Scroll to Explore

A First Timer’s Guide to Cairns

No matter what you’ve heard, where you’ve come from or how old you are, experiencing Tropical North Queensland for the first time is pretty mind-blowing. With two World Heritage sites side-by-side and the godfather of all smooth talkers, David Attenborough, saying it’s his favourite place on Earth, it’s a place that lives up to high expectations.

So, what should you do on your first date with this breathtakingly natural, sometimes high-octane but gloriously beautiful and laid-back place? While it doesn’t hurt having a Natural Wonder of the World on your doorstep, it is far from the only attraction that Cairns has to offer. A renowned adventure destination, Cairns and its surroundings are full of activities to take part in that range from the relaxing to the adrenaline-pumping.

We’ve checked in with the locals and come up with your must-dos for first-timers.

1.    Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef (GBR)

Coming to Cairns and skipping the GBR is like going to Disneyland and not going on any of the rides. And therein is the problem. Picking just one part/one trip/one experience on the Reef is downright tough. As the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, you will be spoilt for choice by the number of passionate people there are here about this Natural Wonder. 

Speak to one of our Experience Curators for our top tips on who and where to go snorkel down with.

2.    Explore the land before time

The other World Heritage site is met by the Great Barrier Reef a little further north – The Daintree Rainforest. A visit to the Daintree Discovery Centre, an award-winning world-class attraction that allows visitors easy access to the raw, prehistoric beauty of the mighty Daintree Rainforest. From magnificent cassowaries to tropical bugs the size of your hand, this is definitely the spot to be enchanted by the rainforest.

A little further up the road is Cape Tribulation – a place where legends are made, lived and told. Cape Tribulation can be explored by self-guided trails, guided walks, horse riding along the beach or even a zipline through the jungle. Paddle the coastline in a sea kayak to see where the rainforest meets the reef, or take a trip to a remote sand cay for that truly tropical feeling.

3.    To market, to market

A treasure chest of marketplaces to visit, Cairns has it in spades. With all the tropical delights for the foodies, Rusty’s Markets is the epitome of the tropics to a tee. Smack bang in the centre of town, these hawker-style markets operate every Friday – Sunday and are renowned for exotic produce (dragonfruit and purple mangosteens, anyone?) and over a hundred vibrant stalls with everything from flowers and cheese, coffee and chocolate, breads and local charcuterie as well as clothes and trinkets.

For those who prefer a little more of the take-home market variety, the Kuranda Markets are as much an attraction as they are an institution. The scent of sandalwood and patchouli lingers in the air, with the marketplace conjuring a feeling of whimsy and enchantment down meandering pathways in the rainforest. The Kuranda Markets offer a wide range of stalls offering locally-produced souvenirs including handmade Karma Kuranda soaps and the hottest chilli sauces on the planet (CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!).

4.    Green Island

One of the unique highlights of the Great Barrier Reef, Green Island is an astoundingly beautiful, 6000-year-old coral cay with a reef and rainforest environment home to over 120 native plant species and native birds. Who needs Discovery Channel when you can see for reals? Only a short 45 minute trip on a fast cat from Cairns, this is island living at it’s best. Make sure you check out the SeaWalker – the very best option to get under the sea without getting wet.

5.    Adventure time

Known as the ‘Adventure Capital of Australia’ Cairns is not short on adrenaline pumping rides to make your heart race faster than a rat up a drainpipe. Some people like reaching great heights via the stairs, while others like to dive headfirst off a 50 metre tower with only a bungee cord strapped to their ankles. If you’re one of the latter, a visit to AJ Hackett is on your must-do list. Ever think about a BMX bungy? Yup, that’s a thing; along with a menu of 16 other insane ways to plummet that’ll curl your toes.

Skydive Cairns is where you want to be at to get a bird's eye view from above. A death-defyer’s dream, Skydive Cairns offers the highest tandem jump in Australia. Choose a dive from between 9,000-15,000 feet, with freefalls ranging from 25 seconds to a full minute of a heart-racing fall at up to 220 kilometres per hour. Want to commemorate the occasion? Skydive Cairns will even throw in a dive photo that will be sure to go straight to the pool room.

6.    Secret swimming spots

Like Fight Club, the first rule of local secrets, is you don’t talk about local secrets. But, we think Crystal Cascades and nearby Fairy Falls deserve an exception to this rule, even for first-timers. 

Crystal Cascades is one of the favourite secrets of Tropical North Queensland - a secluded freshwater swimming hole, hidden in a tropical rainforest. A series of small waterfalls flow into large pools surrounded by large impressive granite boulders, and a definite on the must-see list. With no transport, tours or phone reception, it can be reached only by DIY drive – about a 20 minute drive north west of Cairns City.

Fairy Falls is a little further on and aptly named – it’s a picturesque waterfall as magical as its name. To get there, turn your back to the Crystal Cascades’ car park, head into the forest where there is an opening between the trees. You must keep the creek on your right, climb over boulders until you reach the most beautiful tranquil deep plunge pool. Yeah, yeah – directions are sketchy, but if you can find it, you deserve it.

Top image courtesy of Tourism Tropical North Queensland