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Cairns, often regarded as the Coral Reef Capital of the World, is the gateway to the magnificent Great Barrier Reef (GBR). Over 3 million tourists visit Cairns annually, making it one of Australia’s foremost tourist locations, all drawn to the underwater beauty of the GBR, which collectively across 3000 plus reefs is considered the largest living structure on the planet.
But reef aside, Cairns has a lot of history, geography, flora and fauna, and most importantly a bundle of charm and vibes, that often take visitors by surprise.
Hemmed in between the Coral Sea and the Atherton Tablelands, Cairns has a lot to offer and exceeds expectations if you are able to get around the beautiful dainty city. Here are the top 10 attractions that you shouldn’t miss, when in Cairns:
1. Immerse yourself at the Great Barrier Reef
Cairns starts with the GBR. Period. The world’s largest coral reef structure has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981. So, first and foremost, complete your underwater pilgrimage by taking a cruise to the outer reef.
You will be able to snorkel at the inner fringing reefs around the many islands near Cairns, but nothing beats the experience of swimming at the expansive outer reef. Here, the reefs run longer, are less disturbed by human pollution and proliferate in a plethora of colours.
Snorkelling over the reef offers indelible memories, but there are other innovative ways to explore the reef as well, based on your budget. You can go deep sea diving or underwater sea walking or even hop on a glass-bottom boat or a deep-sea submersible (almost making you feel like a David Attenborough looking at towering structures of the reef growing from the depths of the Coral Sea).
Go-pros are available for rental at the marina, so don’t forget to hire them to retain some unforgettable memories of your underwater odyssey.
2. Go Snorkelling at Fitzroy Island
The GBR is actually one large coral system, comprising 3000 individual reefs and over 900 islands and coral cays. Cairns, has its fair share of islands to go to, the most easily accessible being Fitzroy and Green Island. Others include Frankland Island, Lizard Island, the Low Isles, Dunk Island and Michaelmas Cay among others.
Do make a visit to at least one island on the Reef to get your picture-perfect postcards of shiny white sands, emeraldine rainforests, turquoise-cerulean waters abounding with colourful tropical fishes. Fitzroy Island takes about 45 minutes from Cairns, and offers wonderful snorkelling opportunities to explore the inner reef.
There are a few hikes as well around the island, including a 20-minute hike to the shimmering Nudey beach (no, it’s not a nudist beach!), to a rainforest walk inside the island termed the Secret Garden, or even to a lighthouse to get a brilliant aerial view of the waters and reefs around the island.
Fitzroy Island also has a resort in case you want to tick off your bucket list, the wish to stay on an island at the GBR!
3. Search for turtles at Green Island
Similar to Fitzroy Island, Green Island lies very close to Cairns and can be reached in 30 minutes. It too has a beautiful resort, but has a more fecund birdlife – watch out for the scurrying and colourful bush banded rails, found in abundance here or the flocks of noddies, especially in nesting season.
Green Island has a lot of seagrass meadows, so do lookout for the Green Turtles that thrive in these meadows along with the rare-but-not-impossible-to-spot dugongs.
4. Get aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway
If you have seen enough of the reef, maybe its time to turn into the hinterlands of Cairns and experience the magical rainforests. One of the best ways to explore these would be the Kuranda Scenic Railway – a two-hour joyride that chugs up from Cairns all the way to the historical village of Kuranda.
The heritage railway line was completed back in 1891 to connect with the tin-mining villages in the highlands, especially after heavy floods would damage and cut off the unstable dirt-roads. Today, the old locomotives and carriages are a relic from these older days, and allows passengers to re-live the timeless journey.
It is incredibly scenic and passes through the Barron Gorge National Park in Australia’s Great Dividing Range, the most noteworthy attractions being the Stoney Creek Falls and then, the thundering Barron Falls.
Keep a look out for an insta-worthy snap when the train turns 180 degrees in front of the Stoney Creek Falls and you can take a photo of the train with the falls.
5. Visit the Largest Butterfly Aviary and Exhibit in the Southern Hemisphere at Kuranda Village
Once at Kuranda, take your time to explore the heritage village which has plenty of attractions, including an extremely informative boat ride on an Army amphibious vehicle, a brilliant bird aviary and plenty of historic hotels and timeless taverns.
