6 must-do experiences in Cairns

Cairns Esplanade The Lagoon - credit Tourism Tropical North Queensland
Cairns Esplanade The Lagoon - credit Tourism Tropical North Queensland

As the gateway to Australia’s prized Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, Cairns enjoys an enviable location on the Coral Sea of Tropical North Queensland. Yet, stay a while in the city itself and you’ll find there’s much to explore.

Cairns Art Gallery

Find one of the country’s leading public galleries at the three-storey Cairns Art Gallery, housed in the heritage-listed former State Government Insurance Office, built in 1936. Along with a number of diverse permanent exhibitions that showcase local, Far North Queensland, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, there’s a regular program of touring exhibitions by lauded artists (works by pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were on display during my visit). It’s centrally located in the city, on the corner of Abbott and Shields Streets. After perusing the exhibition spaces (free to enter), be sure to stop in at the gift shop, with a range of items designed and made by local Queensland artists.

Cairns Esplanade

The 2.5km-long and centrally located Cairns Esplanade is a flat stretch by the sea that is perfect for fitness, family activities or simply people-watching as you sip on a drink or a cooling ice cream. A 4800m2 saltwater and shallow swimming facility, known as The Lagoon, offers year-round and safe swimming, under the watchful eye of monitoring lifeguards. Or stimulate a tropical sweat by going hard on the beach volleyball courts or outdoor fitness equipment stationed along the Esplanade. Several thought-provoking artworks are dotted along the promenade too, including the Citizens Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef sculpture by artist Brian Robinson, arcing six metres into the sky and depicting a shaped wave of marine life and birds, including a large stingray. The piece is designed to reflect the vast biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef.

Visit the reef

Get out among the reef by booking any of the boating, snorkelling, kayaking, or helicopter tours that all depart from Cairns, where you can explore coral garden beds and azure waters lapping small islands. Between June and July, you’ll have the opportunity to dive and snorkel with minke whales during their annual migration season, travelling with a licensed tour operator who can take you to the best locations in the Great Barrier Reef. Try Allure Cairns Charters, Passions of Paradise or Seastar Cruises for premium touring options.

Rooftop cocktails

After a day of either exploration or relaxation, start (and perhaps, finish) your evening with a cocktail at Rocco, the rooftop bar at luxury hotel, Crystalbrook Riley. Tucked at the quiet end of Cairns Esplanade, you can take in sweeping 270-degree views of Cairns and the Coral Sea from Rocco’s wrap-around, glass-framed balcony. As the sun goes down at the Middle Eastern-inspired bar and restaurant, you’ll be surrounded by softly glowing lantern lighting. Choose dishes with a sustainable bent from those marked with special symbols to denote their ‘climate calories’ — considering the proximity of the produce, eco-friendly packaging, and culturally considered dishes using native ingredients sourced from Aboriginal suppliers. Staple mezze favourites include Queensland grilled tiger prawns, beef and pork kofta, confit chicken, and lamb cutlets. Be sure to take your cards or digital wallet for payment as Rocco is a cash-free venue.

Lunch by the sea

Hugging the coastline of the Coral Sea, the Esplanade and boardwalk leads to the marina of Cairns, with pedestrian paths lined with palm, banyan, and fig trees. One of the best spots for a waterside lunch is the casual eatery, Wharf One Café, built using upcycled timber from old wharf buildings. Chefs at the fully licensed café create dishes using ingredients sourced from local suppliers, including Zingo Mango Farm Rabbit Organic Bananas, Mungalli Creek Biodynamic & Organic Dairy, and Dino’s Woodfired Bakery. An extensive lunch menu, available from 11:30am, includes bowls, salads, prawn nasi goreng, or burgers such as Japanese fried chicken, ginger beer-battered barramundi, or beef. Just opposite the café is a children’s playground, and Hemingway’s Brewery Cairns Wharf is just a short stroll away.

Take a guided Aboriginal tour through the Daintree Rainforest

The world’s oldest living rainforest, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Daintree, is just a one-hour, 15-minute drive from Cairns — making it an easy and accessible day trip from the city. Hire your own car or book in to an organised tour and head to the Mossman Gorge Centre to join the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk through the rainforest. A local Aboriginal guide will greet you with a smoking ceremony of melaleuca leaves before guiding you through the rainforest to sacred sites while sharing ancient stories, the wisdom and the powerful connection between the Kuku Yalanji people and the Daintree. For a luxurious finish to your tour, book ahead to enjoy lunch at Silky Oaks Lodge (about a 20-minute drive from Mossman Gorge) seated in its open-air Treehouse Restaurant, dining on two or three courses as you overlook the Mossman River and lush, green foliage.

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