There are few places on Earth with the diversity of unique attractions and experiences Cairns & Great Barrier Reef has to offer. As Aleney de Winter discovers, there’s so much for Australian families in Tropical North Queensland.
Cairns, The Great Barrier Reef and beyond – Exploring Tropical North Queensland
Nothing says ‘relaxing family holiday’ quite like seeing your child dangling like a worm on a hook over the top of a toothsome croc named Goliath. Ok, so maybe sunshine, coral-strewn reefs, saltwater lagoons, lush rainforests, rich Indigenous heritage, cosmopolitan towns, charming villages and an embarrassment of kid-friendly activities are more up your family holiday alley.
Whatever floats your family’s getaway boat, you’re bound to find it on a summer holiday in Cairns & Great Barrier Reef.
Wild times in Cairns
I had imagined I’d be starting my summer in Cairns lying by a resort pool, devouring a bounty of tropical fruits fresh from stalls, or chasing thundering waterfalls, beautifully bloated from the rain.
Instead, I’m playing wide-eyed spectator to my son as he tackles a series of complex and challenging crossings, tunnels, nets and ziplines, including the one that has him doing his best superhero impression flying over a four-metre salty at Cairns ZOOM & Wildlife Dome, the world’s first challenge ropes course in a wildlife park. My daughter and I keep our feet firmly planted on terra firma and stick to spotting the free-roaming critters who call the dome home. Goliath, I am very happy to report, is not one of them.
Post leap and with all my son’s limbs still intact, we head to Cairns Esplanade, a hub of activity for families. The Esplanade Lagoon – a safe, patrolled 4,800-square-metre saltwater lagoon pool with sandy beaches and a children’s water play area – is hard to miss. And even harder to keep the kids out of. Nearby Muddy’s Playground, with its wet and dry play areas, is another big hit with little travellers.
Snorkelling in Cairns
The summer season brings improved visibility and near-perfect conditions to snorkel or dive, it’s a great time to discover the Great Barrier Reef’s kaleidoscopic array of marine life and coral.
There are plenty of operators who offer kid-friendly reef tours, but why not immerse yours in culture as well as the sea with a tour with an Indigenous ranger from Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel? Committed not only to ecotourism and reef preservation but to sharing the captivating Dreaming stories of the Gimuy Walubara Yidinji, Gunggandji, Mandingalbay and Yirrganydji people. Dreamtime helps visitors gain insight into the ocean ecosystem and the cultural importance of the reef.
Where to stay on the reef
Families looking for an easy reef experience might prefer Fitzroy Island, just a 45-minute catamaran ride from the Cairns Marlin Marina. Surrounded by stunning beaches, clear waters and coral gardens. The majority of the island is national park and families can snorkel, swim and sea kayak or view the riveting sights via glass-bottom boat. There’s also a Turtle Rehabilitation Centre devoted to the rescue and care of sick and injured turtles.
There’s more water fun for us at Crystal Cascades, approximately 20 kilometres west of Cairns. Secreted within a tropical rainforest, a series of waterfalls gush into large, clear, freshwater swimming holes, glittering like jewels. With its luxuriant rainforest cover in bright storybook shades of green, the water is deliciously cool and refreshing. The kids delight in the natural surrounds and soundtrack of twittering birds.
Chasing waterfalls at Atherton Tablelands
We chase more waterfalls on the Atherton Tablelands, an area blessed with a collection of spectacular cascades. Hit the Waterfall Circuit, a 17-kilometre loop road off the Palmerston Highway where three stunning waterfalls – Ellinjaa, Zillie and Millaa Millaa – await.
Always a few degrees cooler than Cairns, summer is a fine time to explore the Atherton Tablelands. There’s eye-popping rocky ranges, stunning ochre savannah, lush dairy country and leafy national parks. Then taste your way through the region’s abundance of tropical fruits, nuts and local cheeses. Wash that down with the finest Tablelands wine and coffee, and locally-sourced and -made hot chocolate for the kids.
Top things to do in Kuranda
We spread our wings at Kuranda, a gorgeous arts and crafts hub nestled in the cool of the mountains, where the feathered and fluttery residents of Birdworld and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary await.
For furrier fun, there’s also a Koala & Wildlife Park at the Rainforestation Nature Park, a short drive from Kuranda Village. The park also offers opportunities for kids to experience authentic Indigenous Australian culture on a Pamagirri Mini Mob experience. Not only can they master the art of boomerang throwing, but they’ll learn the secrets of didgeridoo playing with a Pamagirri Guide, who’ll also share traditional knowledge of local food, plants, tools and weapons.
