7 Day Cairns and Great Barrier Reef Itinerary

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Cairns is the unofficial capital of Far North QLD and home base for trips to two World Heritage sites: The Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. In this 7 day Cairns and Great Barrier Reef itinerary, you’ll get a taste of both of these iconic World Heritage sites.

Just before we jump into the Cairns itinerary, let’s run through a few safety tips.

These tips are by no means exhaustive but they will hopefully help you get to the end of your Cairns trip alive!

Cairns Safety Tips

Cairns and the surrounding region is generally quite safe, but you should exercise general caution.

The key things to beware of are the wildlife.

Saltwater crocs

Saltwater crocodiles must be treated with caution. These prehistoric behemoths live year-round in the waters around Cairns, particularly the murkier rivers and creeks and saltwater inlets. There are warning signs everywhere, and even the locations that are considered safe to swim in should be approached with caution.

Marine Stingers

Cairns stinger season brings with it both the box jellyfish and Irukandji.

Cairns stinger season is roughly November through May, however, they have been known to be in the ocean outside of this time.

It is possible to swim in the ocean during stinger season by wearing a stinger suit and ideally also swimming in stinger nets. Fortunately, this doesn’t need to stop you from going on a Great Barrier Reef snorkel tour as tour providers will include stinger suits if they are needed.

Regardless, always listen to the advice of local authorities and operators and always pay attention to the warning signs.

Accommodation In Cairns

I highly recommend staying somewhere close to the Esplanade and in the heart of the city. Ideally between Minnie St and the Wharf. There are great options outside of this area, like Rydges Esplanade Resort, but the Wharf side of Minnie St is definitely the most convenient location for this itinerary.

>> Browse accommodation in Cairns.

For the first 5 nights, we stayed at: Oaks Cairns Hotel

I really like the Oaks loyalty program and the benefits it provides through the GHA Discovery program. Being a member gives you discounts when you book directly with Oaks as well as other member hotels in Australia and overseas.

Why we chose Oaks Cairns:

  • Option of in an internal room to keep costs down.
  • Across the road from the Esplanade Pool.
  • Short walk to Woolworths.
  • Conveniently located to Cairns Night Markets and most Cairns city attractions including reef cruises.
  • Short walk to a variety of restaurants and cafes in the Esplanade precinct.

For the last 2 nights, we stayed at Fitzroy Island Resort

Cairns Day 1 – Arrival

Check in to your accommodation and go for an evening explore.

Cairns Sunset from Oak and Vine Restaurant
Sunset over the Esplanade Pool from Oak & Vine Restaurant

I’ve left day 1 fairly free for you to arrive. We landed at Cairns airport at 5 pm so we didn’t have a lot of time to do much more than settling in.

  • Land Cairns Airport
  • Transfer via taxi or Uber to your accommodation
    • It’s a 10-minute drive right into the heart of Cairns so your ride will cost around $20-$25 and is more convenient than the bus which requires a long walk to catch.
  • Watch the sunset
    • We had dinner at the Oak & Vine restaurant and watched the sunset from there.
    • A note on the sunset, Cairns Esplanade is facing north-east, so the sunset is over the mountains, but it does usually light up the sky nicely over the ocean.

Cairns Day 2 – A taste of Far North Queensland

Explore what makes Far North Queensland unique with a visit to the Cairns Botanic Gardens and Aquarium.

Looking up to the Gondwananan Garden tree canopy
Cairns Botanic Gardens Gondwanan Garden Canopy

Day 1 has an early start with lots of walking, so have a relaxed afternoon followed by a sunset swim.

