Cairns: Rainforests, Beaches & Reefs

Before visiting Cairns, we knew it was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef but had no idea it was the gateway to some of the world’s oldest rainforests & biodiversity. We spent 5 days in the area and easily could’ve spent more time because there is so much to do. Between the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park, this region of Australia is absolutely beautiful and we can’t wait to visit this tropical paradise again someday.

Beautiful views looking down on Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas. It sure does look beautiful, but you can't swim here because there are saltwater crocodiles!

Cape Tribulation

Cape Tribulation was our first stop after leaving the Outback. Cape Tribulation is very remote, has limited to no cell reception and there isn’t much accommodation offered. Instead, we opted to stay in Port Douglas and made a day trip to Cape Tribulation. Upon arriving, we were SO excited to see lush green rainforests, the ocean and rain - especially after the extreme desert heat. Cape Tribulation is located 2.5 hours north of Cairns and offers a combination of rainforests and beaches. Cape Tribulation is unique in that lies between two world heritage sites, the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continuously surviving rainforest in the world.

We didn’t spend any time at the beach here, primarily because saltwater crocodiles frequent the shallow ocean waters and it’s highly advised to not swim in the water. Instead, we went jungle surfing in the Daintree Rainforest. Jungle surfing is a rainforest canopy tour through the forest’s treetops. It’s similar, if not the same as zip lining, the only difference is you don’t go as fast as you would on a zip line. The views at the of the trees were beautiful. We learned about many plant species in the rainforest, could see the Pacific Ocean in the distance and zipped over the Daintree River. We saw six different kinds of spiders (I kept my distance) and tasted green ants (you read that right). Green ants are everywhere in the rainforest and the interesting thing is you can lick the end of the ants bum and get a lemon burst. Our guide pulled a live one off the tree, licked the ants bum then placed it back on the tree. Of course we had to give it a try and sure enough, Casey and I both picked an ant from the tree, licked it’s bum and placed it back on the tree to scurry off. To our surprise, it tasted like a tart lemon.

Jungle surfing atop the forest canopies, upside down

We all had a turn going upside down

Our guides dubbed us Superman and Wonder Woman.

On our way back to Port Douglas for the evening, we spotted a large cassowary in the wild. Before you continue, do you know what a cassowary is? Have you even heard of this endangered animal before?

Cassowary in the wild

Pretty neat to see a baby cassowary, too

We spotted the cassowary walking on the side of the road. These birds are the size of emus if not bigger and are known as the world’s most dangerous bird. They are much more colorful than emus, with a blue crest on it’s head/neck. It was a neat experience and probably the first and last time we’ll ever see one of these birds in the wild. If you spot a cassowary in the wild, keep your distance and stay in your car. A local told us cassowaries can easily kill a human with it’s slashing feet (though there haven’t been reports of this happening in almost century).

Port Douglas

Port Douglas is a quaint little town, half-way between Cape Tribulation and Cairns. The downtown area is lined with boutique shops and restaurants and just south of downtown there is a beautiful stretch of beaches. We had breakfast at our hotel before getting out to see the town for the day. There was Vegemite at the breakfast buffet and we figured today was the day we finally tried it (we couldn’t go 5 weeks in Oz without giving it a try). If you’ve never heard of Vegemite, it’s a staple Australian spread. It’s black and thick and almost looks like Nutella. We both spread some on a piece of toast and went in for a bite. It has a very weird taste and is extremely salty and we both almost gagged after trying it. Needless to say, it’s the first and last time we’ll eat Vegemite. Do any of our readers like Vegemite? I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments if you’ve tried it before.

After breakfast we headed to the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat Center. The center is home to many different animals you would find in Australia and the rainforest. As you walk through the entrance, you arrive in a rainforest atrium environment. There is a large bird net that covers the whole place, keeping the birds in captivity. The birds within the Habitat are able to roam freely and have a lot of space. There are ponds, plenty of trees, and a lot of different species of birds. A huge black necked stork, interesting looking species of ducks, parrots and many more species I've never seen before.

