17 BEST THINGS TO DO IN CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA: THE BUCKET LIST
Cairns is a small town of fewer than 170,000 people in the North of Queensland. Along with the Uluru in the red center of Australia, Cairns has become the quintessential location for visitors looking for that mind-blowing natural Aussie experience. Most tourists use Cairns as a base for their Great Barrier Reef and Daintree adventures. You guys know me by now, I’m adventurous and I find out the epic spots you need to see. These are my top things to do in Cairns, Australia!
If you prefer to watch than read I put together a few highlights from each activity into this video:
17 BEST THINGS TO DO IN CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA
Even after considering all of the epic things to do in Cairns, the Babinda Boulders is right up there for me as one of the highlights of the trip. Surrounded by lush rainforest, the Babinda Boulders is a popular swimming hole for tourists and locals alike. The water was crystal clear and inviting. I swam to the other side of the pool and explored the rainforest, stumbling across a small family of turtles resting on a log.
This is a place you want to hang out at for at least half a day. Bring down a lunch or a picnic and really explore this gem of a spot. Make sure to beware of the current. It was so strong I had to enter at the top of the pool just to make it across in time and I am a decent swimmer! I sent the drone up just to show you guys how transparent this pool really is! Make sure you walk around the corner to check out Devil’s Pool, which is next on the list below!
The crystal clear waters of Babinda Creek flow through the Boulders and eventually spill over into Devil’s Pool. On the day I looked out over Devil’s Pool it was carnage. I didn’t even consider touching the water. It was beautiful watching the raw power of the water as it spilled down into each pool, one after another.
However, during times of less rain, the pools are actually a popular spot to jump in for a dip. There are some weird stories surrounding Devil’s Pool. The story goes that there is a spirit of a woman, Oolana, at the bottom of the pool luring young men to their death. The tale originated after Oolana threw herself into the pool after being separated from her love. 17 deaths have occurred at Devil’s Pool, therefore proceed with extreme caution.
One of the most remarkable things about Tropical North Queensland is that even when you aren’t at the beach you can be on the beach. What I mean by this is that when you sit down along the banks and look up at the epic Josephine Falls you can sit on the sand. These sandy banks are found all throughout the rainforest and add an element of the oasis to the region.
Josephine Falls was booming on the day I visited but normally you can jump in the many different cascading pools for a refreshing dip in the crystal clear water!
Halfway between Townsville and Cairns is the stunning Mission Beach. Four beach villages are linked together by 14 kilometers of golden sands. This coastline is a sunrise special, facing directly to the east and lined with palm trees need I say more. We woke up early and watched as the sun slowly rose over the ocean and finally breaking through some low cloud cover. Once the sunrise was in full swing, the palm trees shone along the coast.
There are plenty of things to do in Cairns or in the surrounding towns like Mission Beach, which is only a short drive away.
White Water Rafting on Tully River
The Tully River is one of Australia’s best rafting locations and makes the perfect full-day activity for adrenaline-seekers. Grade 3-4 level rapids test your skills as your journey through the rainforest. In between the fast-paced action you can take in the stunning scenery and enjoy the wildlife action on the banks of the river. Prepare to get wet and wild as this adventure is not for the faint-hearted. You can join the white water rafting on Tully River from Cairns or Mission beach as we did. It definitely goes down as one of the top things to do in Cairns!
We had our epic rafting experience with Raging Thunder Adventures. The full-day experience including a BBQ lunch costs $189. To check out all the details and availability you can click here.
Great Barrier Reef Pontoon Experience
You can’t visit Cairns without experiencing the Great Barrier Reef! It’s literally a must when considering the things to do in Cairns! There are many ways to get out and explore the reef but one of the most popular is to take a ferry out to a huge pontoon that is loaded with all of the gear and activities. The ferry took us about 1.5 hours to reach the pontoon from Cairns. Once we were there we could choose activities such as:
- Sea-Walker (crazy helmets that let you walk underwater)
- Glass bottom boat cruise
- Helicopter joy rides
Included in the trip are all of the gear and an epic buffet lunch. The trip is a little short but if you have one day this is one of the best ways to visit the reef. You get about 4 hours time out on the reef but once you eat lunch and organize your activities time soon disappears. That’s when you wish you had upgraded to the epic overnight stay, which I will talk about below. The pontoon experience cost about $250 AUD with Sunlover. To check out the details and availability of this pontoon experience you can click here.
