Cairns, Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest

Last Updated on October 29, 2023

Sign says it all at the Cairns Airport

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) spans longer than the state of California.   It surely is in a lot of people’s bucket list.  Experiencing this unique destination can be quite challenging if you do not have a seaworthy vessel and know your way in the ocean.  Fortunately, there is the city of Cairns in Queensland, Australia where several cruise companies offer excursions to the GBR.  

Cairns is in a tropical environment so it is the perfect place to head to when it is winter in Australia.  Cairns is a nice city to have a holiday. Its walking promenade by the water just invites people to take a walk, run or ride a bicycle.  Its main street is lined with shops and restaurants and becomes lively in the evening.

About two hours north of Cairns by car is the Daintree Rainforest.  The Daintree (for short) is an old growth rainforest that looks like the set from the Jurassic Park movies.  Daintree is home to some empty but beautiful stretches of beaches and the colorful flightless bird, the cassowary.

There are several crocodile boat tour companies that operate near the Daintree.  They mainly drive up and down the Daintree River to spot crocodiles and other wildlife that are on the river banks.    

We spent a total of five days in June 2023 between Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Here we describe our experience so you may get an idea of what to expect should you make these locations your next destinations.

Getting to Cairns from the Airport

There is no public transportation that serves the Cairns airport.  You only have three options which are taxi, private transport or rideshare like Uber or Lyft.  The touristy part of Cairns is not far from the airport.  It is about a 15 minute ride.  We just hired an Uber and the cost was reasonable.  

However, you may get caught in a price uptick during high rideshare demand. This happens when a plane has landed and almost everybody wants to get out of the airport.  Our first quote for an Uber was 30 AUD when we were in the midst of competing with our fellow airline passengers.  Since we arrived mid morning and could not check in the hotel yet, we decided to wait a few minutes until the rideshare demand died down.  We were surprised to see that the price came down to 17 AUD for the same ride.


Cairns is a tourist town.  The touristy area is located by the ocean near the Reef Leet Terminal where the boat excursions to the GBR starts.  They have a nice walking promenade by the beach and a man made-lagoon for adults and children to swim.  

Cairns walking promenade

A block away going inland, they have a nice main street that is lined with shops and restaurants. The main street is not terribly busy with vehicular traffic either.  This area has people milling around at all hours of the day but becomes especially lively at night when everybody is out and about.

Great Barrier Reef (GBR)

Most tourists go to Cairns to get on one of the commercial cruises that take visitors to the GBR.  The GBR is more than 2,300 kilometers long but commercial cruise services are mainly available at Cairns and Port Douglas to the north.

There are mainly two types of GBR cruises available at Cairns.  One type of cruise takes visitors to Green and/or Fitzroy Islands.  These islands are barrier islands in the GBR.  The other type of cruise takes visitors to the outer reefs like Moores Reef to name one.  

One of the many reef cruise brochures (2023). This one touts an outer reef tour.

There were a lot of establishments that sold excursions to the GBR.  These establishments like our hotel are simply fronts or agents for the different cruise companies.  We bought our tour from the Cairns tourist information center but you can buy a tour just as easily from the Reef Fleet Terminal which houses the ticket stalls for the different cruise companies.  It is the same price regardless of where you purchase your excursion.  In our opinion, it is better to get your information from an agent as they have an idea of what each cruise company offers.  Then you can decide later on which company to go with once you compare their offerings from their printed brochures.

Inside the Reef Fleet Terminal building are the stalls for the different cruise companies. Behind the terminal are the cruise ships.

Allow yourself at least two or three days to visit the GBR for two reasons.  First is the weather.  Being at sea, the weather can change.  We arrived on a sunny day and the forecast was cloudy to rain for the next two days.  Luckily, the forecast improved on our last day to be more cloudy than rainy.  

Second reason is that excursions can fill up.  We wanted to take the cruise the day after we arrived but it turned out that the cruise ship we wanted was already full. It was a good thing that we set aside three nights in Cairns so we were able to do an excursion on our final night.

Green and Fitzroy Islands

Green and Fitzroy Islands are closer to the mainland compared to the outer reefs.  Our cruise ship made a stop off Fitzroy Island to drop off some passengers on the way to the outer reef and picked them up on the way back to the cruise port.

Initially, we were going to these islands but decided to do the more expensive outer reef excursions.  We were glad we went with the outer reef tours as we found out from other people that went to these islands that the reef fish were small and they were not totally happy with the trip.

Outer Reefs

There are a handful of tour companies that offer excursions to the outer reefs.  Some have dated or old ships while others have modern ships.  Just look at the company’s brochures carefully. If you want to be sure that the ship is not a floating rusty hunk of metal, go over to the Reef Fleet Terminal before 8 AM before the ships leave or after 5 PM when the ships start arriving from the excursions.

When examining the cruise company’s brochures, pay particular attention to the amount of time you have at sea.  Our cruise excursion advertised that we would have four hours to do whatever we wanted in the water.  Sounds like a lot of time right?  Not really.  If you factor in having lunch (included with the price) and doing other activities such as a glass bottom boat ride (also included) and watching the reef fish being fed, it ended up about an hour and half to two hours max to go snorkeling in the water.  And that was without the submarine boat ride which was out of service but was not mentioned in the brochure (better ask if all available rides shown in their brochures are operational before booking your excursion).

Our cruise company has a semi permanent pontoon anchored in an area surrounded by reefs. The cruise ship docks to the pontoon so that passengers can get on the pontoon and back to the ship with ease.  All water activities are done from the pontoon while a buffet lunch is served on the ship.

