Towering palm trees stretch high above you, fronds waving in the gentle breeze. Feel the heat of the sun reach the back of your neck while the humidity hangs thick in the air, forming a thin film of sweat on your brow. You’re looking for respite in the form of an icy cold mango smoothie or a refreshing dip in a freshwater swimming hole – but where you are, you can have both.
Welcome to the wet tropics of Queensland and where else is better to start your Far North Queensland itinerary than in Cairns. We’ve travelled to tropical north Queensland twice. Our first time was a five day campervan itinerary from Cairns and back exploring the national parks south of Cairns. Recently, we spent 7 days in North Queensland on the mainland before adding a couple of nights offshore. Here, we share our recent Far North Queensland itinerary to help you plan your adventure to the Sunshine State and witness firsthand, some of the most wondrous natural beauty you’ll ever experience.
A week in Cairns and its surrounds will have you scratching the surface of this unique area. Come see for yourself where the rainforest meets the reef.
a week in cairns and beyond
DAY 1 - PALM COVE
Upon arriving in Cairns, the first thing to hit you is the humidity. If you rugged up on the plane, it is highly recommended that you change into cotton and/or linen clothing at the airport before you begin your adventure!
Hop onto the highway, wind the window down and drive 30 minutes north of Cairns to Palm Cove.
Grab your wide brimmed straw hat and stroll underneath the palm trees which line the picturesque waterfront. To battle the heat, choose a couple of scoops of ice cream from Numi Ice Creamery. For the best golden hour light between the palm trees, return at sunrise for the golden glow and to have the area all to yourself.
BEST PLACES TO STAY IN PALM COVE
Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort and Spa | This 5 star resort oozes style, meaning that your stay is guaranteed to be a luxurious one. For the ultimate treat, go for a swim out apartment or a plunge pool apartment.
The Beach Club, Palm Cove | This mid-range option provides plenty of space for holidaying families. Swimming in the resort’s unique lagoon means you certainly don’t need to worry about meeting a salty in the water!
NRMA Palm Cove Holiday Park | The ultimate budget option, the holiday park is at the northern end of Palm Cove but easily walking distance to the waterfront and bustling restaurants. Powered and unpowered sites available, amenities block and camp kitchen all for use for the nomadic travellers.
DAY 2 - DAVIES CREEK FALLS & CHILLAGOE
Whether it’s a day trip from Cairns or you’re embarking on a longer Far North Queensland road trip, a visit to Davies Creek Falls is a perfect nature spot off the main tourist trail. Check out our detailed guide that tells you how to get to Davies Creek Falls.
For a true country Queensland experience, continue driving to Chillagoe. Chillagoe is approximately 2.5 – 3 hours drive west of Cairns. What was once a thriving mining town is now a quiet township and the main attraction is Chillagoe-Mungana Caves National Park. An ancient coral reef transformed into the above-ground limestone caves we see today, house rich mineral deposits and Aborigional rock art.
To learn more about Chillagoe, read our brief guide on what to see and do in Chillagoe.
DAY 3 - THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
A trip to tropical north Queensland isn’t complete without a visit to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, stretching over 2,300km down the Queensland Coast from Bramble Cay in Torres Strait (the northernmost island) all the way to Lady Elliot Island (the southernmost island). Access to many reefs is relatively easy from Cairns Marlin Marina so a day trip with a tour company is the most popular option for visitors. Most tours include hotel pick-up and drop-off, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, snorkelling equipment and water. Scuba diving is also available, as an add-on or a specific tour.
On our most recent trip out to the reef, we went with Down Under Cruise and Dive. The particular tour we selected included a 10 minute helicopter ride above the magnificent coral reef – a first time for us in a helicopter and an experience that was over far too quickly! This was our first time snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef and we loved the colours of the reef and abundant sea life.
If you’re less confident in the water like ourselves, life jackets and noodles are available to use. The tour companies also have guides out in the water and a lifeguard on board the boat to ensure everyone is swimming and snorkelling safely.
DAY 4 - DAINTREE RAINFOREST & CAPE TRIBULATION
Today, you’ll head north to the famed Daintree Rainforest, the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, estimated at 135 million years old. Home to the traditional custodians, the Kuku Yalanji; the Daintree is truly a special place.
