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Cairns in far north Queensland, is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and the beautiful Atherton Tablelands. It is a tourist town that we had no real expectations about. We figured we would go see the Reef and relax at our resort, but there were so many wonderful things to do in Cairns with kids that kept us quite busy. If you need to be reminded why Queensland is a place to love, check out this awesome video.
Let’s get right to them…
- 1 Things to Do in Cairns with Kids
- 2 Where to Stay
- 3 Where to Eat
- 4 Getting Around
- 5 Hot Tip
- 6 Our Verdict
Things to Do in Cairns with Kids
The Great Barrier Reef
The world’s largest coral reef and one of Australia’s top tourist attractions, the Great Barrier Reef is a bucket list item for most. We found the Reef tours very family friendly and our kids absolutely loved the whole experience. You do want to make sure you go out to the Outer Great Barrier Reef, which takes 1.5-2 hours to reach by boat. Many people get sea sick on the trip out, so I would recommend taking tablets before you get on the boat.
Visiting the Great Barrier Reef will cost a family $400-600, but it truly is a once in a lifetime experience. There are lots of tour operators offering very different experiences. Some of them cater to more experienced divers or snorkelers and offer small boat experiences. Others transfer you to a floating pontoon moored at the Reef where you can experience the Reef in so many ways: glass bottom boat trips, underwater observatories, helmet diving…
We went out with Sunlover Reef Cruises to their pontoon at Moore Reef and had a fabulous day. The pontoon is brand new and offers a waterslide, semi-submarine, glass bottom boat, underwater observatory, a large enclosed snorkeling area and so much more. We think this is a great option to experience the Great Barrier Reef for kids and families because there are so many ways to see the Reef, some that don’t even require you to get wet. Our kids loved all the different experiences – riding the waterslide, snorkeling, going out on the semi-sub and lots more. You can read our full review of this tour here.
We also went out on a smaller tour with Passions of Paradise and their brand new sailing catamaran. We were super impressed with the personalized service on this tour. They choose their Reef locations daily based on weather conditions and you visit two locations on the tour. This option is great for families very comfortable in the water because you do snorkel right off the boat. They have snorkel guides in the water who were really attentive of our kids. As soon as we boarded the boat, they invited the kids to sit up with the captain and steer the boat – a nice touch!
Mossman Gorge, the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
Cairns is a special area because there are two incredible World Heritage sites – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, the world’s oldest rainforest. You can visit the Daintree on a day trip from Cairns, but we really recommend spending a few days in the rainforest.
If you only have a day, I would recommend doing a self-drive tour up the coast with the kids. Port Douglas is an hour north of Cairns and is a beautiful drive up the coast. Just north of Port Douglas is Mossman Gorge, your first introduction to the Daintree.
If you have a few extra days, spend a leisurely day getting up to Cape Tribulation and stay up there a few nights. There is nothing like sleeping in the world’s oldest rainforest and we loved our stay at Cape Trib Beach House. These few days were truly one of the highlights of our trip.
Click here to read our post of the Best Things to do in the Daintree and Cape Tribulation.
Spend a Day at Fitzroy Island
Even after two days out at the Great Barrier Reef, we yearned for more time in the beautiful tropical waters. Fitzroy Island is located 23km from Cairns and is mostly National Park with a small resort on the island. You can visit the island on a day trip with Raging Thunder and is one of the most relaxing things to do in Cairns with kids. It was the last day of our holiday and Fitzroy Island was the perfect way to spend it. After a short 45 minute boat ride, we spend the day using the water sports, water trampoline, a glass bottom boat tour, visiting a turtle rehabilitation centre and enjoying the lovely beach and water.
Read all about our Fitzroy Island day trip here.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
You can’t swim in the fabulous beaches in far north Queensland because of the saltwater crocodiles. While weren’t really keen to run into a croc on one of our beach walks, we did want to learn more about these interesting animals. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, just north of Cairns in an absolutely must in Cairns with kids. We were super impressed with this attraction and spent the whole day there.
There is a boat tour through the lagoon where you can see the crocs being fed. We also watched the crocodile feeding show, which was a great chance to see the crocs up close. We learned the difference between “salties” and “freshies” and so many interesting facts about crocodiles. The afternoon Croc Attack show, which has been a Cairns institution for years was entertaining. The snake show was another educational and interesting experience, which the kids and adults both really enjoyed. They do have a working crocodile farm and they offer a tour to explain how the farm operates.
In addition to all the croc action, they have lots of Aussie animals to see and interact with. You can feed the kangaroos and wallabies, see the lovely cassowaries and native birds and of course see the koalas and wombats. There is a great restaurant overlooking the lagoon and our kids enjoyed trying crocodile springrolls. The verdict was they tasted like chicken. We loved our daytrip to Hartley’s and thought it was a really educational and fun activity to do in Cairns for kids.
Check out this post for other great Australian animal wildlife encounters.
The Kuranda Scenic Rail and Skyrail is another popular day tour from Cairns. Most people will take the heritage train one way through the rainforest to the cute little town of Kuranda. On the return, they will take the Skyrail cable car. We didn’t do this on this trip, but it is definitely something I would love to do next time.
