Exploring Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef

I had been planning on exploring Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef for a really long time and knew that it'd be the highlight of my Australia itinerary, apart from visiting Melbourne to do the Great Ocean Road Drive. However, to my disappointment, my visit to the Great Barrier Reef did not really live up to my expectations. I'm not a certified diver but I did take the 'Introductory Dive' meant for non-certified divers, where they take you up to 12 meters depth with the help of an instructor. In my opinion, my diving experience in El Nido and Coron in The Philippines transcended my experience in Australia in terms of the sea life that I managed to see during the dive, the colourful reef as well as the clarity of the waters.

Several trips to the Outer Reef (which is supposed to be better because the reef seems to be dying closer to the shore) are available both from Cairns and Port Douglas. However, many Australians advised me before I travelled, that Ningaloo Reef actually makes for a better diving experience and in hindsight, I wish I had paid more heed to that advise!

November - February is actually summer in Cairns and also their 'wet season'. This means that you might experience rain on at least one of three days, although you'd have to be really unlucky for the pours to last the entire day. However, this is also the time when the water is warm enough for you to go swimming/ snorkelling or diving. The 'dry season' is during the winter months June - August which is also a great time to see whales.

exploring cairns and great barrier reef

I spent 3 days in Cairns which I felt was just about the right time to not only experience Great Barrier Reef but also Cairns city and the nearby rainforests. Here are my tips on what to do in 3 days if you're exploring Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.

Day 1: Explore Cairns city

I quite liked Cairns city because of it's laidback, tropical beach paradise vibe. The moment you enter the city, it begins to feel like you're on a real vacation. Patio bars with soft holiday music during the day (and upbeat tunes at night), people having cocktails no matter what time of day it is, a cool sea breeze against the warm sun rays and night street markets made this city have the perfect vacation vibe.

Suggested centrally located budget stay in Cairns: Cairns Plaza Hotel

Start by taking a walk along the Cairns Esplanade Boardwalk, a 3-km walking path along the sea which passes through outdoor fitness areas, picnic and barbecue areas and ample grassy area to just sit and relax under the trees. Across the road from the boardwalk, you can also find many cafes, restaurants and bars, of which Villa Romana is one of my favourites. On a warm day, you can cool off in the Cairns Lagoon, an artificial saltwater pool made to resemble a lagoon, with views of the sea that is free to enter and use, and is patrolled by a lifeguard through the day.

cairns and great barrier reef
Cairns Lagoon

In the afternoon, head to The Pier, an indoor shopping centre with boutiques that feature fashionable, handcrafted clothes and accessories, some of the best I've seen in a while. Colourful prints will catch your attention as you walk through the centre and although they're slightly overpriced, the designs are amazing! The Pier Bar, located right outside the shopping centre, is famous for its live music in the evening and cocktails. Although it sounds like it might be located on a pier, it actually isn't but it does face the sea if that helps!

During the evening, head to Cairns Night Markets that open at 4.30 pm. A great, inexpensive place to buy local handicrafts, souvenirs, handmade jewellery and titbits, the market is (fortunately) covered with a canopy which makes it a great place to visit even when it is raining.

Cairns and great barrier reef
Cairns Night Markets

At night, you can book yourself an indigenous aboriginal cultural experience at Tjapukai Cultural Park. Your hotel is likely to have a tour desk that will help you with the bookings if you're looking to have a pick and drop arrangement to the park (20 min away from the city) or you can buy the tickets online here and get yourself to the park by 7.15 pm. Dance performances featuring the indigenous rainforest people, face painting, the sounds of their instrument called didgeridoo, traditional ceremonies and songs followed by a sumptuous buffet meal is what you can expect in this 2.5-hour experience.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Aboriginal cultural show

Day 2: Full day trip to Great Barrier Reef

There are several options for tour companies available to book your full day trip to the Great Barrier Reef. I found a website www.bookme.com.au, a legit site that features discounts on several tours across Australia. I booked my tour on this website with a 20% discount on the price, operated by a company called Divers Denon a boat called SeaQuest.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

SeaQuest proved to be a fantastic boat, with an air-conditioned lower deck and an open upper deck. The instructors on-board were excellent, with not only amazing knowledge of the reef but also a great sense of humour. The boat provides free snorkelling and diving equipment and takes you to two different locations on the outer reef. Complimentary tea, coffee and water are available throughout the day (except when the boat is sailing), and a tropical buffet lunch is served after the first location and before moving on to the next one. Alcoholic drinks are also available for sale, although if you're planning to dive, you might want to avoid drinking.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

They also have an option of an Introductory Dive, for the non-certified scuba diving enthusiasts like me. The boat sails for about 1.5 hours to the first location, where it anchors for about two hours, allowing ample time for the snorkelers and divers to explore the reef, before serving lunch. It then moves further about 20 min to another location, where it docks again for about an hour and a half, allowing the snorkellers and divers to explore the area. The whole trip lasts for about 8 hours (9 am- 5 pm).

