Let me get one thing clear – when you arrive in Cairns, there is absolutely no shortage of family-friendly activities to choose from. Because as we found out, Cairns is so much more than simply the Great Barrier Reef.
So after sharing travel tips for families who intend to visit Cairns, here are the things to do - segregated into ADVENTURE, CULTURAL, WILDLIFE, NATURE, MARKETS, BEACH and PLAY - with the kids, all certified FUN by the monkies, no less!
1. Jungle Surfing at Cape Tribulation
In terms of exciting adventure, nothing comes closer than being able to soar through the Daintree Rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage site!
The Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours at Cape Tribulation will take adrenaline-seekers deep into the rainforest on a guided zipline tour through six tree platforms - the first three in pairs, and the final three in solo flight.
Even though the ziplines are suitable for those aged 3 and up, I was not sure if Ale would be game to give it a try. But little did I know that she will eventually surprise everyone by clearing all six ziplines (even the solo ones)! Maybe she derived her mental strength from her helmet?
Our first zipline comprised of a giant Human Hamster Wheel - a world's first - which we had to run on to manually reel in the zipline trolleys and hoist us up onto the first platform.
From then on, things literally went zipping fast as we moved from platform to platform - sometimes even zipping upside down!
And as we flew past the trees, we could admire the beauty of the rainforest: the canopies, the freshwater streams, the occasional birds, and even right out to the coral fringes of the Great Barrier Reef.
Along the way, our guides did a fantastic job in dishing out interesting facts about the rainforest and I think the boys learned more about the various layers of the rainforest at the end of the six ziplines. So not only only was the jungle surfing adrenaline-inducing, it was highly educational too!
Address: 4 Camelot Close, Cape Tribulation QLD 4873
Opening Hours: Eight tours daily - Morning: 7.45am, 8.45am, 9.45am, 10.45am & Afternoon: 12.30pm, 1.30pm, 2.30pm, 3.30pm. Each tour lasts 2 hours.
Admission Fees: Adult A$95 | Child A$95
2. Great Barrier Reef
Queensland's tropical north's claim to fame has been that of gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World and is the world's biggest single structure made by living organism. So it will be criminal if one does not pay it a visit while in Cairns, no?
There are probably a million ways (and tour packages) to experience the Great Barrier Reef but if you are looking for a family-friendly Great Barrier Reef day trip to please everyone, Sunlover Reef Cruises will be your best bet.
We boarded an air-conditioned catamaran from the Cairns jetty and one hour later, we found ourselves at the pristine Moore Reef on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef - where Sunlover Reef Cruises have their own floating pontoon in the middle of the ocean.
The pontoon was easy to navigate around and includes a few additions that make it a very family-friendly experience - the childrens pool, an underwater observatory and marine life touch tank.
The Childrens Pool is a shallow swimming area on the pontoon, which allows younger kids to be able to have a feel of swimming in the ocean in an enclosed and safe space. For obvious reasons, kids will not be able to submerge too deep into the sea but the area is great for really young kids to just frolic in the salt water.
Or if you prefer to stay dry, head to the Underwater Observatory in the basement level of the pontoon and watch the fishes and corals come alive in a real-time underwater screen.
The monkies also relished the chance to touch some marine animals like the squishy sea cucumbers and sea stars at the marine life touch tank.
But ultimately, snorkelling among the Great Barrier Reef is the REAL draw here.
Do keep a lookout for the guided snorkel safari timings as there is nothing like having insider knowledge on where to snorkel and what to look out for in the vast underwater world.
We were there during the Winter season in June but while the temperature was a comfortable 26 degrees, it did get a little chilly especially when the wind blew. So we took a little break from the snorkelling and went on the glass bottom boat instead. It was just okay to be honest because the semi-submersible coral reef viewing boat was by far the better choice!
It was like going on a submarine tour, and the monkies (and wifey) enjoyed it tremendously. As for me, I opted for the Seawalker Helmet Diving where I enjoyed the amazing sensation of walking through an underwater Fan-Coral garden with tons of fish swimming past me.
Frankly, I can never recommend a day out at the Great Barrier Reef with Sunlover Reef Cruises enough. Definitely one of the items ticked off my bucket list, for sure!
Oh, and include meeting a giant Maori Wrasse up close too!
Address: Reef Fleet Terminal, 1 Spence St, Cairns, Qld, Australia 4870
Opening Hours: Cruise departs at 9.30am daily and returns approximately at 5.30pm
Admission Fees: Adult A$199 | Child (4-15) A$99 | Family (2A & 2C) A$497
3. Cairns ZOOm & Wildlife Dome
Located on the roof of the Reef Hotel Casino in Cairns city, the Cairns ZOOm & Wildlife Dome is a spectacular all-weather wildlife exhibit amidst a rainforest environment, AND home to the world's first Challenge Ropes Course in a wildlife immersion exhibit!
