Australian Natural Adventures

Wildlife, Nature & Soft Adventure Tours

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Cairns (Cans), Daintree & The Great Barrier Reef


Cairns, Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef are the best known areas of Queensland. They are part of the Far North, from about Townsville to the tip of Cape York Peninsula. There’s plenty of “far north” to the west, but the top of the Northern Territory is called “The Top End”; further over it’s “the Northwest”. (By now, given that two States are called “South Australia” and “Western Australia”, you can be forgiven for thinking that Australians tend to be a bit literal in their geographic naming.)

Cairns, in Far North Queensland, is one of the world's premier travel destinations. Surrounded by two World Heritage listed areas - the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics Rainforest, Cairns has more things to do and see within 50 miles than most countries have in their entire borders. You can explore the Great Barrier Reef, find rare wildife deep in tropical rainforests, relax in world-rated spas, go white water rafting, bungee-jumping, ballooning, diving with sharks, sky-diving or hiking, take a 5-day 4WD trip into one of Australia's wildest areas, visit the Outback, or spin the wheel at a casino. Accommodation ranges from luxurious high-rise or boutique 5-star to basic backpacker, motor-home or camping. You can't go snow-skiing or ice-skating, but that's about it. Did we mention river, reef and 1000lb+ big-game fishing?


Australian Natural Adventures has a particular affinity with Cairns and North Queensland, as we began there many years ago as a nature and adventure tour operator. Twenty-five years later we are still providing travel and vacations in this beautiful area, just from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. So when we suggest an area, a tour or an hotel, it's because we know them intimately, first hand, as we've watched pretty much all of them start, grow and develop.

What we think of as Cairns actually includes several areas, from the Tully River near Mission Beach to the tip of Cape York Peninsula, and west to The Atherton Tablelands, Undara and Chillagoe. It also includes the Great Barrier Reef and islands, but we've got separate sections for those - see Great Barrier Reef and Islands.


A Little Cairns History

Cairns was once a town of about 20,000 people about as far north in Australia as you could go - only Darwin was further north, and the small settlement of Cooktown. Cairns comprised a few government offices, a lot of sugarcane farmers and suppliers, a small game-fishing industry, and three tourist ventures - Green Island, a single tour to the Reef, and the Shell House. With one exception, most of the hotels occupied a strip called the Barbary Coast, named that with good reason. A sizeable proportion of the people that lived th ere didn't really fit in anywhere else, and the expression "gone troppo," meaning someone who has lost a sense of normal reality due to the harsh sun and remote locality, was justly applied to many residents. Floods cut it off - there was only one 2-lane road in - sometimes for weeks on end, and there were only a couple of regularly scheduled local flights. It's now a sprawling tropical city of over 130,000, with over 600 tours available covering just about every activity imaginable. On busy days up to 1500 people visit the Reef (but at different places, not all together), and many international flights arrive every day. German, Japanese, Italian or a host of other languages are as likely to be heard as the Aussie twang, and you can take your pick of hotels from 5-star deluxe spa lodges to backpacker hostel. But things up Daintree way haven't changed all that much - watch the video to see what we mean.

How much time should I spend in Cairns & North Queensland?

To see what Cairns & North Queensland has to offer you need a couple of weeks. However, if you don't have this long, we generally try to fit about 4 or 5 days in. This allows for a day or two on the Reef, a day or three out to the rainforest, one up to the Daintree River to find crocodiles, and one for just looking around. A couple of days extra will allow time to see the incredible lava tubes at Undara, or to spend a couple of days in Palm Cove enjoying sun, sand and spa, or perhaps a day out whitewater rafting the Tully River.

The best-known aspect of the Far North is the Great Barrier Reef, followed by the Daintree rainforest. In fact, the Reef runs right down the Queensland coast for about 1200 miles, ending a couple of hundred miles north of Brisbane, the state capital. But access to the reef is best up north, unless you stay on one of the southern islands such as Heron Island, or the northern Lizard Island. The variety of fish and coral increases the further north you go. Of course, this is relative — there are still some 900 fish species, 1200 mollusk and more than 250 coral species around Heron.


For divers we can recommend Spirit of Freedom, and her smaller, day-trip sister ship, Tusa has day trips for both snorkelers and divers. Passions of Paradise combines both Paradise Reef and Michaelmas Cay, which gives you seabirds as well. You can see live streaming video taken from Passions here (but only from about 5pm to about 2am EST due to the time changes). If you are a first time snorkeler, Michaelmas Cay and the Frankland Islands give you the chance of walking in off the beach to practice, and seeing coral and reef fish while you're at it. Then, just a few yards further out, are beautiful coral reefs for you to explore. These beautiful tropical islands, with thier sandy beaches (and rainforested center in the Frankland Islands) are added bonuses. Day trips are made to both these islands from Cairns.

Similarly, there is tropical rainforest patchily all the way from about Proserpine to Iron Range two thirds of the way up the Peninsula, although the best developed and richest is in the Daintree region and the Atherton Tablelands, where most comes under the auspices of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.


