9 of the best day trips from Cairns
There’s a reason why Cairns is known as the adventure capital of the north. Actually, there’s two.
Take your cue from Rihanna and “shut up and drive” (or ferry) with this list of the best day trips from Cairns.
1. Food and waterfall trails in the Atherton Tablelands
While it’s easy to be blind-sided, being on the doorstep of one of the world’s greatest living wonders, the Great Barrier Reef, don’t forget that inland from Cairns the scenery is just as impressive.
Sitting an hour or so west within a fertile plateau of the Great Dividing Range, the Atherton Tablelands is a blissful mash-up of rolling hills, tropical rainforest, timeless villages, and farm country guaranteed to fill your memory card and bellies.
Start your day trip on a real high with a sunrise hot air balloon ride to learn the lay of the land before starting on the ground work.
Long before it was a trend, paddock-to-plate was and still is the way of life for the region’s country villages, so take your taste buds on an authentic tour of the tropics grazing through the Atherton Tablelands, stuffing yourselves with roadside fruit stalls, cheese-tastings, handmade chocolates, locally-grown tea and coffee, topped off with a glass (or bottle) of boutique vino at Mareeba’s two cellar doors.
One day not enough to stuff it all in? Then check out this 48-hour foodies itinerary.
When you want to burn off those calories, nature’s got you covered with waterfall trails, rainforest skywalks, freshwater swimming holes in ancient volcanic craters, and easy strolls to marvel at gigantic 500-year-old strangler fig trees.
Alternatively, explore the historical villages and heritage museums of Atherton and Mareeba, squeezing in some boutique shopping and a squiz at the man-made Crystal Caves.
2. Scenic rides and market vibes in Kuranda
Over the years this mountain village has become a destination in its own right not only because of its free-spirited flair, but the jaw-dropping modes of transportation that’ll get you there.
Start your journey at the Smithfield Terminal of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, 15 minutes from Cairns.
Spanning 7.5kms in Barron Gorge National Park, you’ll ascend over the rainforest canopy in a gondola cabin with panoramic views out to the Coral Sea and Highlands, before working your way through the forest layers to reach the Skyrail’s two mid-stations: Red Peak and Barron Falls.
At these points you can either join a guided tour to learn the magic of this ancient rainforest or wander the pathways and displays at your own leisure, ogling at Barron Gorge and Falls from the lookouts.
Once you’ve landed in Kuranda, there’s no time to dawdle: start your perusal at the two daily markets where you’ll find everything from handmade jewellery to kangaroo skin bikinis, stopping for pick-me-ups at the candy kitchen, fudge bar and tea room along the way.
Keen naturalists who couldn’t give two hoots about shopping will be kept just as busy, with rainforest tracks skirting the village centre where majestic fig trees are home to yellow figbirds and colourful parrots.
If you think the action stops once you begin your journey back to Cairns, guess again. Although taking on a more leisurely-tone, the Kuranda Scenic Railway is just as thrilling, passing through dense rainforest, steep ravines and picturesque waterfalls, taken in from the comfort of your leather booth in a heritage timber carriage.
(Note: You can self-drive or catch the bus to Kuranda, but where’s the adventure in that?)
3. Lunching and pampering in Palm Cove
If massages and lazy lunches sound like your kind of day trip, then point your GPS towards Palm Cove.
Dubbed the day spa capital of Tropical North Queensland, this pretty coastal pocket isn’t just easy on the eyes (it’s that good-looking we named it one of the most beautiful beaches in the state) but on the legs as well, with all you could need for a bite-sized break within walking distance along its palm tree-lined esplanade.
If you’re an early riser, join the guys at Palm Cove Watersport for a sunrise guided kayak tour to Double Island. Otherwise, ease into the day with brekkie and a freshly squeezed juice on the deck at Chill Cafe.
While the village may be slight in size, rest assured it’s packing the goods when it comes stylish resort wear. Work your way up Williams Esplanade, trawling the boutiques for breezy kaftans and tropical prints, with art gallery and cafe breaks in between.
After you’ve shopped ’til you dropped you’ll want to put up those weary feet and relax… yep, it’s spa time, and you’ve got ample choice.