Our cruise ship docking to the pontoon
Buffet lunch inside the ship

A fairly big area of the reef is roped off from the pontoon.  People are not allowed to go beyond the roped area so that cruise staff can keep an eye on everybody.  It may be crowded in the immediate vicinity of the pontoon as most do not want to venture far from it.  But just swim 20 meters or so away and there is no one to run into.  The water temperature was about 25 deg C when we went in June 2023.  It was not cold enough to require a wetsuit but you would be wanting to get out of the water after an hour unless you are constantly moving.

People getting in the water from pontoon
Reef fish near the pontoon

The reef has both soft and hard corals.  The corals in this part of the GBR are not colorful unlike tropical reefs but they are beautiful nonetheless. The soft corals are just mesmerizing to look at as it sways with the current.  There are plenty of reef and predatory fish also.  If you are lucky, you may even spot a bumphead fish.

Glass bottom boat
The activity board on the pontoon

Daintree Rainforest

The Daintree Rainforest is about a two hour drive north from Cairns.  There are tour companies that operate from Cairns that do day trips which would make it a long day.  We just booked a rental car and stayed two nights in a settlement that is also called Daintree, about 30 minutes from the south end of the rainforest.

Daintree coast map showing the different attractions

In a nutshell, the Daintree Rainforest is an old growth forest that looks similar to dinosaur movie sets.  It is thick.  You have to board a car ferry at the south end of the forest to cross the Daintree River.  The ferry cost was 45 AUD per car and we paid cash.  We drove through the rainforest as far north as our rental car could take us which was before the Emmagen Creek river crossing.  You will need a full day to explore the Daintree Rainforest at a leisurely pace.

Vehicle ferry to cross the Daintree River

The rainforest itself is not that appealing unless you like looking at trees.  There are no viewpoints because there is no clearing.  There are several boardwalks that lead you through the old forest.  To us, the attractions here are the empty, tropical-like beaches and the chance of finding the colorful, flightless bird called the cassowary.  Otherwise, it is just trees everywhere.  Be sure to stop by the Floravilla Ice Cream Factory before they close at 5PM for some local fruit flavored sweets.  

One of the many Daintree boardwalks
Get your sweet treat before leaving

The beaches may not have the most sought after white sand but being able to just enjoy a long stretch of beach by yourself is something that is hard to come by.  We liked Thornton Beach the most from all the beaches we visited in the Daintree.  But when you are at the beach, do not get in the water.  There are plenty of signs that whatever is in the water will either eat you (saltwater crocodiles) or sting you (jellyfish).

Empty beach at Cow Bay

We did not find the elusive cassowary bird on our short quest.  However, we ran into another tourist that said she was lucky enough to see a juvenile cassowary.  

Crocodile Tours

There are a handful of tour companies that operate in the area.  We purchased a two for one tour which was good at Daintree Crocodile Tours and Crocodile Express Lower Daintree Cruises.  The Daintree Crocodile Tours operate at the Daintree settlement, just a stone throw away from our accommodation, Daintree Riverview Lodges and Van Park (do you see a pattern here – seems like everything’s name has Daintree in it).  Crocodile Express Lower Daintree Cruise, on the other hand, operates just before the Daintree River ferry crossing.

You will not see any crocodiles jumping out of the water.  Our Daintree Crocodile Tour guide said that is only done in the Northwest Territories.  The crocodile tours here just go up and down the river spotting crocodiles and other wildlife on the shore.  We saw three crocodiles in Daintree Crocodile Tours and eight in the Crocodile Express Lower Daintree Cruise.  Both cruises last about an hour. 

One of the crocodiles from the Crocodile Express Lower Daintree Cruise

Port Douglas

If your schedule allows it, we highly recommend spending a couple of hours at Port Douglas before going back to Cairns from Daintree.  It is about a 20 minute detour from the main highway.  Port Douglas is a small town.  We were lucky enough to be there when there was an open air market at the local park.  There were several vendors selling all kinds of stuff that were showroom quality.

Don’t miss going to 4 Mile Beach Lookout for an awesome view of the beach that bears the same name.  The lookout is at the end of a cul-de-sac which serves as the parking area as well.  Just wait a while if all the parking spots are taken as most people just leave after taking their prized photos.  .

4 Mile Beach from the viewpoint

We did not have time to walk the shops in downtown Port Douglas but were able to drive through it.  It was like a smaller version of Cairns.     


Experiencing the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is most likely on a lot of peoples bucket list.  The GBR stretches just over 2,300 kilometers off the coast of Queensland in northeast Australia.  It is longer than the state of California.  Experiencing its entirety is next to impossible because of its immensity but you can certainly sample it using commercial tour companies.

There are several tour companies that operate out of the city of Cairns. Excursions to the outer reefs probably give you the best way to experience the GBR.

Cairns itself is a nice holiday destination.  There is a walking promenade by the water and a lively main street full of shops and restaurants.  The place comes alive especially in the evening when everybody is out and about.

About two hours north of Cairns is the Daintree Rainforest.  It is an old growth rainforest that looks like one of the settings in the Jurassic Park movies.  You would not see any dinosaurs but you have a high likelihood of seeing its cousin, crocodiles.  Just book a crocodile boat tour while you are there.  Another creature that looks like from the past that calls the Daintree home is the cassowary.  It is colorful but elusive.

Finally, Port Douglas is a small town worth the detour as you finish your Daintree expedition and head back to Cairns.  Its downtown area looks like a miniature version of Cairns, just ripe to be walked and for window shopping.