Cairns is a weird place. Coming from the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of Sydney, the dusty, low-rise and laid back town of Cairns was a culture shock. We were in the area for 10 days after six months of working, so I was pretty desperate to fill my days with fun adventures. This set me on a quest to find things to do in Cairns, but the result was fairly disappointing.
I’ve broken down our trip into opinionated bite-sized chunks, to make it easier for you to navigate my emotions.
We spent our first day wandering around the ‘CBD’, and we couldn’t help but notice there didn’t seem to be many people. I’d always heard that Cairns was really popular with backpackers, but there was nothing there except a few touristy and overpriced shops, and loads of bars.
We were well and truly stumped on what to do in Cairns, and we managed to kill time that first day by frequenting as many dive shops as possible, before heading down to the seafront for a nice meal that night… but where was the beach?!
Things To Do in Cairns: Food
I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been spoilt by Sydney. Everybody bangs on about how it’s overpriced and there’s ‘no food culture’. Well, having now got a comparison, I call bulls**t.
The ‘nice’ meal that we went out for was decidedly average, and cost as just as much as it would have done in Sydney for a much nicer meal. You’ll have great service throughout Cairns, as we did in every place we ate, but it’s such a shame that these guys and girls trying to make money from tips are being so let down by the quality and price of the food that they’re serving: it seems that chefs in Cairns are having a passionate love affair with their salt shakers, and when you’re paying $30 for two bagels, you don’t want them to taste like they’ve been residing at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Things To Do in Cairns: Nightlife
As we left the restaurant on that first night, we realised why it’s a backpacker haven. The waterfront had changed completely, and was now lit up by fairy lights, with hundreds of people milling around between the bars and the shops. This was much more the atmosphere that we had been expecting the town to have. Unfortunately, I’m more of an early riser than a night owl, and we was acutely aware of our alcohol intake as we had our long-awaited liveaboard coming up, so the nightlife in Cairns was mostly wasted on us.
Things To Do in Cairns: Accommodation
We stayed at The Coral Tree Inn, which was affordable and ticked the boxes for what we wanted: it had a pool, a comfy bed, air con, and served breakfast. The staff were really friendly and helpful. It was a couple of minutes walk to the seafront, so location was perfect. However, we both felt yet again let down by the food, paying $20 for a buffet-style cooked breakfast, or $12 for continental. Probably pretty normal for hotels in Cairns, and the standard was also probably pretty normal for Cairns, but not as good as we were expecting.
After our dive trip, we stayed about thirty minutes north of the city at Mango Lagoon Resort and Spa in Palm Cove. As we were just out of season, I ended up paying less than the Cairns city hotel for an apartment in a complex with four swimming pools, and beach access. It was incredible, and I cannot recommend it enough, although the food up there was the same quality as Cairns. This is not a region for the foodies, I feel. We were also too scared of crocodiles to go in the sea, so spent a lot of time doing this:
Things To Do in Cairns: Entertainment
Now, this might seem super obvious to you, but what I didn’t realise before coming up is THERE IS NO BEACH IN CAIRNS. Who knew?! Due to dredging and the risk of stingers, there isn’t a natural beach in Cairns, but instead you have Cairns Lagoon, an artificial beach and pool on the seafront, but we didn’t spend any time there as it looks like the kind of place a kid would definitely poop in. So, if you want a beach, it’s worth heading north to Palm Cove.
When we arose on our second day after a bit of a lie-in, we decided that we would like to do some kind of tour up into the rainforest or tablelands that border Cairns to the East. After flicking through a few leaflets and TripAdvisor, we were saddened to see that most of the tours around Cairns depart at around 6am and don’t return to late (so that’s where all the people are during the day!).
Fortunately, I remembered that I had previously seen a tour rated really high on TripAdvisor that left in the afternoon. It was pricey, coming in at $200 per person, but raked in the 5* reviews, and pretty much guaranteed spotting a duck-billed platypus. As we are both fairly nutty about nature, we decided to take the financial plunge and book it.
Things To Do in Cairns: Wildlife Spotlighting Tour
Wait-A-While tours is run by Paul, a friendly and knowledgeable Englishman. To find out more about this tour, watch this space. All I’ll say for now, is that it was everything that we dreamed it would be, and we got to see an array of tropical northern Queensland wildlife: a great time to while away the time before our liveaboard!
Things To Do in Cairns: Liveaboard
Whether you’re a diver or not, the hands-down best thing that you can do whilst in Cairns is dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. Doing a quick Google search for this will drown you in different companies offering you different deals. For my boyfriend’s birthday I booked us both onto a 3 day, 4 night liveaboard, and as this was 6 months in the making, you can only imagine how much research I put into this.
Tadah! I’ve done the hard bit for you! I made Excel sheets, price comparisons, and broke down every little cost possible before deciding on the company that we went for. Deep Sea Divers Den was our winner. There will be more to come on this later, but the accommodation, food, staff, and diving was phenomenal. Book with them!
Things To Do in Cairns: Hug A Koala
Later on in the holiday, we went to tick off one of my bucket list items: hug a koala. There are quite a few options to do this in and around Cairns, the cheapest being the Sky Dome above the Casino in the city – although I’m unsure of how moral and friendly it is to keep animals inside.
After talking to Paul from Wait-A-While tours about how okay it is to have a photo taken with a koala, we established that the best places to go were either Kuranda Animal Park, or Hartley’s Crocodile Park. By the way, it’s okay and not stressful to the koala to have a photo taken (we both thoroughly researched it), as there is a law in Queensland that each koala is not allowed to be used in photos and handling for longer than a total of 30 minutes a day, in two 15 minute slots, and the handlers are acutely aware of this and monitor the koalas behavior. If at all it becomes agitated then they make the call of ‘no more’.
As we were staying in Palm Cove at this point, we went to Hartleys, paying $64 each for entry and a shuttle from Palm Cove (easier with a car). I enjoyed the day, learning about crocs, native snakes, and feeding wallabies and kangaroos. However, disaster struck later on when I went to have my photo taken with the koala at the advertised time: there were no koalas left! You can imagine my dismay as apparently any tours that have booked in advance get priority with koala photos, even though they continued to advertise them. They didn’t tell us this on entry, and it was only the second of four slots throughout the day.
I totally respect the law and the keepers dedication to the rules, as I’m sure in many places they would prioritise profit over animal welfare, but it was still fairly disappointing. The keepers actually sent us up to the entrance to complain to the owner of the park, but when we arrived a couple was already complaining, and I didn’t want to kick up a fuss that would potentially ruin our day.
In the end it worked out in my favour (hey, karma). As we returned to the shuttle at the end of the day, we passed the koala photo booth, and they were once again doing hug a koala sessions for a pre-booked tour. I was slightly dismayed and turned to James to complain, as I noticed that the couple who had complained to the owner were at the front of the queue. What I didn’t realise is the owner herself was standing behind me, heard my complaint, and let me have a hug-a-koala photo for free. WIN!
Things To Do in Cairns: Conclusion
So basically, what you can gleam from this post is that the only thing to do in Cairns itself is drink yourself into a stupor until you move on to something better.
If that doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley, then fill your days with as many tours out of Cairns as you can. The city may be a little dated, but I guess I will give it the compliment of being a great base for day trips. The Daintree is to the North, the tablelands to the West, the Reef to the East, so the location is perfect. Just don’t head up there expecting to be blown over by the ‘city’ itself.
Did you find this a bit controversial? Do you disagree with me and absolutely LOVE Cairns? Are you a backpacker who spends most of their time hammered? Let me know in the comments!