Into The Tropics: Here's A Local's Guide To Visiting Cairns

Kids playing as the sun sets in Palm Cove

3.11min read

Published 25 May 2014


If you’ve ever been to Cairns, you were no doubt greeted at the airport by a great whopping wall of humidity. To me, this is the sweet, sticky feeling of home.

When I moved to ‘the big smoke’ a few years ago, I suddenly realised people thought I was from some wonderfully exotic place, where cane fields rubbed shoulders with palm-lined beaches, and weekends were spent out on the reef or ‘bush bashing’ down at the creek. Funny thing is, they were right.

Cairns is a place of beautiful simplicity – ‘laidback’ doesn’t really do its attitude justice. This big country town has a lot to offer, luring in an interesting cross-section of visitors: party-mad British backpackers, grey nomads on their yearly roadtrip, and Asian tourists in search of textbook Aussie adventures.

Like anywhere, many of Cairns’ best bits are hidden under a layer of tourist trappings. Bypass the bungy and shrug off the Skyrail – here's how you can get to know and love Cairns like the locals do.

The City

Crystal clear water at the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
Locals and tourists alike love the Lagoon

I wouldn’t call Cairns a sophisticated city, but it’s not lacking in substance either. If you’re visiting the Tropical North capital, you’re going to want to base your stay around the CBD, probably in the vicinity of the Esplanade. The Esplanade was revamped a few years ago and it was a real game-changer for Cairns.

The Esplanade’s main feature is a salt-water Lagoon, surrounded by grassy areas where families and tanned 20-somethings laze, barbecue, read, throw around a frisbee and generally enjoy the good life. Nearby, the Pier shopping and dining precinct  has shed its '80s facade and is now home to some of Cairns' best restaurants.

If you’re looking to drop some cash, there are decent boutiques along Shields Street leading up to Cairns Central – the main shopping centre. This general area (Abbott, Lake, Shields, Sheriden, Grafton and Aplin Streets) are also where you’ll find the top spots to take a morning meal.

I used to brunch regularly at the hippy-chic Lily Pad Cafe, but Caffiend seems to have overtaken it in terms of cool factor. Interestingly, Cairns was one of the first places to open a Paleo Cafe, even beating Brisbane to the punch. Cairns has always had a strong fitness undercurrent, so the health-conscious are well catered for here.

The Beaches

Kids playing as the sun sets in Palm Cove
The aptly named Palm Cove at sunset

In the Tropical North, winter means little more than bringing a cardigan out to dinner. When it comes to Cairns beaches, Port Douglas is usually top of mind for first-timers. However, Port is actually an hour’s drive from Cairns and there are (in my opinion) equal if not better beach options closer to town.

Sandy shores stretch all the way up the coast north of Cairns, including Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach and Palm Cove. These are favourite weekenders for Cairnsians, hosting plenty of fish-and-chip shops and stinger nets to keep those jellies at bay.

My personal pick of the bunch is Palm Cove, even if it is a tad more touristy. Do yourself a favour and grab a coffee from Chill Cafe on the strip – impressive even by my discerning foodie standards.

Most locals take a jaunt out to Green Island at least a few times in their life; the closest patch of Great Barrier Reef to Cairns. The ferry trip takes about an hour and the coral cay is tiny, but it gives you a good sampling of the reef. An alternate option is Fitzroy Island (around 45-minutes offshore) but be warned: the beach is made of coral so thongs are a must!

The Tablelands

Cows roaming freely in a massive green field
Greener pastures on the Atherton Tablelands

The Atherton Tablelands are where the reef meets the rainforest, introduces it to the outback and invites some rolling farmland to the party. In the summer, backpackers head to the highlands to make a quick buck fruit-picking, usually at the mango and banana farms around Mareeba.

About an hour’s drive from Cairns up the Kuranda Range, Mareeba is a surprising ‘country’ twist on this tropical pocket, with a proliferation of Akubras and four-wheel-drives. Welcome to a land of coffee farms with on-site cafes, boutique wineries and roadside fruit stalls with honesty boxes.

The scenery changes spectacularly as you cruise through this fertile plateau, making it prime roadtrip country. Travelling south from Mareeba to Atherton, the earth turns a deep burnt red and yields incredible results, from citrus crops to tea fields and fat, happy dairy cows.

The entire Tablelands are smattered with natural wonder: waterfall circuits, crater lakes, giant curtain fig trees, granite gorges... it’s a region unlike any other, and I couldn’t be prouder to call it my home.

Hot air balloons rising into the sky
Gain a new perspective in the Hinterlands

My Top 10 Cairns Must Dos

1. Take a walk around the Lagoon at sunset when the lights flicker on

2. Enjoy a weekend pilgrimage to Rusty’s Markets on Grafton Street

3. Swim at Davies Creek and walk up to the falls (turn-off  just before Mareeba)

4. Sample the Emerald Creek Ice Creamery's flavours like dragonfruit & wattleseed

5. Indulge in an affogato and homemade scones at Jaques Coffee Plantation

6. Grab a bag of warm macadamias from The Humpy (Tolga)

7. Eat fish and chips on the beach at Palm Cove

8. Youngin's: hop on the Cairns Ultimate Party bus. It's horribly fun.

9. Check out the small but sensational KickArts gallery

10. Dine al fresco along the marina (Ochre & Salt House are recommended)

cairns queensland

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