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Sailing in to Cairns for a stopover, or embarking on a cruise from Cairns, means getting a real taste of tropical Queensland and the nearby Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This far-north city certainly gets a little steamy in the summertime, but it’s also a cosmopolitan place with plenty of options for things to see, do and experience. The strong tourism industry is testament to that — and the possibilities open up even further when you get out of the city into the amazing landscapes of North Queensland.
Ships from a range of cruise lines dock at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal, which is a walkable distance from downtown Cairns. From there, it’s easy to get around and explore the region. Other larger ships, such as some of the Princess Cruises fleet, may anchor instead at Yorkey’s Knob, a northern suburb, from where passengers can get a shuttle bus into the city.
Do you have a cruise to or from Cairns on your horizon? I've put together a quick list of great places to go that are easy to reach from the cruise pier and the city center. Whether you have all day or just a few hours, you can see a bit of this great city. (See Cruiseable's Guide to Cairns.)
The Esplanade is a wonderful public area, often considered the heart and focal point of Cairns. If you are short on time or just want a low-key activity for your visit, this is the perfect way to go.
The Cairns Esplanade stretches for 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) along the waterfront and is far more than just a walking track. It features parklands, playgrounds for the little ones, BBQs, skate ramps, a bouldering (low rock climbing) park, fitness stations, a petanque court and more. There is a market every Saturday between 8 am and 4 pm and live music every weekend. However, possibly the biggest crowd pleaser is the Lagoon, a free swimming pool with lifeguards on duty year-round. Stingers, sharks and lack of nice beaches in the city make swimming in the ocean in Cairns an unlikely prospect, so this saltwater lagoon is the ideal solution.
Located on top of the Reef Hotel Casino on the Cairns waterfront, Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome is handily located a short walk from the terminal. It's a challenge ropes course in the midst of a wildlife park — right in the heart of the city!
This is an ideal family-friendly location. Visitors can cuddle a koala, interact with a variety of other animals, see birds flying free in the aviary, take in presentations by keepers, and generally enjoy getting to know the wildlife of Queensland. Then, get the adrenaline pumping by tackling one of the three ropes courses complete with ziplines — one of these zips right over Goliath, the 13-foot (4-meter) saltwater crocodile!
It’s possible to get a taste of the rainforest without even leaving the city. Centenary Lakes and the Botanic Gardens are a long walk or short taxi ride from the cruise dock, in Cairns’ Edge Hill suburb.
The free facility includes a Rainforest Boardwalk, BBQ facilities, benches and the interesting flora of the Botanic Gardens. They are a lovely way to get off the ship, ground oneself and enjoy the unique Queensland foliage. Be warned, the lakes are a crocodile habitat!
This one need to be booked in advance — but if you want a really good overview of Cairns, it’s definitely the way to go. Not for the fainthearted, of course!
Skydive Cairns is conveniently located on Grafton Street in the city center, so if you have a booking for your day in port you can walk there and will be shuttled to the plane you’ll jump from. (C'mon, you've always wanted to do this, so here's your chance.) The fall provides views over the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage Rainforest — if you can keep your eyes open!
With the central business district just a stroll from the cruise dock, there’s plenty of opportunity for retail therapy should that appeal during your visit. Wander toward the downtown area and you’ll soon find yourself immersed in shops, restaurants, cafes and more.
The Cairns Central shopping center is bordered by Spence, McLeod, Bunda and Aplin streets and has more than 180 retail outlets to browse. Many people go looking in Cairns for pearls, which are a popular product of Northern Australia. You can find high-quality South Sea pearls here in various jewelry stores.
A 15-second video of a Great Barrier Reef underwater excursion (Allan Leonard / Creative Commons BY-NC).
Are you in town en route to the Great Barrier Reef? Either way, this activity is one of the best experiences Cairns has to offer. You can book a reef trip through your cruise line, and this is a safe option as you are guaranteed to be back in time. However, there are plenty of other operators in town who are used to working with cruise ship timetables. Many of these can be found in and around “The Pier” just north of the cruise dock.
A boat tour out to the reef might include viewing from the boat, snorkeling, diving and other options. You can find one that’s right for you, I'm sure. If you are on a cruise departing Cairns, you might like to get there ahead of time and embark on a multi-day Barrier Reef small boat cruise before boarding your big ship.