Consisting of over 50 elements of crossings and ziplines, the challenge obstacles are spread over two courses - Mid-zoom and Hi-zoom.
The Mid-zoom is of an easier level, with tunnels, a climbing wall, cargo net and swings, and is suitable for kids at least 1.2m tall. The Hi-zoom requires participants to be at least 1.4m, or parent-accompanied if they are between 1.2m and 1.4m, and consists of more complex crossings and 3 ziplines - including one that took us over a 4-metre saltwater crocodile named Goliath!
The boys were feeling even more adventurous so we went for the Dome Climb where we got to walk along the perimeter OUTSIDE the top of the dome (with safety harnesses of course!). As if that wasn not enough, we ended our day at Cairns ZOOm with an exhilarating plunge as we leapt off a 13m tower at the Power Jump station!
As for Ale who did not meet the minimum height requirement, she kept herself busy with the reptiles, koalas, frogs and birds as well as the complimentary guided tours and animal presentations throughout the day.
Address: Reef Hotel Casino (Top Floor), 35-41 Wharf Street, Cairns City QLD 4870
Opening Hours: 9am - 8pm daily
Admission Fees: Packages from A$45. For more details, visit HERE.
4. Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Discover where Australia begins at Tjapukai (pronounced with a silent 'T') which boasts the rich history of the world's oldest living culture, dating back over 40,000 years. Their name means ‘People of the Rainforest, who the park employs to teach visitors its authentic traditional culture and customs.
After sitting through a 20-minute presentation which recounts the history of Aboriginal people in the last 120 years, the boys especially have a better idea of who the Aboriginal people are. This was followed by a live performance set outdoors, celebrating traditional Tjapukai dances and songs including a demonstration of starting a fire by rubbing sticks.
The boys even joined in for one of the performances!
We even picked up tips on how to play a didgeridoo, got an insight into the ancient medicinal value of native plants and learnt there is actually more than one shape to the boomerang.
Speaking of boomerangs, the highlight was undoubtedly learning how to throw a returning boomerang!
And the art of throwing a spear to hunt for animals too!
In addition, families with children can learn how to play the didgeridoo and story stone painting classes at no extra cost. Check website for timings.
The Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park is situated a 5-minute walk away from Skyrail Rainforest Cableway so it makes sense to pair it with a visit to Kuranda on the same day.
Address: Cairns Western Arterial Road, Caravonica Queensland 4878
Opening Hours: 9am - 5pm daily
Admission Fees: Adult A$36 | Child (4-14) A$18 | Family (2A & 2C) A$90
5. Kuranda Scenic Railway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway provides a scenic journey between Kuranda and Cairns, an unforgettable 1 hour and 45 minute journey through a lush green world of World Heritage Rainforest, rugged mountains, and majestic waterfalls that seem to tumble forever into the steep ravines.
Personally, I love the authentic timber carriages with that oh-so-retro feel within!
It may seem a tad odd to place the railway in a Cultural segment but that is because it is more than just a nature attraction. Constructed between 1882 and 1891, the Kuranda Scenice Railway is considered an outstanding engineering feat as it showcases the pioneering spirit of early Australians and is a monument to the numerous men who lost their lives whilst constructing this historic railway. In fact, the railway tracks and tunnels were carved out of the rainforest and the granite mountains by hand!
As the monkies will attest to, a visit to Cairns is not complete without a journey on the world famous historic Kuranda Scenic Railway.
Address: Kuranda QLD 4881
Opening Hours: Train timetables HERE
Admission Fees: Various packages available
6. Hartley's Crocodile Adventures
If you only have time to visit one wildlife attraction while in Carins, this will be it and it is all because of these monstrous reptiles.
Located 40 minutes north of Cairns and 25 minutes south of Port Douglas, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is simply the best place to see crocodiles and local wildlife in Tropical North Queensland and ranks as one of the boys' fave attractions of our trip.
With five distinct wildlife zones with easy boardwalks and pathways to follow, the monkies had a great time visiting saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, cassowaries, quolls, emus and even a crocodile farm where they learnt how crocodile farming contributes to the conservation of these reptiles.
We went on the Boat Cruise around Hartley's Lagoon as well which really brought the huge crocs extremely close to our boat! Oh, and do NOT ever miss the Crocodile Attack Show no matter what you do. Rated as the "Best Crocodile Show in Australia", the show had the keepers standing dangerously close to the crocodiles and attempting to feed a dead chciken with their bare hands!