From Spa High Tea with the girls at Alamanda to ash clay body wraps inspired by ancient Indigenous techniques at Peppers Beach Club and Spa, we recommend doing a little research beforehand to work out what kind of treatment you’re after (couples, organic facials, anti-ageing, hot stone, herbal mud… you name it, you’ll likely find it at one of the eight day spas at home here).
After emerging from your spa bubble, plonk yourself beneath a palm tree on the foreshore with some takeaway fish ‘n’ chips and watch the world go by. If fine-dining is more your scene, opt for the beachfront views at chef Nick Holloway’s award winning Nu Nu restaurant.
Top it off with a sunset stroll to watch the sky turn golden, and that’s a day in Palm Cove well spent.
4. Beach, boutiques and brews in Port Douglas
A magnet for cashed-up holiday-goers thanks to its luxury lodgings, Port Douglas, aka the resort town of the north, also has plenty to offer day trippers that won’t have you breaking bank (unless you want to).
Pack the SPF 30+ and togs, because today it’s all about beach, beers and beautiful views.
Stalk the coastline for one hour along the ridiculously scenic Great Barrier Reef Drive, stopping at Rex Lookout to snap the sweeping views of the green mountains melding into the Coral Sea.
If it’s a Sunday morning, head to the seaside markets on Wharf Street where you can score nifty local wares and crafts. While you’re there, pick up some fresh local produce before claiming your patch of sand on Four Mile Beach.
This seemingly endless stretch of coast runs all the way from Yule Point to the rocks at Island Point and has everything you could want from a beach break: rock pools, gentle rolling waves, sun loungers, and beach hire right on the shore stocking catamarans down to buckets and spades.
While we wouldn’t blame you if you decided to stay beached all day, you need only wander 10 minutes to be in the main drag of Macrossan Street. A constant hub of activity, take your pick from one of the many great pubs lining the street for lunch or browse the shops for designer threads and local souvenirs.
By now you’re probably thinking the day should start to wind down. Well, it could, but there’s still plenty of time to hop on a half-day cruise to get your reef on.
Departing from The Reef Marina, Tropical Journeys will have you out at Low Isles in under 30 minutes, with plenty of time to explore the fringing coral reefs a la snorkel or glass-bottom boat.
Upon returning to port, head next door to Hemingway’s Brewery for sundowners and tasty share plates.
5. Face-to-face with the Great Barrier Reef on Green Island
One of the most popular destinations on the Great Barrier Reef, Green Island is a small rainforest-clad coral cay offering day-trippers unique opportunities to experience this World Heritage-listed wonder up close.
Those itching to get well-acquainted with the reef stat will want to book ahead for a scuba sesh. If you haven’t got your diving creds yet, don’t worry, because no experience is necessary for a fully supervised introductory dive (here’s a sneak peek of what you can expect).
Prefer to snorkel? Go for gold with complimentary gear and fringing reefs right off the island’s shore.
If you’re not a confident swimmer – or just really don’t want to get your hair wet – there’s no reason for you to miss out on reef activities.
Hop on a glass-bottom boat tour, where you’ll glide over coral gardens with informative commentary by your skipper pointing out the different types of coral and fish at home here. Big Cat Cruises also offer a semi-submarine tour where you sit below water level for a diver’s view.
While reef adventures are the obvious drawcard for a day trip to Green Island, you can still be a land lubber and have an awesome time.
Laze about on the beach; pay a visit to Cassius, the largest captive crocodile in Australia, at Marineland Melanesia; explore its national park interior along the self-guided rainforest trails, or splash out on a heli flight for aerial views over the island and its surrounding reefs.
(Psst, if a day trip wasn’t enough to satisfy your reef thirst, overnight at the Green Island Resort.)
6. Beachcombing, water sports and hiking on Fitzroy Island
If you prefer your island adventures to take on more of a CastAway vibe, try Fitzroy Island. A swift 45-minute ferry ride from Cairns, she’s one of the lesser-known island beauties in TNQ for reasons we simply cannot understand.
Although easily accessible, crowds seem to be mostly non-existent despite her #earthporn assets, which include open woodlands and lush rainforest fringed by white sands, azure waters and coral beaches.
You’re going to want to pack the snorkel and fins – or hire some from the island’s adventure centre – because you’re surrounded by coral reefs just a fin’s flip offshore.
