5 Reasons to Visit Cairns

A city on the verge of a tourism boom.

things to do cairns
Photo: @ccseyes

Not long ago, Cairns was just a stopover, a swamp, and a gateway to a treasure trove of natural wonders. Although, now the city is coming into its own as a destination, plentiful with luxury resorts and hotels, ample restaurants and bars, and a plethora of things to do from snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef to hiking the Daintree.

You won’t find a beach in town, but the Esplanade Lagoon is where everyone goes to get their feet wet. Expect more boardshorts than briefcases, and the steady humidity means everyone running is at half speed, so slow down, enjoy the rest, and eat all the seafood you can handle—while you can.

There are plenty of unexpected moments to be had here, so here are five reasons why Cairns is cooler than you think. 

things to do cairns
Photo: @ccsbarandgrill.crystalbrook

Fresh seafood, ocean views and good vibes

Despite the dawn rush, when boats are gearing up for a day of fishing, Cairns is a relaxing place. You can spend your days wandering the promenade, indulging in long lunches, or relaxing poolside, with ocean views. No matter how you choose to spend it, you can’t go past a taste of its best restaurants. One thing you will notice here is the restaurants you want to eat at will most likely be in a hotel. CC’s Bar and Grill, located in Crystalbrook Bailey, is an impressive upscale steakhouse, offering steaks delivered directly from Crystalbrook Station. They focus on local produce and hearty dishes. Think 45-day dry-aged tomahawk with a sauce of your choice and as many sides as you want. If you’re not sure what to get, the CC’s share board offers a taste of everything from sage smoked kangaroo, kingfish ceviche, oysters, and beef bruschetta.

Down the road, Crystalbrook Riley is where you will find Rocco, a Mediterranean Greek rooftop bar serving incredible ocean views, and mezze. The breaded stuffed mushrooms are heavenly, but the homemade dips and grilled flatbread is all you will ever need. For something more substantial, the mains offer barramundi fillets from the Daintree, local prawns, and beef sirloin from Crystalbrook Station.

If you’re after something more casual for lunch, Crystalbrook Flynn is home to Boardwalk Social, where you will find live music, gourmet food, and good vibes. This market-style food and beverage hub is the Cairns stomping ground for all things delicious. The food is inspired by great gastro pub classics with a focus on local ingredients (more than 80% of the produce is local).

When you find yourself down by the wharf, stop into Prawn Star, a collection of three fishing boats, floating next to each other, offering cold beers and the freshest seafood you’ve ever had. The offer platters stacked with fresh prawns, bugs, oysters and sashimi. You can also pay $45 for a bucket of mixed or tiger prawns.

things to do cairns
Photo: @passionsofparadise

Cairns is the gateway to some of the best snorkelling spots in the Great Barrier Reef

It doesn’t get any better than a two-hour boat ride to some of the most exclusive and best snorkelling spots in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Thanks to its northern location, snorkelers, divers, and swimmers alike will find themselves immersed in a thriving underwater world, boasting colourful corals, massive schools of fish, and everything from stingrays to turtles here. Passions of Paradise is an eco-tourism company, that leads tours daily. You can learn to scuba dive, or simply snorkel the reef. They have exclusive access to over 30 moorings, which means on any given day you could be swimming in a secret reef, viewing fish and corals others would dream to see. You will set sail on a stylish and fast catamaran, enjoy lunch on board, as well as snacks and drinks. You also get two opportunities to snorkel or dive at two locations during the day. As an eco-tourism operator, Passions of Paradise offers a unique opportunity to learn about ocean conservation, including coral bleaching, and the master reef guides on board are always happy to help you identify anything you saw while out swimming, including rays, fish, and types of coral.

things to do cairns
Photo: @businesseventsaustralia

You can explore the world’s oldest tropical rainforest from above or below

There’s more than one reason to visit and stay in Cairns. The fact that it’s only a 15-minute drive to the world’s oldest rainforest is a big selling point. Whether you want to float above the canopy rainforest or meander through its heritage trunks below, you can do both with the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and hike tours. The Skyrail takes you up, high above the ancient landscape for unsurpassed panoramic views of Barron Gorge and Australia’s wet tropics World Heritage Area. You will glide metres above the jungle canopy, before descending at Kuranda Terminal, near Barron River. Make your way through the ancient pockets of rainforest, and let a guide take you through lush fern gardens, climbing palms, and imposing rainforest giants. Keep an eye out for butterflies and birds. After exploring the boardwalk loop, and stopping at a scenic lookout, you can head to the Rainforest Discovery Zone to learn more about the Daintree Rainforest, before taking the Skyrail back to Smithfield Terminal. There is also an option to rife the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, which weaves its way between Cairns and Kuranda. Sit in vintage carriages, enjoy the views, and take great photos at Barron Falls.

things to do cairns
Photo: @chavienriquezphoto

Drive to Palm Cove, a beachside paradise

Only a 25-minute drive, or 45-minute bus ride, is Palm Cove, a beautiful palm-fringed beach, with an enclave of luxury hotels and fine-dining restaurants. The 500-year-old melaleuca trees are stunning and always popular for Instagram photos. Despite its knack for luxury, the beachside town prefers bare feet, bikes, and sunset barbecues on the beach. You can hire a kayak or paddleboard to explore the water, or fish off the Palm Cove Jetty. There are some beaches with stinger nets, so you can wade into the glass-like waters. Although, sitting on the sand under towering palm trees is a vibe. If you’re looking to have one meal while there, you can’t go past Nu Nu, which offers laid back, local food, with a fine-dining touch. Palm Cove has been dubbed the spa capital of Australia, so take time out to enjoy a massage or treatment at one of the many day spas in town. 

things to do cairns
Photo: @bailey.crystalbrookcollection

Stay in quirky, artsy hotels

There are more hotels in Cairns than there are bars, so choosing one can be tricky. Although, when it comes to picking a place to stay, we always go for the quirky, the unusual, and the artsy places. Crystalbrook is perfect for this, as each hotel offers a different theme, room style, and views. There are four hotels in Cairns alone. Yes, four. One of them is a residence, but Bailey, which is located mere steps from the esplanade boasts luxury rooms and interiors, but it’s the art focus that has us wanting more. Every two months, an artist showcases their work, which you can buy, so the lobby is always filled with stunning art from photos to sculptures, and paintings. Inside the rooms, colourful statement chairs, and bed throws echo their love of art and design. If you’re looking for something a little more energetic and the natural life of the party, then book a stay at Flynn, which is also just steps from the boardwalk. The spa is a great place to relax and unwind, while the pool is there for when you want to float, swim, or lounge during the day. Situated further down the esplanade is Riley, a five-star luxury hotel with a massive pool on the ground floor. Luxury takes centre stage here with chic, sustainable rooms, and views to match. You also have access to Rocco or Paper Crane, which offers Asian-inspired street food.

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Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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