Where the rainforest meets the reef.
Crystal-clear turquoise waters and lush green rainforests. Sounds like an island paradise? Well, it is, of sorts! We are spoilt for choice in Hong Kong when it comes to tropical getaways. Bali, Thailand and the Philippines are all just a short flight away. But for the ultimate, family-friendly, beachside holiday, you can’t past up on Cairns and Far North Queensland.
You’ll be rewarded on your visit with friendly locals, a safe destination (always a consideration when travelling with kids) and endless activities. Not to mention a thriving dining scene. This is sure to be the family holiday that creates fond memories for years to come. There are so many options when it comes to activities, food and accommodation so jump to your favourite sections using the links below.
Things to do
There are trips to the Great Barrier Reef, hidden rainforest waterfalls and golden sand beaches, as well as authentic indigenous experiences, wildlife interactions (want to cuddle a koala?!) and some amazing, free public amenities. No matter how much time you have in Cairns and Far North Queensland, you’ll wish you had stayed longer!
Great Barrier Reef trips
The Great Barrier Reef stretches for over 2000km along the Queensland coastline and is as big as Japan! Cairns is the gateway to this natural wonder of the world and not to be missed. Look for Nemo and Dory, and spot sea turtles, friendly reef sharks and whales on their annual migrations. Do your homework before you go and choose an operator that is environmentally friendly and locally owned. Also, consider the size and type of vessel depending on the ages and mobility of your family.
Passions Of Paradise ticks all the boxes for a family day out at the reef. It has a friendly crew, is affordable, has one of the smaller boats in town (taking a maximum of 80 people) and one of the most eco-friendly boats in the Cairns marina. During your day on the reef, you’ll visit Michaelmas Cay – a bird sanctuary with a beautiful beach. This is great for nervous or first-time snorkellers as it lets you find your fins in shallow water. Snorkelling gear is included and there’s also the option for certified and introductory scuba diving.
Another locally-owned business, Ocean Free and Ocean Freedom are both fantastic options for a family day out on the Great Barrier Reef. The crew go out of their way to ensure every guest gets the most out of their reef experience. Like Passions of Paradise, Ocean Freedom visits a coral cay as well as outer reef sites so there is the chance to snorkel off the boat and from the beach.
Families looking for a more intimate experience should check out Ocean Free. The sailing boat takes just 25 guests on its Great Barrier Reef adventure. Snorkel straight from the boat, or take some time to relax and explore the fringing reefs around Green Island. The prices are comparable with other operators, but they include extras like stinger suits, glass-bottom boat rides and snorkel tours. Introductory and certified scuba diving is available for an extra cost.
This eco-friendly larger operator journeys out to a pontoon called “Marine World” which becomes your base for the day. A trip like this is good if you have young children who want to see the reef, but need that bit more space than some smaller boats provide. From the floating pontoon, you have the option to snorkel or view the reef from an underwater observatory, or from semi-submersible and glass-bottom boat rides. Scuba, snuba, helmet diving, guided snorkel tours and helicopter rides are available for additional costs.
Have you heard of the saying “where the rainforest meets the reef?” This is the place! After a speedy 25-minute boat ride (family members who suffer from seasickness will appreciate the short journey time) you’ll be searching for Nemo in some of the most pristine reefs in the area. With exclusive permits to visit Mackay and Undine Reefs and just 25 people on board, it leads to some amazing snorkelling. This trip departs from Cape Tribulation so is best combined with a night or two in the Daintree. In our opinion, it’s worth the drive just for this amazing snorkel trip!
Ocean Safari, Cape Tribulation, Cairns, Queensland, Australia, +61 7 4098 0006, www.oceansafari.com.au
Far North Queensland is famous for having two world heritage sites side by side – the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Once you’ve ticked off the reef, make your next stop the rainforests! While the Daintree is arguably the most famous, you will find rainforests split across 10 different national parks in the area.
