairns-rafting - Shooting the whitewater rapids near Cairns, Australia.
  • parrot-at-Great-Barrier-Reef - A gorgeous parrot lands on the hotel balcony of visitors to Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
  • Australia-Cairns-flower - A lovely blossom in Cairns, Queensland, Australia.
  • Australia-Cairns-Kuranda-railway - The Kuranda Scenic Railway runs from Cairns, Queensland, to the nearby town of Kuranda.
  • Australia-Cairns-coast - Coastal area of Cairns, Australia.
  • Australia-Whitsunday-Islands-Snorkeling - A snorkeler encounters a school of fish in the Whitsunday Islands of Australia during a G Adventures expedition.
  • Australia-Cairns-waterfront - The wharves of Cairns, Queensland, Australia, at night. The casino's dome can be seen in the background.

Cairns, Australia: Hopping-off spot for the Great Barrier Reef

our guide

The vibe

Cairns is a naturalist's heaven. The city offers everything from a pristine rainforest to nearby beaches. Just offshore is the world-famous Great Barrier Reef.

The emphasis in Cairns (pronounced cans) is clearly on nature and natural wonders. You'll find that most activities in town are geared toward getting you out to the reef or to exploring the nearby Wet Tropics Rain Forest. 

For cruise visitors, your best course of action is to plan out your day in advance, deciding whether you would rather spend your time admiring the splendor of the Great Barrier Reef, gazing at the natural beauty of the rainforest or enjoying an adrenaline high from any of Cairns' excellent outdoor adventure activities. And while Cairns itself has no beaches, if you drive 30 to 60 minutes north or south, or visit one of the nearby islands, there are lots of good beaches nearby. 

Top reasons to go

  • The city is ready-made for forays into the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Take a day trip to the Wet Tropics Rain Forest to see incredible flora and fauna species.
  • Outdoor enthusiasts will love the options, from whitewater rafting to horseback riding and parasailing.

Here's a 2-minute video from Animal Planet about the Great Barrier Reef.

Top things to do & see around Cairns

Tourism Tropical North Queensland (51 The Esplanade, 07-4051-3588), the local tourism bureau, is a great resource for helping you plot your day trip. The bureau provides tons of information regarding Great Barrier Reef excursions as well as things to do while in town.

Great Barrier Reef

If you're traveling to Cairns, you really do need to visit the Great Barrier Reef. If you have never snorkeled or scuba dived before, this is your best opportunity to start. Contact Sunlover Reef Cruises (07-4050-1333) or Great Adventures (07-4044-9944) for reef tours. You can rent snorkeling gear and receive lessons. You could also choose to book a helicopter tour over the reef. There are hundreds of great dive spots all around the reef, and almost as many dive operators. Among the more reputable is Down Under Dive (07-4052-8300). You can also contact Dive Queensland (07-4051-1510) for a comprehensive list of top-rate dive operators.

Mosman Gorge and Daintree Rainforest are calm, pleasant excursions north of Cairns, Queensland.
Courtesy of Royal Caribbean InternationalMosman Gorge and Daintree Rainforest are calm, pleasant excursions north of Cairns, Queensland.

Arts & culture

  • Aboriginal culture is on display at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (Kamerunga Road, 07-4042-9900). This is one of the most comprehensive aboriginal centers in Australia. Three shows depicting various facets of aboriginal life will educate and entertain you. There are also lessons on spear and boomerang throwing, and a great gift shop that should satisfy most of your souvenir hunting while in Cairns.
  • The Cairns Regional Gallery (Shields Street, 07-4046-4800) has a nice sampling of artwork from local artists.
  • You can also consider enjoying a picnic lunch at Flecker Botanic Gardens (Collins Avenue, 07-4044-3398).

Wildlife parks

  • Hartley's Crocodile Adventures (Captain Cook Highway, 25 miles north of Cairns, 07-4055-3576) is the best spot for a photo opportunity. Try to be there a little before four in the afternoon, when they will let you take your picture while holding a live crocodile.
  • Wild World: The Tropical Zoo (Captain Cook Highway, 14 miles north of Cairns, 07-4055-3669) gathers all of the famous Australian animals in one place. See kangaroos, koalas, dingoes, wombats, crocodiles and more.

Day trip to the Wet Tropics Rain Forest

Near Cairns is a rainforest filled with plant and animal life that exists only as fossils in the rest of the world. A majority of Australia's flora and fauna species are found here. Your best bet is to take a tour of the rainforest with an experienced guide. Contact Kuranda Rainforest Tours (07-4093-7476) for more information. While here, try and visit the rainforest town of Kuranda. The trip to Kuranda by skyrail (07-4038-1555) or rail (07-4036-9288) is as beautiful as anything in Australia. Once in Kuranda, try to fit in some time at the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary (8 Rob Veivers Dr., 07-4093-7575), home to over 1,500 gorgeous butterflies.

Outdoor activities

Cairns rewards the outdoor enthusiast. Raging Thunder Adventures (07-4030-7990) offers everything from whitewater rafting to horseback riding and parasailing. Whitewater rafting on the Tully River is a favorite among experts and novices alike. Bungee jumping is offered by A.J. Hackett Bungy (07-4057-7188). If all of this sounds like a little much, hit the links at Paradise Palms Golf Course (Clifton Beach, 07-4059-9999). Or, do some sunbathing at Clifton Beach, just north of the city. 

Shopping

If you're in the mood to shop, head to the Cairns Central Shopping Centre (corner of Spence Street and McLeod Street). There are also plenty of small shops offering the local souvenirs and trinkets.

Dining & nightlife

After spending the day exploring all of Cairns' natural beauty, you'll have plenty of restaurants to choose from. Head to Trattoria Mediterranea (74 Shields St., 07-4051-4335), where the large Italian portions can satisfy even the heartiest of appetites. Red Ochre Grill (43 Shields St., 07-4051-0100) uses what the land has to offer, with menu specialties including kangaroo meat and wild mushrooms. For the freshest seafood in Cairns, head to the Fishlips Bar and Grill (228 Sheridan St., 07-4041-1700).

Cairns isn't a hopping place for nightlife, but if you're in the mood, try Gypsy Dees' (41A Shields St., 07-4051-5530) or Nightclub 1936 (28 Spence St., 07-4030-8888), in the same hotel as the Hotel Sofitel Reef Casino.

Your take

Have you been to Cairns or the Great Barrier Reef? Please share a story, tip or discovery. What was the highlight?

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Overheard

“Australia’s 1,430-mile long Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest living organism — a mosaic of some 2,900 coral reefs and 900 islands — faces serious threats but conservation efforts are bearing fruit, and visitors can play a role in saving the reef.”

New York Times

 

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