How to see the best of two World Heritage sites from Cairns
Cairns is a bucket list destination for many, with its gourmet foodie spots, adrenaline-filled adventures and relaxed lifestyle. Venture out of the city though, and you’re presented with not only one, but two, World Heritage-listed sites to explore: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforests.
These two World Heritage sites in Cairns are areas of captivating natural beauty, each renowned for different features, both equally remarkable. The importance of these two World Heritage sites must be seen to be fully believed and there’s no better place to get busy exploring them from than Cairns.
With Reef cruises and rainforest expeditions both departing from Cairns daily, take your pick from our favourites to create your own unique adventure.
The Wet Tropics
Sir David Attenborough described the Wet Tropics as “the most extraordinary place on earth”. Not only is it enormous, covering 894,420 hectares, it’s also the oldest and most biologically diverse tropical rainforest in the world.
The Wet Tropics is a representation of the major stages of Earth’s history, with 700 endemic plant species flourishing across its timeline of 150 million years. Its very age and diversity makes it the closest modern-day counterpart for ancient Gondwana forests.
The Wet Tropics has unique wildlife to match the habitat. One-third of Australia’s 315 mammal species, 13 of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world, live in the Wet Tropics. You’ll also find 307 different species of birds, 113 reptile species and 51 amphibian species.
The best ways to explore the Wet Tropics
Mossman Gorge is one of the most renowned spots in the Wet Tropics, where the Mossman River tumbles over huge granite boulders into clear, freshwater swimming holes.
Organised tours depart daily from Cairns, which travel along the Great Tropical Drive, taking in the gorgeous views along the coast of the tropical seaside rainforest. An elevated boardwalk makes for an easy stroll through the lower rainforest canopy, with several small lookouts along the way. For the more adventurous, a 2.4 kilometre circuit track winds through lush rainforest and along the riverside track. Keep an eye out for bright butterflies and the well-camouflaged Boyd’s forest dragons.
See the best of the iconic Daintree Rainforest in one day with Daintree Tours, including a river cruise along crocodile-inhabited waters, a beach walk to where the reef meets the rainforest, and a stop-off for locally-made ice cream.
To gain a deeper understanding of the fauna and flora of the Wet Tropics, a day trip to the Rainforestation Nature Park is a must. Only 30 minutes by bus from Cairns, this centre covers it all. There’s an amphibious World War II Army Duck that provides guided rainforest tours on both land and water, and local Indigenous Pamagirri guides conduct Dreamtime tours, which include boomerang throwing, spear-throwing and didgeridoo playing.
Journey deeper into the Wet Tropics to a remote site in the Cape York Peninsula near the small town of Laura to see the Quinkan Rock Art. Regarded by UNESCO as one of the 10 most significant bodies of rock art in the world, it can only be accessed via a 4WD overnight camping tour or helicopter. While there, hear first-hand the ancient stories of the Kuku Yalanji people during a guided tour by Traditional Owners.
A little closer to Cairns, explore Kuku Yalanji country – the only place where two World Heritage sites meet. 100% Indigenous-owned and operated Walkabout Cultural Adventures isn’t your typical cultural experience. You’ll learn how to throw a boomerang, swim in freshwater streams, taste bush tucker, and explore the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest with less than a dozen others.
If you have some spare time while in Cairns, check out these close-by rainforest walks.
Where to stay
Setting up a Cairns base leaves you in prime position to explore the Wet Tropics (and Great Barrier Reef) from every angle and direction. Bailey’s spacious and modern hotel rooms in the heart of the action are the perfect place to come home to after a busy day of exploring. Or balance your adventure-packed schedule with a day off around the pool at laidback five-star Riley.
Fully immerse yourself in the Daintree Rainforest by sleeping among the trees at Silky Oaks Lodge on the Mossman River. Blending casual and contemporary design, the Lodge offers intimate rooms where your only neighbour is the rainforest.
For an “off the grid” rainforest stay, lay down in your eco-cabin at the Daintree Wilderness Lodge and take in those canopies from the viewing sunroof above your head.
If the beach is calling your name, book a few nights at eco and wildlife retreat Thala Beach. The only beachfront nature reserve between Cairns and Port Douglas, start your days with a morning stroll on the private 2km stretch of sand before taking advantage of complimentary activities like bird and butterfly walks through the 145-acre property, and culture talks with elders from the local aboriginal community, the Kuku Yalanji people.
Where to eat
With the thick rainforest as the backdrop, Flames of the Forest is a dining experience that’s as unique as it is elegant. The six-course tropical tasting menu, with matched wines to boot, is perfect for honeymooners, birthdays or anyone on a mission to spoil themselves. The included transfers from Cairns are icing on the cake for the ultimate switch-off, stress-free night.
Staying in Cairns? Check out these top restaurants and cafes in Cairns.
THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
Running parallel to the Wet Tropics is the Great Barrier Reef, stretching over 2,300kms—from Bundaberg to Cape York at the top of Queensland’s coast. Not only is the Great Barrier Reef listed as one of the World Heritage sites thanks to its on-going ecological and biological evolution, but also – quite simply – because of its exceptional natural beauty.
Every inch is stunning, with a rainbow of coral reefs, brilliant blue waters and ethereal marine life. More than 30 species of whales and dolphins, 1,625 species of fish, 133 species of sharks and rays, and 600 types of hard and soft coral call this wondrous water-world home.
The best ways to explore The Great Barrier Reef
You’re spoilt for choice when planning a snorkelling or diving trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns-based Passions of Paradise take small groups out in their speedy 30-metre catamaran to two reefs and treats them to a chef-prepared buffet lunch. If you like the idea of giving back to the Reef, you’ll be happy to know that a portion of every dive certification attained through Passions of Paradise is donated to marine conservation organisation Project AWARE.
Get up close and personal with one of the most unique species of whales – the dwarf minke – a curious species that was first identified in the late 1980s. This experience is set in the gorgeous Ribbon Reefs off Tropical North Queensland. July to September is the peak season to swim with these naturally inquisitive, gentle giants.
Before heading out to the reef, gain a proper understanding of the marine life that call it home.
Reef Teach is a Marine Education Centre in Cairns that showcases the Great Barrier Reef. Incredibly entertaining and inspirational, you can learn about the coral and fish species found on the reef and how to identify them.
Want to know what it feels like to have an island to yourself, even if it’s only for one day? Sailaway Port Douglas has exclusive access to the Mackay and Undine coral cays.
Where to stay
One day out on the Reef will never feel like enough. Let the sound of the sea send you off to sleep on the Sunlover by Starlight experience, where you can enjoy two days on the Reef, comfy swags and million-star-views at night – a very special experience reserved for a maximum of 18 guests at any one time.
Islands are in no short supply in the Great Barrier Reef, and there are plenty that you can stay on. Lizard Island, at the northernmost end of the Reef, is a secluded getaway where there’s always an empty beach to call your own (there are 24 private beaches in total). Getting there is half the fun: it’s only accessible via a one-hour scenic seaplane flight from Cairns Airport.
Bedarra Island is even more deserted, with no more than 32 guests at any one time. Step right off the beach and snorkel or kayak your own patch of the Reef, or charter a boat to see even more pockets of the Great Barrier Reef.
Where to eat
On Orpheus Island, they’ll gladly cook up any fish you catch yourself, or you can simply sit back and find out why this hatted restaurant has earned its culinary reputation.
Seeking something extra special? Try these unforgettable dining experiences on the Great Barrier Reef.