An unmissable attraction here is the butterfly sanctuary, the largest not only in Australia but the entire Southern Hemisphere. You can spot some of the largest butterflies of Australia, such as the Cairns birdwing, the Ulysses butterfly and the largest moth in the world – the aptly named Hercules moth.
If travelling with kids, this is a must-do.
6. Glide Over a Rainforest on the Kuranda Scenic Cableway
If you think you have seen a lot of the rainforest on the way up to Kuranda, wait till you take the scenic cableway on the way back (this is the best combination of the slower railway up and the faster cableway down).
The cable car takes over an hour to return to Cairns and glides over the tropical rainforests and lets you get an aerial view of the jungles. It also makes a couple of pitstops, one of which provides an even more spectacular view of the Baron Falls tumbling down the highlands.
7. Take a Road Trip to Port Douglas, along with a Dip in the Mosman Gorge
Situated just 60 kms north of Cairns, Port Douglas has recently emerged as an alternate, more premier destination than Cairns to explore the Reef and the Rainforest. It is the not the first time that the two townships have jostled for attention though. Port Douglas and Cairns were both founded sometime in the 1870s after gold was discovered near the Hodgkinson River.
It was the Kuranda Railway that tilted Cairns’ fortune while Port Douglas’ dwindled away. Today it has turned out to be an eclectic destination lined with cosy cafes, beautiful breweries and rich restaurants with the tropical vibes epi-centred around the Four Mile Beach.
You can choose to stay at Cairns or Port Douglas or the alternate charming towns in between such as Palm Cove, Trinity Beach or Clifton Beach. Whatever you choose, the journey along the Captain Cook Highway is spectacular, following the azure coast and racing past large swathes of rainforest or sugarcane cultivation.
Just beyond Port Douglas lies Mossman Gorge inside the Daintree National Park, renowned for its gorge, walking tracks in the rainforest and the Mossman river, a local favourite for a cool dip on a hot sunny day.
8. Look Out for Crocodiles at the Daintree Forest
About 50 km north of Port Douglas lies the Daintree village, gateway to the Daintree National Park and yet another UNESCO World Heritage listed site – the Daintree rainforest. with which once all of Australia was covered over 100 million years ago, when the climate was wetter and warmer and Australia was still joined to Antarctica.
The wet and humid rainforests – the oldest in the world – are home to a rich and diverse fauna, including the rare southern cassowary and the Bennett’s tree kangaroo.
An easier to spot animal is the saltwater crocodile and you can take a boat trip on the Daintree river to spot these giant survivors from the Mesozoic era bathing in the sun on a muddy bank of the river. Winter is best time to spot these ‘salties’ when they frequently come up on the banks to sun themselves.
9. Drench Underneath One of the Many Picturesque Waterfalls in the Atherton Tablelands
The Atherton tablelands southwest of Cairns abound in waterfalls thank to the hilly landscape and abundance of rainfall, this being tropical territory.
Explore these jungles to discover one magical waterfall after another – while Millaa Millaa is the most popular, there are plenty more including the Malanda, ZIllie, Ellinjaa, Dinner, Millstream and Mungalli and the Wallaman (highest single drop waterfall in Australia) – among many, many more.
10. Explore the Charms of Cairns
While there are so many activities and hotspots around Cairns to occupy your holiday, no matter how long, don’t forget to give some time to Cairns itself. It is a small town thriving mostly on tourism revenue and has a rich history, some beautiful, heritage-listed architecture, and a string of classy new age restaurants on the waterfront.
The Esplanade is unofficially the heart of the town, with a wide shallow artificial pool, lifeguards included, that makes it the hub for all and sundry (the city has no sandy beach of its own).
Surrounded by a sculpture trail, fantastic boardwalks, restaurants, souvenir shops, supermarkets and a giant Ferris wheel, it provides a relaxing way to spend your evenings after you have spent your days filled with activities exploring reef and rainforest.
Cairns also has its museum, botanical gardens, wildlife dome and art gallery for those who are keen to further explore the wondrous city.
Connections: Cairns is connected via domestic flights to all big cities in Australia. It has direct international flights to Japan, Bali, Singapore and New Zealand
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Author Bio: Ayan Adak is a consultant by profession and loves travelling, writing and photography. He has travelled to over 30 countries and has published multiple books on travel and poetry.