7 Days in … Cairns!

Last Updated on March 18, 2019 by Red Nomad OZ

Barron River Mouth looking south towards Cairns, Queensland
Barron River Mouth looking south towards Cairns, Queensland

Cairns is one of the best Australian travel destinations – and I’ve got the photos to prove it! This laid back city 2000 km north of Brisbane between World Heritage Listed Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, has come a long way from its sugar-cane farming roots to become Far North Queensland’s tourist hub.

Cairns from the harbour, en route to Green Island!
Cairns from the harbour, en route to Green Island!

Cairns has just as much to offer travellers seeking cheap holidays as it does to those looking for luxury! In fact, the only problem will be limiting your visit to a week!!

Luckily, I’ve been travelling to Cairns for 20+ years – the time period over which these photos were taken – and Pilchard even longer!  So use our 7 Day Cairns sampler itinerary guide to get you started …

Day 1: Cairns Botanic Gardens

Ginger flower, Cairns Botanic Gardens
Ginger flower, Cairns Botanic Gardens

The pint-sized bag-snatcher at the Cairns Botanic Gardens Cafe was probably a one-off. No, really!! The toddler who picked up my handbag didn’t take kindly to Pilchard’s attempts to remove it from her grubby grasp.

Attracted by the shrieks, her rampaging mother berated Pilchard for making her darling cry, gave the child my bag to play with and turned back to her glass of wine table. With a) child clutching b) the handbag.

Now you tell me. Was it so unreasonable for Pilchard to insist on its return?

Rainforest boardwalk to Centenary Lakes
Rainforest boardwalk to Centenary Lakes

Sadly, this whole stultifying display of disturbed parenting could have been avoided if only I’d taken my handbag with me to the ladies room …

Happily, in addition to the Scenic Public Toilet, the large Cairns Botanic Gardens complex is full of distractions, with wonderful displays of tropical plants; several interpretive trails, magnificent butterflies and brightly coloured birds!

View from Loo, Cairns Botanic Gardens
View from Loo, Cairns Botanic Gardens

Although ‘wild boar’ sounds so much more exotic than ‘feral pig’, they’re both equally destructive when crashing through the undergrowth on the mangrove boardwalk through to the Centenary Lakes picnic area. Although I’d rather meet a wild pig than an unsupervised homo-sapiens (juv) allowed to run amok by overindulgent parents …

Spending the whole day in the gardens is easy – the 6.6 km Mt Whitfield trail loop gives splendid views over the busy international airport and Cairns itself. But I’m not sure if the group of school kids led by two young and ever so perky teachers we dodged on the track were a fair replacement for the cassowaries once common in the area.

Day 2: North to Port Douglas

Looking South over 4 mile Beach, Port Douglas
Looking South over 4 mile Beach, Port Douglas

The block of land for sale a few metres below the Port Douglas Lookout platform has the same staggering view. But would that be enough to counteract the 24/7 comings and goings above? Maybe the local residents were on to something when they tried to get the lookout closed …

Radjah Shelduck, Centenary Lakes, Cairns
Radjah Shelduck, Centenary Lakes, Cairns

The Lady Douglas probably isn’t the ritziest craft to cruise Dixon Inlet – but I’ll bet she’s the classiest! And if you want to take a look behind the scenes of what once was a small fishing village but is now amongst Australia’s most expensive real estate, the inlet is awash with wildlife – including crocodiles!

Time it right and attend – or miss, depending on your point of view – the Port Douglas markets, but whatever you do, DON’T miss Mocka’s Pies! This FAAAAABULOUS Bakery (come back for the cheese pasty, potato & pea pie, apple, lemon meringue – hell, come back for ANYTHING) has the well-deserved distinction of being our ALL TIME favourite!!!!

Day 3: Northern Beaches

Looking south from Machans Beach, Cairns, Far North Queensland
Looking south from Machans Beach, Cairns, Far North Queensland

Although the artificial lagoon, sandy beach and infinity pool are a good substitute for lack of foreshore beach, nothing beats the real thing! And heading north, the real thing is abundant starting about 20 km from the CBD.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo on the beach, Cairns
Red-tailed Black Cockatoo on the beach, Cairns

Spend a day exploring all the beaches; or stay on one beach all day; or take an extra day and do both!! From the unspoiled excellence of Wangetti Beach (below the hang glider launch spot I’ll always be too gutless to try) to the ritz of Palm Cove; Ellis Beach between the highway and sea to the fabulous curve of Trinity Beach; Yorkeys Knob cliff and marina to the vast sand flats and rock wall at Machans – eateries, picnic and BBQ areas, walks, birdlife … there’s something for everyone!

