Cairns offers a budget friendly launching pad for families to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Apart from the reef itself there are tropical islands, spectacular swimming holes in the rainforest and lots of fun things to see and do.
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World and is the largest living thing on earth, its even visible from space!
When to go & for how long
The cooler months of June to October provide comfortable ocean temperatures, beautiful blue-sky days and milder weather (it’s the dry season meaning less rain and therefore better visibility when snorkelling and diving). Another good reason to visit at this time is because its outside of stinger season.
I would recommend at least 3 nights in or near Cairns and 5 nights on Fitzroy Island. We stayed for 5 nights on the mainland to explore the Cairns area which we found more than adequate and allowed some much needed down time. Due to availability of accomodation we were limited to 3 nights on Fitzroy island which didn’t give us near enough time to explore the island or enjoy its beautiful beaches.
I would recommend booking your accommodation at least 3 months in advance so you don’t get caught out like we did.
Our 8 night trip is divided into two parts… The Cairns Leg and Exploring the Great Barrier Reef.
The Cairns Leg
Getting around Cairns
Hire a car for exploring around Cairns. We didn’t even entertain the idea of getting around Cairns using public transport or relying on tour companies to get us where we wanted to go. Hiring a car is just so much easier when the main things we wanted to see, like the Skyrail, are located outside the city itself. Places like Mossman Gorge and Crystal Cascades are also much more convenient and enjoyable to explore independently. We hired a 4WD vehicle which we picked up at the airport (the major car hire companies have kiosk located near the baggage carousel).
If you want to get around using public transport then visit this site which will help you get the information you need.
Where to stay in Cairns
We stayed in a Big 4 Crystal Cascades Holiday Park Villa for 5 nights and I have to say that this would be one of the nicest and cleanest holiday parks I’ve ever stayed in and the staff were welcoming and helpful. As the name suggests, the beautiful Crystal Cascades park is only few minutes down the road. Although this accommodation is a bit of a drive from the centre of Cairns, the decision to stay outside of the CBD was a good one. This accommodation is clean, quiet and surrounded by beautiful scenery… qualities you would be hard pressed to find in the city centre. The villas have a basic kitchen and there is a modern shopping complex a few minutes drive away where you can stock up on groceries.
What to see and do around Cairns
Crystal Cascades & Mossman Gorge
Located on the outskirts of Cairns, Crystal Cascades is a secluded freshwater swimming hole in the rainforest that is somewhat off the mainstream tourist radar. It’s a lovely place to escape the hustle and bustle and spend a couple of hours exploring and having a picnic. A word of warning… the water is VERY ‘fresh’ in winter! My kids were most interested in exploring and hopping from rock to rock. There is a small car park and short walking track alongside the water.
Mossman Gorge by contrast is a tourist landmark. Located in the World Heritage-Listed Daintree Rainforest it offers superb swimming holes and rainforest walks that are well worth the effort to get to. You will need to allocate most of the day for this excursion as it is located just over 75km north of Cairns Via Port Douglas and you will need to park at the Mossman Gorge Centre and take a shuttle service to the Gorge. The shuttle costs just under $25 for a family of four and runs every 15 minutes between 8am and 5.30pm each day.
Kuranda Scenic Rail & Skyrail
While you can do them separately, you can kill two birds with one stone and do a Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway package where you do a return trip taking the train up and the Skyrail down (or vice versa). You will save money, time and possibly your sanity doing it this way. The package costs from $281.25 for a family (self drive option) and allows up to 3 hours to explore Kuranda Village which was more than enough time for us to check out our lunch options, eat our meals, check out Kuranda and then take a walking trail through a winding rainforest track to the Skyrail terminal for the ride home.
The train was a really enjoyable experience, and we have done quite a few old school train rides over the last couple of years. There was an informative narration over the PA system during the trip explaining the history of the train and the perils involved in establishing the track. There are plenty of great views out of the window as the train makes the climb up the hill. The kids were a bit bored in parts but generally really loved the ride.
The train and Skyrail take you up to Kuranda… which we didn’t find that exciting. It does have a few nice attractions and shops but didn’t really offer anything we haven’t seen before. The walking trail was a great option.
The Skyrail was fabulous and the kids enjoyed the whole ride. There was a bit of a queue to get on (probably about 30 – 40 minutes) so I would recommend having something up your sleeve to keep the kids entertained while you wait. The Skyrail offers unparalleled views of rainforest and surrounding gorges as well as the coastline. The kids enjoyed the birds eye view looking down into the rainforest canopy too.
