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  • Writer's picturePeter

What to Do in Cairns? Local Knowledge. Experience A Champagne Lifestyle on a Beer Budget

Updated: Jun 4

Clifton Beach
Palm Cove, Double Hat Island

I love to travel (champagne lifestyle). At the same time I want be sure I’m getting both value for my money and time (beer budget).

Better still I love discovering and learning from locals where the best places to eat, visit and experience are instead of paying top tourist prices.


Planning a visit to Australia’s No1 Tropical Paradise AKA Cairns? If so I’m happy to share with you my “local knowledge” of the must see, do, eat and experience while you’re here.


 Read on for more local knowledge, tips, savings and more...


Arriving at Cairns Airport (domestic or international) you are approx 15km from town.

Car rental
Local Tip: Hire your car from the airport.


First bit of local knowledge. Don’t try to walk into town. It’s too far and too hot especially if you also have luggage. A cab will cost approx $25. If you have Uber then the cost is approx $13.


If you’re here for more than three days then consider hiring a car. It’s unlikely you will need a 4WD, as most if not all roads are sealed well maintained however with the heat and humidity; trust me when I say you will appreciate air conditioned comfort more than suffering sunburn and heat stroke driving a convertible with the top down. The most convenient car hire companies are at Cairns Domestic and International airport and most if not all have new and near new vehicles.



When in paradise, dive in deep and make sure you try the tropical treats on offer! 

Rusty markets
Local Tip: Rusty's Fruit Market Open Friday, Saturday & Sunday

Where to go for your tropical Provisions and Asian Greens? Locals know the best and cheapest place to get fresh food and fruit is Rusty’s Market on Grafton Street. This is an undercover but open air market that operates between Fridays through to Sunday 7am –4pm.


If you want the standard apples, carrots, potato, eggs bread etc. then head on over to a supermarket (Woolworths on Lake Street) only a short walk (2 min), or Coles in Cairns Central. There’s convenience stores on every corner in Cairns but you’ll pay 2-3 times as much as the big supermarket chains and Rusty’s Markets.


Happy Hour Bars

Living in paradise is thirsty work. 

Salt House Bar
Salt House on Cairns Pier does Happy Hour best

If you want a cool and refreshing drink the Pier Bar at the wharf (Shangri-La Hotel) has $5 beer/wine/spirit between 5pm-7pm each day.  North Bar is in the same complex within the Shangri-La hotel is a bit more sophisticated i.e. romantic/ 40+ however it still has $5 wine and beer 5pm-7pm. They also occasionally have $1 oyster specials if you love fruit de mer. 


The Salt House has 2-4-1 bar food Monday-Wednesday as well as $4 beer between 5pm-7pm. With its relaxed but trendy vibe, the Salt house is a favourite for locals hanging and tourists.


Given you are now sufficiently stocked up on provisions, had a drink and a bite to eat, you probably will want to start planning some activities.


What to do in Cairns 

Hire a bike for one day would be enough to see the sites ($15 per day). Cairns is flat and easy to get around since the streets are all wide and grid like.

Cycle Esplanade
Local Tip: Stay at a hotel that offers free bike hire

½ day ride some places to enjoy are the Esplanade, lagoon, wharf boardwalk and a ride down to the marina to see some of the mega yachts in town.  Maybe stop in the Salt House for some hydration too.


Full day

Include your ½ day plus ride out to the Botanical Gardens  in Edge Hill.


If you are feeling energetic Edge Hill also has a popular local walk track called Red Arrow- 5km and Blue Arrow- 15km right next to the Botanical Gardens. Both tracks are worth the short or long hike with views over the airport, where you can rest and enjoy watch the plans take off and land.


Remember to bring water and protective sun clothing if you’re going to do this. Cairns is hot in winter and extremely hot in summer. Close by is Jade Chinese Restaurant, located at Cairns International Tennis Centre, they have lunch specials for $10 between 11.30am and 2pm.


Visit an Island

If the weather is nice and you have a full day you may want to head out to the islands. 

All Cairns boats depart approx 9am and return approx 5pm from/to the Reef Fleet Terminal.

Fitzroy Island
Nuddy Beach, Fitzroy Island. Not Nuddie Beach >..<

You can stay on the islands overnight and from a local it’s a nice experience after the tourists have left however if you are short of time then being in mainland and able to depart early for your next day’s adventure also is a massive plus.


Most tour package groups take “boatloads” of tourists to Green Island. The cost is approx $93 for adults with the offer to upsell for lunch, extra on island adventures etc.


Locals often choose Fitzroy Island for the following reasons. Less tourists, less cost approx $78 for day pass, more to do i.e. walks, and can camp overnight for a small additional cost $35 per tents of four people. This would be the pick of the islands if you’re a local.


The must things to day when you’re on Fitzroy Island. Climb to the Summit on Fitzroy Island, visit the Turtle Rehab centresnorkel off the beach, relax and catch some rays at Nudey Beach.