We did visit Rainforestation Nature Park in Kuranda and that was a fun way to spend a few hours. They are most well known for their Army Duck amphibious vehicles. It was a great way to tour through the rainforest and learn more about the flora and fauna of the area. They also have Aussie animals, including the far north’s only Tasmanian Devil. The kids really enjoyed the Aboriginal cultural experiences. We learned how to throw a boomerang, how to play the didgeridoo, saw a spear throwing demonstration and watched a traditional dance show. Our 9 year old daughter wrote a great post about our visit to Rainforestation.
It was a rainy day when we visited so we quickly looked through the markets in Kuranda. There is supposed to be local artist’s work there and the obligatory souvenir shops. We did stop at Barron Falls, which is definitely worth at stop.
Swim in the Cairns Lagoon
Cairns doesn’t have a beach and even if they did, you couldn’t swim in it because of the crocodiles. The City of Cairns has instead built this beautiful swimming pool lagoon on the esplanade for locals and visitors to enjoy. This is a great place to spend a few hours in Cairns with kids. The lagoon has a sand beach, the iconic fish water fountains and has lifeguards patrolling. There are BBQs, public toilets and showers and lots of covered pavilions. Ours kids loved meeting other kids in the pool and cooling down at the end of each day here.
Walk the Esplanade
The Esplanade runs along the Cairns waterfront and is a great place to stroll any time of day. Between the amazing lagoon and Muddy’s Playground, you may not get very far though. There were always street performers playing along the Esplanade and we loved watching the sunset here most nights.
This playground is on the Esplanade, just down from the lagoon. It is a pretty huge playground spread out along the waterfront. There is even a cafe in the middle for the adults to grab a coffee. Our kids could have spent hours here each day and we always had to drag them away. There is a fun water feature area for them to get wet. There is lots of great playground equipment for kids of all ages, including a toddler/preschool area. This is a great place to bring the kids to burn off some energy in a pretty idyllic location.
Go Canyoning and See the Tablelands
This is a really fun thing to do with older kids (8+). The Atherton Tablelands are a beautiful area near Cairns with lush rain forest, savanna and wetlands. On this half day tour, you abseil (descend) down waterfalls, zip line across canyons, and slide and jump into waterfalls and pools. Our kids described it as “hiking up or down a waterfall”. It is an adventure activity where harnesses and ropes keep you safe. You can read our full review of our canyoning trip here. Note: Cairns Canyoning spun off from Raging Thunder in 2019.
Another amazing place to visit in the Atherton Tablelands is Josephine Falls, which has the best natural swimming pool. It is located about 75 minutes from Cairns. You can drive yourself or take this tour. You can slide down the slippery rocks into the pools. Note that the top pool is out of bounds.
Where to Stay
When visiting the Cairns area, you have to decide if you want to stay in Cairns, one of the northern beaches or Port Douglas. We opted for Palm Cove, one of the northern beaches because we liked the idea of a quieter beach. It was beautiful, but we hardly spent any time there as we were off visiting attractions and exploring. In many ways, staying in Cairns might have been our best choice. It might not have been as cute, but it would have really cut down on the driving we did.
Here are some family friendly places to stay in Cairns with kids:
Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple, Palm Cove – this is where we stayed on this trip and it truly is a beautiful resort. We loved having 2 bedrooms for our family and we used the kitchen often for breakfasts and some dinners. The pools are beautiful and we loved how at night they lit up the pool area with torches to create a beautiful setting. Click here to see the latest prices.
Peppers Beach Club, Palm Cove – this hotel receives rave reviews from families due to its beachfront location, the lagoon pool and large rooms. It is located right on the Palm Cove esplanade with lots of restaurants close by and the beach and playground across the street. Click here to see the latest prices.
Pullman Cairns International, Cairns – a great location right in the centre of things, right near the wharf and esplanade. Most rooms have double beds, making it a good choice for families. The kids will appreciate the pool and mom and dad will enjoy the lovely views over the harbour. Click here to see the latest prices.
Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort, Cairns – this is a great budget-friendly option for families. There are so many amenities the kids will love – water playground, jumping pillow, moving nights. Located just outside Cairns CBD, they offer self contained units, condos and villas perfect for families. Click here to see the latest prices.
Where to Eat
Sushi Train City Place, Shields St – what kids don’t love conveyor belt sushi!?! Ours loved this place and were quite proud of the amount of plates they ate their way through. Good sushi at good prices.
Splash Seafood, the Esplanade – lovely outdoor dining, lots of seafood choices, good kids menu.
The Raw Prawn, the Esplanade – this place can get busy, so you might want to make a reservation. Nice dining outside again, food was superb and the kids loved their steaks.
Chill Cafe, Palm Cove – great little cafe right on the waterfront. We had a wonderful breakfast here that kept up with our Melbourne foodie standards.
We rented a car for our whole holiday at a a very reasonable rate. We really like to have our own transportation and if staying in the northern beaches, a car is necessary.
The Entertainment digital membership for the Cairns area is definitely worth investing in. There are so many attractions to visit in Cairns that they add up quite quickly for families. The Entertainment books allows you to save up to 25% at tons of attractions and restaurants in the area. We easily got our money’s out of this and since we purchased it from the Cancer Council, we were supporting a good cause anyway. We used the e-book, which worked out really well.
Cairns with kids is a fantastic holiday. If you are looking for what to do in Cairns with kids, we hope this post has given you lots of great ideas. There are so many educational, active, and diverse things to do in Cairns with kids. We envisioned lots of time by our resort pool, but were kept busy with all the wonderful day trips and experiences to discover.
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