Our December ‘Christmas’ getaway to Australia, was very much a last minute thing – we had planned to do a mini break to Borneo (to finally see my beloved Orangutans) and then suddenly, my husband came up with a plan to visit a part of Australia that we’d never been to before.
Very different from the high-rise, cosmopolitan city of Sydney, Cairns surprised us with it’s laid back feel, and a it’s small-scale high streets, but the friendly people, perfect weather, and it’s location, made it an ideal base for discovering the region.
Queensland has such a vast range of scenery and activities and we tried to cover as much ground as possible! From hiring a rental car and driving along the most stunning of coastal roads from Cairns up to Port Douglas, to a catamaran trip out to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef, and cuddling up with koalas in Kuranda. We’ve done national parks, rainforests, beaches and mountains, we’ve travelled by scenic railway, boat and cable car, and it was all just amazing! The whole family loved everything we did and once again proved that Australia really is just such a beautiful place to go and discover.
So, what exactly did we get up to? Here you go with an overview of family-friendly activities in the region.
Probably the biggest attraction in the city itself, and a true favourite with families, is the Esplande that stretches as far as the eye can see and offers just so much to both tourists and locals.
Beautiful walks along the coast with BBQ set-ups, and picnic spots, are just the beginning as you take in stunning views out to sea. For families, this is an ideal hangout with the main lagoon swimming pool being a real winner with everyone. The salt-water pool has water fountains and a fake beach as well as shaded areas for little ones and s just the hub of all things action! More importantly, it’s completely free of charge (as are the majority of the features on the esplanade.
Cairns itself was a really good base and offered us some free activities perfect for families along their esplanade. There are huge playgrounds, a free swimming pool with loads of fun features, a giant tree house, and a skate park, which make the area a really nice place to hang out.
A little further down the path you come across the impressive ‘Muddy’s playground which is a fabulous place for children to play, climb and run around or get their beach gear on and have a play in the water zone which was a welcome refreshment on a warm summer’s day.
The esplanade is also home to a skateboard park, the ‘Fun Ship’ playground and an impressive tree house that the kids go crazy for.
Walk around the streets and you’ll come across a host of tourist offices offering a vast array of excursions. There are often both half day and full day options, pick-ups from hotels included and a range of boats to take you out on your seaward adventures. Coming from South East Asia, I will admit that the prices are a bit of a shock to the system, but no trip to Oz would be complete without truly seeing the sights so we booked a couple of trips as well as opting for a car rental for two days to be able to explore by ourselves (which proved to be very cost effective and prefect for our family who love to be spontaneous and go off the beaten track).
This is an absolute must on any trip to the region, as we loved this full day of adventure. Kuranda is a village in the mountainous rainforest outside of Cairns. While I believe you can drive there, the tourist attraction that it has become gives you the opportunity to make the most of all it’s beauty by offering different modes of transport to and from the village.
Our day began with a two-hour journey on their scenic railway and it soon became apparent how it got it’s name. Old style carriages allow you to sit back and enjoy endless views as you make your way up to the village.
There are a couple of stops along the way as you meander your way through Barron Gorge and rumble over impressive bridges with one stop allowing you to get off and have some photo opportunities at Barron Falls for any waterfall fanatics.
There’s commentary throughout the journey with facts on the area and it also lets you know in advance as to when to have your cameras at the ready for viewpoints coming up ahead. While it is a two-hour ride, the time passed quickly and even the youngest of children enjoyed the whole experience.
Once at the top of the mountain you arrive at Kuranda and have free time to wander around. There is a lot to do but it’s up to you how you spend your time. There are some bigger attractions like the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld Kuranda and also the Koala Gardens (of which we did the latter, but more about that in just a moment!) or you can take in a river boat cruise, enjoy shops, cafes, a street didgeridoo performance, the local playground, or the lovely market selling a host of goodies.
I’d seen photos of the Kuranda Koala Gardens and secretly hoped my children would pester ‘daddy’ enough to take them….. yes, you got it, mission accomplished!
Queensland is the only state in Australia that still allows people to physically hold a koala so we knew that, besides seeing the animals themselves, we could be in for much more of a treat should we decide to have a cuddle with a koala. It isn’t a massive place but the koalas are just gorgeous and photographing them is relatively easy as they do love to laze around in their trees!