For a leisurely family day out, a visit to Kuranda Village by taking the SkyRail and Kuranda Scenic Train is not to be missed. Stretching 7.5km over pristine rainforests, a ride on the SkyRail takes you up the mountain to the village of Kuranda. Along the way, stop off at Red Peak Terminal to glimpse through the canopy layers (and take advantage of the free ranger-guided walks!) and at Barron Falls Terminal to see the mighty, thundering cascades in the wet season (they’re down to just a trickle in the dry). The gondolas accommodate strollers and wheelchairs and the walks at both terminals are pram-friendly, making the lives of parents with babies and toddlers that much easier!
At the end of your journey, you are dropped in Kuranda, famous for its art and craft markets. Browse the art galleries and local handicraft stores, shop for Australian opals and gemstones or grab lunch in one of the local cafes. Depending on how much time you’d like to spend, you could also visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary or take a scenic boat ride with Kuranda Riverboat Tours.
Journey home on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. The two-hour ride on a heritage locomotive must be one of the most scenic in the world. Along the way, you’ll stop briefly at Barron Falls for one last look at the magnificent falls.
Sassy Mama Tip: Book the gold class tickets on the Kuranda Scenic Trip to enjoy a beverage and some delicious local produce. If you’re staying in the Northern Beaches of Cairns opt to alight at Freshwater and shorten your journey. The SkyRail and Kuranda Scenic Railway can be booked separately or together, and in either direction.
Kuranda Scenic Railway, Cairns, Queensland, Australia, +61 7 4036 9333, www.ksr.com.au
Cape Tribulation – Daintree National Park
Cape Tribulation is the only place in the world where you find two natural world heritage sites just metres apart. Cross over the Daintree River (watch out for crocs!) and immerse yourself in the dark side. It’s generator-only power up here, cell phone service is patchy and it is all worth it to see the heart of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. You can visit on a day trip from Cairns, but for a more relaxed experience spend a night or more – there’s plenty to do!
For a bit of a thrill, take to the trees on a zipline adventure with Jungle Surfing. At Daintree Discovery Centre, check out the resident serpents, stroll the boardwalks and learn all about what makes tropics so special with its interactive displays. A real highlight is climbing the Canopy Tower and exploring all the layers of the rainforest.
There are a number of free, family-friendly boardwalks in different parts of the National Park. Jindalba Boardwalk is an easy 700-metre loop walk close to the Daintree Discovery Centre and is a cassowary hotspot. There are also picnic facilities and public toilets. Marrja Boardwalk is another popular and easy walk for families. The boardwalk winds just over one kilometre, taking you from rainforest through to mangroves (keep your eye out for the amazing strangler fig!) on an easy stroller-friendly, level track.
Of course, you can’t venture this far north and not visit Cape Tribulation lookout and beach. The Kulki-Cape Tribulation track is just 400 metres and offers up stunning vistas over the coastal fringing reefs and rolling, rainforest-covered mountains.
All of the above can be visited by hiring a car and driving yourself (with the added advantages of choosing your own itinerary). There are also many companies offering day trips from Cairns (about a two-hour drive) and Port Douglas (about a one-hour drive). If you are looking for a private guide, Sassy Mama can highly recommend Daintree local D’Arcy Of The Daintree.
If you want to visit the Daintree Rainforest, but don’t have the time to cross the river into Cape Tribulation, then Mossman Gorge is the place for you. It is just a 20-minute drive from Port Douglas and about an hour north of Cairns. Your gateway to the park is the Mossman Gorge Centre, with ample parking, visitor information, a cafe and art gallery. From here you can purchase your ticket on the shuttle bus ($27.50 AU return for a family of two adults and two kids) to deliver you directly to the park with minimal environmental impact. Once in the park, there are four easy to moderate walks to choose from, ranging from 10 to 45 minutes. There are also guided walks available (highly recommended – see Indigenous Tours below).
Head up and over the Great Dividing Range and onto the Atherton Tablelands. Here you’ll find pockets of rainforest, freshwater crater lakes (found in the remains of ancient volcanoes!) and stunning waterfalls, along with the finest fresh produce courtesy of the region’s local farmers (think fresh tropical fruit but also gourmet cheese and dairy products).