I tell you - the show sure had the all of us at the edge of their seats. It was an amazing show, and I'm just glad that we were watching it from a distance!
For something less heart-stopping, there are always the cute roaming kangaroos and wallabies to feed too!
Address: Captain Cook Hwy, Wangetti Beach, Queensland 4879
Opening Hours: 8.30am - 5pm daily
Admission Fees: Adult A$37 | Child (4-15) A$18.50 | Family (2A & 2C) A$92.50
7. Cairns Tropical Zoo
Cairns Tropical zoo is perfectly located just 20 minutes from Cairns CBD at the scenic beach village of Palm Cove. It consists of six hectares of landscaped Australian gardens displaying Australia's unique animals and international exotics, including lemurs, giant pythons, iguanas and a komodo dragon.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Cairns Tropical Zoo is it allows visitors to get closer to the animals than most other zoos. There are many opportunities to hold, cuddle, touch and interact with the exotic array of animals at this boutique zoo like kangaroo and pelican feeding, free Flight Bird shows, cuddling a koala, and even a crocodile or python!
Did you know that Queensland is one of the few states in Australia that allow visitors to touch and hold wildlife? So do make the most of this opportunity while you can!
All of us loved how we could walk into and through the animal enclosures within the zoo with the animals roaming around us.
The zoo also runs a nocturnal tour, during which you can see many of the more elusive creatures on show. The Cairns Night Zoo is a different way to experience the wonders of zoo life. This 3-hour tour includes a wildlife spotlighting walk, during which you can pat a koala and a possum and feed kangaroos; and a barbecue dinner.
Address: Captain Cook Highway, Palm Cove, Cairns, Queensland
Opening Hours: 8.30am - 4pm
Admission Fees: Adult A$34 | Child (4-14) A$17 | Family (2A & 2C) A$85
8. Wildlife Habitat
Situated at Port Douglas and approximately an hour's drive from Cairns city, the Wildlife Habitat is a Wildlife immersion exhibit - an open and interactive environment for guests and animals to mingle in a spacious and natural setting.
Wander along elevated boardwalks through the three distinct and unique Australian environments: The Wetlands, Rainforest and Grasslands Habitats. The Wetlands is large open air exhibit where a multitude of wetland bird species cab viewed foraging for food in the waterways while the Rainforest consists of a meandering walkway which allows visitors to experience the different levels of the rainforest, from the forest floor to the canopy. It was also here that the monkies caught sight of the majestic Southern Cassowary, green tree frogs and the unusual Lungfish!
But the fave section of the Wildlife Habitat of the monkies had got to be the Grasslands, where kids can interact and hand-feed the kangaroos and wallabies on the Wallaby Walk.
I guess the joy in interacting with this animals can be aptly summed up when Ale asked innocently, "Can I bring one home?"
Address: Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas, QLD 4877
Opening Hours: 8am - 5pm daily
Admission Fees: Adult A$33 | Child (4-14) A$16.50 | Family (2A & 2C) A$82.50
9. Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre
If you are on the island of Fitzroy Island, be sure to visit the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre by joining in its daily tour.
Visitors will be able to learn about the history of the organisation and the journey to recovery which injured or sick turtles undergo whilst at this centre, prior to their release back into the ocean.
The Sea Turtles are brought into the Cairns Rehabilitation Centre from the Great Barrier Reef and Cape York Peninsula. The most common turtles present at the rehab centre are the Green turtle and Hawksbill turtle, and these turtles can stay in the centre anywhere between 6 to 24 months until they are healthy enough to be released.
Many of the turtles are brought into the rehab centre with an illness called ‘floaters syndrome’ which is an obstruction that occurs in the turtle’s gut causing air to become trapped between the shell and the body, impacting the animal's ability to dive down to the sea grass beds in order to eat. If these turtles are not found they end up starving to death. Or worse, they could be severely injured from entanglement in discarded fishing nets.
Tours are limited to 15 people so do book fast through the General Store once you arrive on Fiztroy Island.
Address: Fitzroy Island, Cairns
10. Mossman Gorge
A short scenic drive 15 minutes north of Port Douglas took us to Mossman, a picturesque township set amongst the sugar cane fields and gateway to the Mossman Gorge, a stunning natural beauty in the World Heritage listed Daintree National Park.
Mossman Gorge is part of the traditional lands of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people, so a must-do activity for every visitor is the Dreamtime Gorge Walk, which is conducted by the local Indigenous people.