Keen for more exploring? The historic Kuranda Scenic Railway that runs through the rainforest from Cairns to Kuranda. Or the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway will have your crew floating above the lush canopy of breathtaking Barron Gorge National Park.
Chillagoe’s limestone caves
A little further afield, but well worth the detour, is the former copper mining town of Chillagoe.
Here, visitors can join a guided tour to explore an incredible underground ecosystem. There are 560 limestone caverns filled with such vast natural riches.
There’s more treasure to be found at the ancient Mungana and Wullumba Aboriginal rock art galleries. They are located just 15 kilometres from Chillagoe town. The roads in the area occasionally close due to rainfall during summer so check the weather before you go.
Port Douglas’ rainforest and reefs
Port Douglas offers the sophistication of the city with a laid-back village atmosphere that’s perfect for families. It is only an hours drive from Cairns Airport. Boasting two World Heritage-listed jewels on its doorstep – the dazzling Great Barrier Reef and the lush rainforest of Daintree and Cape Tribulation – there’s an abundance of family tours and day trips on offer.
But first, we haul our buckets and spades to the golden sands of Four Mile Beach. The beach stretches the length of the town and beyond, with netted areas for safe swimming year-round.
Our kids love exploring Wildlife Habitat, where they lunch with the lorikeets and hand-feed free-range kangaroos and wallabies in spacious, natural environments. Yet my son’s taste errs more towards fierce creatures. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a place that’s quite literally crawling with crocs, comes to the reptilian rescue.
The Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
A short drive north of Port Douglas reveals the prehistoric beauty of the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. The Daintree is startlingly lush and explodes with colour in summer. The World Heritage area boasts the largest variety of flora and fauna of any rainforest on Earth. Experience this glorious diversity firsthand at the Daintree Discovery Centre. Here, you can enjoy access to the rainforest from the forest floor to the canopy.
Mossman Gorge, only 20 minutes north of Port Douglas, is incredibly popular with families. We choose the easy hike to its rainforest-shrouded, freshwater swimming hole, where a cool river tumbles its way over and around enormous silver granite boulders that look like giants have scattered them.
The kids also discover the significance of the Daintree to its Traditional Owners with Walkabout Cultural Adventures, whose tours showcase the traditional Kuku-Yalanji culture and people and their connection to the land, sea and wildlife of their country. On the way back to Port Douglas, we reward our tired twosome with ice-creams from Daintree Ice Cream Co., where the flavours of the rainforest can be enjoyed by the cup. The heavenly treats are made from fruit from their own orchard and Atherton Tablelands milk.
Of course, the Great Barrier Reef is also easily accessible by boat from Port Douglas Marina, and we decide to make a day of it with Quicksilver Cruises, who ferry us out to Agincourt Reef, a pretty ribbon reef off Port Douglas. My excited son is rewarded with a kowabunga-worthy encounter with three green sea turtles. Then my little mermaid gets face to flipper with a myriad of ocean life in the coral gardens.
Two hours south of Cairns is Mission Beach, flanked by rainforest and reef, which is less than 40 kilometres offshore. The dreamy beach enclave is one of the undiscovered gems of Queensland.
The dreamy Family Islands National Park, including Dunk Island, sits just four kilometres offshore. The islands include four lovely beach villages, linked by 14 kilometres of golden sands. A little further north are the unspoiled Barnard Islands. There’s day access from Mission Beach, but a castaway experience with Great Barrier Reef Safaris gets our vote. They’ll drop your crew on an island with all you need for an overnight camping adventure, or even waltz you into a pre-prepared glamping site.
Be sure to leave time between beach combing to get your Willy Wonka on with a chocolate tour at Charley’s Chocolates, one of only a few places in the world where you can follow chocolate’s transformation from cocoa tree to bar in the one place – and devour the results.
Hidden spots in Tropical North Queensland
Far, far away (well, about 40 minutes north of Mission Beach on our way back to Cairns) we find an enchanted castle. The folly of a Spaniard by the name of José Paronella, whose dream was to build in the rainforest, Paronella Park is our last stop. The magical five-hectare wonderland is home to the resulting Spanish-style castle. As well as waterfalls, bridges and a tunnel, wrapped in a lush green blanket of 7,500 tropical plants and trees. It is bewitchingly beautiful and provides a suitably fantastical ending to our summer quest in this fairytale part of Queensland.
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