If you're staying in Cairns, also check out activities in and around Port Douglas and Mission Beach. Many tour operators in Port Douglas, and a few in Mission Beach, offer transfers from Cairns.
Cairns Tropical Zoo Get a dose of your favorite Aussie wildlife here—some kind of talk or show takes place about every 15 or 30 minutes throughout the day, including koala cuddling and snake handling (have your photo taken for an extra A$18) and saltwater crocodile and lorikeet feedings. Other animals on show are kangaroos (which you can hand-feed for A$1 a bag), emus, cassowaries, dingoes, and native birds in a walk-through aviary. The park also runs a nocturnal tour, during which you can see many of the more elusive creatures. The park’s 3-hour Cairns Night Zoo tour (Mon–Thurs and Sat; www.cairnsnightzoo.com) starts at 7pm and includes a wildlife spotlighting walk, during which you can pat a koala and a possum and feed kangaroos; a stargazing interlude; a barbecue dinner with beer and wine, billy tea, and damper; and dancing to an Aussie bush band.Captain Cook Hwy. (22 km/14 miles north of the city center), Palm Cove. tel. 07/4055 3669. www.cairnstropicalzoo.com. Admission A$33 adults, A$17 children 4–15 (valid for 3 days). Combination tickets with Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures A$62 adults, A$31 children. Cairns Night Zoo tour A$99 adults, A$50 children 4–15 (more if you want transfers from Cairns or the northern beaches). Daily 8:30am–4pm. Closed Christmas Day; open 1:30–5pm Anzac Day (Apr 25). Free parking. Bus: 110 or 111. Transfers from Cairns through Beaches Meet and Greet ( tel. 07/4059 2713).
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures Hartley’s is the original Australian croc show and quite possibly the best. Its fantastic natural setting is a 2-hectare (5-acre) lagoon surrounded by melaluca (Paperbark) and bloodwood trees that are home to 23 estuarine crocs. The best time to visit is for the 3pm “croc attack”show, when you can witness the saltwater crocodile “death roll”during the 45-minute performance. At 11am you can see these monsters being hand-fed or hear an eye-opening talk on the less-aggressive freshwater crocodiles. If you are really brave (braver than me!), you can also have a “Big Croc Experience,” where you get to pole-feed a large crocodile yourself. Available twice a day at 10:30am and 1pm (bookings essential), you’ll be one of six adults (16 and over) to take part in each group (but your friends and family can come along to watch). The cost is $125 per person. There are tours of the croc farm at 10am and 1:30pm; at 2pm there is a snake show; 4:30pm is koala-feeding time. Cassowaries are fed at 9:30am and 4:15pm. There are also croc- and snake-handling opportunities and heaps of other interesting things to see and do.
Captain Cook Hwy. (40 km/24 miles north of Cairns; about 100 m off the highway). tel. 07/4055 3576. www.crocodileadventures.com. Admission (good for 3 days) A$35 adults, A$18 children 4–15, A$88 families of 4. Daily 8:30am–5pm; 1:30pm–5pm Anzac Day (Apr 25). Closed Christmas Day. Free parking.
Wildlife enthusiasts who plan to visit several of the attractions in the Cairns region can save a few dollars by buying a Four Park Pass, which gives entry to the Cairns Wildlife Dome and three Kuranda attractions: the Rainforestation Nature Park, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, and The Wildlife Habitat (all owned by the same local family). The discounted price of A$80 for adults, A$40 for children, and A$200 for a family of four is a savings of A$29 per adult or A$73 per family. The pass is valid for six months and doesn’t have to be used on consecutive days. Buy it at any of the participating parks. A Kuranda Wildlife Experience pass offers discounted admission to Birdworld, the Kuranda Koala Gardens, and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. It can be bought on arrival at any of the three sanctuaries for A$46 for adults and half-price for children.
Day Trips to the Reef
For an introduction to the Great Barrier Reef, most visitors take one of the large-scale tour boats. These motorized catamarans can carry up to 300 passengers each and tie up at their own private permanent pontoons anchored to a platform reef. The boats are air-conditioned and have a bar, videos, and educational material, as well as a marine biologist who gives a talk on the Reef’s ecology en route. The pontoons have glass-bottom boats for passengers who don’t want to get wet, dry underwater viewing chambers, sun decks, shaded seats, and often showers. But be aware that you will be in a crowded environment. And if you are prone to seasickness, make sure you take some preventive measures before you set out!
An alternative is to go on one of the many smaller boats. These typically visit two or three Reef sites rather than just one. There are usually no more than 20 passengers on board, so you get more personal attention. Another advantage is that you will have the coral pretty much all to yourself. The drawbacks of a small boat are that you have only the cramped deck to sit on when you get out of the water, and your traveling time to the Reef may be longer. If you’re a nervous snorkeler, you may feel safer on a boat where you will be swimming with 300 other people.
