Cairns: 7 things you didn't know about the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

It’s the launching pad to the Great Barrier Reef and the planet’s oldest rainforest but there’s more to learn about this surprising northern Queensland city.

Tropical North Queensland's Cairns has more to offer than just reef diving.
  • Christine Retschlag
  • June 2019

Think you know Cairns? Think again. From dangerous animals to the food scene, we set straight the most common myths about this sunny city - and share three things we all know to be true.

It’s too far away

Far North Queensland might conjure images of a land far, far away but the northernmost part of the state (which locals prefer to call Tropical North Queensland) is big and Cairns is still some distance from the tip of Australia. If you want the true far north, you’ll need to keep driving 950 kilometres on some rough and ready roads to Cape York. In reality, Cairns is just over a three-hour flight from Sydney or Melbourne.

Cairns has no culture

Oh, but there is – Cairns has thousands of years of Aboriginal culture. Experience it at the Tjapukai Cultural Park opens in new window, which uses stories and dance to share the history of local people. Then, head to Mossman Gorge opens in new window for a Dreamtime Walk or go on a Walkabout opens in new window Cultural Adventures tour opens in new window. Afterwards, check out the local arts scene at Kickarts opens in new window or Fusion Art Bar and Tapas opens in new window.

Tjapukai Cultural Park hosts educational Aboriginal ceremonies
Tjapukai Cultural Park hosts educational Aboriginal ceremonies.

You can’t swim because of marine stingers

The warm, tropical waters can attract marine stingers, particularly between October and May, but the chances of being stung are low. Not only do beaches in Tropical North Queensland roll out stinger resistant nets during the season, you can hire a lycra stinger suit to protect yourself. You also won’t find jellyfish in the free and fabulous Cairns Esplanade Lagoon opens in new window or the cool waters of Mossman Gorge, about 77 kilometres north of Cairns.

It’s only for backpackers

It may be a starting point for backpackers on their great Australian journey but the city has plenty to offer luxury seekers, too. For those short on time but big on cash, Helitours North Queensland opens in new window does chopper rides over the Great Barrier Reef or Heli Pub Tours of the Atherton Tablelands. There are new luxe hotels as well, such as Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection resort opens in new window, while restaurants such as Ochre opens in new window serve up gourmet takes on Indigenous flavours.


There are crocs everywhere

Yes, there are crocodiles in Tropical North Queensland and while visitors are encouraged to be croc aware, you’re not likely to spot one as you go about your holiday. Beaches and rivers usually have warning signs indicating where you can swim and there are rarely crocs on the Great Barrier Reef. For an informative and safe croc-spotting experience, try Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures opens in new window, where you can learn all about these fascinating dinosaurs.

The Great Barrier Reef has vanished

Parts of the Great Barrier Reef have sadly been impacted by climate change or cyclones but, at 2300 kilometres from top to toe, there’s plenty of healthy reef around. While Cairns is much more than just a gateway to the coral reef, the opportunity to snorkel or dive this natural wonder remains a major attraction.

The colourful Reef is still teeming with a variety of marine life.
The colourful reef is still teeming with a variety of marine life.

The coffee is bad

Home to generations of Italian migrants, this region knows a thing or two about good coffee. In Cairns, White Whale Coffee Roasters opens in new window is touted as one of the city’s best, while Mi Piace Espresso Bar opens in new window also serves up great vegan and vegetarian food. For ethically sourced beans, try the Tattooed Sailor Coffee Roasters opens in new window, and to see where coffee comes from and sip a freshly roasted cup, head one hour west to Mareeba to visit the Skybury opens in new window and Jaques Coffee opens in new window plantations.

And 3 Truths About Cairns…

The hinterland is next-level

The cool, emerald green countryside with rolling hills and quaint accommodation shouldn’t be ignored. You can soak in a spa while overlooking the Atherton Tablelands at Allawah Retreat opens in new window, marvel at the stunning Millaa Millaa Falls opens in new window and get your geologist on at Atherton’s Crystal Caves opens in new window.

There's nothing like a swim in the paradisiacal Millaa Millaa falls.
There's nothing like a swim in the paradisiacal Millaa Millaa falls.

Cairns is celebrating a resurgence

There’s a new energy and optimism in the city, with the esplanade and surrounds buzzing with development. The Crystalbrook Collection alone is planning to open two new luxury hotels within the next 18 months.

Farm-to-fork dining is massive

With its tropical climate and diverse geography, the region is a real food bowl. From Rusty’s Markets opens in new window to Mungalli Creek Dairy opens in new window, where you can feast in the farmhouse café, there’s lots of variety on the table.