Take your pick – and if you got it wrong, try again tomorrow!!

Day 4: Esplanade … and Cairns itself

Infinity Pool, Cairns Esplanade
Infinity Pool, Cairns Esplanade

Want a perfect day on the Cairns Esplanade?

WELL … my guest post on 52 Perfect Days will tell all!!

But because I’m a tease nice person, here’s a glimpse!!

Of course Cairns is much more than its foreshore! There’s shopping and eating precincts – yes, a bakery or two – the Visitor Information Centre, galleries, restaurants, museums … do I need to spell it out??

Day 5: Outdoors in the Rainforest …

Snakes, goannas, birds, butterflies, hungover backpackers – I’ve yet to visit Crystal Cascades without finding something interesting to watch!

This popular series of swimming holes on – you guessed it – Crystal Creek buried deep in the rainforest is a water supply access point but walkers can take the track for 1.2 km to the barrier for a taste of REAL rainforest and wildlife. Near the start of the trail, a track – classified as ‘strenuous’ and ‘rough’ – heads almost vertically upwards to Copperlode Dam in the ranges far above …

Goanna at Crystal Cascades, Cairns, Queensland
Goanna at Crystal Cascades, Cairns, Queensland

… and as if to prove it’s not all sunshine and serenity in the tropics, the temperature dropped 8ºC in the 25 km drive from Cairns CBD up the ranges to Copperlode Dam aka Lake Morris, 365 metres above sea level. And the hot soup that sounded so ridiculous in the balmy, high 20’s temperature on the coast was more than welcome in our efforts to counteract the chill wind!

It’s best to be sober when attempting this steep, twisting track with several one-way sections, and breathtaking (aka ‘hyperventilating’) dropaways, often being repaired after heavy rain at which time they become ‘washaways’ … But the stupendous views on each side of the range show just how much unexplored rainforest remains.

Copperlode Dam (aka Lake Morris), Cairns, Queensland
Copperlode Dam (aka Lake Morris), Cairns, Queensland

Ambitious walkers undaunted by the steep gradient can attempt further exploration on the 3km track dropping straight down from the dam to Crystal Cascades below …

Day 6: Islands

Frankland Islands, via Cairns
Frankland Islands, via Cairns

‘Tropical paradise’ is such a cliché – there’s only so much blue sky/clear water/white sand/palm trees you can take, right?

Perhaps. But a trip to the Frankland Islands or Green Island will leave you begging for more, cliché or no!

Trust me.

Day 7: Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway


Despite the jaw-dropping views above the unspoiled World Heritage listed rainforest canopy to the spectacular Cairns coastline, acrophobics* may find the 7.5 km Skyrail cable-car journey from Cairns to Kuranda (or vice versa) ‘challenging’.

But luckily, a couple of stops for the rainforest interpretive centre and Barron Falls lookout break the journey and allow equilibrium to be regained before another 6 person gondola – and the next leg!

But is going up the Kuranda Range by Skyrail any worse for acrophobics than dropping nearly 300 metres through 15 tunnels and across 40 rickety bridges crossing drop-away chasms down the super-steep Barron Gorge if returning via the 34 km Kuranda Scenic Railway?

Yep! That's a road crew repairing the track ... Kuranda Scenic Railway
Yep! That’s a road crew repairing the track … Kuranda Scenic Railway

As a recovering acrophobic I unreservedly recommend both trips – just breathe normally into that paper bag while taking photos all the way. And don’t look down …

Well, how quickly 7 Days can pass!

And I haven’t even started on heading south to the other side of Trinity Inlet, the Goldsborough Valley, and Gordonvale’s Cane Toad World!

Or west to the Atherton Tablelands …

That’s another 7 Days all by itself!!