  • Watch the Cairns Sunrise
    • If you are staying at the Oaks, you get a great sunrise view from the Oak & Vine restaurant.
    • You could also go for a sunrise walk along the Esplanade – it’s pretty spectacular most mornings.
  • 8:00am: Walk to Cairns City Bus Station, Platform 2
    • 5 minute walk, 0.5km
  • 8:04am: Transfer via Route 131 outbound bus to Collins Ave at Cairns Botanic Gardens
    • 10 minute bus ride
    • Bus fare: $3pp for adults
  • 8:14am: Explore, Cairns Botanic Gardens & Visitor Centre
    • Explore the Flecker Gardens and then cross Collins Avenue to explore Centenary Lakes. I’d suggest allowing around 1 hour for each, but you could spend easily more time here.
    • The Cairns Botanic Gardens give you a fantastic taste of the Daintree Rainforest and the signage will help you identify some of the things you’ll see tomorrow.
  • 10:18am: Transfer via Route 130 inbound bus from Greenslopes St at Centenary Lakes to Cairns City Bus Station, Platform 2
    • 11 minute bus ride
    • Bus fare: $3pp for adults
  • 10:29am: Walk to Cairns Aquarium
    • 5 minute walk, 0.4km
  • 10:35am: Explore, Cairns Aquarium
  • 11:45am: Lunch, Dundee’s @ Cairns Aquarium
  • 12:45pm: Continue Exploring Cairns Aquarium
  • 2:30pm: Take a relaxed walk along the Esplanade back towards your hotel.
    • It’s about an 8 minute walk to Oaks Cairns Hotel if you go directly there
  • Go for a sunset swim at the Esplanade Lagoon pool.

Cairns Day 3 – Kuranda

Take a day trip through the World Heritage Daintree Rainforest.

Kuranda Station Platform 2
Kuranda Station Platform 2

An early start that will give you a taste of the prehistoric Daintree Rainforest as you meander through and over Barron Gorge National Park to Kuranda on the Kuranda Scenic Railway and back via the Skyrail.

  • You’ll be up early anyway, so catch the sunrise!
  • 7:30am: Walk to Cairns Central Terminus
    • 9 minute walk, 0.7km
  • 8:00am: Check in at Kuranda Scenic Railway
  • 8:30am: Kuranda Scenic Railway Journey
    • Departs from Cairns Central Terminus
    • Kuranda “Classic Experience” package (the one we did in this itinerary)
    • Cost: $119 pp
    • To depart from Cairns Central Terminus you must book directly with Kuranda Scenic Railway. Unfortunately the direct booking process is confusing and manual, but get in touch with them and they’ll help you figure it out.
    • Booking websites are much simpler, but you will depart from Freshwater Station instead with included hotel transfers.
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
    • Booking website options:
    • 1 hour, 50 minute train journey when departing from Cairns City Terminus.
    • Freshwater Station
    • Barron Falls Station
      • 10 minute stop
      • Great photo opportunities of Barron Gorge and Barron Falls.
      • Head up the stairs to the lookout for the best views.
      • Barron Falls on TripAdvisor
  • 10:30am: Explore, Kuranda
    • Allow about 1 hour, 45 minutes to explore the town and have an early lunch based on a 12:30pm return journey time.
    • If you want to spend more time in Kuranda and do more of the activities there, you will need to book for a later Skyrail return time.
    • Map of Kuranda
    • Definitely check out the Kuranda Markets
    • Also check out Fruibies, Kuranda Candy Kitchen, Not Just Chocolate Shop & Honey House.
    • Kuranda on TripAdvisor
  • 12:15pm: Check in at the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
  • 12:30pm: Skyrail Rainforest Cableway
  • 1 hour, 30 minute journey on the Skyrail plus two stops
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
    • Barron Falls Terminal
      • Check out the Edge Lookout as well as the CSIRO Rainforest Interpretation Centre & Historical Precinct.
      • The Edge Lookout has the best views of Barron Falls.
      • Walk on the glass boardwalk.
      • Allow 10-15 minutes to enjoy the lookout.
    • Red Peak Terminal
      • Walk the Boardwalk Loop
      • Allow 10-15 minutes.
  • 2:00pm: Transfer by bus to Cairns Central Terminus
    • 30 minute transfer bus ride
  • 2:30pm: Walk to Rusty’s Markets
    • 10 minute walk, 0.7km
    • You can cut through Cairns Central Shopping Centre.
  • 2:45pm: Explore, Rusty’s Markets
    • Pickup some fresh locally-grown produce.
    • I recommend trying some of the different banana varieties that are available here.
    • Definitely also get a load of Bluto’s Banana Bread (there are stacks of delicious varieties including excellent gluten-free options)!
    • Opening hours: Fri – Sat 5:00am – 6:00pm, Sun 5:00am – 3:00pm
    • Official Website
    • TripAdvisor Reviews
  • 3:15pm: Walk back to your accommodation
    • Oaks Cairns Hotel is about a 10 minute walk, 0.7km.
  • 3:30pm: Relax
    • Pick out one of the local restaurants for dinner.
  • Watch the sunset

