All Articles 5 spectacular places to visit near Cairns

5 spectacular places to visit near Cairns

Lava tubes, ancient forests, and beach retreats.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
By Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey4 Apr 2024 4 minutes read
Aerial view of the crystal blue waters around Fitzroy island near Cairns.
Fitzroy Island
Image: Tripadvisor

When I wrote a travel guidebook for the Great Barrier Reef and coastal Queensland, the northern half of the Australian state was nearly unchartered territory for me. But after flying into Cairns from Melbourne and taking several weeks-long solo road trips around the region, it pulled me in with its sheer variety of landscapes and adventures.

Queensland simply has it all: the Great Barrier Reef, which offers thousands of picture-perfect islands and some of the world’s best scuba diving and sailing; the world’s oldest rainforest in Daintree National Park; the great Outback; and even a volcanic national park. And all of these can be reached easily in day trips from the bustling city of Cairns, whether you drive yourself or hop on a guided tour.

Discover the world’s oldest forest

The Daintree River
The Daintree River
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

There are forests and then there are forests like Daintree. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s the oldest forest in the world, dating back a whopping 180 million years. The dense forest starts after crossing the crocodile-riddled Daintree River on a small public ferry and offers numerous walking trails allowing visitors to get deep into the forest without disturbing the unique ecosystem.

Start at the Daintree Discovery Center to get an overview of the forest’s ancient plants and the animals you might spot (look out for tree kangaroos!). There's a great canopy walk on suspended paths, and signage offering information about this unique habitat. You can also get advice from the center’s rangers on what to do in the region—and what not to, such as relaxing on the picture-perfect white beaches, which tend to be the territory of the rather tetchy and seriously dangerous saltwater crocodiles.

Where to stay: To truly get a feel for this place, stay in an eco-lodge in the heart of the forest. I love the Silky Oaks Lodge, which combines nature with a bit of luxury in a fabulous setting right by a gurgling—and crocodile-free—stream.

Go artsy in Kuranda

Koala bear at the Kuranda Koala Gardens
The Kuranda Koala Gardens
Image: Tripadvisor/Mason7127

In the Blue Mountains just north of Cairns, Kuranda is what remains of a 1960s art colony. Its artsy vibe has stuck around, with several art galleries, art stalls, and public installations sprinkled across town. The Butterfly Sanctuary and Koala Gardens are also major draws. Stop for lunch at La Fonda for empanadas and tacos, or souvenir shopping at the colorful markets. Just know that by mid-afternoon, the village pretty much shuts down, with the attractions, markets and cafes closing around 4 p.m..

Tip: Getting between Cairns and Kuranda is its own experience, with the Skyrail Cableway taking you high above the canopy of the forest with two stops along the way for a short jungle walk and to see the Barron Falls. On the way back, take the Kuranda Scenic Railway, a beautifully restored railway that chugs through the mountains’ stupendous scenery. Upgrade to Gold Class to enjoy a glass of wine and locally produced nibbles en route.

Head underground at Undara Volcanic Park

Being surrounded by the petrified lava tubes in the Undara volcanic national park.
Undara lava tube experience
Image: Tripadvisor/Management

Until I entered one in Undara, I had never even heard of a lava tube. An easy 3.5-hour drive through the scenic Atherton Tablelands from Cairns, Undara Volcanic National Park boasts the world’s largest and best-preserved lava tube system—tunnels that formed when lava flow cooled and hardened on the outside but kept flowing on the inside—and is where Australia experienced its last volcanic eruption more than 190,000 years ago. Add plenty of native animals like bats and kangaroos, plus a great line-up of guided nature talks and walks near the edge of naturally-formed craters, and you have a perfect day trip that is even better when turned into a two-day trip.

Where to stay: There is so much to see and do here that an overnight stay is a good idea, especially as the bush breakfast is great fun. Within the park you can camp at Undara Resorts, but my personal favorite accommodation are the old railway carriages that have been repurposed as basic but comfortable rooms.

Spot a cassowary at Mission Beach

Lush green Paronella Park with castle in the background.
Paronella Park
Image: Tripadvisor/Mim L

Roughly 1.5-hours’ drive south of Cairns, laid-back Mission Beach is full of beachside bars and restaurants and lovely boutique clothing and home décor stores. It’s perfect for a good beach escape with the added bonus of potentially spotting a cassowary along the way.

The region is famous as one of the few enclaves where you can find these gigantic, flightless birds that roam the forests. Driving slowly and keeping an eye out for them crossing the road ahead of you often pays off, as in my case when a father and chick crossed right in front of my car. But beware that they can be grumpy, particularly during the breeding season, and should not be approached.

Don’t miss: On the way back up to Cairns, stop at Paronella Park, a castle set in magical gardens. All built by one man for the love of his life in the 1930s, this quirky, dreamlike garden is complete with waterfalls, secret places, follies, and yes, a castle.

Have an island getaway to Fitzroy Island

Beautiful secluded beach on Fitzroy island.
Fitzroy Island
Image: Tripadvisor

Cairns doesn’t have any city beaches, although there are plenty just outside of city limits. But a great way to spend a beach day nearby is to hop on the ferry at Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal for an easy 45-minute ride to Fitzroy Island.

On the island you’ll have your pick of blindingly white beaches, great snorkeling and scuba diving spots, and glass-bottom boat tours. There are restaurants and bars, plus the center of the island is overgrown with forests, allowing for some great hikes leading up to its highest point where you’ll find beautiful views.

Where to stay: A day trip gives you plenty of time to really enjoy the island, but you can book a night at the Fitzroy Island Resort if you want to wake up on the island and have a swim before breakfast.

Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey
Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey is a travel writer who has lived all around the globe, but calling Paris, France, home for six years was a definite highlight.