A trip to the far north of Queensland is one of the must-do experiences in Australia. This diverse part of the world is where the Great Barrier Reef meets the rainforest and there are hundreds of incredible things to do. We've created a self-drive itinerary to give you complete freedom to go at your own pace.
Here’s our top itinerary for an incredible week in Cairns.
Day 1: Explore Cairns and the surrounds
Most people’s entry to Tropical North Queensland will be through Cairns. It’s a town that has a few interesting things to do and is the launching point for your trip.
AM: Scenic Flight over the Great Barrier Reef
Why not start your trip with a bang and take a flight over the magnificent Great Barrier Reef?
If money is no object then definitely opt for a helicopter journey. It was a little out of our budget, though it is definitely on the bucket list, so we took a scenic plane ride instead.
You'll fly over various small islands and cays as well as the reef. Flying is the only way to give you a hint at the scale of this ginormous reef. The turquoise coral and sparkling blue water will blow you away. We flew with GSL Aviation which cost $175 for a 45 minute flight. Before booking make sure you call and ask what is currently the best time to fly over the reef in terms of tides, it can make a really big difference as to how much you’ll see.
PM: Chill at the Lagoon or venture to Crystal Cascades
As the day gets hotter it’s time to cool down, so you can choose to stay in town or head out to the nearby cascades.
The lagoon in Cairns has become an iconic spot, taking in the metal fish sculptures with a gorgeous sea backdrop. It’s a relaxing place to spend a hot afternoon. It's also a good spot to watch the sunrise or sunset (sunrise is best if you can manage the early start).
The more adventurous can head to Crystal Cascades, which is about a 20 minute drive out of town. After a short walking trail (watch out for the giant stinging tree leaves, you do not want to touch one of those!) and climbing a few rocks, you arrive at a beautiful and secluded waterfall. It’s a perfect spot that has few tourists and will soon cool you down. The trail is slippery in parts so we wouldn’t attempt this in flip flops.
Where to stay in Cairns
If you want a guide to the best accommodation for every budget, check our guide giving you the lowdown of where to stay in Cairns. Otherwise, check out our top pick below.
Our Pick - Jack & Newell Holiday Apartments
We stayed at Jack & Newell's with my parents when they visited Australia and it was the perfect base for exploring Cairns. We picked a two bedroom apartment which were beautifully furnished, had a fully kitted out kitchen and living room, balconies and big spaces. It's really close to the city centre as well.
Day 2: Fitzroy Island
Nearby Fitrzroy Island is a beautiful island paradise and has plenty to explore which will keep you busy for the whole day. You could easily spend a night or two just in this spot!
Take the boat from Cairns which takes about an hour to Fitzroy Island, if you’re travelling in whale season (May to October) definitely keep an eye out on the journey. Once there, take one of the walking trails to get a feel for the island.
If you don't mind a few stairs we recommend the 3.6km summit track for the stupendous views. Along the way you’ll very likely walk into one of the swarms of Ulysses Butterflies that love to hang around the walking trails. It’s fairly steep but the views are well worth the effort.
We also did the short Secret Garden walk but you can skip that unless you’re really keen for more walking, especially as you have to walk to get the best beach too.
Chill at one of the several beaches, Nudey beach is our favourite, and no it's not a nudist beach! Grab a snorkel if you're feeling active.
Be careful though as several of the beaches are made or broken coral, so caution is advised, bring reef shoes for a more comfortable experience.
Day 3: Head to the Atherton Tablelands
Day three is when the self-drive itinerary begins. The Atherton Tablelands is the home of some of the greatest waterfalls in Australia, and also one of the most unique hotels we’ve ever stayed in. If you’re lucky, you may even see some rare animals such as the elusive Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo.
Head out early from Cairns on the scenic hour and a half drive to the Tablelands. On the way to your accommodation, visit the waterfall way which has a series of stunning falls including:
This is a showstopper and the one waterfall you must see if you are to see any in this area.
Getting here early or late is the best way to have the whole place to yourself and avoid the tour buses. Make as early a start as you can stomach from Cairns, it will be worth it! We went from 6-7am and had it to ourselves for the entire time.
The water is cold but taking a dip here is something you will never forget!
Elinjaa is not quite as popular as Millaa Millaa, and is also a very beautiful waterfall.
It’s based in a really secluded spot and feels smaller but more intimate than the others. Access is via a staircase which although not long does put some people off which is why it is a little quieter than Millaa Millaa.
Lunch: Nerada Tea Plantation
Stopping at Nerada Tea Plantation isn’t just about the tea!
If you’re lucky, you may see one of the two families of endangered Lumholtz Tree Kangaroos that hang around the plantation.
We were mesmerised when we not only saw two adult tree kangaroos but also a little joey as well! They were just in front of the tea shop area when we visited but do move around so keep your eyes trained on the tops of the trees around this whole patch of forest.
The tea is great too, and there are various light lunch options, as well as cakes and scones.
PM: Canopy Treehouses
You may think it’s odd to devote half a day to a hotel, but this place is an experience in itself. Canopy Treehouses are luxury in the rainforest, with each treehouse having it’s own jacuzzi and balcony that overlooks the forest and river.
However, the main event is the endangered wildlife that just walk right up to your door. We were lucky enough to have two cassowaries walk directly underneath our balcony, platypus swim in the river nearby and birds of paradise land on our porch. This place isn’t a zoo, it’s just one of the small patches of rainforest left in the Tablelands. There are several walking trails on the property or you can just soak it all up from your balcony.