Cairns Day 4 – Outer Reef Cruise & Snorkel

Take a day trip to the outer reef to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef Snorkelling
Outer Reef Snorkelling

It’s worth taking the time to do a full-day tour of the outer reef. It is absolutely spectacular. There are many operators to choose from, but I recommend picking one that goes to 2 or 3 outer-reef sites and focuses on snorkelling (like this one) and ideally that doesn’t offer diving (unless you are going to dive instead).

The reason I recommend this is because if the operator caters to both snorkelers and divers, there is a compromise between the sites that are best for both. If you choose a snorkel-only operator they will pick the locations that are best for snorkelling.

Matt Snorkelling In the Outer Reef
Matt Snorkelling In the Outer Reef

If you are looking for something a bit more family-focused, consider a pontoon-based tour like Sunlover Reef Cruises.

You may want to consider visiting a supermarket this evening to pick up some easy meals for your last few days which will be out at Fitzroy Island (unless you prefer going to the island restaurants for all your meals).

Cairns Day 5 – Fitzroy Island

Head out to Fitzroy Island and relax

Sunset at Fitzroy Island
Sunset across Welcome Bay at Fitzroy Island

We’re in the last half of this Cairns Great Barrier Reef itinerary. It’s sad, the trip is almost over. Today it’s time for something a little different! We’re going to head out to Fitzroy Island for two nights of (hopefully) a relaxing time to end your trip and with any luck, you might even swim with a turtle if you didn’t get to on your reef cruise.

For today you will need to have booked to stay at Fitzroy Island and if your booking didn’t include Fitzroy Flyer transfers then you will also need to book that separately. I suggest booking for the first transfer in the morning to get the full day out at Fitzroy Island.

More Information: Getting to Fitzroy Island

We stayed in an Island Suite as it was the cheapest non-camping option available when we booked, but there are cheaper options if you book far enough in advance. Check out Fitzroy Island Resort TripAdvisor reviews here.

I recommend bringing a packed lunch for today, sandwiches or something else you can easily eat on the beach. Otherwise, you can grab lunch at Foxy’s Bar.

Alternatively, you can visit Fitzroy Island as a day trip with a tour like this one.

  • 7:00am: Check out of your accommodation
  • 7:15am: Walk to Marlin Wharf and check-in
    • 5 minutes walk from Oaks Cairns, 0.4km
    • Map
    • Check-in at the Fitzroy Island booking office at Shop 2/1 Spence St for both your transfer and accommodation.
    • Check-in is required 30 minutes before departure.
  • 7:30am: Boarding commences, Fitzroy Flyer
    • Head to Marlin Wharf Berth 20.
  • 8:00am: Transfer via Fitzroy Flyer to Fitzroy Island
    • 1 hour cruise to Fitzroy Island
    • Cost: $42.50 pp each way ($85 return)
    • Booking Site
  • 9:00am: Arrive, Fitzroy Island
  • 9:15am: Bag drop at Fitzroy Island Resort
    • Fitzroy Island Resort offers bag storage with optional coin-operated lockers, changing rooms, showers and pool towels for guests of the resort who arrive before 2pm.
  • 9:30am: Go Snorkelling at Welcome Bay
    • Fitzroy Island Map
    • Welcome Bay is right by the jetty and easy to get straight into the water.
    • Bring your own snorkel gear or hire it at the resort.
    • The beach here is entirely large chunks of broken coral so make sure you have something on your feet.
    • I suggest heading down the beach to where the big rocks start. Snorkel from there.
    • Coral close in to the beach isn’t great, but head out a liittle further and around the rocks and there are some great bommies to see.
  • 2:00pm: Get your room key and relax or explore
    • Enjoy your room and recover from your morning of snorkelling, swim in the resort pool, or head out to explore the island.
  • Get dinner at Foxy’s Bar and watch the sunset
    • Or find somewhere nice to watch the sunset!

Cairns Day 6 – Fitzroy Island

Enjoy a full day at Fitzroy Island. Relax and enjoy it.