Wangetti Beach - looking south from that KILLER hang gliding take-off spot!!
Wangetti Beach – looking south from that KILLER hang gliding take-off spot!!

I developed this 7 day guide based on visits to Cairns totalling MANY weeks over 20+ years!  Photos all taken 2009-2011, except the Kuranda train (1998) as that pic was better than the ones I have from later trips.

*Acrophobia= fear of heights

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  1. Hi, Thanks for sharing this. I am also planning a 7 days trip to Cairns. Do you recommend to stay in cairns the who 7 days/8 nights or is it better to break the journey and stay in different places along the way? From reading your itinerary, it sounded like you stayed in Cairns? Any recommendations?

    1. Hi Jess, and thanx for your question. Personally, I would spend the whole 7 days in Cairns because I like to have the time to see and do as much as possible. There’s so much to do there that less time would mean you miss out on some things!! But that’s just my preference – whether or not you break your journey also depends where you are coming from and how you are travelling. If you’re driving from Sydney, for example, you’d HAVE to break your journey a couple of times, but that wouldn’t leave you much time in each of your stopovers, and even less time in Cairns. We stayed on the Northern Beaches – there is a range of great accommodation along the coast and I personally prefer this to staying in Cairns itself. But if you have no car, then staying in Cairns city is more central and there is public transport and tour pickups to make getting around easier. Enjoy!

  2. Aww. Nearly 20 years too late for me!
    We got our visas extended in Cairns.
    By golly. There was an Asian couple before us and the lady nearly screamed at them (their English was real bad). And I was next… (she as nice to me)

    I remember we stayed at a free campsite for days, great for young travelers (did I mention the 20 years?).

  3. I was completely surprised by Cairns! I was expecting a rough outpost in the wild rainforest. Instead we found a pretty stylish town with WiFi access in the public Esplanade. How cool is that!

    And even sports bars are designed to please not only the men’s eyes…

    From Cairns we took to a three day dive cruise on the Great Barrier Reef and to the Silky Oaks Logde.

    All amazing trips!

  4. @Mary – This is the result of sifting through hundreds of photos to find the best – a skill I wish many FaceBook users would learn … Sadly, no photographic evidence of what we ate is available!

  5. @Dianne – Please tell me you visited Mocka’s Pies!! And beautiful though it is, I wouldn’t want to be there during a cyclone!!
    @PDP – Rumour has it Dunk Island was trashed during Cyclone Yasi, but I haven’t confirmed. Our visit to Dunk was WAAAAAAY long ago in 1998!!
    @FruitCake – Hahaha!! If only … but I wonder would they let me blog from a prison cell??!!
    @Cathy – Well … there’s always a blogging tax write off type holiday, surely??!!
    @NixBlog – As have I! And ginger ANYTHING generally works for me!!

  6. Your photos are real stunners. This must have been an amazing week. Some of those views are breathtaking. I hope all is well. Have a great day. Blessings…Mary

  7. Wow, what a beautiful place. I would love to plan a trip to Cairns and see that beautiful coastline. Alas, it’s a very long way from the Pacific NW.

  8. The Cairns you show here is definitely not the Cairns I once drove through 35 years ago. In your photos, the water actually looks inviting.
    As for the little tacker, you should have taken a swing at it with a golf club… “oops, I thought it was a cane toad”.

  9. It’s a veritable tropical paradise Red. We stopped there for a couple of days on the way to Dunk Island just off the coast, definitely not enough time to see Cairns and all it has to offer. Dunk Island was amazing though. Wonder if it still is?

  10. This is a beautiful part of the world Red …my favourite being Port Douglas ….. Wonderful eateries … Scenery …. People. I could hop on a plane right now and wing my way there.

  11. What an amazing place this area is! We would absolutely love everything about this trip; thanks for sharing it. What was that animal crossing the road? I think I remember there was a cut line, so I’ll go and look again and then look it up. Learning a lot here and loving it.

  12. Have to make a comment after Day 1 so I don’t forget it by the end . We have a couple things right here in Fl just the same as what you have. One: the wild boars (feral pigs) equally as destructive under either name. And the second, I think that mom and toddler live here too — I swear I’ve run into her ;>(( . Now back to ooh and aah about the beautiful parts!

