• Janice

A Week of Day Trips from Cairns: Great Barrier Reef, Rainforests and Beaches

Updated: Aug 21

Map location Cairns Great Barrier Reef
Map Location of Cairns

The city of Cairns is located in northern tropical Queensland, a vast state of Australia. Visitors who enjoy ecotourism experiences are well catered for by a user-friendly tourism sector. Cairns's east coast location is a gateway to many natural attractions such as the world-famous Great Barrier Reef and the wet tropics including Daintree National Park.

The Best Time to Visit Cairns

Transport Links

Trip Highlights

Day Trips Itinerary

Sunday 🚶‍♂️🚅

Arrived aboard the Spirit of Queensland at 5.30 pm. Checked in to the YHA, 20 McCleod St, Cairns which is an easy walk from the station.


Monday 🚶‍♂️🛥

Green Island Coral Cay on Great Barrier Reef
Green Island Great Barrier Reef

Take the full-day Green Island tour with Big Cat Green Island Reef Tours for an authentic Great Barrier experience. Green Island is a 1.2-hectare sand cay located within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Casting off from the Reef Fleet Terminal for a short 40 min voyage on board the mighty Big Cat. The terminal is a 15-minute walk from our central YHA accommodation.

We purchased the base rate of $94.00 Au to transfer to the island with an extra $15 for either a glass-bottom boat experience or snorkelling gear including stinger protection (for self-guided snorkelling from the shore). We weren't as confident as some of the other passengers who snorkelled and chose the glass bottom boat experience. This was due to the windy conditions on the day. I noticed other tours but Green Island was the closest option to the Great Barrier.

A note from Green Island:

  • Snorkelling and swimming are tides-dependent. Check the tides and if the tide is running out make the most of the water. There is no reasonable snorkelling, close to shore, at low tide. For snorkelling at low tide take one of the snorkelling safaris as a paid tour upgrade.

Tuesday 🚶‍♂️🚍

Attractions: Lagoon and Botanical Gardens

We enjoyed a full-day self-guided tour, walking and riding the local bus. We walked the city centre and down to the esplanade enjoying the lagoon. Then we visited the Cairns Botanic Gardens on board the 131 city bus ($4.50 cash for 2). My Fitbit showed 12 800 steps that day.

Wednesday 🚶‍♂️ 🚂

Janice at Kuranda Railway Station
Kuranda Historic Railway Station photo Derek

A full-day trip to Kuranda village aboard Kuranda Historic Rail. The railway offers a number of options, we purchased return tickets at $76.00 per adult. We also visited the Australian Butter Fly Sanctuary at $20.00 per adult. We spent all day exploring the area and returned on the last train back to Cairns.

Thursday 🚶‍♂️ 🚙

A full-day self-drive road trip from Cairns to Palm Beach, Rex Lookout and Port Douglas. Then, northward to Mossman Gorge which is in the southern reaches of Daintree National Park. We spent the good part of the day swimming and soaking up the rainforest atmosphere at Mossman Gorge. We noted warnings that the gorge is prone to flash flooding so checked with the appropriate authorities before swimming. Then returned home via Lake Mitchel arriving in the city before dark.


Friday 🚙

A full-day road trip from Cairns to the Atherton Tablelands. First, we visited Etty Beach (a famous spot for viewing Cassowary). Next onto Mungalli Bio-Dynamic Dairy which is an organic dairy farm and factory with onsite retail outlets. They offer a farm-to-fork experience from the Mungalli Café and shop sales. We visit 3 x Waterfalls on our way to the Camera & Spy Museum at 49 Grace St Herberton. We stopped briefly at Yungaburra, hoping to see a platypus, then back to Cairns before dark.


Saturday 🚙

Half-Day at the 👆Bibinda Boulders with lovely rainforest, clear water swimming and rushing rapids.

Sunday 🚅

8.30 am Departure aboard the Spirit of Queensland.

The Best Time to Visit Cairns

The hot season lasts for about 4 months from November to March, with an average daily high temperature above 30°C. The hottest month of the year in Cairns is January, with an average high of 31°C and a low of 24°C. The wet season coincides with the hottest time of the year resulting in downpours, overcast skies and high humidity.

