A complete backpackers guide to Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands
If Australia is the lucky country, Queensland is the most fortunate state. Tropical North Queensland in particular – where the natural wonders are in abundance (and on that sought after UNESCO list) and cities like Cairns connect coastline and jungle.
You know there’s something magical about a place where ancient rainforest meets reef, it’s often compared to paradise and you can get up close to marine life that choose Queensland waters as the only place in the world to migrate to.
It’s a place that begs a while to be explored, so wander with us through the beauty that is an ultimate backpacker’s paradise.
A quick acquaintance
To the right you’ll find the famed Great Barrier Reef, rich with marine life, bright clear waters and daydream inspiration. On your left is the Wet Tropics Rainforest, full of vibrant green hues, incredible waterfalls and scenic road trips.
This bevy of World Heritage listed wonders lie 1600km north of Queensland’s capital, Brisbane – where it’s summer all year round and there’s no such thing as sweater weather.
First up, a place to rest your weary head after a full day of sun, surf and sand.
Cairns’ backpacking scene is replete with international appeal for the World Heritage listed company it keeps. Tropical North Queensland attracts nearly a million international visitors annually, with over 30 hostel options. Here are our top picks:
Gilligans is more than a place to stay, catering for those who get hostel jealousy after seeing its offerings. With four storeys of traditional dormitory style accommodation and hotel rooms, along with a restaurant, three bars and Rusty’s Fruit Market all under one roof, you’ll have to remember to step out and explore the rest of TNQ during your stay.
Speaking of which, the Great Barrier Reef is footsteps away and the onsite travel agency will ensure you get the best rates for any activities you plan to book.
Gilligans even caters for the budget conscious, with a $5 dinner on offer each night, leaving more room for the activities you came for.
Not far from Gilligans, The Esplanade and the marina, Lonely Planet described this plantation inspired hostel as “a cut above the other backpackers” in Cairns, which more closely resembles apartment living than shared living. Northern Greenhouse has a mixture of budget conscious dorm rooms all the way up to family friendly apartments, most with a balcony or terrace to gaze out at the tropics from, drink in hand.
The lovely folk here also offer free breakfasts and Aussie BBQ Sundays, so you’ll be treated to a real icon of Australian summer fare.
Global Backpackers Cairns
Global Backpackers Cairns offers beds from just $15 per night – leaving you even more room to save for the must-dos. This mainstain of the Cairns backpacking scene is a short walk from the CBD cinemas, cafes and clubs.
A perk to being part of the Global Backpackers network is that there are five GB other hostels in Queensland, meaning you can have your accommodation sorted if you’re travelling to nearby Airlie Beach and Port Douglas.
The onsite Global tour desk can help with booking scuba diving courses, white water rafting, skydiving and liveaboard boats for all the water activities you’ve been dreaming of.
Next, something to satisfy and fill your belly. Hostel fare is certainly cheap and cheerful, but if you’re wanting to stretch your tastebuds a little, here’s some of our favourite places to get fed in the vicinity.
The Grand Hotel Cairns
Home to the biggest parma in Cairns (all 2kg of it), The Grand Hotel has been serving up quality local hospitality in their historic building since 1926. Known for their crocodile memorabilia and hand-crafted wooden crocodile bar top, it’s worth a visit and enough to feed an entire group if you split the parma.
Ganbaranba Noodle Colosseum
Peek behind the Japanese curtain on Spence Street and you’ll find the best ramen in Cairns. Brimming with signature Japanese dishes, you’ve got to come early as the secret’s out and the lines start from 6pm. While you wait, decide whether you want your noodles hard or soft, as the waiters will ask your preference. Bonus: their signature iced tea is on tap with endless top-ups of the homemade brew.
Cairns Night Markets
Each day when the sun is painting colours across the sky, the Cairns Night Markets come alive. This mainstay has recognised a demand for locally made goods since 1991, when the creators went about sourcing inspiration from overseas open air markets. With tasty dinner options, handmade artefacts and over seventy stalls, there’s something to satisfy every appetite.
Staying in and making your own?
You’re in luck, as supermarkets Coles and Woolworths are within walking distance of our aforementioned preferred hostels.
Then: we drink. Firstly, for a good morning roast check out our ultimate coffee guide to Cairns. Moving into nighttime options, we’ve chased down our favourite haunts and happy hour watering holes.
You know a bar is good when it can draw a crowd every day of the week. Up here, that bar is The Woolshed, which actively encourages people to let their hair down and dance on tables.
Each evening takes a different theme including Tropical Tuesday, Wet T-shirt Wednesday, Ladies Night on Thursdays, and an infamous Sunday Session which invariably ends up with dancing on tables. Upstairs a mezzanine level means you can get a bird’s-eye view of the dance floor and an outdoor areas offer a break from all the noise within.
Down Under Bar
A typical Aussie pub, Down Under Bar has it all: 10 pool tables, nibbles starting at $3 and karaoke night every Thursday. When it’s not filled with backpackers revelling till the early hours, it’s the drinking place of choice for bucks and hens parties, which gives you an idea of the fun that happens at Down Under.
