Perfect for couples, families, solo travellers or groups of friends, Tropical North Queensland would have to be one of the best holiday destinations in Australia. It has so much to offer, from the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, to the fertile tablelands, thundering waterfalls, lush gorges and more. I recently spent two weeks in Tropical North Queensland and still didn’t get to see it all!
We chose to base ourselves in Cairns so that we could be central to everything we wanted to see and do and be within walking distance to all the restaurants and bars, the esplanade and marina. Hiring a car for the duration of the trip was the best idea, as we could adventure whenever we wanted and as far as we liked. Because there is just so much to explore, we ended up driving over 2000kms in just two weeks and that was all just day trips! Here’s a list of our favourite must-have experiences in Tropical North Queensland.
Must-have experiences in Tropical North Queensland:
Day Trip to The Great Barrier Reef
No trip to Tropical North Queensland is complete without a trip to the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel, swim or dive. At over 2300km long, the reef is the largest living ecosystem in the world and can even be seen from outer space. The Great Barrier Reef comprises thousands of individual reefs and hundreds of islands. It’s home to countless species of colourful fish, turtles, dolphins, sharks, starfish and more. Snorkelling these waters should be high on everyone’s bucket list. The fish are vibrantly coloured, turtles swim past as you’re floating along and it’s like you’ve submerged into a whole other world.
There are dozens of operators offering day trips to the reef on all sorts of different boats and watercraft. We chose to go with Sunlover Reef Cruises. Not only are they one of the best but they also offer an overnight stay on the reef (we’ll get to that a little later)!
Sunlover Reef Cruises
Sunlover have a new pontoon based on Moore Reef, just off Cairns. There’s a range of different activities included on the day trip such as snorkelling, an underwater observatory, semi-submersible tour, glass-bottom boat tour, fish feeding, tank touch presentation and an enclosed kids pool for the little ones. It even has a two story waterslide which spits you out from the top sundeck to the reef below.
Even if you don’t like the idea of snorkelling or getting wet, this is by far the best trip to do as they offer so many ways to see the reef without even getting your feet wet. A buffet lunch and tea and coffee is included when you manage to pull yourself out of the water long enough to fill your stomach. The boat drops you back just as the sun is setting, a perfect way to end the day on the reef.
Sunlover by Starlight Reef Sleep
Sunlover also offers an overnight glamping experience on the pontoon called Sunlover by Starlight. They keep the numbers small so that you can truly experience having the reef all to yourself. As the day trippers leave the pontoon, you are left to snorkel and it’s just you and the fishies. You get to watch the sun set from the middle of the reef as you relax with a cheese platter and beverage of your choice. You’re also spoilt with a three course BBQ dinner before you slip into your deluxe swag for a night under the stars, listening to the sounds of the reef below.
It’s a pretty incredible experience to watch the sun rise from a pontoon in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. You have the reef all to yourself until the day-trippers arrive at around 11.30am. You then have the rest of the day to experience the reef until the boat returns back to the mainland at the end of the day. It’s definitely up there with one of my favourite experiences to date.
Helicopter flight over the reef
Seeing the reef from the air is such a bucket list item. It gives you a whole other perspective of just how far-reaching this incredible wonder really is. It’s one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever behold: sparkling blue waters as far as the eyes can see, coral and even fish and turtles can all be seen from the air. There are numerous operators that provide flights over the reef, from helicopters to seaplanes. We took a 10-minute helicopter flight with Nautilus Aviation who have a pontoon out on the reef, next to the Sunlover Reef cruises pontoon.
Day Trip to Fitzroy Island
Fitzroy Island is located just a 45 minute boat ride from Cairns. This tropical island paradise is home to beautiful beaches (perfect for snorkelling and relaxing), walking trails and is teeming with wildlife and marine life. There is a resort on the island which is well worth staying at if you have the time. If not, you can take a day trip out to the island and spend the day exploring and relaxing. They also have a waterfront bar and restaurant to keep you hydrated and your tummy full. We took the Sunlover Reef Cruises boat trip out to the island, which drops you off in the morning and picks you up in the afternoon.
Drive the Waterfall circuit
Tropical North Queensland has an endless supply of stunning waterfalls, each of them different in their own way. Set aside a full day to drive the Waterfall Circuit, which is a 267km round trip (we did it in one day) and takes you to 17 of the most beautiful waterfalls. The drive will take you through the most spectacular scenery, from the Kuranda rainforest to the Atherton tablelands, past tea plantations and also though Lake Eacham, Crater Lakes National Park and Curtain Tree Fig. Pick up a map at any of the tourist information centres. Also, make sure you’ve charged your camera and have cleared your memory cards – you’ll be snapping away all day!
Explore Mossman Gorge
About a 75-minute drive from Cairns is Mossman Gorge, located in the southern part of the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. Here, clear river water tumbles down the gorge over huge boulders, flowing through the rainforest and country of the local Indigenous Yalanji people. The bright blue Ulysses butterflies can be seen floating through the air and lots of fish can be spotted in the clear water. Take a Dreamtime Walk tour with the traditional owners of the land for a real cultural experience. Make sure you bring your bathing suit to take a dip in the refreshing water after a few hours of walking through the rainforest.
Ride the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
The Skyrail is one of the most popular experiences when visiting Cairns and it is definitely one of the must-have experiences in Tropical North Queensland. It’s the perfect way to get from Cairns to Kuranda and to see the rainforest and Barron Falls along the way. You’ll be floating above the rainforest in a cablecar, skimming the rainforest canopy just meters below, with views along the gorge and out across Cairns and the reef. The Skyrail has a couple of stops along the way where you can get out and experience the rainforest as well as view Barron Falls from two of the viewing platforms.
Every time I visit Cairns this is one experience I always go back and do. This is a great way to get to Kuranda and experience all that this little rainforest town has to offer including the Kuranda Markets, Butterfly Sanctuary, Kuranda Koala Gardens, Birdworld, Australian Venom Zoo and many more.
Take a trip on the Kuranda Scenic Railway
The Kuranda Scenic Railway is also a great way to get from Cairns to Kuranda and back again and to experience the rainforest. The railway passes stunning waterfalls and looks down to Barron Gorge below. The train stops at a couple of spots for photos including the Barron Falls lookout where you can get off the train for a closer look. We chose the Gold Class experience where you can enjoy a drink and some locally produced delicacies while you sit back and relax in comfort and take in the view.
A good idea is to take the Skyrail up to Kuranda in the morning and then the Kuranda Scenic Railway on the way back down at the end of a day. It was the perfect combination!
Looking for more posts on beautiful Tropical North Queensland? Read these next:
- The ULTIMATE Far North Queensland Bucket List: 68 Things to Do!
- First Time to the Great Barrier Reef? 10 Things to Know Before You Go
- This Proves that Far North Queensland is the ULTIMATE Holiday Destination
- Crocs, Cassowaries and Kangaroos: Where to Spot Wildlife in Far North Queensland
Planning a trip but not sure where to stay? Check out our reviews below:
- Becoming One with Nature at Thala Beach Nature Reserve
- Niramaya Villas & Spa: A Secluded Tropical Oasis in Port Douglas
- Sunlover Reef Cruises: Sunlover by Starlight
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Have you been? What are your must-have experiences in Tropical North Queensland?