Ten Hot Spots in Far North Queensland for Visitors Who Want to Explore More
Look beyond the reef and the rainforest to get the bigger picture of our tropical north.
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Cairns is best known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef — the biggest coral reef in the world. Snorkelling or diving among its wonders should be on every adventurer's bucket list, but it's just one of many extraordinary experiences to be had in tropical north Queensland. There are the 180-million-year-old secrets of the Daintree Forest, for example, and the perfect, palm-lined beaches of Palm Cove. When you're looking to explore beyond the usual hotspots, venture to the ten places on this list.
From pristine beaches and bountiful wine regions to alpine hideaways and bustling country towns, Australia has a wealth of places to explore at any time of year. We've partnered with Tourism Australia to help you plan your road trips, weekend detours and summer getaways so that when you're ready to hit the road you can Holiday Here This Year.
While regional holidays within Queensland are now permitted, some of the places mentioned below may still be closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Please check websites before making any plans.
PADDLE AT PALM COVE
The sea around Cairns is so clear, you don't have to go underwater to meet marine creatures. From the comfort of a kayak, it's possible to spy sea turtles, reef sharks (of the non-vicious variety), tropical fish, dolphins and stingrays. One of the best spots for a paddle is Palm Cove — an idyllic, white-sanded coastal community found half an hour's drive north of Cairns. You can book into a kayaking tour with Palm Cove Watersports from $60 and set off a sunrise adventure. Otherwise, hire a single kayak (or a standup paddle board) from $25 per hour, available from the same spot.
DINE AT NUNU
As far as tropical Australian cuisine goes, NuNu is hard to beat. Perched on absolute beach front, the restaurant overlooks tranquil panoramas of the Coral Sea, framed by palms. And they're visible from nearly anywhere. Forget white table cloths; you'll be surrounded by Australian timber and hanging greenery, flooded by plenty of sunlight. And the dishes are impressive, too. You'll find line-caught reef fish with dashi, daikon and dried lychees; spanner crab with egg fried rice, bottarga and coral butter; and fried okra with black vinegar and sesame. It's open for breakfast through to dinner — and we recommended you book in advance.
MEET TURTLES AT FITZROY ISLAND
Fitzroy Island is a national park, and it's one of the least developed islands on the Great Barrier Reef. There's just one resort; the rest of the 339 hectares is all ancient rainforest and pristine beaches. Spend your day kicking back on them, swimming and snorkelling, or hiking. The Summit and Lighthouse Walk gives you incredible views over Welcome Bay and the Reef, while, along the Secret Garden Trail, you'll meet orange-footed scrub hens, rose-crested fruit doves and green triangle butterflies. And don't leave without getting to know a few of Fitzroy's beleaguered turtles at the Rehab Centre: tours take place Thursday to Tuesday at 1pm for $12 per adult.
SPEND AN ARTY AFTERNOON AT TANKS ARTS CENTRE
Tanks Arts Centre represents a potential act of destruction turned into one of creation. What were once tanks used to hold naval oil during World War II are now spaces dedicated to art and performance. This smart trick of design is found in Cairns Botanic Gardens (worth a wander in itself), about four kilometres north of Cairns central. There's a contemporary art exhibition on show pretty much year-round, and on the last Sunday of every month the Tanks Markets hosts stalls packed with art, craft, vintage clothing, collectables, produce, food and drink. Big Australian musicians, such as Kasey Chambers and The Whitlams, have also performed here in Tanks' live music sessions, which usually take place on Friday and Saturday nights.
GO FOR A NIGHT CAP AT THIS LANEWAY BAR
Swing by Three Wolves when you're ready for an aperitif and/or a nightcap. This snug, friendly small bar is tucked away down a red brick laneway in downtown Cairns. Pull up a bar stool and order an espresso martini made with coffee from Blackbird, which is just down the road, or the Smoke on the Water — a cedar-smoked take on an old-fashioned, with house-made cinnamon syrup. There's an excellent craft beer selection, too, including Barrier Reef Brewing's Double Shot Coffee Amber Ale. If you're hungry, order an antipasto or vegan board from the kitchen, which is open till 9pm, Tuesday to Saturday.
MARVEL AT THE LATEST EXHIBITIONS AT CAIRNS ART GALLERY
From exhibitions exploring First Nations works to Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly series, Cairns Art Gallery always has a new, dynamic show in the works. It also has an impressive permanent collection with pieces by Francis Bacon, Ray Crooke, Margaret Olley, Euan Macleod, Fred Williams, Arone Meeks and Alick Tipoti, among others. The gallery's home is a beautiful 1936 building featuring marble columns, maple panelling and spotted gum floors. It's also one of the last remaining heritage buildings in Cairns — so well worth seeking out. Entry is free, and at the moment it's best to book your visit in advance to ensure social distancing between visitors.
SAVE ROOM FOR A FEED AT TAMARIND
Tamarind, found at the Reef Hotel Casino, is a champion of regional produce transformed by Asian flavours. To really get to know what north Queensland has to offer, settle in for a seven-course degustation. Dishes include yuzu lemongrass-cured salmon with honey-maple bechamel, flying fish roe, tamarind gel, sesame tuile and lemongrass oil; pan-seared scallops with butternut anglaise, dried wakame, bacon crumb and pickled fig; and finger lime panna cotta with apple gel, macadamia praline, native bee honey and finger lime caviar. Many of the eateries inside the Reef Hotel Casino are currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. If you're planning in advance, add Tamarind to your list for when it reopens.
PLAN YOUR VISIT TO COINCIDE WITH A MAJOR FIRST NATIONS ART FAIR
This year's Cairns Indigenous Art Fair is going digital for the first time — running for ten days from August 13–23. Traditionally held in the waterfront gardens of Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal, the festival includes First Nations cultural performances, exhibitions of over 300 artworks, a marketplace of arts and crafts from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander makers and designers, and talks and workshops. The program is free, and as this year's art fair is digital it's open to everyone whether you're in Queensland or not. If you're planning ahead for 2021, the event usually takes place in July. Otherwise, add one of the Mandingalbay Yidinji Eco Cultural Tours to your list for a moonlit dinner with traditional dancing and storytelling.
SLOW RIGHT DOWN AT WHILEAWAY BOOKSHOP
When you've run out of energy for adventuring, eating and drinking, sneak away to Whileaway Bookshop in Port Douglas. This little haven of books, stationery and design is all about slowing down. Plus, there's coffee (for when you need perking up again). Spend time browsing titles old and new inside or grab a table out the front and have a read or a chinwag. While some bookshops feel like stuffy old libraries, this one's the opposite: the staff is friendly, well-read and always happy to chat about favourite authors of the moment. Linger here for as long as you can before you have to think about returning to the real world once again.
FINALLY, MAKE TIME TO SEE THE GREAT BARRIER REEF
Needless to say, visiting at least one section of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef should be on the itinerary. After all, it's the only living thing on the planet you can see from outer space. The tough question is: how to go about it? There are numerous day tours for snorkellers and scuba divers from Cairns, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. You could also consider travelling by luxury yacht, glass bottom boat, helicopter, light plane, submarine, underwater scooter or sea walker (like a space suit for aquamarine adventures that lets you walk along the ocean floor). Yet another option is to sleep overnight on a floating platform. That way, you get to see the reef first thing in the morning, before the masses arrive.
Whether you're planning to travel for a couple of nights or a couple of weeks, Holiday Here This Year and you'll be supporting Australian businesses while you explore the best of our country's diverse landscapes and attractions.
Top image: Port Douglas courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.
Published on July 03, 2020 by Jasmine Crittenden