Even though the Skyrail and the train leave from different points they have a bus service that will take you back to your original starting point (for us that was Cairns train station). There was an obligatory walk through a gift shop at the end and a bit of waiting around for the bus to take us back to Cairns Railway Station but you can order a coffee and snack or just browse in the gift shop to pass the time.
Exploring the Great Barrier Reef
Taxi’s are a good way to get from the airport or your accommodation to the Ferry terminal and vice versa (unless you have access to a free shuttle or are staying outside of the centre of Cairns). We returned our hire vehicle to the airport and then caught a taxi to catch our ferry to Fitzroy Island.
If you are staying on one of the Islands they will usually book your ferry transfers with your accommodation. You can also book a ferry for a daytrip out to one of the islands. The ferry ride is a fun activity in itself but make sure you put sunscreen on before you board as it’s easy to get sunburnt while trying to spot whales and dolphins outside the cabin.
Where to stay
Stay on an Island! There’s really no need to stay in Cairns itself. There are a number of beautiful islands a short ferry ride away that feel like a whole world away. Accommodation on these islands covers the whole spectrum from budget to luxury and the major reef tour operators pick up at these destinations… in fact it shortens your trip out to the reef pontoon and means you can have a bit more of a sleep in!
We stayed on Fitzroy Island in a Butterfly Bungalow. From the bungalow it is a short walk to the main resort (and facilities) and a stones throw from the beach where we could snorkel around coral. The bungalows are also located a very short walk from the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre which you can visit by booking through the resort.
Note… I would highly recommend getting reef shoes for everyone unless you have extremely tough feet. The beach here was covered in so much coral debris that it was painful to walk on and we ended up buying reef shoes from the shop on the island (I’m sure I would have got them much cheaper from Kmart!)
The self-contained bungalow was modern, adequate and overall we were very happy with it. There was a small room with bunks for the kids and a queen bed for Andrew and I as well as a small kitchenette and dining area. My only complaint is that the plates, bowls and cutlery were so grubby and oily from the previous guests that it was quite an effort to get them clean.
Bring food with you! Fitzroy Island has limited dining options, particularly for those with allergies or intolerances. Our son Morgan was on a fairly restricted diet at the time due tummy issues and we ended up eating A LOT of sweet potato fries from Foxy’s bar and were thoroughly sick of them by the time we left (so much so that Andrew won’t eat them anymore!). I recommend taking some food with you to the island to supplement your options as although there is a small general store… it’s an island and therefore you pay island prices!
How to see the Reef
The easiest way to explore the GBR as a family is to do a reef cruise that takes you out to a pontoon. You will be taken out to a large pontoon on the reef and given several hours to snorkel or dive amongst the coral and marine life. A typical tour will pick you up, feed you, provide all your snorkel gear and then drop you back where it picked you up. Easy!
We went on a Sunlover Reef cruise out to Moore Pontoon which picked us up from Fitroy Island at 10.15am and dropped us back at 4.30pm. A family ticket will cost about $580 and is worth every penny.
It was a surprisingly long trip out to the pontoon and, with the sea being a little choppy (until we got into the calmer waters near the reef), there were loads of people who got seasick. Fortunately, we weren’t affected and the cruise was well staffed with attendants equipped with sick bags and (despite it being a little unnerving to see so many people vomiting at once) everyone seemed to have recovered by the time we got to the pontoon.
Moore Pontoon features an enclosed kids pool (which is where our kids hung out until they felt brave enough to snorkel out on the reef), an underwater observatory and even a waterslide. It was better than I expected and I felt comfortable that the kids were always safe. You can also take a glass bottom boat tour and semi-submersible tour from the pontoon (included in the price of the tour) so those who don’t want to (or can’t) get in the water can still get a great view of the reef and marine life. Its hard to describe how excited the kids were to snorkel in amongst the gorgeous (and very friendly) fish and see the beautiful corals close up. Priceless!
Take your trip to the next (educational) level
The Great Barrier Reef is such a beautiful natural wonder… why not get the kids primed to get the most out of the trip?
- Watch David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef. See the trailer here, watch it on Netflix or buy here if you are in Australia or otherwise here on Amazon.
- Visit David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Interactive Experience
- Raise money for a reef charity before you go and present your donation in person! Zarah raised just over $70 for the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island.