Most day-trip fares include snorkel gear—fins, mask, and snorkel (plus wetsuits in winter, if you want one)—free use of the underwater viewing chambers and glass-bottom-boat rides, a plentiful buffet or barbecue lunch, and morning and afternoon refreshments. Diving is an optional activity for which you pay extra. The big boats post snorkeling scouts to keep a lookout for anyone in trouble and count heads periodically. If you wear glasses, ask whether your boat offers prescription masks—this will make a big difference to the quality of your experience! Don’t forget that you can travel as a snorkel-only passenger on most dive boats, too.
Great Adventures:(tel. 07/4044 9944; www.greatadventures.com.au) does daily cruises from Cairns in fast, air-conditioned catamarans to a three-level pontoon on the Outer Reef. The pontoon has a kids’swimming area, a semisubmersible, and an underwater observatory. The cost for the day is A$214 for adults, A$110 for children 4 to 14, and A$544 for families. You spend at least 3 hours on the Reef. Hotel transfers are available from Cairns, the northern beaches, and Port Douglas for an extra cost. The boat departs the Reef Fleet Terminal at 10:30am.
You can also depart Cairns with Great Adventures at 8:30am and spend 2 hours on Green Island en route. This gives you time to walk nature trails, rent snorkel gear and watersports equipment, or laze on the beach before continuing to the Outer Reef. This cruise costs an extra A$20 per adult and A$10 per child, or A$50 per family.
Sunlover Cruises :(tel. 1800/810 512 in Australia, or 07/4050 1333; www.sunlover.com.au) motors large, fast catamarans to Moore Reef on the Outer Reef. The day costs A$209 for adults, A$99 for children 4 to 14, and A$536 for families of four, including transfers from city hotels and about 4 hours on the Reef. This trip includes a glass-bottom-boat ride and semisubmersible viewing. Introductory dives cost A$125 for one dive or A$190 for two. Certified divers pay A$80 for one dive or A$125 for two, including all gear. The cruise includes lunch and leaves from the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns at 10am daily.
For a more intimate experience, Ocean Freedom(tel. 07/4052 1111; www.oceanfreedom.com.au) gives you the option of a motor cruise or a sailing tour—in both cases with limited numbers to ensure you don’t feel crowded. Ocean Freedom is a high-speed launch that gives you 6 hours on the reef with no more than 75 passengers and takes you to two Reef sites including Upolu Cay. The day starts at 7:30am at the Reef Fleet Terminal, returning at about 4:30pm. The cost is A$185 adults, A$100 children, and A$517 for a family of four and includes glass-bottom-boat rides, all snorkeling gear, and lunch. You can do an introductory dive for A$105 or, if you are certified, dive for A$70. This is a really great way to see the Reef. On the sailing trip aboard Ocean Free (www.oceanfree.com.au) you’ll be one of only 35 passengers. Ocean Free sails at 7:30am, bound for Pinnacle Reef, an exclusive mooring on the eastern lee of Green Island. The cruise costs A$140 for adults, A$90 for children, and A$418 for a family of four. Introductory dives cost A$85 and certified dives A$65. The friendly crew give you all the help you need.
Ocean Spirit Cruises ( tel. 1300/858 141 in Australia, or 02/8296 7377; www.oceanspirit.com.au) operates two sailing catamarans that take no more than 150 passengers to Michaelmas Cay, a lovely white-sand cay on the Outer Reef surrounded by rich reefs. This trip includes a 2-hour sail to the cay, a guided snorkeling safari, and a guided beach walk—plus the usual reef ecology talks, semisubmersible rides, lunch, and transfers from your Cairns or northern beaches hotel. You also spend your out-of-water time on a beautiful beach, not on a boat. You get about 4 hours on the Reef. The cost is A$207 for adults, A$132 for children 4 to 14, and A$550 for families of four (but check online for specials). Introductory dives cost A$110, all gear included. The trip departs Reef Fleet Terminal at 8:30am daily. Transfers from Cairns, the northern beaches, and Port Douglas cost $14.
You can also take a coach transfer from Cairns or Palm Cove to join the Quicksilver Wavepiercer ( tel. 07/4087 2100; www.quicksilver-cruises.com), based in Port Douglas, for a day trip to the Outer Reef . Transfers cost A$26 per adult or A$13 per child, A$65 for families of four.
Great Adventures, Quicksilver, and Sunlover also all offer helicopter flights over the Reef from their pontoons—a spectacular experience! There are fly-and-cruise trips as well.
Tusa Dive ( tel. 07/4047 9100; www.tusadive.com) runs a custom-built 24 m (72-ft.) dive boat daily to two dive sites from a choice of 15 locations on the Outer Reef. The day costs A$235 for divers and A$185 for adults or A$105 for children ages 4 to 14 for snorkelers, with wetsuits, guided snorkel tours, lunch, and transfers from your Cairns or northern beaches hotel. If you want to be shown the best spots, you can take a guided dive for an extra A$10. Day trips for introductory divers cost A$245 for one dive or A$285 for two. The boat takes a maximum of 60 people, with a staff-to-passenger ratio of one to five, so you get a good level of personal attention.
Diving Made Easy
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.