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Three Days in Cairns: From the Great Barrier Reef to Hipster Vibes

A mass of turquoise, yacht-filled water surrounded by thickly green hills is the first welcoming glimpse for travellers landing in Cairns. 

Australia’s gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the wondrous creatures that live in its waters, Cairns has been a jumping-off point for many of my adventures. I’ve cruised to the outer reef, explored the adjacent Atherton Tableland’s food trail, watched crocodiles jump for their lunch and floated down silent rivers.

Cairns Aquarium groper
Crystalbrook Riley, Cairns Picture: Marc McCormack

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Here’s how to spend three days in Cairns. You’ll see the city from lots of angles and really get a feel for how it ticks.

How to spend three days in Cairns

Here’s how to spend three days in Cairns. You’ll see the city from lots of angles and really get a feel for how it ticks.

First stop is Cairns Aquarium to see the reef before I see the reef. This aquarium only features species and habitats from tropical North Queensland. It’s filled with the deadly, the elusive and the most amazingly beautiful beings.

Amongst the 15,000 water creatures living in ten different ecosystems is Chang, a Queensland grouper. Groupers are the largest bony fish found in coral reefs. At about two metres long and weighing around 80 kilograms, Chang is an impressive specimen.

Even in the wild groupers don’t seem to mind people and can often be found hanging around jetties and coral bommies where people visit.

Chang is a little more selective and likes to follow just the female visitors around the aquarium’s walkthrough 1.8 million litres Coral Sea exhibit. I decided to reward his attention with a kiss through the glass, and he seemed quite interested.

If aquariums are not your thing, I’ve got a list that will keep you very busy with things to do in Cairns.

Crystalbrook Riley IMAGE TravMediaB
Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort
hotel room Riley Cairns - spend three days in Cairns

Where to Stay in Cairns

The aquarium is just around the corner from my accommodation, the very recently opened Riley, one of a trio of new five-star hotels by Crystalbrook Collection Resorts in Cairns.

Positioned right on the esplanade overlooking the waterfront, it has an on-trend, relaxed tropical vibe. The 1000 square metre swimming lagoon in the centre of the resort certainly adds to the atmosphere.

From my seaward-facing balcony, I can see the resort’s distinctive oval tower, which houses a rooftop bar. That seems like an idea for later, but first, the balcony is just perfect for sitting back and enjoying the view.

local produce at Rusty's Market
shaved coconut at Rusty's Markets Cairns

Take a Walk Around Cairns

There’s of Cairns awaiting discovery. Although Rusty’s Market has been a local icon for over 30 years, the new way to see it is through a local’s eyes with a tour by Georgia Babatsikos and Cairns Walking Tours.

The tour starts with a refreshing iced Vietnamese coffee before you find your way through a crowded maze of stalls with seven food samples along the way. There are tastes of Luca’s Italian arancini balls at Mamma Mia’s, chef Gyorgi’s Hungarian arancini balls and a stop at Frenchie’s patisserie. It takes about one and a half hours to explore the undercover market, and you must go hungry!

Walk off your market indulgences with another one of Georgia’s tours to discover the alleyways, coffee shops, and elite barbers that are turning Cairns into Australia’s second hipster capital. Here’s how I like to explore Rusty’s Market.

Rusty’s Markets is a must-visit on your three days in Cairns. Photo: Kerry Heaney

Cairns morning by the Esplanade - IMAGE Tourism and Events Queensland,

Dining in Cairns

It seems natural in Cairns to gravitate to the waterfront, and that’s where you’ll find Waterbar & Grill on the Esplanade. Using grain-fed, aged organic beef from the Atherton Tablelands, Waterbar has developed a reputation for offering some of the finest steaks in town. Their juicy, meaty ribs live up to the promise, but it is the 500gm Lazy Aged Rump that locals come back to enjoy again and again. Head chef Dumi Dlamini’s legendary Lekker Sauce is another must-try.

The Chambers is another new dining hot spot. Located in a former bank building, this café, bar and restaurant is a place to relax amongst hanging plants and exposed brickwork in the heart of Cairns.

You can’t be a cool city without your own distillery these days, and Cairns doesn’t disappoint. Taste North Queensland in a glass with a sip of Wolf Lane’s Tropical Gin, which has 13 botanicals sourced fresh from local farms. Their city micro gin distillery cellar door is located in a converted turn-of-the-century stable. Try the gin at any of 30 venues from Cairns to Port Douglas.

For a real taste of the region, take a Cairns Hinterland Food Tour.

From Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef

It wouldn’t be a trip to Cairns without a day on the reef, but this time I’m taking the easy road with a visit to Fitzroy Island, the closest Great Barrier Reef island to Cairns. It’s just a 45-minute ferry ride and works equally well as a day trip or resort stay.

There’s much to explore on the island, but the top of my hit list is the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. Daily tours here help visitors understand how to identify injured and sick turtles so they can be collected for rehabilitation.

Here are some more options for exploring the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre

Master Reef Guide Azri Saparwan explains how turtle rehab works while Julz, a juvenile Green Sea Turtle, swims around her tank home, snapping up lettuce segments that he drops in the water.

Julz’ dark patterned shell, pierced twice by spearguns, is healing slowly, but the deeper scar, almost hidden on her neck, is still mending.

Even though humans have attacked her, Julz seems strangely drawn to me as I peer over the tank’s edge. We have an eye-to-eye moment before she swims away to hunt for more lettuce.

The esplanade is a popular place to run and walk. A top spot to explore on your three days in Cairns.

Three days in Cairns visit Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre

Exploring Fitzroy Island

While Fitzroy Island is known for its easy off-the-beach reef snorkelling, it’s the relaxed vibe of Nudey Beach that finds a spot in my heart. The short 1.2-kilometre winding walk from the resort ends at a stunning coral beach lapped by gentle waves. It’s nude by name, not by nature and popular with families and day-trippers. Stay overnight on the island at Fitzroy Island Resort, and you can have the first footprints on the morning sand.

Visit the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre during your three days in Cairns. Photo: Kerry Heaney

Fitzroy Island. IMAGE Tourism and Events Queensland,

Three Days in Cairns Well Spent!

I’ve spent three days in Cairns and only scratched the surface of this vibrant and captivating destination. From the breathtaking wonders of the Great Barrier Reef to the bustling markets, delicious cuisine, and hidden gems waiting to be discovered, Cairns offers a plethora of experiences that will leave you yearning for more. I can’t wait to return and delve deeper into the rich tapestry of this incredible city.

Kerry Heaney in Monet in Paris photo garden

Written by Kerry Heaney

Meet Kerry Heaney, an intrepid gastronomic explorer, travelling the globe one delectable bite at a time. Drawing on two decades of experience, she unveils hidden culinary gems and palate-pleasing dishes for your indulgence. A seasoned writer and editor, Kerry's travel stories feature in print and online travel publications, and her food odyssey continues at Eat drink and be Kerry. Follow her escapades on Facebook or join on her latest adventures via Instagram. Kerry's passions include savouring oysters, indulging in art, embracing aquatic experiences, and delighting in new culinary discoveries every time.

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