This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through an affiliate link, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for your support.
If you are planning a trip to Cairns, check out the highlights from my long weekend in Cairns itinerary. I loved my time there and I want you to as well.
The first thing that most people said to me when I mentioned that we would be basing ourselves in Cairns when visiting tropical North Queensland for the first time was: don’t.
Everyone said to go to Port Douglas instead.
Port Douglas does sound beautiful but one of the main reasons we wanted to visit northern Queensland other than to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef was to visit friends who are based in the northern beaches of Cairns, so Cairns was where we were going to stay.
We split our time between downtown Cairns where we spent two nights, Trinity Beach in Cairns’ northern beaches for a night, as well as a night in a resort on the fabulous Fitzroy Island, for a treat.
Arriving in Cairns my expectations weren’t that high. I usually find that to be a good thing. When your expectations are low to begin with, you are going in with a blank slate and it is easy to be impressed by the little things.
And impressed I was. Over the next few days, we explored the Cairns area and had a really great trip. I really enjoyed what we got to experience in Cairns, although there were a number of things we didn’t get to experience so I already know I want to come back at some stage.
Here are my Cairns itinerary highlights to help inspire you to visit Cairns too. Don’t believe the haters, it’s actually a really fun place to visit.
Highlights From My Cairns Itinerary
Experiencing the Glitzy Glamor of Palm Cove
Palm Cove is like the Monte Carlo of the Cairns area. In this small village, there are luxury hotels and resorts, upscale dining options, and expensive boutiques. It is a place to see and be seen and to spend a lot of money doing it.
Palm Cove was peaceful on this quiet Thursday morning in the shoulder season. I noticed how well-manicured it is immediately. Evenly spaced palm trees lined the detritus-free beach, and a paved path stretched along the coastline with views of the glittering ocean. It looked very much like paradise.
Until you looked closer at the signs along the path warning you not to enter the water because of crocodiles and jellyfish (stingers).
To step into these seemingly inviting waters (apart from in the small netted swimming section) could mean a painful death. Shit really does just gets scarier the further north you travel in Australia.
Welcome to tropical North Queensland.
Away from the potential danger of the ocean, I ate a very Aussie brunch of vegemite and avocado on toast with poached eggs, sitting on a deck overlooking the water. I had that holiday feeling and I liked it. A lot.
Walking along the beach I noticed that the water wasn’t as clear as I thought it would be. It was actually quite muddy. This is because it was still the rainy season and that in the dry it was beautiful and clear.
I walked to the end of the pier which had views over Double Island. Apparently, you can SUP around it although I doubt I would have the fitness for that. Or the bravery – there are crocs and stingers after all!
Palm Cove is a nice little spot and not as pretentious as I imagined it would be, it actually had quite a relaxed feel to it while still retaining an air of opulence. I would definitely recommend adding it to your Cairns itinerary.
Swimming in the Cairns Lagoon
Downtown Cairns doesn’t have any nice beaches and is in fact set on mudflats but the lovely Cairns Lagoon definitely made up for that.
The lagoon made Cairns unique, there are a lot of cities and towns in Australia that have beautiful beaches but none of them have a gigantic swimming pool overlooking the sea that’s free to enter.
There is even a white sand beach and lifeguard tower at the lagoon giving it a beachy feel.
Swimming in the lagoon was blissful under a starry night sky as well as during the blue sky days of scorching heat. Every day we had in the Cairns area was sunny which we were told is unusual for this time of year when it is still technically meant to be the wet season. We were very lucky.
Walking the Esplanade Boardwalk
The Esplanade Boardwalk is an excellent place to go for a walk in Cairns, especially for sunset. The sunset we watched from the esplanade boardwalk was a spectacular display of pinks and oranges.
Around sunset was the perfect time to walk along the picturesque path, when the air cooled to a more manageable temperature and the lights of the resort town slowly started to blink on as the shadows deepened.
Exploring the Cairns Night Markets
The night markets were a pleasant surprise. I was expecting tacky tourist crap but there was actually some good stuff as well including cute hippy dresses, handmade bracelets and necklaces, printed singlets and products like honey and coffee from the nearby Atherton Tablelands.