While most of the snorkelling is done from the main beach at Welcome Bay, we suggest taking the short stroll through the rainforest to Nudey Beach for a touch more seclusion. (Ps. it’s Nudey by name only, so please keep your kit on.)
If you want to make the most of the island’s water toys and activities – we’re talking kayaks, SUPs, PADI dive trips, a giant ocean trampoline and glass-bottom boat tours – stick around Welcome Bay where the friendly folk at the adventure centre and beach hire hut can sort you out.
On land, there are three main walking trails to explore the island’s national park core: the 1.2km return rainforested Secret Garden track or the steep 3.6km return Lighthouse Road or Summit Track, both taking you to the lighthouse where you’ll be rewarded with spectacular Coral Sea views (in winter, keep an eye out for migrating humpback whales).
And if you want to check out the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, it’s now open for daily tours where you can learn about their history and the journey to recovery for sick and injured turtles. But be quick, tours are capped at just 15 people!
(Don’t want to leave? Extend your stay at the Fitzroy Island Resort with the choice of cozy suites or camping grounds.)
7. Adrenaline sports and island-hopping in Mission Beach
It ain’t hard to see why tourists flock to Cairns like a moth to a flame: reef adventures, tropical islands, beautiful beaches, delish dining… the list goes on. But what if we told you there was a place boasting the same blessings that remains off the beaten tourist track?
Like a travellers version of Inception, Mission Beach is a dream within a dream, filled to the brim with the region’s famed natural beauty but in a world where crowds and traffic lights cease to exist.
Rise and shine early because it’s a two-hour road trip to get there (and you’ll need a little extra time if you want to squeeze in a look at the dreamy castle ruins of Paronella Park on the way back).
Make your first order of business a hearty brekkie at the family-run Bingil Bay Cafe. The convenience store-cum-cozy nook is a gushing favourite of the locals for their home-style dishes, funky decor, and ‘laxed tunes of Jack Johnson and the like serenading you in the background.
The rest of your day can be as laid-back or active as you’d like.
For those who prefer to take on a sloth-like pace, grab a cheap read from the cafe’s second-hand book exchange and wander down to the village at North Mission, where you’ll find the calm waters and shady palm trees of the main beach (with swimming net during stinger season), cute cafes, and a handful of boutique stores stocking coastal-only essentials to keep you blissfully content.
If your energy levels are at the other end of the scale, then you’re in luck, because Mission Beach is well endowed when it comes to adrenaline-packed activities.
Don your best active wear because there are lots to keep you moving, from the butt-burning 4km circuit to the summit of Bicton Hill to the easy stroll along the Kennedy Walking Track in South Mission, stalking the coastline through rocky headlands and shady rainforests before reaching the secluded Lover’s Beach at Lugger Bay.
Avid MTB riders can hire some wheels from Mission Beach Bike Hire and take to the inland Musgrave Trail through Djiru National Park, an original logging track now mountain bike track taking you through licuala palm forests and over small freshwater streams.
Back on the coast, the action keeps on rolling:
- If the winds be blowin’, sail across the long sandy beaches via a wind-powered blo-kart with Mission Beach Adventure Hire (the same folks who run Mission Beach Water Taxi).
- Spot dugongs and sea turtles on a half-day paddle tour with Coral Sea Kayaking.
- Discover secret islands on Fozzy’s 3 hour, 3 island tour. Again, hit up the Mission Beach Water Taxi.
- Go one step further and maroon yourself on Dunk Island for a few hours and explore the inland walking trails and secluded beaches at your leisure (the water taxi will get you there and back in a jiffy).
- Take in the reef and rainforest skydiving from 14,000ft before landing on the beach.
If there’s daylight leftover by the time you start making your way back to Cairns, detour from the Bruce Highway at Silkwood to follow the Canecutter Way, a scenic drive through rolling hills and farm country that links back to Brucey in Innisfail.
8. Nature fix in Mossman and Daintree Village
There’s no need for a DeLorean if you want to travel through time, just take a walk through the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continually surviving rainforest in the world.
With examples of plant species dating millions of years, the Daintree is a living, breathing snapshot of life in ancient times (and while that’s reason enough to visit if you need any more convincing check out this blog post).