Nudey Beach at Fitzroy Island
Nudey Beach at Fitzroy Island
  • Sunrise
    • It’s worth taking the time to see the sunrise somewhere, be it from the jetty, on the rocks, on the summit walk, or elsewhere.
  • Summit Walk
    • 3 hours walk, 4km return.
    • We got to the summit in 1 hour, 10 minutes and came back via the Lighthouse Road which took us 1 hour. Plus about 30 minutes at the summit.
    • This is a big trek and while Lighthouse Road is paved and there are some steps, the rest of the track is pretty rough.
    • It might not be the most relaxing start to the day, but if you are feeling up to it, get up bright and early and do the summit walk before it gets hot and watch the sunrise as you go.
    • If you do the walk before dawn, make sure you have a torch. The track can be very dark in the lower sections that are below the tree line.
    • Enjoy excellent views from the summit even if you do miss the sunrise.
  • Do the walk to Nudey Beach
    • Even if you don’t snorkel here, make sure to tick this iconic beach off your list.
  • Snorkel at Nudey Beach
    • Snorkelling at Nudey Beach is best around the rocks.
    • The beach is mostly broken coral but it is much finer than Welcome Bay and it is manageable barefoot. I still recommend having reef shoes or something else on your feet to avoid cuts from the coral though.
    • If you don’t think you will be able to snorkel twice while you are on the island, just do Nudey Beach. It is the better of the two we suggest in this itinerary.
  • Go for a swim in the resort pool
  • Visit the turtle sanctuary
  • Have dinner at Zephyr’s Restaurant and watch the sunset
    • Get a seat outside for the best sunset views and the best atmosphere (unless it rains!)

Cairns Day 7 – Head Home

Meeting a Turtle at the Fitzroy Island Jetty
Meeting a Turtle at the Fitzroy Island Jetty
  • Sunrise Walk
    • If you haven’t been out at dawn yet, make sure you take the time to do so. It’s a magical time on the island before the day visitors arrive.
    • Walk along Welcome Bay and out the jetty at dawn for excellent chances of spotting turtles and sharks swimming by before the day boat traffic starts.
    • You have time, if you are organised, to do the Secret Garden Walk if you haven’t already done it.
  • 9:00am: Checkout of Fitzroy Island Resort
  • 9:15am: Boarding commences, Fitzroy Flyer
    • This is the first transfer back to Cairns. If you don’t fly out until later in the day, you can definitely get a later transfer.
  • 9:30am: Transfer via Fitzroy Flyer to Cairns
    • 1 hour cruise back to Cairns
    • Cost: $42.50 pp
  • 10:30am: Transfer via Taxi or Uber to Cairns Airport

Trip Preparation

Cairns is hot, even in winter. It’s also been known to rain at the drop of a hat, and then there are the cyclones.

Make sure you are adequately prepared for the trip to get the most from your time in Cairns!

Matt outside Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway station
Matt outside Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway station

When is the best time to visit Cairns?

If you visit Cairns at the right time of year, you will get a lot more from your trip. All the bad things come to Cairns or are magnified, in summer. So you can avoid them by visiting Cairns at the best time, Winter.

In my opinion, the best months to visit Cairns are June, July and August. These months are the best combination of cooler weather, lower rainfall, calmer seas, and of course, it is not stinger season! Don’t worry though, it’s still plenty hot enough that you can get around in a t-shirt and shorts pretty much all the time!

However, the winter months are also the busiest because it is the best time, so if you want fewer people, visit earlier or later, but I’d still try and avoid summer if possible.

Looking down on Baron Falls from Baron Falls Skyrail Station.
Looking down on Baron Falls from Baron Falls Skyrail Station.

Mobile phone service

Cell tower coverage is excellent with all providers in Cairns itself.

However, Fitzroy Island has limited service. Telstra has the best coverage on the island, however, even their coverage is not great at the resort itself.

Ignore the mobile coverage maps provided by the telcos, they are all wrong. The best reception on the island is from about halfway up the summit walk and the rest of the way to the summit. At the resort itself, the best reception is North of the jetty in Welcome Bay at the waterfront.

The View From Fitzroy Island Summit
The View From Fitzroy Island Summit

You should be fine with any mobile network on this itinerary but If you need the maximum coverage while on Fitzroy Island, I recommend getting a sim card that uses the Telstra network.

