There’s few people who visit Cairns just to visit Cairns. It’s most famous for being a jump-off point to access the outer reef dives of the Great Barrier Reef, exploring the rainforests of the Daintree, experiencing the majesty of Mossman Gorge or swanning around the glorious upmarket hotels and beaches of Port Douglas.
Over the years, however, Cairns has managed to shape itself into a great destination to spend quality family time in its own right – with the added bonus of being a perfect base to access those big-ticket, bucket list kinds of attractions mentioned above.
Redeveloping the Cairns shoreline to feature massive playgrounds, boardwalks, a manmade swimming lagoon and recreational facilities set amongst giant figtrees and manicured rolling greenspaces was a Council masterstroke. The two-kilometre long esplanade which looks north-east across tidal mudflats to the Coral Sea wasn’t the prettiest of places if you happened to be there at low tide (the bay is just mud as far as the eye can see). But by clever addition of made-made public spaces have given the whole esplanade a facelift and a boost in ‘user-friendliness’ – making it more attractive to travelers and families alike.
With a wide range of accommodation and tour options to suit any budget, Cairns is a smart family-friendly option for exploring the tropics
When we say Cairn’s Esplanade has benefited significantly by the addition of the massive public spaces, top of the list goes to the swimming lagoon which first opened in 2003. For a tropical city without a beach, the lagoon is pure gold – it allows visitors to enjoy the outdoors in stinger and crocodile-free waters, and all for free admission. It’s massive – 48000 square meters – and has something for everyone. One side is shallow with sandy edges and perfect for littlies, while a deeper area will keep older children and more serious swimmers entertained. There’s lifeguards, lockers for hire and some covered poolside benches and picnic areas/BBQ’s, but they’re popular – don’t count on securing them on a weekend or holiday periods. The Lagoon usually open 6am-9pm most days, but it’s closed Wed mornings until midday for maintenance. Check online for other scheduled closures by clicking here.
Marina, Playground & Boardwalk:
If your kids love looking at boats (and lots of them in all sizes) then wander around Marina Point – you’ll hit it if you head south along the Esplanade past the Lagoon. There’s a playground wrapped around a giant fig tree, BBQs, and views across the deep waters of Trinity Inlet to the mountains beyond.
Towards the northern end of the Esplanade you’ll find Muddy’s Playground. It’s a pretty expansive, amazing space for kids of all ages with water play/splash area, café, BBQs and picnic benches, and all kinds of play equipment nestled beneath the shade of giant fig trees and tropical plants. As we were staying up this end of the Esplanade this was our go-to place in the afternoon/early evening after returning from our day trips – it’s a great spot to BBQ a family diner in the outdoors as the kids play away the last of their boundless energy.
Beach Day Trips:
Ok, so Cairns doesn’t do beaches real well. If you’re after palm trees swaying in the breeze, golden sand and tropical blue water to swim in, head north – just out of town you’ll hit upmarket holiday-maker faves like Palm Cove, Trinity Beach, Port Douglas and more all within an hour or so drive. Make a day of it beach hopping from one to the other (just be sure to heed the ‘What To Watch Out For’ advice below). No car? Hop on a tour bus or public transport, bearing in mind transit times may take a little longer.