Friendly little birds

There are a lot of tall storks like this one at the Habitat

In addition to birds, there are so many other animals. Koalas, kangaroos, snakes, crocodiles and more. We had the opportunity to hold a koala, and even feed and pet kangaroos. The koala we held was cute but the highlight was feeding the kangaroos. These were such gentle creatures and we loved having them eat out of our hands.

Casey holding a python

Would it be a trip to Australia without holding a koala?! So cute!

The cutest little kangaroos. We loved feeding these cuties. The one on the left has a joey in its pouch.

As we were exiting the Habitat we walked through an atrium will small birds. When we arrived earlier in the day, a trainer told us about Nutty, a small bird that likes to sit on the door and wait for people to come and go. Sure enough, as we were about to exit, Nutty flew onto Casey’s shoulder. The trainer told us Nutty responds to kissing noises by pecking your cheek with his beak. Casey started making kissing noises and it was the cutest thing ever to see this little bird returning kisses on his cheek. My heart melted. We hung out with Nutty a short while longer before leaving.

Nutty, the sweetest little bird ever

Nutty, on Casey's shoulder. The kisses were sooo cute!

We spent sunset strolling down Four Mile Beach. It’s a beautiful, white sand beach with a designated area for swimming. Like Cape Tribulation, there are signs posted advising not to swim in the water because of saltwater crocodiles and stinging jellyfish. We didn’t swim but there was plenty of people on the beaches and we didn’t encounter any crocodiles. As the sun was setting, we headed up the hill to the Four Mile Beach lookout to enjoy the views. It was a beautiful scene with a perfectly colored view of Four Mile Beach and the sun setting behind the rainforest to the west.

Beautiful views from the lookout at Four Mile Beach. We spotted several sea turtles in the surf, but not crocs

On top of the world and loving Australia

Signs at the beach warning that crocodiles may be present

Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef

Our first day in Cairns was spent snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. Our boat left at 8:30 am and we were off to our first reef of the day. The boat ride from the mainland to the GBR is about 1.5 hours. We had a quick briefing and were in the water snorkeling by 11am.

We followed the snorkel guide out to the reef and started to explore. There was so many of beautiful fish and it was amazing to see how big these reefs are. We expected to see much more colorful reefs, like we’ve seen in Hawaii. Sadly, a lot of the coral has died and you can see the effect of white washing that is killing the reef off. None the less, it was still beautiful. After an hour of snorkeling we boarded the boat for lunch and set off to our next reef. The second reef covered a larger area and had a lot more fish than the first. We saw several turtles and even spotted a shark. After an hour of snorkeling, we headed back to the mainland. We both were exhausted, catching naps on the boat ride back. Overall, it was amazing to visit the GBR. Since visiting, we both got our scuba diving certification and we can’t wait to do some scuba diving here the next time we visit Australia (we’ll share more about our scuba adventures in Malaysia soon).

Another thing to note, you can get to the GBR from Port Douglas and other towns in the area. We chose to visit from the Cairns marina, however we have friends who have gone out of marinas in other towns nearby.

Turtle sighting!

Crossing another item off our bucketlist...snorkeling the Great Barrier reef

Casey posing with the reefs

Can you spot the turtle in this picture?

We had full stinger suits that covered our feet, hands and head to protect from jellyfish.

Once back in Cairns, we freshened up at our Airbnb and headed back to the marina for dinner. It is a cute area, with shopping, lots of bars and restaurants, and a boardwalk with picnic areas and a swimming lagoon. Even at 8pm, the lagoon was full of children and families, and there were people grilling and picnicking all around. We had dinner at a pub called The Courtyard, and followed it up with cocktails at Three Wolves. Three Wolves, hands down, has some of the best cocktails we’ve ever tried. If you make it to Cairns, stop in and order a spicy Moscow Mule (my drink of choice for the night) or a Smoke on the Water (Casey’s choice), a cedar infused Manhattan. If you don’t like either of these two, I’m sure whatever you order will be delicious!

Every night, hundreds of bats were flying around Cairns. It was quite the sight!