You'll also likely meet Rex, a small pademelon who is currently being treated for a medical condition and tends to turn up on your balcony to play!
Day 4: Daintree
The Daintree is the oldest rainforest in the world and it doesn’t require Bear Grylls style expeditions to explore it. It's also a unique spot where two world heritage sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and the Grear Barrier Reef, and one of our Must See Places in Australia.
AM: Daintree Discovery Centre or Jindalba
The best introduction to the rainforest is the Daintree Discovery Centre, particularly if visiting with children.
This boardwalk gets you to the canopy and down into the undergrowth, educating you about the plants, animals and unique ecosystem along the way.
If you’re lucky, you may see one of the local cassowaries that like to wander through the centre. It also serves a pretty good cream tea, using locally grown Daintree tea.
The entry fee is fairly high though at $35 for adults and $16 for children.
If you prefer a more wild experience or want to do both like us then you can head down the road to the Jindalba area. There are two tracks here and both have the chance to sight cassowaries.
We walked both the Jindalba Boardwalk (650metres) and Jindalba Circuit Track (3 kilometres). The boardwalk is very easy and suitable for anyone, we just missed spotting cassowary here but the family just ahead of us got lucky. The circuit track is more wild, it’s a proper trail rather than board walk and feels much more wild. The forest is quite dense and it’s probably harder to spot cassowary but worth doing anyway. Just watch out for the wild pigs which gave us quite a fright when one decided to make a charge!
Entrance to this area is free.
PM: Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation is not just a beautiful and wild stretch of beach, but a stunning setting where you can see where the reef and rainforest meet.
The drive up to it is atmospheric and a stroll along the beach is a must. If you still have energy there are various walking trails in the area. We walked a couple of the trails but actually preferred the circuit at Jindalba.
Just make sure you don’t swim in the sea as this is the domain of saltwater crocs.
Day 5: Mossman
Mossman Gorge is another unmissable part of the tropical north and offers a little luxury if you want to stay here as well.
AM: Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge is one of the most beautiful parts of Australia. There are two short walking trails, and we'd recommend doing both to see as much of it as possible.
It's also an incredible swimming spot, just watch out for currents which can be very strong in the popular boulder strewn swimming area. The bus and visitor centre will have details about the current conditions. I loved swimming here but I wouldn’t advise it for children unless there are very, very strong swimmers, there was a very near accident here on our visit.
It does get really busy here so avoiding weekends and arriving as close to opening time (first shuttle is 8am) as you can will see you have the most peaceful experience. You can only access the area by shuttle bus or by walking 2km along the road (the Indigenous community who live in this area prefer you don’t walk so we chose to take the shuttle although ordinarily would have preferred to walk). The shuttle bus costs $11.80 for adults and $5.90 for children over four and can be used for this price all day.
PM: Chill at Silky Oaks Lodge
You’ve set a pretty hectic pace, so why not treat yourself to some luxury in the rainforest. Silky Oaks Lodge is another of our favourite hotels in Australia and is the perfect place to unwind. We actually changed the dates of our trip to fit around staying here as we’d heard such good things.
We were glad it lived up to expectations. We spent a lot of time relaxing in the hammocks to the sound of the rainforest but there are also a couple of walking trails on the property too. We took the one out to the cascades which were beautiful and we had them entirely to ourselves. The path is fairly uneven with lots of tree roots and rocks so you’ll want to wear decent shoes.
You can swim in the pool pictured above or in the billabong which was even better in our opinion because it’s natural. It’s the perfect spot to take a dip in a croc free area.
If pampering is your thing it’s also got a stunning spa that has views to the rainforest and you can relax to the sounds of nature. The hammock down by the river was another of our favourite spots.
Day 6: Port Douglas
If you’re going to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef whilst up in the tropical north, then heading out from Port Douglas is a good bet. From here there are many boat operators offering long or short trips to some of the best patches of reef. We'd recommend visiting the outer reef for more pristine coral. If however, your time is limited as ours was, you can try the Reef Sprinter where the jet boat can get you out to the reef in only 15 minutes. If you’re lucky you might see turtles as well as an array of colourful fish and coral. As a rule though the further out you go the better the snorkelling.
Port Douglas is also one of the best dining spots in the area. We’ve diverted to Port Douglas for food whilst travelling to Daintree or Mossman before!
Day 7: Cairns (via Kuranda)
If you still have any energy left, then heading to Kuranda on your way back to Cairns is a worthwhile diversion.
This town in the hills has a train and cablecar, Skyrail, you can take to see the rainforest from above. Though we haven't made this journey ourselves, our family did and they recommended it. It's also a great bet for kids.
We chose to wander the Jum Rum Creek walking trail instead (one hour circuit), hoping to see cassowary, which we didn't, but you might be luckier! The walk is peaceful and easy and particularly pretty around sunset. We didn’t meet anyone else at all the trail despite visiting at the busiest time of year!
Know before you go
Having a car in Cairns is a must as there isn’t much public transport. The good news is that the roads are in great condition, quiet and are very easy to drive on.
Cairns Packing Guide
Cairns Lonely Planet Guide
Universal plug and usb charger
Know before you go
Best time to visit Cairns
Cairns’ climate neatly aligns with the Northern Hemisphere with the best weather being between April and October. Whilst this is the “cooler” time (temperatures are still over 30C in the day), it is more stable and less likely to rain a lot. You’ll be lucky to have no rain at all on your trip, but between April and October it is less likely to be the deluge of rain you get in a monsoon.
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Have you been to Cairns or planning a trip? Which stops are you planning to make? Let us know in the comments below!