48 Hours in Cairns
August 23, 2023
Swap your desk for a deck chair and flat whites for cocktails and treat yourself to escape to tropical north Queensland.
Cairns is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but it doesn’t stop there. The city is in the heart of Queensland’s tropical north and is brimming with sumptuous cuisine, dripping with cultural experiences and bursting with epic adventures in the natural paradise. If you’re keen on a quick tour of this tropical haven, here’s our itinerary for a 48-hour weekend escape — made in collaboration with sustainable luxury hotel group Crystalbrook Collection Cairns. Whether you are going north for the Coral Sea or ancient rainforests, this itinerary has options for you. So pack your bags and let’s get to paradise.
UPDATE: November 2, 2023 — We’ve teamed up with Crystalbrook Bailey to offer a great rate on a four-night stay (bookable until March 2024). Two adults can enjoy four nights in an Urban Room, plus a full-day tour of the Great Barrier Reef, from $1649. Head to Concrete Playground Trips to book your stay.
With only 48 hours on the clock, you best make sure you have a comfortable home away from home so you can recharge and ready yourself for adventure. Check in at one of the local luxury hotels, like Crystalbrook Flynn, based right in the heart of the action. Enjoy top-notch accommodations, unparalleled sea views, a glass swimming pool and a social hub of restaurants and bars close to all the big local attractions. After you check in and enjoy a dip in the pool before you head off on your adventures.
With the clock ticking, let’s get exploring with the Deadly after Dark Sunset, Canapes and Culture Tour with Mandingalbay Tours. The cruise departs at 5.30pm from Cairns Marlin Marina and your Mandingalbay Yidjinji guide will bring you to the wetlands and mangrove forests of East Trinity Reserve, an Indigenous Protected Area. Upon arrival at the Stingray Shelter, enjoy the ancient Mandingalbay welcome to country and smoke cleansing ceremony. Light canapes will be served as the rangers share practices, traditional tools (how they were made and used), and the local Indigenous languages. You’ll arrive back in Cairns at 7.30pm, still plenty of time to grab some drinks and dinner before calling it a night.
Head to Crystalbrook Bailey’s CC’s Bar and Grill, an award-winning restaurant that celebrates the best of Aussie produce. Steak is the hero of this spot with nine cuts and aged variations to choose from, each served with grilled bone marrow, salad and your sauce of choice. Vegetarians need not despair with mouth-watering roasted butternut squash with toasted cauliflower rice and pomegranate molasses reduction on the menu. Finish your night with a nightcap at Crystalbrook Flynn’s Whiskey and Wine Bar with a tasty cocktail, a dram of your favourite whiskey or a glass of wine before heading to bed to recharge before a day of adventure tomorrow.
Be sure to wake up at the crack of dawn for breakfast at Crystalbrook Flynn’s Boardwalk Social. It’s probably too early for the sourdough pizzas and cocktails, but you can go for a sweet or savoury breakfast like the Belgian waffles with whipped cream and berries or poached eggs on grilled saffron sundried focaccia with heirloom tomatoes and artichokes. Wash it down with a refreshing smoothie to set you up for a day of adventure. Today you have a choice: the island, the reef or the rainforest.
If the Coral Sea is calling, you’ll be heading on the Fitzroy Flyer ferry to explore Fitzroy Island. The island is surrounded by a reef system that forms part of the northernmost Great Barrier Reef. The ferry departs Cairns at 8am, 11am and 1.30pm, and takes around 45 minutes to arrive at the island. Once you’re there, hike up the bush walking tracks, like the lighthouse and summit walks, for excellent views of the reef, or keep to the coast and trek to the secret garden and the iconic Nudey Beach. Alternatively, you can snorkel, dive or kayak along the reef system close to shore. Transport back is limited, so if you don’t want to get stuck overnight on the tropical resort (how tragic), be sure to grab a returning ferry. The last one leaves at 5pm, but try to catch the one at 12pm to make the most of your time in this tropical paradise.
On your return, you’ll probably be peckish. Close to the ferry drop-off is the local favourite Ochre Restaurant. The multi-award-winning restaurant utilises Australian native and seasonal ingredients plus Asian influences to create unique dishes that speak of the region. Some menu highlights include Tablelands beef carpaccio with native peppers and green ants, kangaroo macadamia satay, twice-cooked pork belly with Davidson plum jam and tempura gulf bugs with paw paw, desert lime, coconut and chilli salsa. If you’re still hungry for dessert there’s a wattleseed pavlova with Davidson plum sorbet or a lemon myrtle and macadamia tart for a refreshing finish.