From Cairns, the drive to the Daintree River crossing is approximately 2 hours. The drive from the Daintree River crossing to Cape Tribulation is approximately 45 minutes. Crossing the Daintree River is quite simple. The Daintree ferry is a vehicular cable ferry service that runs from 5AM until midnight every day. There’s no need to make any advance bookings and once boarded, the crossing will take approximately 10 minutes. Passengers remain in their vehicle and pay for their fare on the ferry. A return trip for a private motor vehicle cost $31 AUD when we visited in February 2021. Prices will increase on 1 July 2021 – check this website for up to date information.
There are free walking routes along boardwalks through the mangroves and up to lookouts. The beaches are accessible but swimming in the ocean is not recommended. Make sure to stop in at Daintree Ice Cream Company where you can walk amongst the garden learning about the tropical fruit which thrives in this region.
The Daintree Rainforest is where it’s possible to come across wild cassowaries. You’ll come across speed humps strategically placed along the winding road to ensure cars drive cautiously, keeping an eye out for the ancient birds.
Cape Tribulation is the furthest north you may travel along the coastline unless you have a 4WD vehicle and the right equipment.
A popular spot up this way is Emmagen Creek. After the end of Rykers Road, Cape Tribulation Bloomfield road is unsealed and follows the natural curve of the coastline. Watch out for wildlife and potholes. The track to Emmagen Creek is not signposted but the walk to the swimming hole is not far. Follow these detailed instructions to learn how to get to Emmagen Creek.
WHERE TO STAY IN THE DAINTREE RAINFOREST
Silky Oaks Lodge | Set to reopen in November 2021, a stay at this lodge won’t only be for luxury accommodation but an entire tropical experience too! The Healing Waters Spa looks absolutely divine.
Daintree Ecolodge & Spa | There are 15 eco-friendly bayans at this sustainably luxe boutique accommodation spot which promises to be unique. Your stay here is bound to be memorable.
PK’s Resort Cape Tribulation | The jungle village budget accommodation is suitable for families, adventure travellers, backpackers and locals. Offering private cabins and dormitory style rooms, it’s a solid option for those who are fine to forgo the bells and whistles.
DAY 5 - CLAMSHELL FALLS, BEHANA GORGE ROAD & BABINDA BOULDERS
Head south of Cairns, following the Bruce Highway (A1) for one hour. Shortly after Gordonvale, turn right onto Behana Gorge Road. You’ll travel in the shadow of Walsh’s Pyramid for approximately 5 minutes before coming to the end of the road and a small carpark. From here, you need to strap on your walking shoes to make your way up to Clamshell Falls.
This waterway is the main water supply for the wider Cairns area with cascading falls and a swimming hole up top. Check out our blog post which covers all you need to know to get to Clamshell Falls.
From Clamshell Falls, continue south for approximately 40 minutes until you reach Babinda. Make sure to stop into Babinda Bakery for one of their renowned homemade pies; a welcome lunch spot in between the waterfall chasing. Afterwards, follow the road inland and you’ll come to a large parking area complete with toilets, playground, BBQs and picnic tables. Spend the afternoon frolicking over the famed Babinda Boulders, take a short walk up to Devil’s Pool and laze about in the shallows of the natural swimming hole.
DAY 6 - CAIRNS, FAIRY FALLS & CRYSTAL CASCADES
Start the day with a morning pick-me-up at Blackbird Laneway. Time your visit across a weekend and walk across to the famous Rusty’s Markets (open Friday – Sunday) where you’ll come across the most colourful and tropical fruit and vegetable display. From mangos and bananas to dragonfruit and langosteens, it’s a technicolour dream and fruit here sells as cheap as chips. Here, quench your thirst with a fresh coconut or join the queue at the popular Annee’s Caphê Sua Da for a Vietnamese iced coffee.
With your belly full, jump into the car and take a short drive inland to Crystal Cascades. The council has recently renovated the car park which has toilets and change rooms. It’s merely a short hike to the rainforest waterfalls flowing into natural swimming holes, with minimal scrambling required to access the water. The current here is not strong so it’s perfect for families with young children or less confident swimmers. There are several swimming holes, all of various depths. The water tends to be clear but becomes cloudy or murky after heavy rainfall.
For those who wish to explore a bit further, head to Fairy Falls, which is also accessible from the Crystal Cascades car park. You’ll follow a dirt track which meanders through a more dense rainforest. Head towards the creek and walk upstream, which will require some scrambling over boulders. There is a trail which heads inland and upwards which we mistakenly followed the first time round. If you find yourself going uphill, you’re going the wrong way. After the rains, the track becomes quite muddy and slippery and you’ll spy broken tree roots and branches of those who have come before you.