You could also find very cheap massages. Like Asia cheap – almost unheard of in Australia. We meant to go back to get one after snorkeling the reef but we were too tired.
Snorkeling the Outer Great Barrier Reef
A snorkeling trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef was a must for our visit to Cairns and one of the reasons we planned this trip. After doing a bit of research and asking around we settled on the cheapest company that was recommended to us, Reef Daytripper.
They offered day trips to the Upolu Reef, one of the many reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef and which is located far enough out for there to be little to no reef degradation.
It was an early start, with us needing to be at the marina for an 8 am departure. The boat was a catamaran manned by three staff members and with only about another 15 people taking the tour, it was a smaller group than most of the day trip boats. I don’t like crowds so it was a perfect number for me.
We slowly set out for the outer reef, and I mean slowly. It took over two hours to get there with the other boats passing us easily a short time after leaving the marina.
I liked the slow pace at the beginning as I lay on the netting at the front of the boat and enjoyed the cool breeze and sunshine. But after about an hour I just wanted to be out there and in the water.
Finally arriving I felt a bit seasick. I couldn’t get off the boat fast enough and once I was in the swimming pool waters of the reef I felt a lot better.
I quickly realized that if I lay down when I was on the boat I would instantly feel better, so on snorkeling breaks, I lay on the netting at the front of the boat and read my book in the sun. I probably would have done that anyway.
We had to swim about 20 meters to reach the reef at our first snorkeling stop and as soon as we did I saw my first green turtle of the day. It was having a nibble between the coral directly below me before moving off into open water.
I followed it for a bit but it was too fast for me. I have been lucky enough to swim with turtles in Belize and Hawaii before this and it never gets old.
The coral wasn’t that impressive in our first spot and we didn’t see a lot of tropical fish, there were a few but nowhere near what I was expecting. A small remora started following Trav around and trying to catch a ride. The thought of a fish suctioning onto me freaked me out so I steered clear of Trav until the little hanger-on turned its attention to another girl in our group.
We moved onto another spot on the reef and things got infinitely better. The coral and the sheer amount of fish of every color you could imagine were mind-blowing.
THIS was what I was expecting of the Great Barrier Reef!
I have never seen coral of such incredible colors before – electric blue, bright purple and even giant clams with leopard print lips! Amazing.
Floating a meter or two above this vast underwater world made me feel like I was in Finding Nemo (we found him and his parents too) or the Little Mermaid. It was a bustling underwater metropolis with all of the different fishies going about their day-to-day business while we watched from above.
Along with finding Nemo we also saw a giant Maori wrasse, beautiful butterfly fish, blue sea stars, angry-looking lionfish, lots of anxious-looking gobies with their comical down-turned mouths, and so many more fish that I don’t know the names of with various splotches or stripes of color.
We didn’t see any sharks although the guys on our boat who went diving did.
Back on the boat, we were given a mediocre lunch of cold chicken drumsticks and a couple of different salads – not exactly the tropical buffet they had advertised.
The staff weren’t particularly friendly either and had a bit of a bad attitude, something we found to be woefully common in and around Cairns with male tourism staff.
I know it’s relaxed up here but I don’t think that means you should be indifferent and rude to paying visitors.
I was also disappointed that our boat didn’t go to the sand cays that appear at low tide on the reef as we saw a couple of other boats in the area landing on them. If I did it again I would pay the extra money to go with a faster boat with better food but I can’t fault the snorkeling – it was gosh darn amazing!
Quiet and Relaxation in Trinity Beach
Trinity Beach is a quiet beach suburb and reminded me a lot of where we live I used to live in the northern beaches of Sydney.
The beach was pleasant enough but like Palm Cove, you could only swim in the lifeguard-patrolled and netted area because of the stingers and crocs, and the water was murky.
Trinity definitely had a more laid-back feel than Palm Cove and seemed to have a close-knit little community, with lots of locals greeting each other and stopping for a chat on the street.
I would much rather live somewhere like this rather than in a resort area that is geared toward tourism.
Our last meal was one of the best we had in tropical North Queensland. We went to the popular L’unico Italian Restaurant across the road from the beach and it was so good!
