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I flipped down my snorkel mask and made sure it was secured. I jumped into the water off the boat and was immediately surrounded by blue. I looked left and right and all I could see was reef. It went on in both directions for ages. I swam towards a school of fish and soon found myself wandering around its great expanse. The colors were incredible and grew brighter with every passing ray of sunshine. I lost myself as I paddled around forgetting I was on earth. It wasn’t until I looked down at my hand and saw how pruned it had become that I came back to reality. I was finally snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef!

 

The Great Barrier Reef is incredible, but it is only one part of what Cairns (pronounced Canes) has to offer. It is an incredible city that people often discount as being a stop off to explore the reef. Cairns is far from this. It is a great place to find all sorts of activities from bike tours to white water rafting. The Daintree rainforest is just north of Cairns offering even more opportunities. I loved exploring Cairns and all the sights around it.

 

This is part 2 of 3 of my Australia Travel Guide. This part lends an insider perspective to the beautiful city of Cairns. Part 1 of the series focused on the nature, beaches, and people of Northern Queensland. Part 3 covers the retro and hip Melbourne.

 

Picking Where to Stay in Cairns

Cairns has options from the most luxurious resorts right up to the most basic hostels. There are also some amazing Air BNB properties. First, you have to decide if you want to stay near the northern beaches or in town. Staying in town will give you access to much more services and restaurants, but there is no beach nearby. It’s also a little easier to get to all the tours (most tours will pick up from the northern beaches though). You can get some pretty nice Air BNBs or condos right on the beach if that’s what you are going for. Uber is in Cairns now, so getting around got a lot easier! There are also plenty of taxis.

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I stayed at an Air BNB in town at first and then moved to a hostel when my friend flew home. Our Air BNB was in Northern Cairns, so it was about a 2-3 mile walk to the main area (you can also take a bus). This area was a bit seedier so keep that in mind if you stay here. It is also cheaper than staying in the main central business district.

 

I stayed at Mad Monkey Backpackers right in central Cairns for the weekend. This is an awesome hostel with some of the best amenities I have ever seen. There is a pool, lots of places to relax, a huge kitchen, and bar. They also do great family meals and barbeques which provide a great chance to meet people. They have a tour office right in the main lobby, so you can book your adventures. This hostel is more laid back and chill. If you’re looking for the party scene definitely check out Gilligan’s. The place is huge and always has a massive party going on.

 

Cairns: A Tropical Oasis

The city of Cairns is a huge tourist destination for a reason. It offers easy access to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most traveled tourist destinations. However, don’t forget about the Daintree; it offers some amazing experiences as well. Cairns is also a great town despite being very touristy. It is very cosmopolitan due to the influx of tourists and foreign expats. It has a lot going on despite the small size.

 

There are actually a lot of great things you can do in the city itself. Strolling along the esplanade at night is breathtaking. It’s lit up with multi-colored lights creating an enjoyable night time walk. The mangroves are also lit up and inviting. Make sure you take some time to walk around at night. There are plenty of great spots to stop to eat or drink as well.

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Cairns lit up at night

 

Don’t miss the lagoon right on the esplanade. It’s free, and a great place to kick back and chill. You can swim and get out of the humid and hot temperatures. There are nice fountains to run through and sand to sit on!

 

The shopping in Cairns is also great. It’s a great place to stock up on stuff for you or people back home. Check out the market near the lagoon for some great deals. Prices are not that bad since there is so much competition. Make sure you shop around. I got a few shirts for $15 AUD and some homemade soap for $2 AUD a bar.

 

Get Cosmopolitan in Your Food Exploration in Cairns

Cairns has an amazing variety of food. You can get anything you want from the across the world. It is a great chance to explore a variety of cuisine. Walk around the waterfront and find a place that looks good. I had an awesome salad at Pier Bar which was accompanied with live music and a great beer. Salt House comes highly recommended by locals, and has amazing Modern Australian food. Seafood is also a must. Cairns is right on the water, so you can get some amazing dishes. Splash is a great place that has great water views.

 

Cairns is also a good place to get a kangaroo steak. There are some places that will cook one up for you, but the best way to do it is to grill one up yourself. I got some fresh veggies and steak from the local Coles, and had an amazing meal. There are even free BBQs right along the esplanade. Don’t be afraid to try kangaroo. It is rich and delicious.