We were nicely surprised that there was also a large enclosure that we could go into, grab some food, and feed the kangaroos and wallabies! I can’t believe how close we could get to the animals allowing the little ones to hand-feed them and take photos.
There were also lizards and a few other friends to make but of course, it did come down to having a photo taken while holding a koala which both myself and my daughter decided would be one of those unforgettable moments – and it was. The whole set-up is very well organized and two keepers are with you and the animals the whole time. The koalas are extremely well looked after, are on a little rotation so are never out doing photos for more than half an hour, and you are given strict instructions on how to handle your new little friend.
Charlie, our (not so little) koala was the perfect gentleman and clung on to us for photos like a pro and while the experience doesn’t last for long, it was something that all of us will always remember. Thank you Charlie x
Once we’d finished up in Kuranda, it was time to make our way back down to Cairns, this time on the Skyrail; the most impressive of cable car rides you may ever take!
You can just ride down to the entrance, but you can also choose to get off at several different stations along the way to take in nature trails, waterfalls and wildlife. We decided that as we were there we would make the most of the moment and got off at every given opportunity so we felt we saw the rainforest in it’s entirety and really enjoyed it.
A boat trip, or in this case, a catamaran, was on the top of our list for obvious reasons. It’s not every day you get to holiday so close to the Great Barrier Reef and with its reputation, it was a wonder that we were not about to miss.
There are many options, but with two children, we opted for a catamaran trip out to Green Island which is less than an hour’s travel time from the port in Cairns.
You can choose a morning departure for the full day trip or a lunch time departure for the half-day version of the same tour.
Either way, you will enjoy a very scenic trip out on the waters until you reach Green Island with the option to sit out on deck or indoors.
Our trip included either snorkeling (with the basic equipment) or a ride on a glass-bottom boat. Upon arriving at the island. While I’m sure the latter is lovely (and a great option for people with younger children) we decided that we had to get wet, and get in with the fish!
On the island itself there are a number of things to do. If you want to just relax on the beach, you can. If you want to wander around and explore the rainforest, there are decked pathways around the island. There are cafes and restaurants, a swimming pool (reserved for certain tour companies) and even the Marineland Croc Park for those of you wanting to see some really impressive reptiles!
Our first stop was the water sports centre where we grabbed our snorkelling gear and the. Headed for the beach. While it is clearly a popular tourist attraction, it wasn’t crowded and we even found some fairly deserted areas for some photos and to just enjoy the moment.
Snorkelling was fun and child-friendly with shallow waters and small floating buoys attaches in certain places for you to be able to hold on to. While we did enjoy it (and my son was so proud to have spotted his first sting ray!) let’s just say that you won’t get the richness of colours and fish as you would if you went further afield to the outer reef. It’s a lovely trip to do but go for the whole experience of an island getaway and not just the snorkelling…. ! There are plenty of other (admittedly more expensive) options for going out to the Great Barrier Reef so just décidé with agents what it is you’re looking for.
The Coast: From Cairns to Port Douglas:
For our first day of car rental we wanted beaches, and the coast, and stunning view points, and we weren’t disappointed! Heading out from the city of Cairns there’s a beautiful coastal road that will take you to numerous beaches and coves, allowing you to stop where and when you want before reaching Port Douglas
One of our main stops was at Palm Cove which I would recommend to anyone! A fabulous stretch of beach with lovely sand, a safe cordoned off area for swimming in the sea, a playground in the shade, and lots of cafes, restaurants and little shops along the beach front.
we were there in the morning and although it was school holidays, at that time in the day, it was almost deserted! Perfect for long walks and enjoying the light breeze before the crowds arrive.
The magnificent stretch of highway is a pleasant, at times windy, drive that offers constant views out over the big blue. We made some impromptu stops and each time we’re just so in awe of the beauty of the clean beaches and palm trees.
Another stop we made, and one that is clearly signposted, was the viewpoint named “Rex Lookout”. It’s set up for people to stop as they pass by and has parking spaces on both sides of the road. A stunning spot for some photos.
Ellis Beach was another lovely area and, although the journey from Cairns to Port Douglas is about 60km, it’s a picture postcard everywhere you look. Port Douglas itself is quaint and a little busier with some nice boutique shops, cafes, eateries and places to picnic with playgrounds and everything else.
