I have to be honest, Cairns is not my all-time favorite city in Queensland. I enjoyed my time there, but when compared to many of the other, gorgeous spots around the Australian state it frankly pales in comparison. But then I realized that visiting Cairns really isn’t about visiting Cairns – sorry Cairns – it’s about the amazing experiences which Cairns provides access to. Located in the Tropical North of the state, this is a wild and wooly area, home to some of the most stunning vistas you’ll ever see, but also some of the most exciting adventures you’ll ever tackle. During my few days there I did and saw a lot, but these are the experiences I loved the most in and around Cairns.
Stay in Style
The Shangri-La family of hotels almost always guarantees a great hotel experience in luxurious surroundings, and their Cairns property lived up to that and more. An easy walk from the town’s major promenade, the Shangri-La in Cairns has done a great job of keeping its interior updated and elegant. The room was large and furnished with low profile, Asian-inspired décor that made my brief time there relaxing and comfortable. Add to that great marina views and an excellent staff, and I can’t say enough good things about this amazing luxury hotel in Cairns. Its best attribute though is its location. Whether you want to stay in the city and do some exploration, or jump in the car and head off into the wilderness, the hotel’s location is one of the best in town and provides easy access to do whatever you want.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
I love trains and scenic rail trips are always experiences I look for when I travel. One of the best in Australia is based out of Cairns and when you visit is just one of those activities you can’t miss. Running from Cairns to Kuranda, this scenic railway snakes up the Macalister Range through jungles, waterfalls and areas of the Tropical North impossible to reach by any other means. The rail line was built in the late 19th century but has been a tourist railway since the 1930s. Thanks to that history, the carriages look and feel just like the original versions, adding a vintage feel to the experience. I opted to travel in luxury though, booking the Gold Class experience on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Enjoying drinks in the station lounge before departure, I traveled in a special luxury car with lounge-style chairs and was treated to drinks and food throughout the scenic journey. Providing ease and comfort, it made the experience even more special than it already was.
Skyrail Forest Cableway
Once you disembark from your train, the best way to get back to town is on this beautiful cableway experience. Not only do you get to see the jungles of the Tropical North from a different point of view, but they also include an option for the intrepid traveler that is certainly a hair-rising and adventurous way to see one of the most beautiful rainforests in the world. In addition to the normal cars and even all-glass cars, the Skyrail Cableway also offers something they call the Canopy Glider. Harkening back to the days when fearless souls built the railroad that still traverses this wilderness area, the glider is an open-air gondola that offers amazing views and a one-of-a-kind immersion to the beauty of the rainforest itself. Accompanied by a ranger who explains the sights as you soar more than a thousand feet above the ground below, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. It’s one thing to be that high in an enclosed car, but it’s an entirely different experience to suddenly have those walls removed with nothing separating you from the landscapes all around.
Hot Air Balloon
Granted, nowadays you can find hot air balloon rides just about everywhere, but seeing Queensland from the air is a special delight. Add to that the calming stillness of floating along in a hot air balloon, and the experience is almost magical. The tough part of course is the 3am wake up call, necessary to get winds and air temperatures that are just right for hot air ballooning. But as with all of my previous hot air balloon experiences, it was well worth it. In Queensland, I tried this experience in Cairns, to get a better view of the Tablelands area known for its rolling hills and sprawling farms and ranches. The morning fog nearly cancelled the entire flight, but we eventually got airborne and that once annoying fog became a key feature of the experience itself. I had forgotten just how quiet hot air ballooning is, and as I stood there in the basket gazing across the beautiful plains I beamed in a way that I hadn’t done in a long time. Down below I watched as kangaroos stopped to gaze up at the strange sight in the sky and in the distance I could see the mountains bordering the forests that define the appearance of Cairns and the surrounding areas. It’s not the beach and it’s not the ancient jungles, but that hot air balloon ride showed me why this area of Queensland in particular is so worth the visit.
Get Out of Town
Cairns is located in one of the most visually stunning regions not only in Australia, but on the planet so the most popular thing to do is to get out of town. From Cairns you can launch a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, a top bucket list item for most visitors to the country. But the Tropical North itself with ancient jungles and lush landscapes was the highlight of my time in the area, especially around Port Douglas, a town I grew to love. Just a stone’s throw from Cairns, Port Douglas is a quiet retreat with a main street lined with shops and restaurants and an overall vibe that can only be called beachy calm. There’s also a lot to do nearby, starting with the UNESCO recognized Daintree Rainforest, where you can join an Indigenous guide for a special Dreamtime walk through the forest. The drive though between Cairns and Port Douglas is an event unto itself and you’ll pass by beaches and scenic points that will demand a stop to fully appreciate.
Queensland in Australia is a large state with plenty to see and do to fill not only one trip, but many. Time in and around Cairns though is an important part of any Queensland experience, for all of these reasons and many more.