9 things to do in Cairns for first-timers
No matter where you come from, how old you are, or how long you’ve dreamed about it, experiencing Cairns for the first time can be a huge deal. After all, it’s a town that’s slept with past presidents and top billing A-Listers, so why not you?
What should you do on your first date with this sometimes-high-octane, always natural but mostly laid-back in a jet-lagged-kind-of-way place? We’ve canvassed the locals and come up with 9 must-dos for first-timers.
1. Take a chopper ride to plot your holiday
Not sure how to squeeze in the hundreds of tours and locations on offer? Then, put the whole region in perspective and start your first day with a 45-minute epic heli flight and skim above the Great Barrier Reef, the northern beaches, Baron Falls, and the World Heritage-listed rainforest – aka the big guns of the region.
Stephan Eustace from JUCY Rentals in Cairns says, “It’ll get you sooooo excited to hit the ground running and see all those things up close.”
2. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
Barack Obama told the G20 – and the whole planet – that he wants his children and their children to “see the glory of the reef”. So if it’s good enough for the President of the U.S.A, then Australia’s greatest gift to the world, the Great Barrier Reef, is the first full-day activity tick for all first-time visits.
And therein lies the problem. Picking just one part/one trip/one experience on the reef is downright tough. Lucky for you, we have this handy guide.
Siobhan Mulcahy from Tourism Tropical North Queensland votes Down Under Cruise and Dive as her fave. The new Evolution boat has bean bags around a top-deck theatre, an Elvis-impersonating crew member, and the Coral Sea as the headlining act. “The snorkelling is awesome, especially the second stop at Hastings Reef, where the water is so shallow you don’t need to dive deep,” she says.
To get the best out of your reef experience, spend two hours of fun with Natalie Phillips and the Marine Biology gang at Reef Teach “for an absolute bargain $23” and learn about the crazy creatures you will see. All before you even get wet.
3. Do a one-day Kuranda rainforest tour
T.S. Eliot wrote that “the journey. Not the destination matters”. That almost applies to Kuranda – the village in the rainforest is definitely worthy of a stop – but it’s how you get there that is simply astonishing. I know, I’ve done it a few times.
Journeying to Kuranda (25 km north-west of Cairns) is a combination of a cuter-than-a-kids-book steam train ride up the ridge and a silent gondola ride back down. Or vice versa.
Both are engineering feats built just over a hundred years apart. The Kuranda Scenic Railway with its 15 tunnels, 93 curves and dozens of difficult bridges opened in 1891 and was built using hand tools, dynamite and a pioneering spirit (and the lure of earning 90 cents a day).
Today, the spectacular 115-minute journey navigates dense rainforest, waterfalls and 320-metre steep ravines.
In 1995, Skyrail Rainforest Cableway became a blueprint for eco-construction when it opened. Heavy-lifting, Russian Kamov helicopters ferried-in towers, but to minimise the impact on the World Heritage-listed rainforest, construction workers had to walk into the site – sometimes up to one hour each.
This intense respect for the ecology seeps into every visit and guests are encouraged to stop at the two stations and immerse themselves in the lush rainforest experience.
So what can you do between these two journeys? The village of Kuranda is famous for the Kuranda Markets (worthy of some odd local souvenirs like a kangaroo backscratchers), and the Rainforestation Nature Park where you can take in Indigenous dancing and Dreamtime walks.
4. Eat fresh seafood
JUCY’s Stephen Eustace says nothing beats a basket of local prawns from a fresh seafood store chowed down at one of the dozens of picnic areas along the Cairns foreshore.
Alternatively, try his favourite ocean-front restaurant with mega views, the Raw Prawn; my pick, Perrotta’s outside the brilliant Cairns Regional Gallery; or Ochre Restaurant, a Cairns classic now in a flash new marina-view venue. Owner Craig Squires likes the fact that patrons can kick back watching the reef fleet return to the marina, framed by the green mountains beyond.