We visited during a cooler time of year, in early June. We experienced highs between 24-27, wore light clothing and enjoyed swimming. The stinger season runs from November to May with stingers rarely seen in the off-season. We took note of the public warnings that stinging jellyfish may still be present in the sea. However, after watching many unprotected swimmers enjoying the sea, we also swam unprotected with no issues. The coldest month of the year in Cairns is July, with an average low of 18°C and a high of 25°C.

NOTE: There are many dangers in the sea, waterways and wild areas around Cairns. This includes crocodiles, sharks and deadly snakes. Swimmers in the sea are in the most danger from stinging jellyfish during the hot season. Do your homework before entering the oceans, waterways and other wild areas and follow instructions from authorities.

Cairns the Walkable City with Fantastic Public Transport Links

Cairns's transport connections include air, seaport, rail and road. The airport services domestic and international travellers. Cairns is 1678 km north of Brisbane, Queensland's capital, and is as far as the Spirit of Queensland goes running overnight from Brisbane.

We arrived aboard the Spirit of Queensland completing the northernmost leg of our Queensland Rail journey. For the first 3 nights, we stayed across the road from Cairns Terminus, at the YHA which is an easy walk to the local bus service. This central location connects with the restaurant scene, shopping mall and supermarket.

Via the local bus service 🚍 travellers are connected to the northern beaches as far as Port Douglas and south as far as Innisfail. Trans North Bus Service extends further to the Daintree Forest in the north and to Atherton out west.

Cairns is a city with a lot of nature within an easy walk 🚶‍♂️. What's more, the city is on a sheltered harbour, with a downtown marina that is only a 40-minute voyage to the Great Barrier Reef.

Car Rental and Road Trips from Cairns

However, despite the handy location of our accommodation, for the remainder of our stay, we decided to rent a car 🚙. We also changed our accommodation to a clean apartment with a lovely backyard just off The Esplanade.

Drive with care, Queensland back country roads are difficult with many hazards. We rented a Toyota Yarris and drove to the conditions and returned to the city before dark. Kangaroos are a traffic hazard mainly between dusk and dawn.

Trip Highlights

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the world. Coral reefs are spectacular, with the Great Barrier being the largest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1981.

Elk Coral and Fish - The Great Barrier Reef

I am delighted to tick the Barrier Reef off my bucket list. I found the waters teeming with fish and colourful corals. Green Island is the stuff of dreams, covered in a rainforest that is alive with bird song, and shores lined with coconut palms. My most exciting bird sighting was an Osprey catching and feeding on fish.

Visiting the tropical rainforest is a wonderful experience. The Daintree is known as the longest continuous existing forest in the world. The clean flowing waters and lush vegetation provide an atmosphere of calm to soothe the soul. The strange prehistoric animals are part of the experience.

The Cairns Botanic Garden reflects the tropical vibe with outstanding specimens including collections of rare orchards and flowers. Different areas of the gardens are laid out in different themes. I particularly enjoyed the Gondwana Heritage Garden which tracks the history of plant development from the beginning of time. The fernery and orchard house is a magical experience.

I love rail and Cairns ticked all the rail boxes. Our Kuranda trip was seamless thanks to Queensland rail connecting with the Kuranda Historic Rail. Our trian ride was thrilling and spectacularly scenic rising 327 metres from Cairns at sea level to the rainforest village of Kuranda. The rail travels through tunnels and overlooks gorges complete with tumbling waterfalls. We found the village charming and we enjoyed the opportunities to interact with nature. Particularly in the aviaries of Australia Butterfly Sanctuary. Butterflies flutter by in the forests and gardens, however, it is at the aviary that we were able to photograph these beauties.

Apart from the main events, Cairns is a lush city where the streets are lined with beautiful specimen trees. In fact, we shared our accommodation with all manner of birds and reptiles. The fantastic waterfront features a man-made lagoon that also adds to the tropical vibe. I love Cairns and I hope to visit again.

Photo Credits:

Green Island ©[Nikoniko] via Canva.com

Under Water Coral ©[Aussiesnakes] via Canva.com

All remaining images as marked

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