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Cairns – a city of contrasts and surprises

We’ve passed through Cairns on several occasions, en route to destinations such as Port Douglas and Fitzroy Island to name but a few. But this time we wanted to spend a bit longer getting to know Cairns itself. We felt as though we had somewhat neglected it in the past. And what were we thinking? I cannot believe we waited this long to experience the surprising contrasts this city has to offer.

Cairns is situated in Far North tropical Queensland. In the central area of the city, you’ll find the bustling esplanade and marina with one of the most awesome free outdoor swimming pool we’ve ever seen. On the outskirts, you have ancient rainforest and mountainous hinterland steeped in history. Cairns offers all of this and so much more on its doorstep, yet is also an ideal gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and many of the tropical islands we all dream of visiting. We were curious to see how our three-day stay would evolve, and Cairns did not disappoint.


Things to do in Cairns – our highlights:

So what to do in a few days? Here are our tips for a whirlwind and luxurious trip to the city of Cairns. I say luxurious because our stay at the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino was quite something. But let’s start with what we got up to…

1. The Classic Kuranda Experience

We organised the Classic Kuranda Experience through Tropic Wings. This trip is the most wonderful way to cram some of Cairns most scenic highlights into one day.  Here’s where the tour took us…

Part 1 – Kuranda Scenic Railway

We started the day on the Kuranda Scenic Railway.  A historic journey that took us through tunnels and over bridges that date back to a story that began in 1882. We climbed to 327 metres above sea level taking in spectacular panoramic views of Cairns, and passing towering waterfalls and ancient rainforest as we went.

Part 2 – Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in the Kuranda Village

Next, we took a stroll through the Kuranda village before an optional visit to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary to meet hundreds of stunning butterfly species, including Australia’s largest butterfly, the Cairns Birdwing. This is a wonderful place for children and adults to learn about the lifespan and lifecycle of these beautiful and magical creatures.


Part 3 – Army Ducks and Rainforest Tour

After a BBQ lunch that included crocodile soup and Kangaroo kebabs (yes really), we boarded one of the Army Ducks for the Rainforestation tour. The Ducks are amphibious tanks built during WWII and will delight the kids. We ventured deep into the rainforest and through the water, as our guide pointed out the native wildlife, flora, and fauna. Our guide Chris was, in my daughter’s words, “fun, funny, and kind”. I couldn’t have agreed more. He gave us a wealth of local knowledge and kept us entertained throughout. We were sad to say goodbye to this wonderful character.


Part 4 – Pamagirri Aboriginal Performance

After the excitement of the Army Ducks, we took a break whilst watching the Pamagirri Aboriginal dancers perform. Then it was time to learn about traditional hunting methods. We all giggled as we attempted to throw a boomerang, and then watched as the locals showed us how to throw a spear and play the didgeridoo with real style and expertise.


Part 5 – Koala and Wildlife Park

Before heading home on the Skyrail we took a guided tour around the Koala and Wildlife Park, feeding kangaroos and staring lovingly at the sleepy koalas. The park features many of Australia’s well-known wildlife, and with a guide at your side, you are able to get up close and personal to most.


Part 6 – Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

At the end of the day, the Skyrail took us back down to the low lands and over the expansive rainforest. The rainforest was impressive from below, but from above we got an entirely new perspective. The mighty trees towered high as if competing for sunlight, and the silence of the rainforest was simply breathtaking. Getting out at the lookouts is a must, particularly at Barron Falls. The landscape is unique to the area, and a big contrast to the city.


2. Cairns Aquarium

The Cairns Aquarium was a fun and engaging way to learn about plants, animals, and habitats from the Daintree forest to the Great Barrier Reef.  Our journey through the aquarium started with all things freshwater, and led us to the rainforest and finally the reef. This new addition to Cairns is particularly special if snorkelling and diving are not on your to-do list. Our daughter enjoyed getting up close to the starfish whilst climbing through tunnels and hidden walkways to spot turtles and other wildlife.


3. Cairns Lagoon 

Down on the Esplanade, we found bustling parks, boardwalks, and a mighty swimming pool that overlooked the bay.  This safe lagoon is the perfect stop to cool down and have a bit of fun. These pristine facilities in Australia never cease to amaze me. Completely free and on another scale.



4. Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome

The Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome was top of my daughters wish list when she heard about the rope course that takes you through a dome full of wildlife. The rope course has different levels to suit your bravery and skill, and combines crossings, tunnels, climbing walls, cargo nets, and ziplines. One of the ziplines even takes you over the top of their resident saltwater croc! Let’s just say, I opted out of that one. As native birds flew around us, we giggled from start to finish. The dome is actually situated at the top of the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino.

5. Visiting the Reef and Fitzroy Island

You can arrange a number of different snorkelling and dive tours from Cairns, as well as helicopter scenic flights. There are so many operators to take your pick from. We had visited the reef from Port Douglas so on this trip we decided on something a little different. You can read about our Port Douglas trip here

Visiting Fitzroy Island from Cairns couldn’t be easier. You can take day tours to the island or spend a few nights there. The emerald waters, coral beaches, and palm-lined beaches will leave you gasping as you arrive on the island’s jetty. We got involved in all sorts of activities, from snorkelling and diving, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, to various walks and treks including one to the award-winning Nudey Beach. Read more about our adventure of Fitzroy Island here.