Drive south of Cairns and up the Gillies Highway, loop through Yungaburra, Malanda and Millaaa Millaa, before heading down the range via the Palmerston Highway.
Call into the Curtain Fig Tree just outside Yungaburra and continue onto the Gallo Dairyland for lunch (don’t miss the fabulous chocolates). Stop in at Malanda Visitor Centre for its wonderful exhibits and easy rainforest walks and then pop over to the Nerada Tea Plantation. The tea is great, but also keep an eye out for the resident Lumholtz tree kangaroos that make their home in the little patch of rainforest on the property!
Top waterfalls to visit along the way (and safe to swim at!) include Millaa Millaa Falls and the natural waterslide at Josephine Falls (located at the base of the Palmerston Highway on your way home). This is a LONG day trip, so if you have the time, plan to spend a night or more at one of the fabulous guesthouses in the region.
Australia’s Indigenous history is rich, diverse and goes back for over 40,000 years! Despite being such a small area, the greater Cairns area is home to more than 20 tribal groups, each with unique dreaming stories. The rainforests around Far North Queensland are the perfect place to introduce your kids to Australian Aboriginal culture (and learn a little yourself).
Tjapukai Cultural Park is a great place to dip into Aboriginal traditions. It pioneered Indigenous tourism in the region and continues to provide employment to the local Djabugay people. Visit by day or night, see a corroboree (traditional dance), throw boomerangs and spears, and listen to the sounds of the didgeridoo. The park is easily accessible from Cairns (about 15 minutes from the centre of town) and could be combined with a trip on the SkyRail.
The 90-minute Dreamtime Walk at Mossman Gorge is a wonderful rainforest cultural experience led by the local Kuku-Yalanji rainforest people (who make their home in the Daintree Rainforest). You will be welcomed with a traditional smoking ceremony, visit a sacred site, learn how to make ochre paint and finish it all off with some tea and damper (Australian bush bread). Kids will love hearing the dreaming stories that have been passed down through the generations. Your tour starts and finishes at the Mossman Gorge Centre. This one is great if you are staying in Port Douglas, or could be combined with a visit to Wildlife Habitat which is also nearby.
This is one of the newest Indigenous operators in Cairns and conveniently picks guests up from the Reef Fleet Terminal right in town. From there you’ll be whisked across Trinity Inlet to Madingalby Yidinji country. Here, you’ll learn from the custodians about the unique land-sea relationship as well as visit the supermarket – the bush supermarket that is! Learn about the seasonal foods and medicines that the land provides and give your children a unique insight into this ancient culture. For a really special experience, camp out overnight (or longer).
This one is great for active kids and teens who like to get their hands dirty! You will head to Cooya Beach (about a 20-minute drive from Port Douglas) where you’ll be met by a Kuku-Yalanji traditional custodian who will introduce your family to its coastal way of life. Then grab a spear and head to the beach to catch your dinner! Search for mud crabs and fish in the shallows and collect bush medicines and foods from the nearby mangroves. After it’s all done, you’ll head back to your guide’s home where the days haul will be cooked up. It doesn’t get fresher than that!
Located in Tully, about two hours south of Cairns, and home to some great white water rafting, this tour company is 100% Aboriginal owned and operated and offers a unique kayak experience through the rainforest. Learn about the local Jirrbal people as you leisurely paddle downstream, then take a dip in the refreshingly cool, crystal-clear waters. This one is sure to be a hit with older kids and active teens. While you are in the Tully area, head over to Mission beach and try and spot some wild cassowaries or call in at Josephine Falls for a swim and a go on the natural waterslide!
You can’t come to Australia and not want to see some of its iconic wildlife! From feeding kangaroos to cuddling koalas (Queensland is the only state in Australia that lets you hold a koala), the animals alone are a reason to visit.
A small wildlife park, located atop the Reef Hotel and Casino, this is a great option if you are short on time and really want to see some animals. There are koalas and sugar gliders, cockatoos and kookaburras, as well as snakes and crocodiles. For your little adventurers looking for more than just wildlife, there are mid and high ropes courses, complete with ziplines (over the crocodile enclosure!).