Daintree National Park / Mossman Gorge:
Once we were at Port Douglas we realized we’d easily be able to combine our trip with a visit to Daintree National Park which is where Mossman’s Gorge is nestled into the rugged rainforest.
It was a spot my husband was particularly interested in seeing and ended up being a lovely ‘get back to nature’ moment and a really enjoyable experience.
Once at Daintree you’ll either need to walk the 2km to the entrance of the rainforest or take a little shuttle bus that services the route. The walk isn’t a difficult one but it is generally hot and humid but it is manageable if you have the time. The bus is expensive for the distance it covers with a family ticket costing us over $20.
Once at the entrance you are free to walk around the rainforest at your own pace. There are proper boardwalks to make getting around easy and if you’re lucky you might even spot Forest Dragons on the tree trunks!
The main attraction here is, needless to say, Mossman Gorge, which pulls the crowds to say the least. A beautiful spot for some photography and also a chance for a paddle (or a swim if you’re brave enough!) in the chilly water as it runs through the rainforest.
The rocks and small sandy area make it a great natural playground for children, and swimming is allowed. Take your swim suits and towels but be prepared for cooler waters if, like us, you’re coming from the warm seawater of Palm Cove! My goodness it was chilly but also one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ moments that makes you get stuck in and, quite frankly, once you’re in, you soon forget about the water temperature!
However, the Gorge does come with its warnings of when and where it is safe to go into the waters. Due to the risk of flash floods, it’s not always a good idea, so please heed the warnings and watch the little ones! The rocks submerged in the water are slippery making it difficult to get a good grip and there is a current that could easily whisk a weaker swimmer downstream. But don’t let this put you off; it’s beautiful and a really lovely slice of pure nature that is worth the stop.
The Tablelands is a highland area about a 2-hour drive from Cairns but, as with our other road trip, there are so many stops, attractions and viewpoints along the way, that you can easily break the journey up.
The region is a mix of rainforest and wetlands and offers nature walks, waterfalls, lakes, some amazing wildlife, and even Gallo Dairyland which is perfect for children (and anyone who fancies testing homemade chocolates!)
Initially our main focus in the region was the waterfall circuit. It’s a specific route in the area which circles around and leads you one after another to some of the most beautiful waterfalls. Millaa Millaa was our first stop and is probably the most impressive!
Such a stunning spot to sit and enjoy a picnic and great for a swim so be sure to take the necessary with you on your day trip! This is easily accessible with children and there’s a parking area, shower/changing rooms and toilets, but nowhere (that I saw) to buy drinks or anything else so take your water bottles with you.
The next waterfall on the circuit was Zillow Falls which we did make a short stop at but you don’t have full access to the falls itself and just catch the water running off the cliff edge, needless to say, with no swimming available.
This meant we could move swiftly on to the next waterfall, Ellinjaa Falls, pictures above while my daughter takes in the scene! From the car park it’s probably less than 10 minutes to reach the water and a few hundred meters to stealthily go along rocky paths to a nice spot for photos, swimming, and enjoying the cool water.
Malinda Falls is another one to look out for, although we enjoyed this spot not for the waterfall but I stead the forest walk that saw us coming across wild tree kangaroos! Such a lovely surprise and there must have been 5 or 6 of them jumping around looking for food etc. So lucky!
The waterfall circuit continues and if you want to do just that, you really could fill your day with some beautiful sights. We had a few other places on our to-do-list so did a couple of stops off at stops for their renowned fig trees, namely ‘The Curtain’ and ‘The Cathedral’ both of which are signposted from the main road and only need a few minutes walk from each of the parking areas.
There are a couple of lakes in the area; Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine, of which did the latter. Picnic areas, people rolling up with their own kayaks and SUPs and just generally enjoying some time on the water.
There’s a tea house/cafe on the water’s edge and some lovely walks to do in the area. A great place to stretch your legs and for the little ones to run around and play if you’ve been driving for too long!
I think there’s probably more I could say about our trip but, as this started as a small over view and has already become a full-blown novel, I fear I should stop!
Cairns was great; the region is just magnificent and it is great for families. My husband got in a SCUBA diving trip, we got some shopping done, there’s a little market on a Saturday morning on the esplanade and enough restaurants and bars to suit every taste.
Australia never fails to impress; Cairns, you were amazing! S x