I ordered a beautiful bug pasta with chili, garlic, and white wine. Bugs are shovel-nosed lobsters very similar to langoustines and equally delicious.
Night was my favorite time up there and a gentle sea breeze cooled us down while we were eating by candlelight.
It was a lovely ending to a fantastic Easter holiday.
Cairns may not be perfect, it is full of tourists, and the humidity was almost unbearable, but I ended up loving my time there and am already plotting my return to experience more that this area has to offer. Like Port Douglas.
Plan Your Cairns Itinerary
Where To Stay in Cairns
There are a number of hostels in Cairns if you are traveling on a budget, my top picks are the Travellers Oasis, Cairns Central YHA, and Mad Monkey Waterfront.
If hotels are more your travel style, some great mid-range options are the Palm Royale Cairns, Cairns City Palms, and Nightcap at Balaclava Hotel. More luxurious options are Crystalbrook Flynn and Pullman Reef Hotel Casino.
For vacation homes, these are my picks for highly-rated, centrally located choices:
- Stylish One-Bedroom Cabin With Short Walk to Beach
- Studio Guesthouse With Pool North of Cairns City Center
- Two-Bedroom Apartment With Pool in Palm Cove
- Luxury Two-Bedroom Beachfront Apartment With Pool
- Tiki Style Two-Bedroom Apartment Short Walk To City Center
How To Get Around in Cairns
The easiest way to get around Cairns and the surrounding area is by renting a car but you can also take the Sunbus within Cairns and to Palm Cove and the northern beaches. Uber operates in Cairns itself but for surrounding towns, you will need to use a regular taxi service.
The Best Insurance For Your Cairns Trip
Make sure you get travel and health insurance before your trip. Safety Wing is my go-to and they are cheap and easy to claim with – it auto-renews every month unless you turn it off so you don’t have to think about it for longer trips
Safety Wing also allows you to sign up when you are already traveling, unlike a lot of other travel insurance providers.
If you liked this post, check out more of my Australia content:
- The Ultimate Itinerary for 5 Days in Sydney
- The Best Sydney Walks
- How to Spend the Perfect 24 Hours in Melbourne
- Experiencing Real Autumn in the Blue Mountains of Australia
- Fitzroy Island: A Tropical Escape on the Great Barrier Reef
- Fun Things To Do in Jervis Bay, New South Wales
- The Best Two Day Kangaroo Island Itinerary
- The Great Ocean Road: Is it Overrated?
- Ultimate Offbeat Summer in Sydney Bucketlist
- Best Things To Do in Alice Springs in the Australian Outback
- What To Expect on a 3 Day Uluru Tour
- Grampians Walks and Camping: A Long Weekend in Victoria’s Rocky Mountains
- 30 Reasons Why I Love Sydney
And yes, Westcourt is way out of town and considered a ‘dodgy’ suburb so I’m not surprised that you found it less than appealing…
Unfortunately there weren’t any closer choices on Air BnB in our price range
As someone who’s done every reef trip from Cairns I’d say you probably should have done a little more research on your boat 🙂 Reef day-tripper is tiny so it’s 2 hours to the *inner* reef rather than a boat like Silverswift which is 90 mins to the outer (and $70 more expensive). You probably saw Ocean Freedom visiting the cay on Upolo reef but RD never goes there, each boat pays for particular permits determining where they’re allowed to moor up.
I’m also surprised you didn’t rate the restaurants in Cairns! There’s a huge foodie scene (and this is coming from a Londoner) with places like Ochre and Paddock to Plate serving up seriously good food.
You should definitely return and dig a little deeper, in my experience if people tell me they liked Cairns it’s because they spent longer here exploring. Regions like the Daintree and Tablelands are seriously special…
I didn’t know that those cays existed on Upolu until I saw them so by then it was too late. I did do some research and went with the cheapest that was recommended to me. I only had two nights in Cairns as I said so I am certainly no expert on the dining scene, I am just sharing my experience. I did like Cairns and that was based on only two days there and one day I will return as I didn’t have the time to visit Daintree and the Tablelands.