For the world’s best salt and pepper squid – dished up with an exceptional view – Amy Mail from Tourism Tropical North Queensland recommends Ellis Beach Bar & Grill, about 25 minutes north of Cairns. If it happens to be a Sunday, grab a seat no later than 12:45pm and wait for $1 oysters and live music to roll out.
5. Wake up to a high
There are two ways to wake up to a morning in Queensland’s tropics. Choose between hot air ballooning over the Atherton Tablelands, a place that’s more magical than a Pride and Prejudice ending, or kicking it Ethan Hunt-style by skydiving out of a plane 14,000 feet over the Great Barrier Reef, landing on the aptly-named Mission Beach.
More than guaranteeing the best views of Tropical North Queensland, you’ll have the whole day ahead to pack more into your first-time visit.
6. Just chill out for a day
Looking for a low-cost, relaxing day between all those tours? Easy. Natalie Phillips, Director of Reef Teach says first-timers should just mosey on to the Cairns Lagoon, grab a coffee or an ice-cream (try the fruity sticks from Gelocchio on the Esplanade) and chill to the free live music.
She adds that if you time your visit right, you can giggle through one of the many council-run free classes; from yoga to water aerobics and sunset Zumba classes.
Get some northern exposure and bus, drive or cycle your way to Palm Cove, a cuter-than-cute seaside village 20 minutes north of Cairns. Park at the jetty end of Williams Esplanade and string up a hammock between two palm trees. After that, stroll along the beach to Alamanda Palm Cove Resort for a massage on a rooftop villa. There are plenty of cafes to pair up with a tropical sunset.
7. Meet a local
Our straw poll of locals points to Rusty’s Markets as the number one way to bump your way into a local’s heart. “The folks manning the stalls love nothing more than having a chat to ‘blow-ins’,” says the local council tourism promotions team.
When you’ve had enough fruity talk, Tourism Tropical North Queensland’s Amy Mail suggests you stroll across Grafton Street to Oceanic Walk and pull up a stool at Blackbird Espresso for a chat with Troy or the all-knowing Jasper – who has an encyclopaedic understanding of brewing beans. (Did we mention he’s a national frisbee-throwing champion? We’re not kidding.)
8. Go to a secret swimming spot
Like Fight Club, the first rule of local secrets, is you don’t talk about local secrets. But, we think Crystal Cascades and Josephine Falls deserve an exception to this rule, even for first-timers.
Crystal Cascades is, “the best spot to go freshwater swimming in the rainforest,” says Andrew Sumner from Hilton Cairns. “It’s 25 minutes’ drive from Cairns, it has three kilometres of walking paths and, it’s free.”
Tourism Tropical North Queensland’s Siobhan Mulcahy thinks the natural slides at Josephine Falls – “Joso” to the locals – trumps that. “The walk is easy and the view is stunning,” she says. “On the way back home stop in at Babinda Bakery, they have pies and cream buns to die for!”
9. Plan for a night (or two) out
There’s always a happy hour somewhere in the global village of Cairns. Start at the Pier Bar for a couple of two-for-one drinks served with live tunes (tapas and sangria on Monday, tacos on Tuesday … you get the gist), or meander up to Rattle and Rum on the Cairns Esplanade.
Meanwhile, The Conservatory, a great little wine bar next to Pullman Cairns International, is a good pit-stop on the way to Gilligan’s (the place everyone seems to end up), while Lilo Bar owns it as the hot spot for a Sunday sesh’ with local DJ’s serving chilled house tunes by the pool alongside $10 cocktails.
Can’t make up your mind? Partyincairns.com organises everything – go to lots of clubs, save money on entry, play games, and meet lots of like-minded folks.
Graduated from the bar scene? Debbie Walters says you can’t go past Tjapukai‘s night fire, where 40,000 years of Indigenous culture and storytelling happens.
Tip: Check out the local newspaper on Thursday to get the up-to-the-minute lists of gigs and events.