Cairns Nightlife

Night time back in Cairns is what you make it to be.

Meaning if you’re exhausted you can just crash out by the pool or back in your room. You can grab a cheap eat at the night markets. Or head out to the restaurants on the esplanade or at the marina. This is a where local’s often go to celebrate events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions, however be aware that you’ll pay tourist prices.

Night life Cairns
So many nightlife beer garden entertainment places to choose in Cairns

Later at night and if you’re still keen to party the most popular places are The Woolshed, The Pier BarRattle’n Hum and Salt House Bar. All these bars and clubs are in easy walking distance of each other or maybe hail a pedicab.


Local Knowledge Dinning Offers

To help with keeping your dinning expenses within budget he following is a list of 2-4-1 restaurants and some local favourites.


Daily dinner specials can also be found with early bird specials. These restaurants have some rules i.e. order between 5pm-6pm and pay and vacate by 7.30pm, however if you do so you can save 20% or more of your meal. These restaurants are mostly found on the esplanade and include Barnacle BillsVilla RomanaSplash Seafood RestaurantChili Indian Thai and Seafood Restaurant.


Staying in Cairns longer?

Cairns city and the islands have a lot to offer however to make your holiday most memorable you’ll want to include a few more experiences. Tours are great however having a car is going to give you more flexibility, better value and allow you to see more within the time you have here.

Barron Falls, Kuranda and Sky Rail are a must do

For a ½ day experience head north up the Captain Cook Highway approx 15 minutes to Smithfield (Uber cost from town approx $20). Here you will find Sykrail this will take you above the rainforest in a small gondola with breath taking views of Cairns, Barron Falls, the historical Kuranda Railway and up you to the rainforest town of Kuranda.


If you want to make it a full day experience you can also visit Tjapukai Cultural Centre for an authentic Australian Indigenous Cultural Experience as well as the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum where you can learn about Australian military history. Why these two centres are next to each other is a mystery to me however both are interesting places to visit and learn about the history of Cairns after you’ve done the Skyrail and Kuranda adventure.


1 Day Waterfalls, Rainforest and Food Self-Drive adventure

Milla Milla Falls
Local Tip: Milla Milla Falls and the Tablelands are locals best kept secret

For a 1 day food and nature experience, locals often head west and drive up to the tablelands.

Taking you up through the Kuranda rainforest, Kuranda, plantations of coffeemango, avocado, peanutsice-cream, sugarcane, rum and tea. As well lush green dairy county, spectacular waterfallsfig treesunderground caves and swimming holes.


Plan for this experience to take you an entire day of driving i.e. 8-10 hours including stops.


1 Day Port Douglas and Daintree Self-Drive Adventure

For a 1 day rainforest and beach experience locals head north to Port Douglas and the Daintree. This drive will take approx 1hr- 1.5hrs if you include some site seeing stops.

Port Douglas Markets
If you love markets, visit Port Douglas Markets every weekend

The best day to visit Port Douglas is a Sunday because you can include the Port Douglas Markets (8am-1pm).

How to get to Port Douglas?

On your way north you will pass Sykrail at Smithfield, then heading north for another 15 minutes you will see right turns for Palm Cove approx one minute drive after passing Clifton Village Shopping Centre.


Palm Cove is a must visit and a great place to have a coffee, visit markets and even make your stay while you’re here in paradise. Continue to drive north and you’ll pass Ellis Beach, Pebby Beach some rock formations and Rex Lookout. Stop at Rex for a few photos and enjoying the vista of the reef and mountains.


Continuing north for another 20 minutes will get you to the Port Douglas roundabout. Turning right head onto Port Douglas Road the drive will take approx 5 more minutes to get you into town.


Many locals choose to make their long weekends up at PD (Port Douglas) as it’s a great town to flop, shop and drop. Must do activities while at Port Douglas include 4 Mile BeachFlagstaff HillSunday Markets, Reef Marina and Macrossan Street.

Special tip. If you are only going as far as Port Douglas for the day and you may want to include a crocodile adventure. If so make sure you start early and on your way back stop into Harley’s Crocodile Adventures the park opens and closed daily between 8.30am and 5pm.


Local Knowledge staying overnight or longer in Port Douglas

Staying two or more days in Port Douglas is a great way to unwind and experience a regional tropical town and surroundings.

Port Douglas
Feeling fit try treking to Flagstaff Hill.

If you’re feeling active Four Mile Beach with its endless wild coconut and mango trees is a great place for an early morning/or late afternoon walk or run. The sand is hard and flat making it easy to enjoy.


At Port Douglas you are spoilt with dinning choices. From high resort hotel restaurants to pubs and everything in between in town and at the marina. Everything is pretty much in walking, riding distance (if you’ve hired a bike) or a short drive.

Don’t be surprised if you come across the famous and the powerful during your stay here, although you might not recognise them at first. The fashion of Port Douglas is relaxed resort wear, thongs are standard wear as are sunglasses and hats.