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef

You also have the option to rent a GoPro on the boat or pay AUD 50 for pictures that are captured by the boat's crew underwater.

Visiting Melbourne? Read my post on Melbourne- to go or not to go?

Day 3: Kuranda Rainforest

When in Australia, you must visit a tropical rainforest! There are two options near Cairns - Kuranda Rainforest which is about 45 min away from the city centre and Daintree Rainforest, which is further ahead (about 2.5 hrs).

Click here to read How to decide between Kuranda or Daintree Rainforest

I decided to visit Kuranda Rainforest which was not only closer but also more commercial of the two. The best way to experience the rainforest is to take the Skyrail one way and the Scenic railway back. I took the Skyrail while going from Cairns to Kuranda, which can be boarded from Smithfield Terminal, about 15-min drive away from the city centre.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Kuranda Skyrail

You can rent a car or take a taxi to the Smithfield terminal. Alternatively, you can book a tour which includes pick up from your Cairns city hotel.

It is best advised to book your experience a day in advance, instead of land up at the last minute to buy the tickets. Click here to book your package.

Kuranda Skyrail

Red Peak

The total journey from Smithfield Terminal to the Kuranda Terminal lasts for about 1.5 hours. On the way, the cable car stops at two points - Red Peak and Barron Falls. A boardwalk takes you through the trees to several scenic lookouts and signage that talks about the flora and fauna often found in these tropical rainforests. The walk doesn't last more than 20 min, so you can be on your way towards the next stop on the Skytrain.

Cairns and Great Barrie Reef
Kuranda Rainforest Boardwalk

Barron Falls

As you continue over the rainforest canopy, crossing over the river and lush greens below, you will approach the next stop which takes you to the scenic lookout of the Barron Falls. The view of the Barron Gorge National Park below is quite stunning!

Kuranda Terminal

There are several things to do when you're in Kuranda Rainforest. For one, you can visit the colourful Village Markets or several cafes and restaurants in the area. There is also a bird park, koala park and a river cruise, which allows you to see crocodiles in the wild.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Over the river & rainforest canopy

If you're looking to cuddle a koala or feed wallabies and kangaroos, you can visit the Koala Gardens. However, be prepared that you will not get more than 30 seconds to hold the Koala during which they will take a few pictures for you. The koalas are not allowed to 'work' for more than 30 minutes a day, which means there are fixed time slots of half an hour during the day in which you are allowed to hold them, with several people queuing at a time, giving you hardly even a minute to 'cuddle' them.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Cuddling a Koala at Kuranda Koala Gardens

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Feeding the Wallabies and Kangaroos at Kuranda Koala Gardens

The village markets are a great place to buy some handcrafted jewellery and souvenirs, local gems, kangaroo leather goods, homemade ice cream and a wide range of flavours of Macadamia nuts. There are two main market locations - the Original Markets & the Heritage Markets, both offering some authentic art and craft items.

There are also several walking tracks in the area. The river walks, the jungle walk and the esplanade walk are some short, easy walks that you can take to experience the best of the rainforest.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Kuranda Village Markets

Kuranda Scenic Railway

Not too far from the Skyrail cable car station is the rail station where you can board the Kuranda Scenic Railway. If you're a fan of slow, scenic train journeys in a heritage railway system, then this experience will be right up your alley. Amidst green mountains, stunning waterfalls and gorges, the train chugs along while the commentary focuses on the history of the rail, its builders and the people who died while constructing this marvel years ago. The journey is informative, picturesque and relaxing. However, as the train is not air-conditioned, it can get really balmy on some days in the summer.

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Kuranda Scenic Railway

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
Kuranda Scenic Railway

The train journey lasts about 2 hours and drops you back in Cairns City Centre. Make sure to check the time table for the last departing train and plan your visit to Kuranda Rainforest accordingly. Click here to read in detail about everything you can do in Kuranda Rainforest. You can easily spend the whole day here!

37 thoughts on “Exploring Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef”

  1. I want to dive to see the Great Barrier Reef since so long. I am afraid that with so much water pollution and harm to corals I might miss out if I don’t visit as soon as possible. I loved the photographs that you have clicked underwater especially the one with the turtle. Great post.

  2. Seriously, I don’t think you could get me to leave the snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef! I went on a Caribbean cruise recently and every port day was spent snorkeling. Still, the Cairns night markets and the rainforest would also be amazing.

  3. Sorry to hear that your visit to the Great Barrier Reef didn’t really live up to your expectations. But you got to see that big weird looking fish though. And holding the koalas, even though it’s less than 30 seconds. I just knew about them can’t work more than 30 minutes in a day. That’s neat!

    1. Yeah, I guess they’re doing it for the benefit of the Koalas, so I can’t complain. But I do wish we had longer to hold them, and even play a little!

