Itinerary planner: 7 days in Cairns with the family
Firstly, well done you for allocating a week to exploring the capital of Tropical North Queensland, Cairns!
If you’ve read this blog post, you know you could easily spend a year up here and barely scratch the surface of all the things to see and do.
With World Heritage-listed reef AND rainforest at your doorstep, the only thing you’re at risk of in Cairns is holiday burnout. Plan ahead and make the most of your time in Cairns with this family itinerary planner.
DAY 1: Get a lay of the land
They say the way to a (wo)man’s heart is through his stomach – but we think the same rings true of destinations.
If you’re looking for love at first bite, time your trip for a Friday, Saturday or Sunday to see Rusty’s Market in full swing. Do as the locals do and start your morning here, stocking up on snacks for your adventures ahead.
This taste of the tropics comes by way of a market that’s 180 stalls strong, with everything from fresh produce from the Atherton Tablelands to delicatessen goodies from the Daintree. The kids will love sipping on a fresh coconut and ogling the weird and wonderful tropical fruits like rambutan, black sapote and jackfruit.
Make Cairns your base for three nights, and if you can swing it, splurge for Esplanade-facing digs. Water views aren’t just a nice-to-have in this itinerary, they’ll mean you don’t need a hire car for the first part of the trip.
For families, our pick is Mantra Trilogy, which is less of a hotel and more of a self-contained apartment situation. If Mantra’s your base, you’ll be able to take a 2.5km stroll along the flat waterfront boardwalk to watch the sun set over the reef – and reach a handful of these kid-friendly restaurants on foot.
The bonus of this waterfront location is that if the kids need a change of scenery from the onsite resort-style swimming pool, you can swap to the 4800-square metre swimming pool at Cairns Lagoon.
Get straight into the tropical spirit with a fresh seafood platter that doesn’t leave the trawler, dining at Prawn Star. Take your pick at this floating restaurant – cooked to order or served fresh.
DAY 2: Dive into the Great Barrier Reef
Since time isn’t of the essence this holiday, opt for a full-day Great Barrier Reef tour for max snorkel time.
If Google has you splitting hairs on which reef trip is for you, we have you covered with this guide, which goes behind the scenes of our favourite operators.
Sunlover will have you out on the water for longer than a school day, departing the marina at 8:30am and returning before sunset at 5:20pm.
In between, you’ll tick off Fitzroy Island and their Moore Reef pontoon, with four hours of free time to snorkel and try their onboard facilities (perfect for non-swimmers) like an underwater observatory, semi-submersible and glass-bottom boat.
If that’s not enough action for you, hold onto your fins because this pontoon also has a theme park-worthy waterslide to really make an entrance into this World Heritage-listed wonder.
There’s no need to venture from the marina to fuel up for the night. Mondo on the Waterfront is family-friendly with outdoor dining where kids can run around without anyone blinking an eye.
The menu covers a lot of ground across six pages, but importantly, has a kids menu where you’ll leave with change from $10.
DAY 3: Swap reef for rainforest
If you thought the rainforest behind Cairns was just called the Daintree, you have much to learn about the precincts that make up the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics.
Start out with a visit to its Cairns Central section, joining Skyrail Rainforest Cableway for a gondola-glide over the forest. A transfer service will collect you from your hotel, taking you to Skyrail’s Smithfield Terminal where you’ll experience the rainforest from a new perspective.
The ride to Kuranda’s heights packs a feature-film (aka 1.5 hours) worth of rainforest watching into your morning, all done from the comfort of an air-conditioned gondola. You’ll have the opportunity to break up the journey with lookouts at the Red Peak and Barron Falls mid-stations, and a ranger-guided forest tour at Red Peak station.
Mix up your return journey with a train ride back to Cairns onboard one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys, the Kuranda Scenic Rail. The one-and-a-half hour ride includes a stop at Barron Falls, which in the wet season, put on a thunderous show.
Finishing at Freshwater Station, a coach will transfer you back to your hotel – proving this is the most accessible section of the Wet Tropics – just 20 minutes from your doorstep.