Reef Snorkelling and Diving Adventures

Diving on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a must do and Port Douglas offers many small and large tours to do this.

Great Barrier Reef
Dive or snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. Is a must do

Quicksliver Cruises are the biggest operator in this space as they move massive numbers of tourists through their pick up, take out, feeds and drop back service. It’s a very well-oiled machine and ticks all the boxes for an affordable and convenient experience.


Smaller diving and snorkelling operators are also on offer from the Marina with a multiple adventures including line snorkelling, stay on board, deep sea fishing and sunset cruises.


Mossman and Daintree Rainforest Adventures

If you are staying in Port Douglas it’s recommended you head north for a ½ or full day self-drive adventure.

Mossman Gorge
Mossman Gorge is amazing 🤩

Approximately 15 minutes north of Port Douglas is the town of Mossman.  Famous for Mossman Gorge, historical Mossman sugar mill and ferry crossing over to the Daintree Rainforest.


Once across the Daintree River continue north and enjoy the sights of the Daintree Rainforest one of the oldest rainforest in the world. The drive up to Cape Tribulation is approximately 30 minutes depending on your stops. Some recommended places to visit along the way are Daintree Ice-creamDaintree TeaDubuji Bopardwalk, and Coconut Beach.


Arriving at Cape Tribulation  head to the beach and a short walk to the lookout for amazing views back over the beach and Daintree Rainforest. Were the rainforest meets the reef. From Cape tribulation you can join walking tours of the rainforest, snorkelling tours or drive on a bit further up to the Bloomfield Track which takes you all the way up to Cooktown through the Daintree (four hours by 4WD).


South Cairns Beach, Waterfalls, Waterhole and Trekking Adventures

Another 1 day self-drive adventure from Cairns is to head south. This will take you down to visit iconic beaches, swimming holes and waterfalls, historic towns and tourist parks.

Head along Mulgrave Road through Woree, Mt Sheridan and Edmonton to Sugar World is Cairn’s tourist waterpark and is located on the Bruce Highway, turning left onto Mill Road. Heading further south you will see Walsh’s Pyramid on your right. If you are feeling active this is a 922 metre tall hill which takes approximately three hours to ascend and descend safely. Take water and protective clothing.


Continuing south down to Babinda, turn right and drive for a further 6.5km to get to Babinda Boulders, this is where locals come to cool off during the heat of summer. The Boulders are amazing and a must see. Next stop is Josephine Falls these fall are approximately a further 10km south on the Bruce Highway and well sign posted turning right and then a further 7.5km drive. From the car park the walk is another 1.2km however it is a must see and do on your day’s agenda.


Back in the car head further south to Innisfail another historic sugar town of Far North Queensland, from Innisfail you can drive out to Paronella Park however this is a place really geared to sell to tourist groups costing $45per adult so it’s expensive and not very good value for money. Best to skip this place and continue further down the Bruce Highway to Mission Beach.


Mission Beach

Mission Beach would be best be described as undeveloped Port Douglas. Mission beach is amazing. A wide beach flat beach with hard sand makes it perfect for walks, bike rides and running.

Mission Beach
Many Cairns locals prefer to go to Mission Beach because there are less tourists

Just like Port Douglas locals choose to stay at Mission Beach for their holidays and long weekends. From Mission Beach a short boat ride will take you out to the islands including Dunk Island 10 minutes by water taxi. There are other islands and reef tour operators that can take you, many pristine coral diving and snorkel spots here are much closer from Mission beach, than from Port Douglas and cairns, so you will have more time out on the reef to enjoy.


The drive back from Mission Beach to Cairns city will take approximately 2 hours making this a very full day adventure if you want to fit everything in.


Suggested Activities and Time Required

My tips for a

2 day stay in Cairns

  • Day 1 Fitzroy Island

  • Day 2 Port Douglas/Mossman

3 Day Stay in Cairns

  • Day 1 Fitzroy Island

  • Day 2 Port Douglas/Mossman Gorge

  • Day 3 Cairns Botanical Garden and Kuranda Rainforest Village

4 Day Stay in Cairns

  • Day 1 Fitzroy Island

  • Day 2 Port Douglas/Mossman Gorge

  • Day 3 Cairns/Kuranda Rainforest Village/Palm Cove

  • Day 4 Mission Beach/Boulders/Josephine Falls

5 Day Stay in Cairns

  • Day 1 Fitzroy Island

  • Day 2 & 3 Port Douglas/Mossman Gorge/Daintree Rainforest

  • Day 4 Kuranda Rainforest Village/Tablelands and Waterfalls

  • Day 5 Mission Beach/Boulders/Josephine Falls

6 Day’s in Cairns

  • Day 1 Fitzroy Island

  • Day 2 & 3 Port Douglas/Mossman Gorge/Daintree Rainforest

  • Day 4 Cairns/Kuranda Rainforest Village/Palm Cove

  • Day 5 Tablelands and Waterfalls

  • Day 6 Mission Beach/Boulders/Josephine Falls

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