You don’t need to pay for a Telstra service though. The coverage is the same with Telstra MVNO’s.

MVNO’s, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators are providers that use some or all of the coverage provided by an actual network operator.

Great options for low cost pre-paid access to the Telstra network are:

There are others, but the above options are some of the easiest to get and the best value in my opinion.

Handy hint: While MVNO’s provide cheap access to the Telstra network, they currently only have access to parts of the Telstra networks. They do cover 98.8% of the population, however you will need to go directly with Telstra to access the full network. This shouldn’t be an issue on this itinerary though.

What should you pack for a Cairns and Great Barrier Reef trip?

This itinerary is pretty easy to pack for and your packing list will be pretty similar all year round.

Temperature considerations

Cairns temperatures range from warm in winter to hot in summer.

I don’t recommend visiting Cairns in the summer as it is extremely hot and humid. However, regardless of when you go, you will want lightweight, breathable clothes.

If you visit in winter, you might want to pack a light jacket or coat for the evenings. You probably won’t need it though unless it’s a really cold evening.

The double level tank at Cairns Aquarium
The double level tank at Cairns Aquarium

Rain and other weather considerations

Cairns is tropical and it can rain any time, but if you travel in winter, you have the best chance of avoiding the rain. I don’t personally think you need to pack an umbrella or poncho for this itinerary.

The only part of this itinerary that might be particularly impacted by rain is the botanic gardens.

If you travel in the summer months, this is cyclone season in Far North QLD which means much more wind and rain with the risk of cyclones. Travel in winter to avoid this. If you do travel in summer, check local weather advice regularly and take an umbrella or poncho.

Dinner at Zephyr Restaurant on Fitzroy Island
Dinner at Zephyr Restaurant on Fitzroy Island

Closed-in, breathable walking shoes

I highly recommend taking a good pair of closed-in, lightweight, breathable walking shoes.

If you are the kind of person that can spend the day in thongs (flip flops) or sandals, you might be fine in them. For me personally, though, I prefer something closed in with a comfortable sole.

One of the paths at Cairns Botanic Gardens
One of the paths at Cairns Botanic Gardens

This itinerary has a decent amount of walking but none of it really needs hiking shoes so I recommend Skechers. Their GoWalk and GoRun range are much lighter than hiking shoes and breathe way better. I’m onto my sixth pair of Skechers now and love them!

Shop Skechers shoes on Amazon:

Water

This is a really big one. The hot weather in Cairns is one thing, but it can also be extremely humid so you can expect to sweat, a lot. Make sure you drink lots of water to avoid getting dehydrated.

A water filtration device is not necessary as the tap water in Cairns is perfectly safe, but do make sure to carry enough water. I’d suggest taking around 1 litre of water per person when you head out in the cooler months. There are plenty of places you can fill up your water bottle during the day and many of the activities provide drinking water as well. You might want to carry more in Summer though.

I’m a big fan of my Fill2Pure/Seychelle Advanced Filter Water Bottle and while the filter isn’t necessary for Cairns, it’s still my go-to travel water bottle since it does squash down a little smaller for packing.

Snorkel Gear, Flippers and Reef Shoes

This one is optional. Pretty much all of the Great Barrier Reef snorkel tours include snorkels, masks and flippers. Fitzroy Island Resort also has snorkels, masks and flippers available for hire. They are expensive, especially to get them for two days, but hiring them does avoid needing to take your own.

Otherwise, if you have your own gear that you love, take it with you!

Matt Snorkelling at Fitzroy Island
Matt Snorkelling at Fitzroy Island

That’s it!

That’s it for this 7-day Cairns and Great Barrier Reef Itinerary.

Did I miss anything you think is an essential Cairns sight that should be on this itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!

Crystal clear waters of the Outer Reef
Crystal clear waters of the Outer Reef

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Who Am I?

Matt in Noumea

Matt works sort-of full time running his digital marketing business, TerraMedia. In his spare time though, he loves to travel with his wife, so they usually end up doing a lot of it.
Home is Australia, and while they don’t spend all their time travelling the world, Matt and his wife like to take the time to really explore and get to know a place, even if that means spending a lot longer there than normal tourists might.

You can read more about Matt and his story HERE.

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