Popular Cairns Shore Excursions
The Great Barrier Reef. At almost 2,000 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide (1,243 by 50 miles) at some points, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest living organism. Astronauts reported that it is visible from space. Even when a ship docks in Cairns overnight, the arrival and departure times can make it difficult to fit in a snorkel trip booked with a local operator. In this instance, a cruise ship shore excursion to the reef might be your only option.
Cairns Esplanade. In addition to the lagoon (see Beaches), the Esplanade offers the Harbour Walk boardwalk for strolling, public art for photo ops, a bouldering park and fitness circuit, a craft market, restaurants, bars and live entertainment.
Cairns Regional Art Gallery. This museum of fine arts showcases work from Australian artists, including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as international exhibits. (Open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located at the corner of Abbott and Shields Streets.)
Cairns Wildlife Dome. An all-weather wildlife exhibit encased by a 20-metre high glass dome, the wildlife dome is located on top of the Cairns Casino in the city centre at 35-41 Wharf Street. Here, koalas pose for photographs with adoring tourists, free-flying parrots swoop from tree to tree and land on the shoulders of unsuspecting visitors, and pythons curl around the trees. Goliath, a four- metre-long (13-foot) saltwater crocodile, eyeballs visitors as they walk past his viewing enclosure. If you are feeling daring, more than 65 different high-ropes crossings -- including a climbing wall, log bridges, tunnels, swinging chairs, ziplines, seesaws and cargo nets -- are suspended throughout the dome. (Open seven days from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Entry costs depend on your choice of activities.)
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The cableway offers a unique perspective on one of the planet's most significant rainforests. Allow approximately 2.5 hours for the 7.5 km return journey by cable car. To get the most out of your trip, take some time at the two mid-rainforest stations to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Australian bush, and keep an eye out for huge electric-blue Ulysses butterflies. Skyrail can also be taken one way and combined with a return trip on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. (Open 9 a.m. to 5.15 p.m.; priced from $50 for a one-way Skyrail trip.)
Daintree Rainforest. This tropical rainforest reaches the edge of the sea and starts about two hour's drive north of Cairns. Much of the rainforest is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which preserves, among animals and other vegetation, ferns that are some of the earliest plants on earth. There are guided tours into the Daintree, though many people choose to hire a car to drive the scenic Captain Cook Highway. You can only get so far into the Daintree without a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but you can cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry and drive to Cape Tribulation, named by James Cook in 1770 after his ship hit a reef northeast of the cape.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve. Located on a private headland between Cairns and Port Douglas, this pre- or post-cruise hotel offers eco friendly accommodation, its own beach and rainforest walking trails. Rooms overlook the resort's 145-acre property with views from Cape Tribulation to the Great Barrier Reef. Included in the room rate are experiences such as star-gazing, guided bird walks and Australia's only coconut tour. Native animals frequently roam the property, and you're almost guaranteed to meet the friendly wallaby that visits the lobby each day. (Priced from $189 per room per night; thalabeach.com.au)
Swimming at Cairns beaches such as Palm Cove, Trinity Beach and Kewarra Beach can be delightful, but think twice during stinger season, which generally runs from November to May. Stinger-resistant swimming enclosures at local beaches give a high degree of protection against Box Jellyfish, but are not 100 percent 'stinger proof'. Most locals wear full-body Lycra suits for added protection. Beaches might be closed when stingers (or crocodiles) are present, so always heed any signs that advise against swimming.
While it is possible to swim at Cairns' attractive northern beaches, do not go swimming in the ocean around the CBD at any time of year. Here lie crocs and plenty of mud when the tide is out. Instead, head for the manmade Esplanade Lagoon, a walk of about 10 minutes from Trinity Wharf along the Esplanade. The lagoon is big, safe and full of saltwater, with a beach, lifeguards, a snack bar and restrooms. And it's free. Bring a towel from the ship and plenty of sunscreen.
If you want to experience the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, sign up for a half-day tour to an inner portion of the reef, which is about an hour away by fast boat. Most tours include snorkelling gear and sightseeing. Some boats have glass bottoms for watching fish near the reefs. While you will see tour operators that offer half-day snorkelling and/or cruising trips, don't tempt fate with a tight turnaround for getting back to the ship as sea conditions can impact your arrival time back into Cairns.