Overnight stay on Great Barrier Reef Pontoon
Once 3pm rolls around all of the pontoon guests get back on the ferry and head back to Cairns. That is except of course, for those who are sleeping on the pontoon! That’s right you can sleep on the Great Barrier Reef. Before you get too excited this isn’t a luxury suite. You will be sleeping in a swag on the deck under the stars. I can assure you the swag was comfortable and had a thick foam mattress but it isn’t for everyone. The stars were off the charts when I woke up at 3am and looked up to the sky. More stars than black. It pays to be away from those city lights.
The beauty of the overnight stay is it’s just you and a few mates on a pontoon built for 100-200 people. There are no crowds or busy tourists looking for their kids. It’s totally chill and you can really enjoy the reef experience at a much slower pace. I’m so stoked I got the opportunity to be out there with our chill little crew, snorkeling at our leisure. It was one of my favorite things to do in Cairns that’s for sure!
Three crew members stayed on board with us and cooked great meals like barbecue and seafood for dinner. I think the moment that summed it all up for all of us was when we were sat at the table eating our bacon and eggs when a sea-turtle came up for air just yards away from us. Wow, we all thought! We are just eating breakfast while watching turtles swim on the Great Barrier Reef. You don’t hear about that every day!
If you want the unique experience it actually wasn’t too expensive considering the extra time you get on the reef. If you can fit it in your budget, I highly suggest opting for the overnight stay. However, the Great Barrier Reef experiences aren’t super budget friendly so while this experience is a once in a lifetime, it will take a chunk out of your wallet. The overnight stay costs $499 AUD per person, which is about $400 USD. Considering it is $250 AUD for the afternoon experience it really isn’t a bad deal. You can check out all the details of the overnight stay here.
Helicopter over Great Barrier Reef
From this point on our trip got next level. We had already just stayed overnight on the Great Barrier Reef. But not we were taking it one step further. We had chartered a private helicopter to take us back to Cairns. Flying over the Great Barrier Reef was the highlight of the trip for me. I love seeing things from the air, especially a reef. Often from eye-level, the glare on the ocean and the perspective doesn’t give you the full idea of what the reef actually looks like. From the helicopter, we got it all. The pilot took us over a number of cayes, sections of the reef and taught us a lot about the reef we were studying below. We flew with Nautilus Aviation in their bright red chopper and you can click here if you want to check out their availability.
The rainforests of north Queensland are the oldest rainforests in the world and subsequently are on the World Heritage List. This incredibly diverse ecosystem is so large it’s hard to grasp while walking through the forest. The solution? The Rainforest Skyrail.
I’m a big fan of the Skyrail system. We hopped into a small cabin with a glass bottom floor, which made it easy for us to see the rainforest below. There were multiple stops along the way where we could hop off and enjoy the tree-canopy boardwalks to get a mid-level look at the rainforest. This is a really immersive experience giving you an insight into all levels of the forest with minimal work for those hike aversive adventurers.
The Rainforest Skyrail ends at the Mossman Falls, a huge waterfall and an epic way to cap off the trip. The Rainforest Skyrail experience is $77 AUD and includes a ranger-guided tour at Red Peak Station, which is one of the stops along the way. You can check out all the details here.
Daintree Rainforest River Cruise
This was the most surprising activity of the trip. I thought it would be a relaxing cruise with not too much action but boy was I wrong. We hopped into our small river cruiser, grabbed a pair of binoculars and tuned into our veteran guide, Ian ‘
The guy would spot a croc hidden deep in the mangroves as our boat was cruising past. When he returned to show us where it was we all spent five minutes trying to spot it until our eyes finally caught on. He spotted it while the boat was moving, while he was driving.. Ian is the king. As if I wasn’t impressed enough he later spotted a Frogmouth, which is notoriously good at being camouflaged. He spotted this frogmouth and it honestly took me so long to find the bird even as he patiently pointed directly at it for what was an embarrassingly long couple of minutes.
I redeemed myself by spotting the only snake of the trip before eagle eyes Ian had spotted it. He begrudgingly joked if I was trying to take his job. Ian makes this cruise one of the most memorable experiences of the trip for me. He embodies what Australia is all about and genuinely enjoys each trip. His motto was something he repeated often. Smiling from behind his wheel ’30 years and never a bad trip, never a bad trip yet.’ Tickets are $ 60 AUD per person for this beautiful sunset cruise experience with Daintree River Wild Watch.
Mossman Stand-Up Paddleboard Tour
The world heritage listed Daintree Rainforest is so big and so beautiful, there are never enough ways to explore this natural gem. Cruising on a stand-up paddleboard through the rainforest on the crystal clear waters has to be high up on the list. The challenging current kept us alert as we navigated our way upstream, inspecting every sandbank and Avatar tree along the route. Cruising through this beautiful scenery was one of the most relaxing things to do in Cairns!