Outer Reef Trips:
Let’s face it, a trip to Cairns ain’t complete without a trip out to the reef. Compared to Port Douglas and Cape Trib to the North, Cairns Marina is busier with the day-tripper tour boat crowd and offers a wider range of cruises to choose from (and we all know more competition often means better pricing). Babies and children are welcome on most reef trips, but if you’ve got active little toddlers it might be worth finding an operator who has a permanently moored pontoon so you can disembark and move around easily during the day (these tend to be a little more expensive). If you’re past the toddler stage though, here’s some budget conscious day trip options minus pontoons:
- Compass: A favourite with the backpacker crowd, Compass run the cheapest reef day trips from Cairns we could find (Adults $109, Children $89, Kids under 4 free and Family passes $350). They offer full day tours to two outer reef snorkel/dive locations including lunch, tea and coffee, snorkel equipment and boom netting (where permitted) but the boat is slow and old, meaning you’ll spend a bigger chunk of your day just getting to the dive sites (depending on conditions, 2.5-3hours ++ each way) https://compasscruises.com.au/
- Reef Experience:The sister company to Compass, but with a more modern boat and more inclusions, Reef Experiences packages were also one of the best value reef day trips we could find. Breakfast, lunch, tea and coffee, complimentary first dive, marine biologist talks onboard, free transfer pickups from most Cairns accom, free wetsuit and snorkel equipment hire, glass bottom boat rides and much more. This is the reef day tour we opted with, and we paid a little extra for our 9 year-old to get a guided snorkeling talk/dive with a marine biologist once we were out on the reef as well ( additional $20). It was money well spent – as the only child on the tour he got exceptional attention while us parents went snorkeling nearby at our leisure, and he learned more first-hand about reef’s ecosystem and marine animals than he could have gathered from a mountain of books – it’s a memory he’ll treasure for life. (Adults $195, Children $120, Kids under 4 free. Family Passes $510). https://reefexperience.com.au/
Nearby Island Day Trips
Judging by the amount of boats that leave Cairns each day to visit nearby Green Island and Fitzroy Island, day trips to the islands is a popular activity – both are roughly a 45 minute boat ride away from the main Cairns Marina. Transfers only or all-inclusive packages that include meals, activities and equipment are available from a wide range of operators, so shop around.
Islands are a great family tour option, as compared to outer reef trip they’re more accessible for the whole family (from toddlers through to elderly grandparents) as everyone can enjoy swimming and snorkeling in sheltered waters, playing on beaches and just enjoying each island’s scenery. We found Green Island was way more set up for day-trippers and offered a wider range of activities, but was exponentially more crowded – we preferred Fitzroy’s quieter back beaches to Green Island’s theme-park-esque design, but that’s probably because we’re not big on crowds. For less developed/more untamed scenery, there’s also day cruises to the Frankland Islands, or take a light plane or a multi day boat cruise out to Lizard Island. Multi-day cruises can also get you to a plethora of uninhabited islands in the region.
Things To Watch Out For
Ahh, tropical North Queensland, the stuff both dreams and nightmares are made of in equal measure. On one hand you’ve got the dazzling allure of the clear aqua waters and stunning marine life on the world’s largest coral reef. On the other, you’ve got some of the world’s most nasty critters; irukandji marine stingers, stone fish, crocodiles, box jellyfish, giant snakes and other assorted freaks of nature. Yet despite the sheer volume of tourists who visit the Great Barrier Reef each year these local terrors rarely take casualties – perhaps because there’s signs everywhere warning tourists of the dangers. So while we don’t want to freak you out too much, knowledge is power. While you won’t be presented with much to worry about in Cairns itself, if you’re visiting the reef or waterways and beaches in the region keep the following in mind:
- Don’t swim at beaches, rivers, creeks or water holes unless it’s signed safe to do so – and even on land, be vigilant around any bodies of water that crocodiles might frequent
- If you’re at a beach, don’t forget to always swim between the red and yellow flags, and watch for signage/ life guard alerts regarding stingers
- Stinger season is right across the warmer months, from October/November-May. Experts prefer not to use the term “stinger season” though, as this implies that jellyfish are only prevalent during those times – stings can occur any time of the year, however are less likely outside Summer months.
- If beach swimming/diving wear protective clothing such as a full body lycra or neoprene suits. The more coverage you have, the better – you basically want to create an artificial ‘second skin’ so if a jellyfish’s tentacles happens to touch you, it doesn’t recognise you as a fellow living creature (they only release poison from their tentacles if they perceive you to be a threat or potential prey).
Where We Stayed:
We split up our time in and around Cairns by moving between three separate bases: a week at the Cairns Reef Gateway Apartments, four days out on Fitzroy Island, and another few days up in the Daintree Rainforest at Crocodylus. Click through to reviews to see detailed descriptions of each.
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Happy Place Hunter's resident Editor In Chief, Caz Emge, has written for publications around the globe for two decades. An avid outdoor buff, in her (limited) spare time she and her videographer husband and two sons gather insights for this site – sharing happy places as they find them Click to read full bio