Where to stay in Cairns:

The Pullman Reef Hotel Casino has made it onto our top list of hotels and deserves a full explanation as to why. If I’m honest I think I was spoilt in terms of accommodation as I grew up, and so I’m always slightly disappointed if somewhere doesn’t meet my expectations on holiday. But this hotel exceeded my hopes at every turn. I’m not a casino person, but this really didn’t matter. It’s positioned in a separate wing and is there if you want it, but not if you don’t.

As soon as we walked into the artistically designed lobby (seamlessly mixing contemporary with comfort) we were greeted by the most welcoming of staff and knew that this hotel was not going to disappoint. The luxurious touches that greeted us continued as we headed towards our room through the grand sweeping hallways.

As we entered our huge and extremely plush suite, we were presented with the most spectacular view of the iconic Trinity Inlet. That evening we stood on the balcony and watched the sunset over the mountain range lining the water’s edge, as pretty sailing boats cruised on by, followed by a few cocktails in Bar36.

The Pullman Reef Hotel Casino has all the luxuries – a huge dreamy bed, giant spa bath with views to die for, balconies with arguably the best view in Cairns, a rooftop pool for some R&R, and a restaurant that continues their impeccable level of service and perfectionist traits. Tamarind restaurant (featured in our ‘where to eat’ section) is a must whether you are staying at the hotel or not.

There really was nothing that hadn’t been thought of during our stay. Our rooms were immaculate and we felt spoilt from the moment we arrived until the sad moment we had to leave. I am going back to this hotel without a shadow of a doubt.


Where to eat

We are big foodies and couldn’t resist sharing some of our favourite finds during our trip to Cairns…

Tamarind – this restaurant is based within the Pullman Reef Hotel Casino where we were lucky enough to stay. The sophisticated vibe is accompanied by comfort and perfection both on and off the plate. The degustation menu features dishes such as citrus infused tuna with wasabi mayonnaise, ponzu pearls, citrus curd, salmon roe and lime salt, and Mt Uncle Botanic Gin and tonic salmon with blueberry, cucumber gel, feta cream and squid ink glass. Each dish carefully considered with accompanying wines from Australia, New Zealand, and Italy. We enjoyed every mouthful and would highly recommend a visit.


Fusion Art Bar and Tapas  – Amazingly fresh tapas and a great wine list to match. Every dish a taste sensation. The welcoming and relaxed atmosphere mirrors the owner who is providing something quite special in the heart of the city.

Dundees  – this waterfront restaurant on Marlin Parade has wonderful views and equally wonderful food. You can sit back and enjoy fresh dishes whilst watching the yachts sail past.

Waffle On – When we ran this place past our daughter, she was determined that we were going to eat there. This fun little café serves up quirky savoury and sweet waffle dishes, all cleverly put together to deliver some outstanding and surprising flavours. Extremely indulgent and not great for the waste line, but this place really does live up to its reputation.

How to get there:

It couldn’t be easier to get to Cairns. You can fly there from most airports in and out of Australia. We jumped straight into a taxi at the airport and headed to our hotel in central Cairns.

Getting around is just as easy. There are a lot of tours that will pick you up from your hotel. Our hotel was also within walking distance to the shops, wharf, esplanade, and lagoon, so you don’t even need a car unless you have plans to go further afield to places such as Palm Cove, Port Douglas or the Daintree.

Take Me To Cairns Top Tip:

North Queensland is home to saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. Never swim in areas unless they have signs to show they are safe for swimming. If in doubt, don’t swim.

Walk around the city and soak up the happy and bustling vibe around the lagoon and esplanade.  Make sure you take the opportunity to visit the reef and do not miss the Skyrail over the vast expanse of ancient rainforest.

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Parts of this trip were kindly gifted, but all opinions and recommendations are strictly our own.

4 Responses
  1. tracey

    Awesome information. Ive just booked our trip to Cairns after following you on Instagram and reading this post. Thank you!!

  2. tracey

    I had never considered visiting Cairns until I read this post. Now we’ve booked to go in August with the family and I can’t wait. Thanks for the recommendations.

    1. Take Me To Australia

      That’s awesome to hear Tracey. Have the best time. It’s a really fun place to visit. Make sure you pop over to Fitzroy Island too. It’s stunning there 🙂

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Welcome from the Editor

Welcome along. I’m Clare, Founder of Take Me To Australia. Having moved to Australia six years ago, I made it my mission to learn more about this epic country we now call home. As we travel across the country to unique destinations, we share with fresh eyes the most extraordinary places we are lucky enough to experience. We aim to inspire others to follow in our footsteps, live their absolute best life, explore what Australia has to offer, and even encourage people further afield to make a similar move.  We’ve grown a like-minded community of over 120,000 people. Be sure to join them by signing up to receive all the latest inspo, and connecting with us on Instagram and Facebook. See you soon.

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