Scrimp and splurge: 48 hours in Cairns, Queensland
You can’t say you’ve been to Australia without a trip to the crowning jewel of Tropical North Queensland.
Each year, millions of people flock to Cairns, Queensland for a slice of the action so to not have it on your itinerary is like saying “no” to dessert (a wasted opportunity).
But with so much ground to cover (literally 2300kms of the Great Barrier Reef), can you experience the best this tropical town has to offer in 48 hours?
Yes. You. Cairns.
NOON: ARRIVE IN CAIRNS
Despite being located in the northernmost part of Queensland, Cairns is surprisingly easy to get to.
Board a direct domestic flight from Sydney, Melbourne, heck even Ayers Rock (Uluru) or a myriad of regional locations to Cairns Airport to start your journey to the adventure capital. The airport also happens to be Australia’s seventh busiest for international flights, so if you’re coming from abroad, welcome!
If you suffer from FOMO but can’t bear the thought of putting your phone on airplane mode, hit the open road and do a self-drive:
- Brisbane to Cairns: 1733km
- Coolangatta, Gold Coast to Cairns: 1833km
- Mackay to Cairns: 740km
- Townsville to Cairns: 349km
2PM: CHECK IN TO YOUR ACCOMMODATION
Located opposite Cairns Central Shopping Centre and a short walk from the city hotspots, YHA is the place to stay if you want all the mod-cons for a fraction of the price. Choose from an air-conditioned dorm, twin or family room, take a leisurely dip in the pool and take advantage of free WiFi as you spend your coin on experiences rather than accomm.
You’ll want to stick around for the free pancake breakfast offered from 7 to 9am daily, too.
Need more convincing? An airport shuttle bus is available for arriving YHA guests for $5 – score!
5:30PM: A SUNSET YOU WON’T FORGET
Set the tone for your weekend in the tropics with a sunset cruise along the Trinity Inlet with Cairns Harbour and Sunset Cruises.
Bask in the golden hour on a yacht and feel the breeze blowing through your hair, with a beverage in hand, as you soak up the salty air and watch the sky change colour like a chameleon.
The two-hour cruise departs at 5:30pm and will set you back $46pp – not too shabby, hey?
7:30PM: CHEW WITH A VIEW
If this restaurant is good enough for the Australian Prime Minister, then you just have to dine here too.
Marina Paradiso is arguably one of the best-kept secrets in town and it’s not hard to see why. Picture Italian chefs lovingly crafting traditional pizzas and pasta and you can understand why the locals want this place to themselves. Whatever you do, make sure you order the Antipasto Misto which will make you say, “bellissimo”!
Psst! When we said you can chew with a view, we weren’t kidding. Marina Paradiso is smack-bang on the waterfront meaning that between every bite, you can hear the gentle waves on the marina and watch the boats pass by.
9AM: DEPART FOR FITZROY ISLAND
A trip to Cairns, Queensland wouldn’t be complete with something to brag about – AKA an experience on the Great Barrier Reef.
Just a hop, skip and jump off the coast of Cairns (or a swift 45 minutes by ferry) lies a slice of paradise waiting to be devoured. Enter Fitzroy Island: a national park island serving up lush rainforest fringed by white sands, azure water and coral beaches.
Live out your CastAway fantasies here hiking the Summit Trail to catch a 360-degree view of the reef, snorkelling over vibrant coral gardens right off the beach or meeting the local turtles at the rehabilitation centre.
Venture 15 minutes along the trail from Welcome Bay to the south-west side of the Island and you’ll come across Nudey Beach. Nudey by name – not by nature – this stunner ranked number 1 in the 2018 Australia’s 101 Best Beaches awards. Check out a sneak peek below.
The ferry to Fitzroy Island departs from Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal Marina at 9am and returns at 5pm, costing $78 per person. If you want to stay longer than a day, you might want to check out this post.
8:15AM ALTERNATE DAY TRIP: FRANKLAND ISLANDS
Shh, local’s secret! If a pristine island with serious Insta cred sounds like heaven to you, we know just the place.
Located south of Cairns, the Frankland Islands have somehow managed to stay off the tourist radar, making them the perfect destination to snorkel through endless coral gardens teeming with marine life (not other people).
You can join a day tour with Cruise & Dive Frankland Islands to experience this secluded haven for $169 per person including transport, equipment hire, a guided snorkelling tour and lunch.
6PM: EAT LIKE A BALLER OFF A FISH TRAWLER
They say that if you shoot for the moon you’ll land among the stars, but when it comes to seafood, there’s only one star in Cairns, Queensland. Prawn Star, that is.
Moored at Marlin Marina (just a three-minute walk from the Esplanade), this fish trawler turned casual seafood restaurant has caught our attention for all the right reasons.
Offering affordable classics – like a $60 share plater of mixed prawns and cooked bugs or a $30 serve of oysters – to more luxe dishes like freshly-cooked mud crab, the menu has been designed with substantial servings in mind. Plus there’s $5 beer and wine offered all day, every day.
OVERNIGHT: SWAP CONVENTIONAL FOR CONSERVATORY
Tucked away in a little laneway off Lake St is Cairns’ best wine bar (yes, we’re calling it), and one of the city’s top places for a low-key yet sophisticated drink (or three), packed to the rafters with locals every weekend.
As soon as you walk through the door of The Conservatory Bar, you’ll be welcomed with live music and the friendliest hospitality around.
The perfect place to end (or kick start) your night, the bar has an extensive wine list and tapas ideal for sharing (think grazing boards with cheeses, meats, and marinated olives) available until late.
7AM: CATCH THE SUNRISE ON THE ESPLANADE
Fairy-floss coloured sunrise? Tick. Sweeping panoramic views of Trinity Inlet? Tick. An escape from the heat? Tick. If you’re looking for the perfect way to start your last day, the lagoon on the Esplanade ticks all the right boxes.
This saltwater swimming lagoon epitomises the outdoor lifestyle in Cairns, Queensland and is free of both an admission charge and stingers.
Local tip: Skip the sleep-in and head to the Esplanade early (we’re talking between 6am-8am) to greet the day and avoid crowds. Stick around for the free fitness classes offered six days a week by the Cairns Council. From pilates to volleyball and even aqua aerobics, the classes are suitable for all fitness levels.
Looking for other free things to do? Check this out.
8AM: THE LAST TASTE OF CAIRNS (FOR NOW)
For a breakfast that’s huge on portions, big on flavour and light on your wallet, head to Lillipad Cafe.
Nestled in an unassuming location on Grafton Street (a five-minute walk from your hostel), this laidback foodie haunt is one of the best-value options in town.
The interior is also a feast for your eyes with artworks by local artists adorning the walls.
Local tip: Lillipad is popular so it tends to get busy (and quickly). It’s best to rise early and nab a spot. They open at 7am.
10AM: THE LAST HOORAH FROM THE CHOPPER
Since you were such a thrifty spender on accommodation, use the rest of your budget to take your bragging rights to the next level (literally) with an epic 30-minute flight with Nautilus Aviation.
You’ll witness the full scale of the Great Barrier Reef 14,000 feet above from the comfort of your private heli (not a bad way to leave Cairns, Queensland in style!).
We guarantee your jaw will meet the (ocean) floor as you swoop over its blue hues.