Cairns (pronounced ‘cans’) has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a boggy swamp and rollicking goldfields port. As the number-one base for Far North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef, today Cairns heaves under the weight of an ever-growing number of resorts, tour agencies, souvenir shops, backpacker bars and reef boats. This is a tourist town, and unashamedly so – luxury hotel development in 2018 and an increasingly busy cruise-ship port suggest it's only growing busier.
The city centre is more boardshorts than briefcases, and you'll find yourself throwing away all notions of speed and schedules here, thanks to heady humidity and a hearty hospitality. There's no beach in town, but spend time at the Esplanade lagoon or the Pier marina and you'll understand why many travellers fall for Cairns.
The Cairns region is the traditional land of the Yirrganydji and Yidinji peoples.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cairns.
These gorgeous gardens are an explosion of greenery and rainforest plants. Highlights include a section devoted to Aboriginal plant use, the Gondwana Heritage Garden, the Flecker Garden and an excellent conservatory filled with butterflies and exotic flowers. Tag along on a free guided walk (daily from 10am) to learn more. Follow the Rainforest Boardwalk to Saltwater Creek and Centenary Lakes, a birdwatcher's delight. Uphill from the gardens, Mt Whitfield Conservation Park has walking tracks through the rainforest to city viewpoints.
Sunseekers and fun-lovers flock to Cairns Esplanade's spectacular swimming lagoon on the city’s reclaimed foreshore. The artificial, sandy-edged, 4800-sq-metre saltwater pool with its Woven Fish sculptures, is lifeguard patrolled and illuminated nightly. The adjacent 3km foreshore boardwalk has picnic areas, birdwatching vantage points, sculptures, free barbecues and fitness equipment. Follow the signposts for the excellent Muddy's, which has playgrounds and water fun for little kids, and the skate ramp, beach volleyball courts, bouldering park and Fun Ship playground.
Cairns' multi-million-dollar aquarium is well worth a visit for its vast and gorgeously presented range of marine life, the Great Barrier Reef in miniature and offbeat experiences such as 'sleeping with the sharks' and a 5D submarine simulator ride. Fittingly, displays focus on the marine habitats of Far North Queensland – not only the reef, but also rivers, estuaries and billabongs. Free talks and shows are held throughout the day, covering everything from sea turtles to reef conservation.
Take your knowledge to new depths at this fun, informative centre, where marine experts explain how to identify specific species of fish and coral, and how to approach the reef respectfully.
Babinda Boulders is a natural gorge where a photogenic creek rushes between 4m-high granite rocks. It’s croc-free, but waters can turn treacherous after heavy rain. Local Aboriginal Dreaming stories recount that a young woman, Oolana, threw herself into the then-still waters after being separated from her love; her anguish caused the creek to become the surging, swirling torrent it is today.
Managed by the area’s original custodians, this award-winning cultural extravaganza tells the story of creation using giant holograms and actors. There's a dance theatre, a gallery, boomerang- and spear-throwing demonstrations, bush-tucker walks and more. The Nightfire dinner-and-show package (adult/child/family $123/75/321, from 7pm to 9.30pm) culminates in a fireside corroboree.
About 14km from Cairns, 'Crystals' is a series of beautiful waterfalls and idyllic, croc-free swimming holes that locals would rather keep to themselves. The area is accessed by a 1.2km (30-minute) pathway. Crystal Cascades is linked to Lake Morris (the city's reservoir) by a steep rainforest walking trail (allow three hours return); it starts near the picnic area. There is no public transport to the pools. Drive to the suburb of Redlynch, then follow the signs.
Three gigantic, ex-WWII fuel-storage tanks have been transformed into art galleries; it's also an inspired performing-arts venue. Check the website for upcoming events. Tanks hosts lively market days on the last Sunday of the month (April to November).
Josephine Falls is a series of cascades over eroded granite boulders as the creek trickles – often sometimes flows – down from the misty Bellenden Kerr Range. It's a well-signposted 8km west of the Bruce Hwy to the car park, from where a paved 700m walk heads uphill through the rainforest to three viewing platforms. The bottom (first) pool is suitable for swimming and lounging, the middle pool is for viewing only and the upper falls is now officially off limits to walkers.