  13. @SFlaGuy – Feral ANYTHING is a menace!! And yes, we DO have the full colour spectrum downunder!!
    @Diane – Yes, YES!!
    @Sallie – It’s the worst example I’ve seen in a public place … The ‘goanna’ is a large lizard (official name ‘monitor’) quite common downunder!! MUCH better than a feral pig …

  14. Wild pigs and wild children. Quite the contrast to the photos. So much blue and green also. I knew there had to be some among all the Red. I’m even more inspired to visit now.

  15. @Andrew – Haha, budgie smugglers on Buchans Beach are virtual nudity anyway, aren’t they?
    @Jane & Lance – I think I’ll get you to write me a reference!!! Nothing like a tropical blue sea – photos guaranteed un-photoshopped!!
    @George – Correct!! We’re yet to spend ONLY 7 days there in one stretch!
    @TMWH – Haha! At least your phobias are not in conflict … It was lucky for the kid I was in the loo. Even luckier for the kids mother!!!
    @Alessandra – WELL … Cairns is only a short detour from Sydney & Uluru!!! Any map will tell you that – NOT!!!
    @Gemma – Never say never, my friend!! Who knows where the universe will take you next??

  16. What a banquet of outdoor scenic joys and thrills! How I wish I was free enough to just travel around. Sighhhhh….But through your eyes, I am seeing places I can never see! My virtual journey has been awesome! No good with heights though, so maybe this is a good way!

  17. Well, another spot to put on my list! Today we booked for Australia, July, Sydney (kids haven’t been) then Alice Springs and then Uluru, and then back home… it will be great and I haven’t been to Aussie for years!


  18. I have acrophobia, but it is generally smothered by my claustrophobia, so it’s a draw.

    Pilchard was very kind to that child, but I wish someone would have smacked that parent upside the head and rebooted her brain.

    Gorgeous vistas, as usual!

  19. Oh my goodness, now I want to take in Cairnes while I’m here! I don’t think that I’ll have time but I do have a few other destinations in mind.

    Your photos are amazing, I especially love the red tailed bird, I haven’t spotted that one yet. Fantastic capture!

    Have a fantastic week! I also thought I was following your blog, here you’ve been posting all along and you’re not showing up on my blackboard… I’m going to have to fix that.


  20. Hello Red:
    Well, you definitely could have a job with the Cairns tourist agency as you have sold this most wonderful of places to us without a doubt. Such breathtaking countryside and coastline, and surely a sea that is blue enough to rival any sea in the world?

    Thank you for this glorious introduction.

  21. Both times we have stayed in Cairns we have had perfect weather, mid winter. I don’t remember any sort of beach in Cairns, just mangroves. Ok, mid nineties. One of the beaches you mention, I forget which one now, is a nudist beach. We went there but kept our speedos on. We did the Skyrail up and the train back. I am surprised to hear the train trip is 34 km. Barron Falls was barely flowing.

  22. I would have been tempted to leap off the top turnbuckle and deliver an elbow drop to that deranged parent. I guess that’s not acceptable is it? Even a slap across the chops is an assault. Oh well…

    Nice pictures of what looked like seven clear sunny days 🙂

  23. I loved, loved, loved the photos. I couldn’t decide whether to visit Cairns on my Aussie trip in Oct as I am planning to go straight on to Port Douglas but now I think I need to change my plans!

  24. @darlin – You’re certainly showing up on my followers list at right – maybe unfollow, then follow again? Maybe try the ‘follow’ link at the top left of the page??
    @River – I don’t think we’ve EVER stayed there for just a week. There’s so much fabulous scenery and it’s so different to SA and outback, we just drink it all in and keep on extending our stay!!!

  25. Cairns certainly looks like the perfect place to holiday, but I don’t think a week would do it. I think I’d need a couple of months. I love the look of 4 mile beach. What a great place to retire, beach in front, rain forest bushland behind….