Lasting about 1.5 hours, the trek through the rainforest is a relatively easy one which took us along gentle tracks, and coming face to face with the famed Mossman River.
Throughout the walk, our guide took us through stunning rainforest foliage and past traditional huts. He was extremely well-versed in traditional plant medicine and taught us how to identify various poisonous plants as well as provided an enchanting narrative of the rainforest and their special relationship with this unique tropical environment.
Address: 212r Mossman Gorge Road, Mossman QLD 4873
Opening Hours: 8am - 6pm daily
Admission: Dreamtime Gorge Walk Adult A$60 | Child (5-15) A$30 | Family (2A & 2C) A$150
11. Daintree River Cruise
The Daintree River is one of the longest rivers on the Australian East Coast, and is the major point of entry and gateway into one of the most scenic drives in the world - the Daintree Coast and Cape Tribulation.
The Daintree River contains 31 mangrove species and its lush swamp forest attracts lots of birds, plants, frogs and insect species... not to mention frequent crocodile sightings too!
We were lucky to catch sight of two crocodiles fighting over an animal carcass and trust me when I say these reptiles are ferocious creatures! So the best (and safest) way of seeing and understanding the river's ecosystem and wildlife is to go on the many river cruises packages on offer (ours was from Tropic Wings Cairns Tours and Charters).
12. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
There is no better way to glide over a World Heritage Wet Tropics Rainforest than a trip on the Skyrail Gondolas, where you will be guaranteed awesome views of Cairns and beyond.
More importantly though, the Skyrail experience, spanning 7.5km over pristine rainforest, allowed us to explore the wonders of an ancient tropical rainforest and learn about one of the most botanically fascinating and diverse areas on earth while enjoying spectacular bird-eye views.
The journey consists of two rainforest mid-stations - Red Peak Station and Barron Falls Station - and ends at Kuranda. The travel time from the first station near Cairns to Kuranda takes about 1.5 hours and visitors usually return to Cairns via the aforementioned Kuranda Scenic Railway.
Be sure to make a brief stop at Barron Falls Station, where the magnificent views of the Barron Gorge, a deep chasm lined with dense rainforest vegetation, await.
Magnificent enough for the monkies to erm, goof around.
Address: Cnr of Captain Cook Highway and Cairns Western Arterial Road Smithfield, Queensland, 4878
Opening Hours: 9am - 5.15pm daily
Admission Fees: One Way Skyrail Adult A$50 | Child (4-14) A$25 | Family (2A & 2C) A$125
For other packages, visit HERE.
13. Port Douglas Markets
There is something about the atmosphere of Australian open markets that we love, and the Port Douglas Markets is famed for the fact that all stallholders must grow, produce or make the goods they are selling.
Operating for over 20 years, the Port Douglas Markets are as much a tourist attraction as they are a local institution. Buzzing for 5.5 hours every Sunday on the waterfront at Anzac Park, the markets draw droves of customers to browse over 100 stalls.
Quite frankly, there is no better way to spend a Sunday morning than savoring some of the delicious locally grown and produced foods while admiring arts and crafts, exquisite jewelry, handmade furniture, and toys or enjoying the performances of the many buskers that delight the crowds.
Or in the eyes of the monkies, a modest playground situated in the middle of the markets made for a great distraction while the wifey continued with her browsing!
Opening hours: 8am - 1.30pm every Sunday
14. Rusty's Markets
Rusty’s is right in the centre of Cairns and a popular spot for buying fresh local produce on the weekends. Renowned for its carnival atmosphere and colourful stallholders, go here for tropical fruits and a real taste of local flavour.
Rusty’s boasts over 180 stalls featuring exotic fruit, vegetables, and flowers, sumptuous delicatessens with fresh breads, diary, and seafood, a host of international food and beverage stalls, and specialty products including clothing, jewellery, coffee, and chocolate.
Address: 57-89 Grafton St, Cairns City QLD 4870
Opening Hours: Friday 5am - 6pm | Saturday 5am - 6pm | Sunday 5am - 3pm
15. Cairns Night Markets
If there is a bugbear about Australian cities, it is that their shops close way too early for my liking. Well, at least in Cairns, there is a pasar malam to go to - in air-conditioned comfort no less!
Come 5pm daily, the Cairns Night Markets come alive and is home to over seventy retail outlets and a food court as well.
Most of the shops sell rather touristy items though, like giftwares, packaged snacks, tea and honey. But for that dash of novelty, head to Gift of Glass (Stall No. 49) and let the kids be enchanted with the excellent skills of a glass blowing artist.