We stopped after half an hour to eat some local fruits and have a refreshing swim. It was here that we turned back downstream, sitting and laying on our boards enjoying the serenity of the Daintree Rainforest and appreciating the natural sounds of the environment.
The tour was run by Windswell and ran at $109 AUD per person.
Mossman Gorge Indigenous Dreamtime Walk
Roy Gibson had a dream and that was to preserve the heritage of the indigenous people of his region and to give an opportunity to his community to be involved in a positive project they could take ownership of. This dream became a reality when he acquired the land and backers helped him build the 20 million dollar Mossman Gorge Centre.
We went on a guided Dreamtime Walk through the Daintree Rainforest. Before we entered we took part in a smoke ceremony and asked for welcome and protection from the spirits. Along the way, we looked at communication rocks, medicinal plants, tools and other unique aboriginal traditions and ways of life. The Aboriginal people have some of the most resourceful and unique techniques in all areas of life that helped them to not only survive but thrive in the often harsh landscapes of Australia.
The Dreamtime Walk is a great introduction to the Aboriginal culture and how they interact with their environment. The cost of the Dreamtime Walk was $68 with Mossman Gorge Centre.
Cape Tribulation Beach
Explore the beaches of Cape Tribulation, where the rainforest truly meets the Beach. It is the only place in the world where two world heritage sites meet head to head. The Great Barrier Reef runs right up to the Daintree Rainforest. It’s a truly magical place and also a great place to base yourself for a few days of adventures such as snorkel trips and Jungle Surfing. Cape Tribulation is a must visit region when considering the best things to do in Cairns.
Cape Tribulation Great Barrier Reef Snorkel
Ocean Safari Tours took me out on what was definitely the highlight of my snorkeling in Queensland. The snorkel trip only uses a Zodiac-style boat, built for speed and transport. From Cape Tribulation, the boat zips you and 20 others out to a small caye/island. We didn’t enter the island as it is a great spot for birds to hang out so better them than us!
The boat dropped us just off the caye and off we went snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Within seconds I was joined by a turtle and he didn’t leave me for the next 40 epic minutes. The reef looked in great shape and our guides explained to us that yes there had been coral bleaching due to higher water temperatures but the majority of the reef is in good shape and it definitely looked awesome!
The second spot we snorkeled at was equally as amazing. I was once again joined by a turtle friend and hung out with him for the entire hour as he went about eating some sea-grass as I let him do his thing while shooting a few photos.
This short trip with Ocean Safari is a great way to snorkel the reef without the crowds of Cairns. Much more chill much more relaxing. The Ocean Safari half-day tour costs $145, which is far less than in Cairns and doesn’t require the long ferry in and out.
Jungle Surfing Zipline in Daintree Rainforest
While you are up in Cape Tribulation there is an epic little activity great for the whole family. Jungle Surfing as they call it up there is a zip-lining adventure through the canopy of the Daintree Rainforest. A slow-paced adventure which provides a little bit of adrenaline but not too much for those chickens of the group. Full harnesses an safety equipment make this a good introduction to adventure activities for kids and grandparents alike!
Ask the crew about where you can eat a sour green ant butt! (They won’t look at you weird I promise!) You can book a tour with Jungle Surfing for $105 AUD.
Thala Lodge is an eco-resort just out of Cairns. I didn’t stay at the resort but a friend suggested I stop by to hang out in their epic little palm field for an hour. The lodge is supposed to be pretty impressive but the drone and I never made it past the palms. If you drone you know. Symmetrical palms from above are always going to be fun. Hanging out here is one of the lesser known things to do in Cairns, although another drone rocked up to share the airspace while I was there.
Bungee Jumping 3x Cairns
Bungee Jumping with a BMX bike from the top of a roof? Sure why not. AJ Hackett in Cairns is the ultimate hang out spot for adrenaline junkies. Only 15 minutes from the city center it’s one of the best things to do in Cairns that involves hardly any driving! They have a giant swing and multiple bungee platforms to entertain you for hours. At the base of the jump is a big pool of water that dunks the jumpers head ever so slightly. Also at the base is a bar and a chill area for friends and family to watch as you take the leap of faith.
I decided to do the BMX bungee, it’s the only place to do it in Australia so why not! I first had to do one regular jump and then one running jump from the ramp on the roof. The running jump was awesome and felt like a superman cliff jump. Once I graduated from the running jump the boys set me up on the BMX and off I went, rolling down the ramp before I came hurtling down to the water!
AJ Hackett Cairns is one of the best things to do in Cairns for adrenaline junkies!