Mareeba Rock Wallaby  Cairns AustraliaBoth the Great barrier Reef and the rainforest and must-sees when on an Australia tour, whether you are on a nature tour or just personal travel, although there is much more to do as well.The Undara Lava Tubes are quite spectacular, and their dry-country setting adds a new dimension to the reef and rainforest scenario. Further north the wilds of Cape York Peninsula beckon the adventurous, looking for 4WD trips over long and often rough tracks, crossing crocodile-inhabited streams, and camping out in the evening. But Cape York is also rich in wildlife, where a number of New Guinea species such as eclectus parrot, cuscus and green python attract naturalists and birders. The main center of the Far North is Cairns, although Townville, 200 miles south, has a developing tourism infrastructure and a less busy pace. From Cairns day and longer trips are available to all points — the rainforest, reef, Cape York and the outback.


We tend to emphasize the Cairns region in our Australia travel, nature tours and cuspectacled flycatcher rainforest Queensland Australiastom itineraries, for a number of reasons. One, of course is the Reef, and ease of accessibility. Secondly, some of the best wildlife and nature tour experiences can be had in this area, and no comprehensive look at Australia’s natural history is complete without seeing the forests and wildlife of this tropical region. The Atherton Tablelands, for example, is by far the best and most reliable place to see the strange, egg-laying platypus in the wild, and one of only two places that tree kangaroos can be found. Around two thirds of Australia’s bird species occur nearby, and many of its rarest and restricted mammals. Our favorite day trip to see this wildlife from Cairns is Wait-A-While, and if you are staying up on the Tablelands make sure you go out with naturalist Alan Gillanders, our preferred Tableands naturalist, and stay at the an ecolodge such as Chamber's Rainforest Lodge, or the more upmarket tree houses of Rose Gums. On the other hand, some of Australia’s best resorts, both luxury - we immediately think of beachfront Kewarra Beach Resort and rainforest Silky Oaks - are also here.


There are many things to do in the Cairns region, from white water rafting to wildlife outings. The Aboriginal culture is strong in this area, and can be shared through visiting Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, or taking a guided tour with a locally born Aboriginal guide in Mossman.

For a small, and tropical, city, Cairns is well served by restaurants. Cairns Dining describes and comments on quite a few of them. Two of our favorites are more interesting than most. First, Ochre, which specializes in native Australian foods and modern Australian cuisine. While these days use of such ingerdients as wattle seed, kangaroo, crocodile and lemon aspen can be found on the menus of a number of restaurants around Australia, and also on supermarket shelves, it was Red Ochre, as it was known when it started in Adelaide, and then opened in Cairns in the late 80s, that is most responsible for the popularity today of native foods, or bush tucker as it's also known. Having dined a number of times at Red Ochre back then and more recently in its current form and ownership we can personally attest to the interesting and delicious dishes this innovative restaurant offers. Don't miss it while in Cairns.

Even if you're not staying there, Bay Village Tropical Retreat has another interesting restaurants in Cairns, Bayleaf. The dominant cuisine is Balinese, a specific variety of Indonesian fare. This is not just recipe-following, the Chefs are Balinese, Chef Made and Komang; you do not get more authentic Balinese than these names, which indicates child number two and child number three. For those who have not tried Indonesian, let alone Balinese, you are in for a surprise. There are many who claim that Indonesian cuisine is the best in Asia, certainly the tastiest, and deserves ranking along with French and Chinese as the world's most distinctive and best cuisines. (We count ourselves in this group.) Even the surrounding gardens have a Balinese look, with small thatched offering houses dotted about. After the Balinese dishes, if you want something a little more familiar, the owner is an Executive Pastry Chef from Austria, so we're sure your sweet tooth will also be satisfied.


If you'd rather discover some of Tropical Queensland's culinary delights straight of the tree, you can visit tropical fruit farms, coffee and macadamia plantations on a fully guided day tour from Cairns.


The Far North is tropical, with a distinct wet and dry season. From about December to April heat and humidity rule, with often heavy rain from January to March. However, like most wet tropical regions, it rarely rains all day, and not every day. We also find that while it’s raining on the mainland, the Reef can be clear and sunny. From about May to October the weather is usually fine and sunny, with daytime temperatures mostly in the eighties, and nights in the sixties. Our own favorite months are September and October, although we love the wet in February.

From north of Cairns to the southern reef Queensland's Great Barrier Reef islands offer multiple playgrounds for sand, sun, snorkeling and sailing.


Out west, in the Outback, the small town of Winton is rich in fossils. During the (warm) winter months you can sign up to spend a week digging for dinosaurs. For more information go to Queensland Dinosaur Digs.


Cairns & Great Barrier ReefTours, Activities, Attractions & Regions - if it's not linked call or email us.

Cairns City Northern Beaches Port Douglas
Daintree Tours Cape York Peninsula Atherton Tablelands
Undara Chillagoe Great Barrier Reef Diving
Great Barrier Reef Snorkeling Rafting / Canoeing Tours Adventure Tours
Fishing Tours Aboriginal Tours Wildlife Tours
Great Barrier Reef Islands Attractions Spas
Nightlife Accommodation Restaurants
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