If you’re wanting to have a little splurge and do one cocktail night, Three Wolves is not to be missed. With awesome drinks, a cool atmosphere and a great selection of whiskeys, it’s easy to spend an entire night here, sitting in a chair and chatting away.
See and experience
Depending on how much time you’ve got in Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands, try to divide your time between reef, rainforest and falls. Got extra time for more adventure? Check out our day trips from Cairns for more on what you can do from your Cairns base.
For some serious time in the sun, Sunlover departing from Cairns Marina offers 4 hours of reef contact time to explore during their tour. Their eco-certified tours depart daily and take you to their state-of-the art Moore Reef Marine Base where all ages can experience the magic of the reef with its abundance of colourful coral, fascinating fish, turtles and more.
Dive into that impossibly blue water with a mixture of snorkelling, glass-bottom boats, coral viewing tours, underwater observatory and seafood buffet lunch – your only expenses will be the ticket price for a day on the water.
The Wet Tropics World Heritage listed rainforest is both accessible and affordable. A few steps in and you’ll be surrounded by rainforest so primitive it outdates the Amazon by just a few (10 million) years.
The Wet Tropics’ most famous resident might be the 70 million-year-old cassowary, but the oldest is the velvet worm who can more than double its age.
The rainforest starts as far south as Townsville and finishes as far north as Cooktown – there is literally 450km between both points. For the most affordable way in and out of this lush rainforest, we recommend discovering the Southern Atherton. Read this guide to find out why.
Don’t forget to sneak in a day chasing waterfalls. With Queensland’s tallest mountain – Mount Bartle Frere on Cairns’ doorstep, it’s no surprise the falls in Tropical North Queensland have that je ne sais quoi.
The only thing you need to decide is which fall? Do you go for proximity – with Crystal Creek Falls an approximate 15 minutes from the city. Or would rather cover more waterfall ground, with a day trip out of Babinda Boulders, Josephine Falls and the Waterfall Circuit for a taste of granite boulder waterslides and emerald green water.
Weary weather? Take the activities indoors with our top recommendations.
If you’re wanting to do some good for the planet and wildlife while you’re here, there’s always voluntourism opportunities waiting to be experienced. Rainforestation’s Rainforest and Wildlife International Volunteer Program in Kuranda will get you all up close and personal with the local culture and wildlife of the region.
Rainforestation houses the Koala and Wildlife Park, Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience and Rainforest Army Duck Tour. Your typical duties as a rainforest and wildlife volunteer will include preparing food for the native wildlife, cleaning, maintenance, upkeep and landscaping of the displays and gardens. The job also includes time volunteering at the wildlife sanctuary and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary with these colourful and vibrant insects. If this sounds like your calling, get in touch with them via their website.
There’s also the wet tropics volunteer program, where volunteers help to protect and rehabilitate the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Typical volunteer duties include contributing skills and labour and participating in projects ranging from field studies and tree planting to rescuing injured wildlife. You can contact them via the wet tropics website.
Super strict with your budget?
Visit the largest butterfly sanctuary, hike the Goldfield Trail, become a reef expert and swim in a volcanic crater among others in our recommended almost free activities.
Stinger high season
As stingers (jellyfish to the rest of the world) are pretty common around Queensland, it’s important we stay wary of them and protect ourselves. Queensland is also home to the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, which is why we take extra precautions such as wearing a full lycra suit when surfing and exploring the reef.
Stay protected with 50+ sunscreen. Apply first thing in the morning under any other lotions or makeup, and then reapply every 2 hours throughout the day. Slip, slop slap was a very effective advertising campaign of the 90’s: slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat – something you should heed if you’re outside under the Queensland sun.
Be aware of the crocs
If you see red and yellow signs around town, creeks and boardwalk areas, they’ll remind you that crocodiles also like to hang around in Cairns. Make sure you follow all signs and avoid creeks, estuaries or the banks of rivers and dodge the prehistoric creatures to rival all.
Want to extend your stay?
If you have permission to work in Australia under a Working Holiday Visa, Cairns can offer quite a few employment opportunities to keep yourself afloat while you stay and explore a while longer. For all Visa information, consult the Australian Department of Home Affairs.
The best way to start looking for a job is making use of your hostel resources and talking to staff, as well as going into restaurants and cafes with your resume. Online job portals like Seek, Indeed and Jobaroo are great if you want to go paperless and apply from the comfort of your pyjamas.
The most common jobs are hospitality-focussed and fruit picking contracts. Cairns is always in need of hospitality workers in cafes and bars, and if you’re a chef you’ll have no trouble finding work – it’s often in short supply.
Most go with the fruit picking options near Cairns to complete their ‘remote placement’ which is a compulsory condition for extending a second-year visa.
Tropical North Queensland is a popular choice because of its remoteness without being too far from Cairns CBD. There’s Tully, Atherton, Ravenshoe and Mareeba which all grow tropical fruit and are usually in need of staff. There’s no shortage of banana picking work, but first decide if you’re up to the task of carrying a 50kg bundle – the average weight of each. If that’s too much for you, lychee picking in Mareeba might be the way to go.