A Thrifty Guide to Cairns

It’s the capital of Far North Queensland. This vibrant city on the waterfront sits, famously, between rainforest and reef. There are many ways to splash cash in Cairns, but it’s also possible to entertain yourself on a budget in and around the city. Because you’ve got a rental car, taking day trips to nearby hot spots – Kuranda and Port Douglas, for instance – should be part of your itinerary. And if you keep your wallet planted fairly firmly in your pocket for a couple of days, you’ll be able to splurge on a cruise to the Great Barrier Reef, which is an absolute must-do if this is your first time to this part of the world.  

Here’s what to see and do when you’re travelling on a budget in Cairns.

Cheap Thrills around Cairns

Some people are surprised that the main tourist part of Cairns isn’t on a beach. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. There’s a long walking trail right along the waterfront teeming with birdlife. Then at the south end of the city is the Cairns Lagoon, with its huge swimming area and large patches of lawn where you can either relax in the sun or find a spot in the shade.  

Jump in your rental car and head to the northern suburbs of Cairns for the sort of white sand beach you probably better equate with tropical paradise. Trinity Beach is a favourite with locals, is patrolled year-round and has a short but steep hike to the summit of Earl Hill for epic views.  

Walk beyond the Esplanade to Cairns Wharf, where Hemingway’s Brewery is a great spot for a drink and burgers or pizza with a view of the mouth of Chinaman Creek. Check out Cairns Night Markets, which has a food court dishing up well-priced food with an international flavour. If you’re taking this trip as a chance to eat your body weight in exotic tropical fruit, check out Rusty’s Markets (open Friday to Sunday), where there are also stalls with loads of other food and specialty products. 

Karunda Railway
Make Tracks Inland

Unsurprisingly, most people focus on the coast, with its palm trees and white sands, in this part of the world, but turn the rental car west and you’ll find incredible landscapes and interesting towns to explore. 

The most obvious one is Kuranda, about a 40-minute drive from Cairns. You could spend all day wandering around this rainforest village on the Barron River, especially if you’re happy to browse stalls and talk to vendors at the Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets and the Heritage Markets. Splash out on a cruise on the Kuranda Riverboat, where you can sit back, relax and look for freshwater crocodiles, turtles, water dragons and cassowaries on the banks. There are also excellent walks around town, including a boardwalk that runs through the rainforest canopy. 

Leave the crowds in your dust when you follow the Gillies Highway towards the Atherton Tableland. After about 75 minutes, you’ll arrive in the town of Yungaburra, which has remained largely unchanged since 1910. Visit the huge fig tree with its curtain of roots and be sure to stop at the platypus viewing area, where the cute residents usually make appearances around dawn and dusk. 

Cairns river bank
A Northern Adventure from Cairns

Slow your roll and take a drive from Cairns to Port Douglas, about an hour up the road in your rental car. But you can linger along the way, checking out unique towns and interesting things to do. 

As you’re driving over bridges (and if it’s safe to, of course), slow down and look along the muddy riverbanks. You’ll likely spot some of Far North Queensland’s snappier residents lolling by the water. If you want to get closer in a safe environment, head to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. You’ll learn lots about these prehistoric creatures as you cruise on Hartley’s Lagoon and check out the feeding shows. There are also lots of other Australian animals to meet, from kangaroos to cassowaries. It costs $45 for adults to visit, but it is a great opportunity to see crocs from just metres away. 

You’ll also want to stop at Rex Lookout, about halfway between Palm Cove and Port Douglas, where you’ll stare in wonder at the 180-degree view of the Coral Sea and Double Island, and watch hang gliders as they take off from the cliff and sail with the breeze.

Once you arrive in Port Douglas, go for a walk along the spectacular Four Mile Beach, get a handline and some bait and try your luck catching lunch at the Sugar Wharf and go to Rex Smeal Park to watch for turtles around the rocks at high tide. As the day nears an end, find a table on the lawn at the Port Douglas Yacht Club for cold drinks and a well-priced meal.   


Ready to hit the road around Cairns? Hire a rental car and you’ll be set to explore beaches, rainforest and beyond.

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