While nothing beats seeing marine life out on the reef, sometimes it’s nice to get more than a fleeting glance at the fish, corals and turtles that call the coastline home. Cairns Aquarium is a wonderful introduction to the ecosystems that make the region so special and the exhibits take you from the rainforest to the coastal wetlands and on to the coral reef and sea. There are educational talks throughout the day as well as touch tanks where your kids can get up close to sea cucumbers and starfish (under supervision from the expert staff members of course).
Hartley’s is the largest wildlife experience in Northern Queensland and one of the longest-running. Located halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas this is the perfect attraction to introduce your family to Australian wildlife. There are presentations (including cassowary feeding, snake shows and croc farm tours) that are entertaining as well as educational, boardwalks to stroll along (pram-friendly) and cruises on its lagoon (spot the crocs!) all included with your entry fee. There’s an on-site restaurant for lunch, or get in early for breakfast with the koalas (which comes at an extra cost). This park has some excellent eco-credentials and definitely gets this Sassy Mama’s tick of approval.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, Captain Cook Highway, Wangetti, Queensland, +61 7 4055 3576, www.crocodileadventures.com
This is an excellent option if you are staying in Port Douglas, or to combine with a visit to Mossman Gorge on a day trip from Cairns. Its exhibits take you from the woodlands to the savannah, through the wetlands to the rainforest. Visit early to have breakfast with the birds, or later in the day for lunch with the lorikeets – although you’ll need to watch out for some sneaky birds trying to steal your leftovers! A highlight is seeing the shy tree kangaroo and cassowary, endemic to the region.
While lots of the big attractions of the far north require a day trip, there’s plenty to do around town to keep you occupied. Whether you have a free day, afternoon, or just an evening, these free attractions are worth making time for.
The Cairns Esplanade is the heart of the city. Occupying 2.5 kilometres of prime location on the waterfront, this leisure precinct is home to running and cycling tracks, kids playgrounds, sports facilities (including a skate park, bouldering walls, fitness stations and beach volleyball courts), entertainment areas and free barbecues. Not to mention the glorious Cairns Lagoon – a free, patrolled swimming pool that is open year-round.
Whether you want an after-dinner stroll in the balmy evening or pack a picnic and enjoy an alfresco meal while the kids run free, the Esplanade is the place to go. There is often free live entertainment, fitness classes and markets, so be sure to check the official Facebook page before you travel.
One of three playgrounds on the Esplanade, Muddy’s is hugely popular with families looking to cool down. As well as flying foxes, slides and playhouses, the playground also has a big splash zone! There are public toilets on site as well as picnic tables, barbecue facilities and Muddy’s Cafe, which overlooks the play equipment. The kids will love it!
Just a ten-minute drive from the city centre, the Botanic Gardens is well worth a visit. There are free walks and talks most days, a stunning visitor information centre, an Aboriginal plant use garden, as well as rainforest and mangrove boardwalks and a beautiful cafe serving up breakfast and lunch. The paths are mostly pram and stroller-friendly as well.
Cairns Botanic Gardens, Collins Avenue, Edge Hill, Cairns, Queensland, Australia, +61 7 4032 6650, www.cairns.qld.gov.au
If you are out for an evening in the city, the Night Markets are well worth a visit. You’ll be able to pick up the usual array of souvenirs, along with some local crafts, a cheap and cheerful meal in the food court or relax with a quick massage.
The Cairns Night Markets, 71-75 The Esplanade, Cairns, Queensland, Australia, www.nightmarkets.com.au
If you are self-catering or just looking for fresh local produce, head to Rusty’s Market any Friday, Saturday or Sunday (5am to 6pm). You’ll find more than 180 stalls selling everything from locally-grown fruit and veg and artisanal snacks to quirky souvenirs.
Where to stay and eat
Cairns is a tourist hotspot so there is accommodation available to suit every budget. Whether you’re looking for five-star indulgence or a more basic serviced apartment, you’ll find something to suit your needs. Likewise, when it comes to food there are great local treats (think kangaroo and crocodile if you’re brave!) along with every international cuisine imaginable.