The swimming lagoon right off the marina in Cairns

We spent our last day in Cairns cooling off and hitting a few local swimming areas before driving to Mission Beach where we booked an Airbnb for the evening. Our first stop was Crystal Cascades. It was a 15 minute walk along a rainforest river up to the main waterfall. The only way to get to the waterfall was to swim up the river. We left our bags at the bottom of the stairs and jumped in. The water felt amazing and was the perfect way to cool off in the 100+ degree heat.

We're big fans of waterfalls. So refreshing on a hot day like this.

Our next stop was Josephine Falls, about an hour from Cairns and a halfway point to Mission Beach. At Josephine Falls there is a a natural rock slide, 50 meters down from the main waterfall. Casey slid down the falls a few times and I sat in awe of the gorgeous scenery surrounding us.

Sliding down the falls and taking in the views

We arrived at our Airbnb just after 6pm and had just enough time to take a dip in the pool before the sun set. We haven’t shared any details about our Airbnb experiences in the blog yet, but we were blown away by this adorable apartment we rented for the night, tucked in the rainforest and minutes walking distance to the beach. An added bonus was the hosts hospitality. He left us two beers, two eggs, some milk, toast, butter and cereal for us to enjoy. It was an awesome touch. If you haven’t experienced Airbnb before, we highly recommend it for your next trip. We use it all the time and have never had a bad experience! Book using our link to save up to $40 on your first rental:

Our cute little Airbnb tucked in the rainforest

Mission Beach & Innisfail

Mission Beach is a small beach town 2 hours south of Cairns. In addition to it’s close proximity to the beach, it is also close to Tully Gorge National Park and the Tully River. The Tully River falls at #1 of the top ten white water rafting spots in New Zealand and Australia. We loved rafting in New Zealand and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to raft Australia’s best river. It was a 4 hour, 10km trip and the river consisted of mostly 3 and 4 rapids. The river was higher than normal due to recent rainfall, which allowed for a more adventurous trip. The rainfall also added to the incredible scenery as there were several waterfalls flowing as we rafted through thick canopies of rainforest. We had such a fun time on this trip and have already started thinking about a trip when we return to the states. Possibly the Grand Canyon? Let us know if you have any favorite rafting spots in the US. We’d love to hear from you!

Rafting the Tully River was so much fun!

Rafting fun

After rafting we headed to Innisfail for an evening sunset cruise along the Johnstone River. We had not seen any crocodiles in the wild yet and Casey booked the cruise in hopes of spotting a few crocs. We arrived and the owner greeted us and told us it'd be a private tour as nobody else had booked. We were happy to have the private tour and boarded where we met his son, who would would be our captain for the evening. We were warned they haven’t seen as many crocs this season but it must’ve been our lucky day because we ended up spotting three. The cruise was relaxing and peaceful. Just what we needed after rafting all day. The tour happened to be the same night of the lunar eclipse and blood moon. As the sun went down, the moon ascended and it was bigger than ever. We ended up camping not far from the marina and stayed up to witness the blood moon before calling it a night.

Views from the sunset river cruise. We saw 3 crocodiles, but didn't get any photos because they were far away.

It was even more beautiful once the sun began to go down

What a wonderful way to end our week in Cairns!

Did you know?

Cairns looks like it would be pronounced “Care-ns.” We learned quickly this is not the proper way to say it. It’s actually pronounced “cans” (like “cans” of beer).

93% of the Great Barrier Reef has experienced coral bleaching, meaning that the waters have become too warm for the coral and cause them to expel an algae that coats the coral white and eventually kills it. These corals could still recover, but recovery can take up to 6 to 12 years and that's assuming the temperatures drop to levels suitable for the corals. The GBR is over 500,000 years old and since the industrial revolution, over the course of the last 200 years, 93% of it has been destroyed. In the recent decades, bleaching has been occurring at rapid speeds. Climate change (aka global warming) and land-based runoff are the major factors contributing to the warming water temperatures causing the bleaching.

Travel tips

In New Zealand we learned about Book Me, a website to find deals on attractions and tours in Australia in New Zealand. We used this site in Cairns to save money on our snorkeling trip. We highly recommend this site when traveling in NZ or OZ.

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#Cairns #GreatBarrierReef #Australia #Kangaroos #Koalas #Whitewaterrafting

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