To get even more up-close and personal to the Great Barrier Reef, you could instead spend the day on the Great Barrier Reef Cruise with Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel. This small business is one of the sustainability partners with Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef and is operated by local Indigenous guides.
The day cruise departs the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal at 9am. While you sail, you will experience an Indigenous welcome and acknowledgment of country, followed by the reef creation story and breakfast — in case you didn’t fill up at the hotel. You will reach the outer edges of the reef mid-morning and explore the area with the provided snorkelling gear. Enjoy a sampling of native bush tucker while you take in the views of the gorgeous Coral Sea. Lunch is served — prepared by Ochre — and includes many of the same or similar lunch options you would get at the restaurant. After you’ve finished enjoying the water and the reef, you can enjoy afternoon tea while heading back to shore. You’ll arrive back around 5pm.
Now, if the reef isn’t your port of call and you are here for an on-land adventure, spend your Saturday exploring the ancient World-Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. The rainforest is over 135 million years old, making it the oldest in the world and the largest in Australia. At over 100 kilometres (about a 2.5-hour drive) from Cairns, it makes for a good road trip from the city for the day. You can either rent a car and drive up the coastal Cook Highway and take in the scenery or book a day trip tour.
The tropical rainforest grows along the Daintree River all the way down to the shoreline of the Coral Sea. Take the cable ferry over the Daintree River to Cape Tribulation village and the rainforest proper. Spend the day exploring the ancient rainforest’s walks, freshwater swimming holes and keeping an eye out for colourful locals — like the flamboyant cassowaries.
On your way back to Cairns, you will pass through Port Douglas. Stop in at Four Mile Beach for a quick dip or walk up to Trinity Bay Lookout for epic views across the water before hopping back in your car for the rest of the trip back to Cairns.
No matter how you spent your Saturday, when you arrive back in Cairns by boat or car, stretch your legs and explore the shorefront with a walk along the Cairns Esplanade. The entire walk is about 2.5 kilometres and features numerous public artworks as well as great views of the ocean and the Cairns Lagoon.
Be sure to stop in at the Night Markets — open every day from 4.30–10.30pm — to pick up some locally made goods or snacks before catching the sunset at the city’s highest rooftop bar and restaurant located at Crystalbrook Riley: Rocco. Boasting 270-degree panoramic views of Cairns and the Coral Sea this is a great option for dinner — expect tasty Middle Eastern fare. Or, head downstairs to Paper Crane for modern Asian fusion dishes utilising fresh local produce alongside tasting signature cocktails.
It’s your last day in the tropical paradise of Cairns. You’ll want to pack in as much as you can on your last day. After breakfast at the hotel, head on over the Rusty’s Markets for some fresh fruit and local produce for snacking throughout the day.
If you opted for the rainforest yesterday, perhaps you will spend the morning on Fitzroy Island before spending the rest of your time exploring the cultural venues of the local city such as the Cairns Museum, Art Gallery and Botanic Gardens — take the Red Arrow walk for epic views across Cairns. However, if you’re more interested in getting your heart rate pumping, check out Skypark and get your adrenaline rushing with the highest multi-person swing in Australia, or take a leap of faith with the 50-metre bungy jump.
If the Coral Sea was your choice for Saturday, get a taste of the rainforest with the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail. Board the historic and beautifully refurbished train bound for Kuranda. The train meanders through the rainforest clinging to the mountainside passing spectacular waterfalls and stunning gorges. Explore Kuranda village with its wildlife experiences at the Koala Gardens, Birdworld and Butterfly Sanctuary, shop at the markets and enjoy great eats at the local restaurants and cafes. Return to Cairns on the epic Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Enjoy panoramic views of the rainforest from above as you glide along the canopy in the glass-bottomed gondola. While en route, the gondola will descend into the rainforest for you to see the boardwalk of the loop trail of Red Peak and Barron Falls — where you can check out the historical precinct and get views of the gorge and waterfall at The Edge Lookout.
Toast your epic tropical weekend with a glass of wine and something tasty to eat at Flynn’s Italian. Choose between truffle ricotta bruschetta, pistachio-crusted sustainably caught tuna and burrantina with aged 24-month Tomewin Farm prosciutto. Reminisce about your epic adventures over a charcuterie board while enjoying the in-house gallery exhibition before bidding farewell to paradise.
Feeling inspired to book a truly adventurous getaway? Crystalbrook Cairns Hotels are your gateway to the tropical north. Travel with a lighter footprint at these sustainable luxury hotels and resorts and say goodbye to the predictable.
Images: Tourism and Events Queensland, Crystalbrook Cairns
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