Eat where the locals eat with a cheap and cheerful bowl of ramen at Ganbaranba Noodle Colosseum. The line out the door and lickety-split service are both indications this hole-in-the-wall are specialists in delicious dinners.
Tip: If your kids don’t dig noodles, best give this dining experience a swift detour because they only sell ramen (+ gyoza) and try somewhere else on this list.
DAY 4: Hire a car to go north
Check out of your Esplanade home and hire a car to discover a place where it’s always holiday o’clock, Palm Cove.
It might only be 30 minutes north of Cairns but the holiday-vibes are always on tap, largely thanks to its esplanade, lined with palm trees and paperbarks.
Spend the morning on the water with Pacific Watersports to SUP your way to Double Island. You’ll want to get onto the water to look back at the mainland and marvel at the geology of Cairns, where rainforest-clad mountains meet the sea.
Keen to stay longer? Here’s 10 ways to maximise the holiday vibes in Palm Cove.
Settle the debate by putting another 43km on the odometer taking the Great Barrier Reef Drive and find out for yourself.
The road trip between the two is car-commercial worthy, hugging the coastline with hair-pin bends and plenty of lookouts to pull over and marvel at the view.
When a town’s major industry is tourism, you know the accommodation choices are bound to be good. We pillow tested them all to bring you this guide, so choose your favourite and check-in for the next two nights.
Tonight, dine at Port Douglas institution Salsa Bar & Grill whose modern Australian menu has been creating food envy for the past 22 years. Its history in feeding Port Douglas is nothing short of legendary, as is their ‘gnocchi of the day’.
DAY 5: Cross the Daintree River
Discover the northern frontier of the Wet Tropics, by road tripping two hours north of Port Douglas to Cape Tribulation for the day.
Up here the trees wear more rings than the Amazon Rainforest and play habitat to animals you can only spot here.
You’ll be spoilt for day-trip choice as soon as you cross the Daintree River – but we’d recommend flying over it with Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours for a high-action, kid-friendly activity.
To kick it casual, pop down to the BBQs at Rex Smeal Park to cook up dinner al-fresco.
Or, why not make use of the hotel’s babysitter and have a date night Port Douglas style? Make a booking for two at 2Fish, whose menu favours seafood (in case the name didn’t give it away) with the likes of Panang bug tails, yellowfin tuna and tiger prawn linguine on the menu.
DAY 6: Rest and reset
Port Douglas didn’t earn its reputation as a relaxing resort playground because everyone is busy doing activities all the time.
Test out your resort pool, take a nap, wander along Four Mile Beach and be sure to put down a picnic rug in Rex Smeal Park to watch sailboats cruise by.
If you like your beer brewed locally and made from money-can’t-buy ingredients like the pure waters of Mossman Gorge, then get yourself to Hemingway’s on the marina.
It’s not just beer – but food too – complete with kids menu to keep everyone happy. You’ll find pub bites like chicken wings and sliders on the menu along with more substantial serves from the grill.
Follow it up with a brewery tour, where you can explore the makings of Hemingway’s craft beer which finishes with a guided tasting.
Pssst – if bedtimes aren’t your biggest worry when it comes to travelling, be sure to also check out these things to do in Port Douglas after dark.
DAY 7: Take a history lesson
You don’t have to venture far from Port Douglas to find stories of the world’s oldest living culture. In fact, 15 minutes is all you need to find your way to the Mossman Gorge Centre.
It’s well worth the investment in a Dreamtime tour, where a Kuku Yalanji guide, one of the traditional owners, will share their stories from past and present.
Each tour starts with a smoke cleansing ceremony before a 90-minute walking tour, covering the basics of bush tucker and traditional medicine.
Proving sustainability and zero waste have been around a lot longer than we have, the stories of the Kuku Yalanji will leave you feeling like you should listen to the seasons and mother nature more in your day-to-day life.
It’s a fitting end to your time in Tropical North Queensland, and you’ll have 90 minutes drive back to Cairns to discuss your holiday highlights before returning to the normal daily grind.