  26. @Kath – Oh, and when your walk has delivered the inspiration, what better place to go than Mocka’s pies to record it all??!! I believe the block of land below the lookout is still going …
    @MJWC – Thank you! I hope that’s just a prelude to seeing it all for yourself one day! Never say never!!
    @Fun60 – Hey, do yourself a favour and see both!! They’re not that far apart …
    @Greg – Any response from me would have been criminal – but on 2nd thoughts, the little reprobate was well on the path to a shining criminal career, so perhaps it would have been appropriate!! See my edit about the 7 clear days – our visits have totalled many months over many years, so finding pix of 7 clear days is a cinch!!

  27. @Saucy Kod – If I hadn’t been in the loo when it all happened, who knows what I might have done? Have to pity the poor kid … already well on the way to rampant kleptomania!!
    @Courtney – Goanna = large lizard! This one was just crossing the path … not dangerous as such, but I think the hungover backpackers scuttled for cover, and I wouldn’t get between him and his destination in case he mistook me for a tree!!
    @Dina – I couldn’t believe the gall of that mother. And if a kid makes an honest mistake, I’m usually the one to tell the apologetic parent its OK!! I just feel sorry for the kid!! Fave Mocka’s treat is the cheese pastie for me, Potato Pie with mushy peas for P. Hard to limit myself to just one. I got used to looking down on the train – I’m OK if I have a rail or something to lean on between me and the drop!!

  28. @Rubye – Haha, not just your bag … wonder what the kid would have looked like on HRT??!! I am continually drawn to look down!!
    @Magsx2 – High time for another visit!! We were pleasantly surprised by the Esplanade redevelopment and Skyrail, both of which we were prepared to loathe!!
    @Carole – Gangster/ monster/ youngster is a FAAAABULOUS description!! But I don’t think the wine was to blame for HER behaviour …
    @Toni – In 1998 the Ellis Beach Caravan Park was as close to the beach as you could get, but Trinity Beach was our fave. Now Trinity Beach is full of empty blocks of units and there’s not many caravan parks left. We now prefer the understated undeveloped Machans, Holloways and Clifton Beaches – but there IS still fun to be had …

  29. enjoyed your post Red, still spinning from your intro about your bag being retained in possession of the gangster, sorry monster, no.. youngster. Was it all due to the red (wine), surely no. Never been to Cairns but certainly sounds tops.

  30. Oh my goodness Red!! You always go to the best places. The thing that I like about that, is…. you explain it so well, that along with your pictures, I feel like I went with you.

  31. Kath’s lotto fantasy – retiring to Port Douglas. LC can buy a big boat to go fishing in and I can wander along the beach and write….

  32. I love the goanna photo.

    Toddlers and overindulgent parents; I think your purse story is probably the worst I’ve heard.

    I could excuse them for blinking and not being fast enough to catch the kid before she grabbed the purse. But to let her keep playing with it? And then she scolds your husband for trying to take it back?


    Since the Mocka’s Pies is your all time favorite bakery. I’m curious. What’s your favorite food there?

    Did you manage to not look down while on the train?

  33. AMAZING!!!! Another post where you lived up to your blog’s name. But what the heck is a goanna? That thing is HUGE!!!!! Is it dangerous? I would be so terrified if I saw something like that crossing the road. I would love, however, to hit that infinity pool. That looks like absolute HEAVEN!!!! As usual, stunning photos of a destination I might never get to travel to any other way than via a source like this. Thank you for making that possible!

  34. Gee, thanks for the tour Red – you do this so well, I truly feel like I am there. Such beautiful photos adorn your post.
    Now the Mother – Frightful to think how that poor little kid might turn out with allowing this behaviour. I would have grabbed my bag, flipped the Mother, and run to one of your beaches for a nice dip. ha,ha

  35. When I was a kid, we used to camp ON THE BEACHES at Port Douglas, Ellis and Oak Beach, Cooktown…. and you couldn’t see another light at night.
    Makes me cry to see what’s happened to it.

  36. Hi,
    A gorgeous part of OZ that is for sure, and your photos prove it. I haven’t been to Cairns for about 10 years or so, I expect a lot has changed for the better.

    Good on you for getting the goanna in the photo, he looks like he owns the road.

  37. My problem with acrophobia is I always look down. Wow! This is really a beautiful place and looks like you would easily want to spend more than a week there. What’s with the mother who lets her kid play with people’s bags anyway? She might do well to worry about what the kid will find when she’s not looking. Oh, maybe that’s just my bag.

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