Address: 71-75 The Esplanade (Opposite the Lagoon)
Opening Hours: 5pm - 11pm daily
16. Kuranda Village
Located in a World Heritage Rainforest, 1,000 feet above Cairns, lies the picturesque village of Kuranda. Although accessible by a 35-min drive from Cairns, most people arrive at Kuranda via the aforementioned skyrail or scenic railway.
Famous for its delightful mix of village shops, world-famous markets, colourful scenery and natural beauty, Kuranda is definitely one of Tropical North Queensland's must-see destinations.
Here, you will find locally designed and produced fashions, hand crafted jewellery, indigenous artists, leather workers, masseurs, woodworkers and gemstone specialists, as well as North Queensland’s best range of honeys; local coffee, cafes, tropical fruits, coconuts and macadamia nuts.
It's not all shopping and nothing for the little ones though - visit the largest butterfly light aviary and exhibit in Australia and the southern hemisphere at Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, join the birds at Birdworld Kuranda, get up close with wildlife at Kuranda Koala Gardens, see five of Australia’s deadliest snake, spiders and scorpions at the Australian Venom Zoo or simply chance upon a plane wreck!
Opening Hours: 10am - 4pm daily
17. Four Mile Beach
Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas is one of the best known and most popular beaches of northern Australia. Backed by palms, this broad landscape of smooth sand stretches as far as you can squint and is a hit with families.
For kids who are keen to explore and play with the numerous small crabs, head to the northern rocky headland of the beach. Or they can just make do with the vastness of the beach area - which the monkies loved by the way.
The great thing about the beach is the sand is so firm that you can even cycle effortlessly over it!
With a lack of natural beaches in Cairns city, Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas is the next best choice if you are looking for a beach that is devoid of any buildings or construction interrupting the pristine views.
Address: Port Douglas, QLD 4877
18. Fitzroy Island
Fitzroy Island is only 45 minutes from Cairns and is one of the most unspoilt islands on the Great Barrier Reef. A listed National Park and good for either a day trip or overnight at the Fitzroy Island Resort, one can spend the day snorkelling the fringing coral reefs, strolling through the National Park rainforest walking tracks, or for the more adventurous, hiking through the island and discovering breathtaking views of the island and surrounding reefs.
Or you can just laze on its beach.
But for a more secluded experience, take a walk to the iconic and stunning Nudey beach, which despite the name, is not what you think! Nudey Beach can be reached via a 1.2-kilometre track from the resort (about 30 minute per way), which consisted of navigating up and down boulders and along paths - nothing overly difficult and Ale completed the walk entirely on her own.
And the journey was well worth the effort.
Secluded and beautifully framed by boulders, the beach is a stunner.
Do note though that the beach is a coral beach, which is means it is covered with loose dead coral instead of sand. You can walk on all this coral - it is just not as soft as the sandy bits but it surely was something new for the monkies!
19. Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon, smack in the middle of the Cairns City and situated on the picturesque esplanade, is a great option for families and most importantly, FREE for everyone to enjoy!
The lagoon is very family friendly, with lifeguards in attendance and plenty of shallow entry spots for the young ones. There is also ample shade, a man-made beach and plenty of grass for a leisure picnic.
Address: 52 – 54 The Esplanade, Cairns City QLD 4870
Opening Hours: Thursday to Tuesday, 6am - 9pm | Wednesday, 12pm - 9pm (closed for maintenance until midday) | Public holidays, 6am - 9pm
*Entry to the Lagoon is free, with toilet and shower facilities are located in the amenities block alongside the Lagoon.
20. Muddy's Playground
This has got to rank as THE find of our Cairns trip - dry and wet playgrounds FREE for every child to play in!
Located along the Cairns Esplanade, Muddy’s Playground is famous for its immense size as it simply contains play areas to suit all ages of children.
As you can see, the playgrounds include water play areas plus a flying fox, sound chimes, track ride, rope bridge, slides, play houses, story telling areas, see-saw, trick track and puzzle games. No wonder the monkies were so reluctant to leave!
There is also a fully enclosed play area for toddlers as well. Feeling peckish? The Muddy's Cafe right beside the playground is a fantastic place to plonk oneself while the kids play themselves silly at the playgrounds nearby.
Address: Esplanade, Cairns Region QLD 4870
Opening Hours: 9am - 7pm daily
SilkAir flies to Cairns thrice weekly on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays, through a circular routing with Darwin. The Monday and Thursday flights will fly to Cairns via Darwin and then return to Singapore non-stop while Saturday flights will depart Singapore for Cairns non-stop and then return to Singapore via Darwin. For more information, visit www.silkair.com.
For more travel ideas, visit Tropical North Queensland's website.