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My soon to be homemade kangaroo steak and wine

 

Don’t skimp on the gelato either. Just like everywhere else in Australia, Cairns has some amazing ice cream. All the places I tried were scrumptious and boast many fresh fruit flavors. There wasn’t one place that stuck out. Try a few!

 

Also, try some cheap Kebobs form Alibaba. This was one of the most amazing kebabs I have ever had. It was massive and only $10 AUD.

 

Cairns Nightlife: Surprisingly Happening

Cairns despite the small size, lights up at night. There is a huge backpacker crowd, but you can also find some classy spots. The Attic at Gilligan’s and The Woolshed are where most people go to dance and party. I walked into The Woolshed and realized that everyone was under 20. Everyone was dancing on tables and going wild. They have free drinks for ladies on certain nights as well. Gilligan’s is huge and has many dance floors. Both places are great to check out when you’re looking to dance.

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A hype night at Gilligan’s (from their websites)

 

My favorite spot in Cairns quickly became P.J. O’Brien’s Irish Pub. It also helped that I was there during St. Paddy’s day so the place was popping. The pub is laidback and fun outside of the holiday. I met some Australians and had a good time hanging and chatting with them for the night. P.J.’s is a great spot to check out for some good brews and a chill time. The Pier Bar is also a lot of fun and a huge local spot. They have live music, good food, good beer, and a great view. It’s worth checking out.

 

The Great Barrier Reef Lives up to the HYPE

I was worried The Great Barrier Reef would disappoint, but I was so very wrong. Everything you hear in the media is how the reef is disappearing and getting bleached. Don’t let this stop you from experiencing this wonder of the world. The reef was incredible and worth every penny I spent on the tour. However, the reef is getting bleached! It is unfortunate and due to rising water temperatures. Check out the evidence and things you can do to help. See it before it loses a lot of its luster (hopefully we can prevent this).

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Our tour boat

There are so many different types of tours you can take that it can be overwhelming. You want to pick a tour that works for you. Luckily there are so many options that this is easy. We managed to book a tour the night before, but this is not advisable. A lot of options were already sold out. Despite this we still found an awesome tour that gave us everything we wanted out of the reef. There are half and full day tours, but the best way to experience the reef is for a full day. It takes a bit to get out there (about an hour), so you will want to maximize your time on the reef.

 

See More Fish and Find Nemo!

We ended up booking the Reef Magic Tour. The tour puts you on a huge boat that drops you off at a huge platform called Marine World. You can snorkel, dive, take a glass bottom boat, or take a semi-submersible tour (for those who don’t want to swim). You have a solid 5 hours on the reef. The base price is $215 AUD ($15 more for hotel pickup). This is a steep price for a tour, but it is definitely worth it. There is so much time for snorkeling and exploration in the huge area they have roped off. There are also plenty of add-ons (more money) for diving or guided snorkeling trips. I took the advanced guided snorkeling out to the outer reef. The snorkeling there was incredible as you could see the reef drop off and all sorts of different fish. I also saw Nemo!

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There is an incredible diversity of fish on the reef, but you will likely only see a small subset. However, this is still hundreds of different kind of fish. The area even has a huge fish that swims up to you that you can hold (they definitely feed h im). There is a fish feeding which is cool to watch under water. I got lost exploring every little nook and cranny of the reef. I found all sorts of amazing fish and coral species and did not want to leave. My whole body was a prune by the end.

 

An all Expansive Experience

Besides the snorkeling, the tour has an amazing buffet lunch. Think fresh prawns, salad, fruit, chicken dishes, rice, lasagna, and more. The lunch has something for everyone even healthy people like me. It’s safe to say I chowed down pretty hard especially after snorkeling everywhere. They also have snacks, coffee, and tea before you head out and when you come back.

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Hanging with the friendly fish

 

As you can see that the tour was worth the price. You can get cheaper tours, but these are going to give you less time on the reef in less desirable locations. Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef is a once in a lifetime experience. The colors, wildlife, and diversity is other worldly. Without a doubt, it was one of the coolest things I have ever done. The reef is huge and there are so many parts to explore. I would like to get my diving license, and go back to experience more (you can take introductory dives as well). There is always more to explore and the Great Barrier Reef is no exception.

