How to spend 48 hours in Cairns
You can’t say you’ve been to Australia without a trip to the crowning jewel of Tropical North Queensland. The coastal city sits right in the juncture between the sprawling Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. Each year, millions of people flock to Cairns to adventure, explore, and discover these two world-heritage listed sites.
There’s a lot of ground to cover (including 2300kms of coral reef), so get stuck in. Here’s how to explore Cairns in just 48 hours:
Noon: arrive in Cairns
Despite being located in the northernmost part of Queensland, Cairns is just a quick domestic flight away from most major cities including Sydney, Melbourne, and of course Brisbane.
2pm: check in to your accommodation
Where to stay in Cairns depends entirely on your preference. Their suite of options ranges from campgrounds and caravan parks, to budget-friendly dorm rooms, to blown out resort luxe.
Located opposite Cairns Central Shopping Centre and a short walk from the city hotspots, Cairns Central YHA is the place to stay if you want all the mod-cons for a fraction of the price.
Or maybe you’re looking to up the ante, in which case Riley should be your first thought. This coastal resort kicks it up with its own swimming lagoon and man-made beach on the ground level, and a skysweeping rooftop bar and restaurant, Rocco – perfect for afternoon drinks.
6pm: Feast on a fish trawler
North Queensland’s coast is famed for its seafood produce, so naturally your first major meal has to feature the local catch.
Moored at Marlin Marina (just a three-minute walk from the Esplanade), Prawn Star has completely cut out the middle man as a fish trawler turned casual seafood restaurant. You couldn’t get closer to the source than if you caught it yourself.
Gorge on overflowing plates of the freshest prawns, oysters, sashimi or freshly-cooked mud crab without having to worry about the price tag. They’ll even pour you a glass of wine or beer for just $6. Not bad for a welcome dinner.
9am: Depart for Fitzroy Island
There’s no better way to start the first full day of your Cairns weekend than by exploring the Great Barrier Reef. With 2300kms of coral reef fringing the coastline, there’s so head to Fitzroy Island. Just 45-minutes from Cairns by ferry, the island is mostly national parkland and covered in lush forest and bordered by pristine beaches.
Work up a sweat exploring the rainforest along the Summit Trail, where you’ll also find a 360-degree view of the reef. Later, cool off by snorkelling over vibrant coral gardens right off the beach or meeting the local turtles at the rehabilitation centre.
The ferries to Fitzroy Island depart from Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal Marina. Full day excursions leave around 9am or 9:30am and head back at 4:30pm. Or stay a little longer and get to know every inch of the island.
8:15am: Alternate day trip: Frankland Islands
Located south of Cairns, the Frankland Islands have somehow managed to stay off the tourist radar, making them the perfect destination to snorkel through the coral gardens teeming with marine life.
You can join a day tour with Cruise & Dive Frankland Islands to experience this secluded haven for $240 per person including transport, equipment hire, a guided snorkelling tour and lunch.
6:30pm: Dinner on the water
Set the tone for your weekend in the tropics with a sunset cruise along the Trinity Inlet aboard the Spirit of Cairns.
The two-storey, 26-metre catamaran is part of a luxury fleet that will take you on a sundown cruise around the inlet and cross Cairns’ waterfront precinct every Saturday night. Departing the Marlin Marina at 6:30pm, the journey includes a decadent buffet repast showcasing the local produce, and especially seafood, of the region.
7pm: Alternate dinner plans
If you don’t make it back in time for an Inlet cruise, there’s still ample opportunity to dine out on the mainland. Cairns’ restaurants are supremely lucky for their access to some of the freshest produce that the bigger cities could only dream of. Within such fine company, one particular culinary perspective stands out at Ochre Restaurant.
Filtering local North Queensland produce through the lens of Indigenous cooking, Ochre’s menu is known for deploying native Australian flora and fauna to breathe new life into classic dishes like wattleseed damper, wallaby fillet, or quandong brulee.
Tucked away in a little laneway off Lake St is Cairns’ best wine bar. The Conservatory Bar is beloved by locals as one of the city’s top places for a low-key yet sophisticated snifter.
Upon entry, you’ll be greeted with live music and the thrum of a packed crowd. Find a seat at the bar and order your usual, or have a chat with the bartender to find a house cocktail to fit your mood.
The perfect place to start or end a night, the bar has an extensive wine and craft beer list, as well as grazing boards available until late.
6am: Catch the sunrise on the esplanade
If you’re looking for the perfect way to start your last day, the lagoon epitomises the outdoor lifestyle in Cairns, and is free of both an admission charge and stingers.
Head there between 6am and 8am to skip the crowds and maybe stick around for one of the fitness classes offered six days a week by the Cairns Council. From pilates to volleyball and even aqua aerobics, the classes are suitable for all fitness levels and are completely free.
10am: Meet the rainforest
For your final adventure in the north, venture even further north to the Rainforestation National Park in Kuranda. Here is where you’ll actually get to know the rainforest through the Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience.
As ancient custodians of the rainforest, the local Indigenous Australians have a deep-rooted connection with the Gondwana rainforest. With knowledge and wisdom passed down through hundreds of generations, they can teach you more about the rainforest than anyone else.
It all begins in the cradle of the rainforest amphitheatre, with an Indigenous dance show to welcome visitors to the rainforest. Next you’ll embark on a guided Dreamtime Walk, where you’ll learn even more about Indigenous Australian culture, traditions, and hunting techniques.
2pm: One last hoorah
End your Cairns weekend with something truly special and a helicopter tour over all the parts of the Reef you didn’t get to visit. Nautilus Aviation offers private flights 14,000 feet above the coral reef. It’s a luxurious finish, but a worthy investment for the single best vantage of the sprawling coral reef.