DAY 7 - MOSSMAN GORGE & PORT DOUGLAS
Hop into your car once more and head back north to Mossman Gorge. The Mossman Gorge Centre is the gateway to the Daintree Rainforest. The ecotourism centre is of significant economic importance for the Mossman region and the Indigenous community, providing visitors with cultural, historical and environmental experiences.
Self-guided walks, Dreamtime walks and group tours are available with helpful maps to plan your visit. A shuttle bus service operates from Mossman Gorge centre to the heart of the Gorge, departing every 15 minutes between 8.00am and 5.30pm daily. Up-to-date ticket prices are advertised on the Mossman Gorge Centre website and allows for multiple trips on the day.
We visited in mid-February, in the middle of the rainy season. Due to heavy rainfall the night before our visit, the Mossman River was gushing with raging currents. So unfortunately, we did not experience the calm, crystalline green water we have seen from Instagram and the like. We settled on a self-guided walking tour through the Rainforest Circuit Track (2.4km) where we glimpsed some wild bush pigs as we passed Wurrmbu Creek. The mosquitos were relentless so insect repellent is a must as is a raincoat and sturdy walking shoes during the wet season.
After walking through the lush rainforest, head towards Port Douglas. Take lunch at Grant Street Kitchen and if the weather is fine, stroll along Four Mile Beach. Then meander down to Rex Smeal Park to soak up one last vista of towering palm trees.
DAYS 8 & 9 - FITZROY ISLAND
This beautiful small island is only 45 minutes from Cairns via ferry. It was exciting for us to visit this tropical paradise on our last visit to Far North Queensland.
Visitors can see Fitzroy Island on a day trip or choose to stay on the island at Fitzroy Island Resort. For more details about our experience, read our brief guide to Fiztroy Island.
When is the best time to visit Cairns?
The best time to visit Cairns is during the wintertime, particularly between June – August. This is the dry season where the days are not as humid and you avoid the rainy season. Temperatures range from 17 – 26 degrees Celsius.
How many days do you need in Cairns?
Truthfully, we have spent little time in the Cairns CBD area as visitors typically fly into Cairns to complete a Far North Queensland road trip Itinerary or use the city as an accommodation base to then embark on day trips to the reef or to the rainforests. All in all, one could spend 1 day – 3 days in Cairns, depending on your interests and time in your itinerary.
Attractions in Cairns include Cairns Botanic Gardens, Cairns Museum, Cairns Art Gallery, Cairns Aquarium and Cairns ZOOM and Wildlife Dome. The food and hospitality scene appears to have amped up over the years too with craft breweries and specialty coffee places popping up too. For coffee, we popped into Caffiend, Blackbird Laneway and The Chamber Room. Others on our radar for our next visit include Bang & Grind, Mama Coco and Tattooed Sailor Coffee Roasters.
What to know before visiting Cairns
Is it safe to swim in the ocean in Cairns?
No. Just no. It is NOT safe to swim in the ocean in Cairns and any creeks which lead out to the ocean should also be avoided, during the day and at night. Saltwater crocodiles inhabit waterways from the tip of Far North Queensland all the way down the east coast to Gladstone. Follow the signs and advice of the locals.
This website also has some handy tips to staying Crocwise during your Far North Queensland itinerary.
Packing List for Cairns
- Closed in shoes | Depends if you’re hiking mountains or simply navigating short trails to get to waterfalls. Our Aleader water shoes have served us well
- Basic first-aid kit | Including a space blanket
- Reusable water bottles | We recommend a bottle with a filter like this Grayl water bottle
- Reef-safe Sunscreen | anytime we are swimming, we try to use SunButter SPF50 Water Resistant Reef Safe Sunscreen
- Beach Towel | We prefer to take our quick-dry, absorbent and compact Tesalate sand-free beach towels
- Insect Repellent | We have tried some Natural Insect Repellents but unfortunately have not found it as effective as those that contain DEET. Recommendations welcome as Jasmine gets eaten alive in mosquito country
- Motion Sickness tablets | if you don’t travel well on boats, go to your local chemist for recommended medication. We usually take Qwell which is widely available in Australia
- Biodegradable wet wipes | For when clean water is not available.
- Light, long-sleeved clothing | Cotton and linen will be your friend in the tropics. Some of our favourite brands include Country Road, Le Buns & Moni the Label
- Camera & drone | Check out all our photography gear and equipment that we travel with