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The Engineering Feat That is the Kuranda Scenic Railway

As an engineer I nerd out when I see feats of engineering. The Kuranda Scenic Railway had me nerding out the whole way. The construction of the railway began in 1886. It is incredible to see what they were able to do with limited technology. The railway is carved into the side of the mountain. The trip up is breathtaking and you will see some incredible views. Think waterfalls, incredible bridges, and scenic overlooks. I think my face was stuck to the window at one point. They also provide a nice history of the railway over the loudspeaker on the way up.

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It is really easy to book the trip on this site. Combing the rail trip up with a gondola ride down is the best way to do it. It will cost you about $100-$150 AUD for the whole experience. The train drops you off at Kuranda. This is a nice little town with lots of good food and a lot of touristy stuff to buy. You can actually find some nice things for pretty good prices. There is also a few things to do such as a butterfly garden and a zoo. Make sure you leave some time to explore the town. It was fun to wander around.

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Fly Two Meters over the Rainforest Canopy

If you take the train up to Kuranda, it is almost a requirement to take the sky gondola back down. The gondola travels down from Kuranda to Carvonica. From here you can take a shuttle back to Cairns. This was another experience which had me glued to the window. The diversity in landscape and scenery was outstanding. The rainforest often passed mere feet below the gondola. It was incredible to see all the biodiversity. The gondola also stops at a few stations, so you have the chance to walk around the forest a bit. This is a great chance to see some waterfalls, wildlife, and biodiversity.

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Don’t forget your camera for this trip; you will want to take pictures of everything. The entire tour is well organized in the typical Australian fashion. It is easy to do and simple to book. Kuranda is recommended as the best way to see the beginnings of the Daintree (both by me and by locals). Don’t miss it!

 

Cairns Has Something for Everyone

I highly recommend the previous tours, but that is not even close to all the adventures Cairns has to offer. You can get into some sweet adventures like bike tours, waterfall tours, fishing tours, and whitewater rafting tours. As an avid fisherman, I had to get out and fish in Australia. I managed to grab a tour and go fishing in the estuaries for $75 AUD. I succeeded in catching a few and I had a great time out on the water. The guide was hilarious and had a lot of awesome stories. He was the typical laid back, colorful Aussie. We even hooked a bull shark at one point and watched the line get pulled to the depths (there would be no catching that). It was nice getting out on the water and getting some sun.

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I’ve also heard that Uncle Brian’s Rainforest Tour is awesome. You get taken out to some awesome waterfalls and lakes to chill and relax. You can even do a whole 2 day trip. It is definitely worth checking out. My firsthand experience with the beauty and nature around Cairns on my road trip makes me believe the hype.

 

Make sure you have enough money saved up when you get to Cairns. You are going to have a hard time picking an activity from the crazy options. It is a great city that you could spend a significant amount of time in.

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A little rainbow while fishing. 🙂

Explore the Tropical North: Cairns is the SPOT!

Cairns has a whole lot to do and is worth the trip up north. The weather is hot and humid, but the activities are super cool. The people are super laid back and great. Being a cosmopolitan city, you can also meet other travelers from across the world. To do Cairns right:

  1. Explore the esplanade and shops
  2. Hit up the many restaurants and bars
  3. Have a fun night out at the club or a relaxed bar
  4. Book a tour of the Great Barrier Reef
  5. Take the Scenic Kuranda Railway and the Sky Gondola back down
  6. Pick from any of the numerous


I only scratched the surface of Cairns. There is so much to see and do in and outside of the city. It is only on most people’s list due to the Great Barrier Reef, but there is so much more to Cairns than that. Don’t be afraid to spend some time getting to know the real Cairns.

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This has been part 2 of 3 of my Australia Travel Guide. Check out Part 1 of the series focused on the nature, beaches, and people of Northern Queensland. Part 3 focuses on the retro and hip Melbourne.

 

Have you been to Cairns? Have you been to the Great Barrier Reef? Do you want to explore the tropical north of Australia? Let me know in the comments! As always email me with any questions.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Joe

    Excellent recap of Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef! I felt like I was there! Now I have it on my list!
    Thanks much!
    Joe F

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