  4. I’d love to check out the Cairns Night Markets. The only markets I’ve ever been to are really early morning. It would be fun to hang out at night for a change. I’d also love to snorkel at the Barrier Reef of course ^_^

  5. You got to hold a koala bear!!! I so want to visit Australia now! Even if they only let you hold a koala bear for a short time, what an experience to have. The scuba diving looks fun too, I wonder how old my kids need to be to scuba dive.

    1. I didn’t see any kids diving on my trip. But I guess they’d have it on their website – the minimum age for diving 🙂

  6. I’ve been to Australia so many times, but have never visited Cairns or the Great Barrier Reef. Your boat experience sounds fab, although I don’t dive! But I’d love to snorkel. The Kuranda Scenic Railway sounds exactly the kind of activity I’d enjoy. And koalas!

  7. Visiting Great Barrier Reef is a dream for many traveller! Thanks for the detailed information on diving at the Reef. The photo of you amd Koala is super cute. Great itinerary, thanks for the share.

  8. The Great Barrier Reef is of course one of the natural wonders of the world, but there is so much to see and experience in Cairns city itself. The Tjapukai Cultural Park sounds fascinating with its opportunity to understand more of the aboriginal culture. Another experience that had me riveted was reading about the Kuranda scenic railway.

    1. The only pity was that it was REALLY hot on the day I was there at Kuranda, and without air conditioning, the train journey became a little tough. However, the views of the rainforest and waterfalls were quite amazing!

  9. I haven’t been in Australia, but I experienced the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef in New Caledonia, which is a group of islands next to Australia. They call that the New Caledonia Barrier Reef, but it’s still part of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s indeed spectacular, as you describe it in your post. It’s only that I don’t scuba dive, so I only snorkeled from the boat there. I am more of dry land animal (lol), so I’d love to visit Cairns city and its beautiful esplanade boardwalk. Looks fabulous!

    1. Well, I did an introductory dive because I am not a certified diver. However, they did require us to at least know how to swim. When I went diving in the Philippines, they were okay to accept non-swimmers as well. The thing is, if you’re a non-swimmer, you’re likely going to need someone to personally hold and escort you all through the experience and although they were happy to do that in the Philippines (maybe because it’s not all that touristy yet), they did not allow that on the Great Barrier Reef. There was 1 instructor for 5 divers, which meant that we had to at least be able to manoeuvre ourselves underwater, something a non-swimmer is unlikely to be able to do.

  10. I think exploring the Great Barrier Reef is an experience everyone should try at least once in a lifetime. I’m glad to see you had a great time. Your pictures look absolutely spectacular too! Thank you for sharing this lovely article

  11. Oh wow, I love your diving photos Medha, they’re absolutely stunning. I was a terrible diver when I tried a beginners course, but who knows, you may have just encouraged me to try again! I’ve still not made it to that side of the world, and not sure when I’ll get there. However, Cairns looks like the type of place I want to visit. I love that park too, and would love to hold a koala one day too!

    1. You know Lisa, in my first attempt, I was a little uncomfortable too, I wasn’t comfortable breathing through my mouth and I panicked a little. I had to calm myself down and give it another shot. I finally got a hang of it and after that, it was amazing! It’s not the easiest to dive, I have to confess, but I guess the more you try, the easier it gets.

  12. It’s interesting to hear you weren’t super impressed with the diving. Did you snorkel as well? I’d be keen to hear what you thought of the snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.

    1. Diving was definitely better than snorkelling, given that you actually get to go inside the waters, closer to the reef, than swim on the surface further away. I had a better diving & snorkelling experience in the Philippines, maybe because it’s still untouched to a large extent!

  13. Great Barrier Reef is every diver’s dream 🙂 Lucky you. Btw, that photo of you sitting effortlessly inside a train looks so interesting. Hope you can do a dedicated post for your experience about Kuranda Scenic Railway 🙂

  14. I learned to dive on the great barrier reef and cannot wait to return someday. I think my favorite part of this area is Daintree rainforest. I was just in wow of it. I did not know you could take a scenic train trip near there so that is on the list for next time!

    1. The scenic train journey is from Kuranda, another rainforest in the area, although I’m sure it doesn’t live up to Daintree which is more thick, green, wild and untouched.

  15. We will be going to Australia next year so I read your post with lots of interest. I’ve wondered about the Great Barrier Reef – whether it would meet expectations – especially when I have snorkelled all over the world. I kind of thought it wouldn’t, so thanks for confirming that. The visit to the rainforest area looks nice and relaxed. Too bad you couldn’t cuddle the koalas for longer. That would be a definite highlight for me!

  16. I have always wanted to visit the Great Barrier Reef and snorkel. Your photos are incredible and the colours well definitely a wow on that! I loved the photo of you and the koala at Koala Gardens. I would also add on my list of things to do in Cairns is the Kuranda Scenic Railway what a great way to spend 2 hours.

    1. The rainforest experience is one I would definitely recommend to anyone visiting Australia. If you like more untouched, thick forests, then Daintree might be a better option. Kuranda was a bit too commercialized.

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