A big question will be where exactly in the region to stay. You could choose to be in the city or a little further out at the Northern Beaches – Trinity Beach or Palm Cove in particular, or head further north and base yourself in Port Douglas. If time allows, Cape Tribulation and the Atherton Tablelands make for great side trips for a more in-depth view of all the fabulous tropics has to offer.
In the city, you will find the greatest variety of accommodation options. Families who want to be in the centre of the action should look at the Shangri-La Hotel, Marina, Cairns. This luxury option occupies a prime position in between the Reef Fleet Terminal (perfect for that early morning reef trip) and the Cairns Esplanade and lagoon. Plus you’ll be walking distance to the many restaurants, bars and markets nearby.
Budget-conscious families should look at the Cairns Colonial Club. This affordable option is located about a ten-minute drive from the centre of town and features large rooms (including family and interconnecting ones), sprawling grounds and lush tropical pools. Disclaimer – there isn’t much within walking distance so best if you have a car while staying.
Chains like Rydges, Pullman, Novotel and Mantra all also have properties in town providing the expected standard of service and facilities.
Salt House is a favourite for a relaxed lunch and afternoon drink or a nice dinner out. Its location at the end of the Esplanade, overlooking Trinity Bay is perfect to ease you into holiday mode. This Mama recommends the chilled seafood tasting plate, along with a glass of sparkling wine!
In the centre of town, overlooking the Esplanade, Perotta’s is a Cairns institution. Enjoy a relaxed breakfast with one of the best coffees in town. Speaking of coffee, Caffiend, Re:hab and The Chamber Room are all local favourites.
For a truly Australian dining experience, look no further than Ochre Restaurant. On the menu, you’ll find top Aussie seafood and meat, accompanied with bush seasonings like Kakadu plum, green ant (yes, the insect – it’s actually quite citrussy!) and quandong. To try a variety of game, order the Australian Antipasto. It features a selection of kangaroo, emu and crocodile! Worried about fussy little mouths? Don’t, there’s a dedicated kid’s menu too!
If you get the chance to visit the Botanic Gardens, make time to visit Cafe Botanic for breakfast, lunch or even just a coffee and snack. The tranquil, tropical garden setting is relaxing and there is something on the menu for everyone.
The Northern Beaches stretch from Machan’s Beach (just north of the airport) to Holloways, Yorkey’s Knob, Trinity, Kewarra and Clifton Beaches, up to Palm Cove. Staying at the beaches puts you about 20 to 40 minutes north of the city, but closer to Kuranda as well as day trips further north (like Port Douglas, Mossman and Cape Tribulation). With the exception of Palm Cove, you’ll find mostly holiday apartments and Airbnb options, perfect if you like the idea of self-catering and want some of the comforts of home.
Peppers Beach Club and Spa, Reef House and Spa, Alamanda and the Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort and Spa are all luxury, resort options in Palm Cove. They’re located on the Esplanade and within walking distance to restaurants and shops in the area.
If you are looking for a quiet, luxury, beachfront resort, Kewarra Beach Resort is a great option. There are bungalows on the sand, as well as overlooking the rainforest. The onsite restaurant is fantastic and the casual Beach Shack (open May to December) is the perfect, casual setting to unwind with a drink and pizza after a day of exploring.
Trinity Beach (this Sassy Mama’s former home), has loads of holiday apartments and houses. The beachside suburb has a lovely beach, perfect for swimming and a handful of cafes and restaurants that cater to locals just as often as they do tourists. Bellevue and Sea Change offer upmarket apartments with ocean views, while Airbnb has some great deals to suit every budget.
For barefoot luxury, look no further than Nu Nu’s. If you have the option for a child-free date night (or day), this is the place to head. With a prime position on the beachfront, this award-winning restaurant serves up vibrant dishes that draw inspiration from the Far North.
Sassy Mama Tip: Make time for the cocktails!
At the northern end of the beach, Palm Cove SLSC serves up affordable pub-style food for lunch or dinner in a family-friendly environment. Opposite Nu Nu’s, Chill Cafe is the perfect spot for breakfast or lunch. It overlooks the beach, has a chilled tropical vibe and is just as popular with locals as it is tourists.