Your day trip starts in Mossman, a picturesque little township surrounded bright green rainforest and canefields an hour’s drive north of Cairns. If it’s a Saturday morning, make your way to the weekly markets at St. David’s Church on Foxton Avenue where you’ll find produce from local farmers in abundance.
After stocking up on road trip goodies, drive five minutes out of town to Mossman Gorge, the southern gateway of the Daintree National Park.
From here you can choose your own adventure along the self-guided rainforest trails, breaking it up with refreshing dips in the crystal-clear swimming holes. But if you’ve never visited before, we recommend joining a guided Dreamtime Walk tour with a Kuku Yalanji traditional owner from the Mossman Gorge Centre.
One of the few places in the country that visitors can gain an insight into the culture of Australia’s Indigenous people, your tour starts with a traditional smoke cleansing ceremony before proceeding along private tracks to visit culturally significant sites and learn ancient traditions like making baby nappies from moss. #truestory
For something a little off-kilter, join the folks at Windswell and explore the rainforest a la stand-up paddleboard. During their 3-hour guided tour, you’ll paddle the Mossman River upstream before stopping for a swim break and natural body scrub with ochre found on the banks before journeying back.
If you want to up the adrenaline even further, head to Daintree Station where you can zip around old logging tracks on quad bikes or explore the rainforest by horseback, otherwise, grab a bite to eat in town and drive half an hour to the beating heart of the rainforest, the Daintree Village.
This tiny township has all the charm of yesteryear when it was once the base for gold rush pioneers and cedar timber getters. Now, it’s visited by travellers all over the world as a base for exploring one of the greatest natural wonders on the planet.
Budding ornithologists who caught Sir David Attenborough himself swooning over the variety of species found here won’t want to miss a Daintree River Cruise. Specially catered for bird watchers and photographers, you’ll wind down one of the most densely populated mangrove estuaries in the world teeming with rare and exotic wildlife (keep your eyes peeled for crocs sunbathing on the banks!).
For more green glory, hop on the ferry and cross the river to the Daintree Discovery Centre where you can experience the rainforest at every level starting from the forest floor boardwalks, up to the mid-level aerial walkway, then right to the top of the 23m canopy tower.
9. Reef, rainforest and tropical fruit ice-cream in Cape Tribulation
The end of the bitumen road, Cape Tribulation is a big day trip for travellers – roughly a three-hour journey from Cairns. But oh, is it worth it to say you’ve walked the line where two World Heritage-listed sites meet: the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef.
Set off at the crack of dawn, stopping for a coffee hit at The Junction Cafe in Mossman before taking the ferry over the Daintree River. On the other side it’s a 45-minute drive ’til you reach your destination.
Next, take your pick from the adventure menu. If you’re content to ponder about the village at your own leisure, there are many short trails taking in the secluded beaches and rainforest to keep you on your toes.
But chances are you’re after those bucket list experiences this natural cash cow is renowned for, and while one day isn’t enough to cover all bases, it’s enough to give you a hefty dose of “woah” that’ll have you coming back for more.
Here are a few things you can tick off in just 24 hours:
- Add some live commentary to your walking trails on an Indigenous guided walk with Masons Tours.
- If you want to cover more rainforest ground, join a small guided eco-tour on electric mountain bikes with Freeride Electric Adventure Tours.
- Foodies, prepare your taste buds for an exotic platter of Aussie nosh, with croc and emu burgers on the lunch menu at Mason’s Cafe, followed by chocolate pudding fruit for dessert courtesy of Cape Trib Farm (fruit tasting tours run every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm).
- Snorkel the pristine Mackay and Undine Reefs on a half-day eco-tour with Ocean Safari, who’ll get you out in the water in just 25 minutes!
- Giddy up and straddle the line where reef and rainforest meet with Cape Trib Horse Rides.
- Make like a flying fox zip-lining through the rainforest canopy on a Jungle Surfing Canopy Tour (then meet a real one at the Bat House orphanage in town).
Before making your way back to Cairns, drop in for a sweet treat at the Daintree Ice Cream Company. Making their delicious creamy goodness from exotic tropical fruit grown in their very own orchard, you can buy a ‘sample’ cup of four unique flavours. Gracias, Daintree!