Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

Tucked between the rainforest and the Coral Sea in northern Queensland, the tropical city of Cairns is the jumping-off point for exploring the underwater wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.

As the major base for visiting the reef and offshore islands, Cairns moves to a languid pace but still offers plenty of mainland activities for days when the reef is not on your radar. Indigenous experiences, rainforest treks, wildlife parks, and a string of beaches that scallop the coastline north of the city ensure there’s plenty of off-water action, much of it beyond the city centre but still easily accessible.

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What to see and do in Cairns

For an introduction to the Great Barrier Reef, spend a day swimming, snorkelling and diving among the fish and coral. Large motorised catamarans carry up to 300 passengers each and tie up at their own private permanent pontoons; smaller boats usually visit two or three reef sites and take no more than 20 passengers.

Most of the big boats have on-board marine biologists to talk about the reef’s ecology, and offer extras such as glass-bottom boats and underwater viewing chambers. Don’t forget your seasick pills as the water can sometimes be choppy.

Alternatively, to learn about the reef without leaving dry land, visit the $54 million Cairns Aquarium which opened in 2017 and is home to more than 15,000 fish, aquatic animals and plants. Don’t miss the school of scalloped hammerhead sharks or the 10-metre high Deep Reef exhibit, which replicates a reef ‘drop off’.

The focal point of Cairns is the Esplanade, which has a massive man-made saltwater swimming lagoon with a wide sandy beach, picnic areas, public artworks and a boardwalk suspended over the mud flats that are revealed at low tide. For the real thing, the northern beaches are just 15-minutes drive from the city, starting with the secluded Trinity Beach. The most upscale are the intimate Palm Cove and glamorous but laid-back Port Douglas.

It’s also fun to spend some time at Tjapukai (pronounced Jab-oo-guy), an Aboriginal themed park that uses cutting-edge theatre technology and an interactive cultural village to tell the story of the local indigenous people. Fire making, didgeridoo playing, and boomerang and spear throwing are among the activities, but the highlights are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance performances.

For one of the best day trips outside the city, ride the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway 7.5km from Cairns to the rainforest village of Kuranda aboard gondolas that offer breathtaking views of the coast and rainforest. Travel the return journey aboard the Kuranda Scenic Rail, a historic train that snakes 34km through the magnificent vistas of the Barron Gorge National Park, past gorges and waterfalls. Another option is Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile and wildlife park about 40km north of Cairns with a two-hectare lagoon that is home to saltwater crocs. Time your visit to coincide with the croc feeding, and afternoon ‘croc attack’ show – it’s one of the best of its kind in Australia.

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