Sassy Mama Tip: A winner is the blue swimmer crab bruschetta. If you’d like to try some truly Aussie cuisine you can opt for the kangaroo or crocodile dishes.
Port Douglas was made famous in the 1980s as a millionaires playground. There are lots of luxury accommodation options, although some have passed their prime so check for the most recent reviews.
The Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort is the original five-star resort in the area and features an 18-hole golf course, 147 hectares of tropical gardens, two hectares of lagoon pools (the largest in the southern hemisphere), a helicopter pad (in case you want to arrive in style) and a beachfront location on Four Mile Beach. Other nearby luxury options are Thala Beach Resort (if you don’t stay here, do stop in at the restaurant for great views and food), and the Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple.
For quality, family-friendly, hotel rooms and serviced apartments, look at the Mantra options in Port Douglas. There are several properties in and around town as well as by the beach.
For the best seafood in town, you can’t go past On The Inlet, while Salsa Bar and Grill is also a long-time, local favourite. The Tin Shed serves up unpretentious, pub-style food with an unbeatable location overlooking the mountains and the inlet. The atmosphere is casual, the meals affordable and there’s also a dedicated kids menu.
For fine dining and special occasions, Nautilus Restaurant is a Port Douglas icon for a reason (note – to maintain the ambience of the restaurant no kids under 8 years old are allowed, so best save this for a date night!). For panoramic views, a treetop location and fine food, visit Ospreys at Thala Beach Resort. This one is best visited for lunch to make the most of the stunning scenery.
There is lots to see and do on the Tablelands and the 20 to 30-minute drives between towns all add up on a day trip. If you have time on your side, stay for a night or two to fully explore the region.
For a treehouse getaway look at Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat (be sure to try and spot some of the resident platypus), while for accommodation by the lake you can’t go past Tinaroo Lake Resort for hotel-style or Lake Eacham Tourist Park for cabins and campsites.
The Tablelands is famous for fresh produce, namely coffee and dairy. Gallo Dairyland is worth a visit for cheese and chocolate samples, and it also has a good lunch menu. Similarly, Mungalli Creek Farmhouse Cafe serves up locally-made dairy products sourced from its own bio-dynamic farm – taking organic to the next level!
Coffee and papaya are the order of the day at Skybury Coffee, just outside Mareeba. The cafe serves up fresh local food with a view over the plantations from the deck.
Cape Tribulation can be visited in a day, but for a true jungle immersion (and to avoid two long drives in a day) it is well worth staying at least one night. Many options north of the Daintree River are basic but comfortable – remember, there’s only one road in and out! Ferntree Rainforest Lodge has comfortable rooms and a nice pool while Cape Trib Beach House has a prime location on the beachfront and family rooms.
Dining options are somewhat limited in Cape Tribulation. The standout option by far is Whet. It has a wide deck overlooking the rainforest, a lovely cocktail bar and serves up the best food north of the river.
The onsite restaurant at Cape Trib Beach House has affordable options to suit the whole family, while Turtle Rock Cafe (operated by Ocean Safari), prepares fresh sandwiches, burgers and wraps. When you need to cool down, call into the Daintree Ice-cream Company for homemade, tropical fruit flavours.
Getting there and around
Cairns city is very flat and walkable. Base yourself in the city centre to walk to The Esplanade, Reef Fleet Terminal and many cafes and restaurants. For trips further afield, most of the day tour companies (including reef trips), will offer transfers from your accommodation. If you are staying longer, or want to tour the region at your own pace, a hire car is recommended. These are readily available from international brands like Budget, Avis, Europcar and Hertz.
There are currently direct flights to Cairns International Airport from Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Unfortunately, this route will be discontinued at the end of October 2019. Otherwise, you can connect through all the major Australian cities (Brisbane being the closest, but also Sydney, Melbourne etc) along with Singapore (Silk Air) and Shenzhen (Hainan Airways) as well as Bali, Tokyo and Osaka (Jetstar Asia).