Cairns is so well known as a great place for a winter getaway that many people overlook all that is great about the summer months. But as former local Carla Grossetti writes, it’s time for Cairns & Great Barrier Reef to have their moment in the sun.
Summer is the season when nature comes alive in the tropics and shows off Cairns & Great Barrier Reef in all its glory. This year will be the best time in a generation to visit as less tourists means you will be able to better appreciate the iconic attractions the region is known for and leave a lighter footprint, too. Here are eight experiences that will ensure you leave feeling greater than when you arrived.
1. Sail away to the Great Barrier Reef
Visit Cairns & Great Barrier Reef over summer and you will find the seas stretched as smooth as denim, with the northerly winds improving visibility and creating near-perfect conditions to snorkel or dive. Summer is also a time when the fish congregate in greater numbers, creating quite the spectacle as they flit in and around the coral swaying on the sea floor. Every day and location is different on the Great Barrier Reef – you may be snorkelling in silvery seas alongside turtles one day and diving alongside corals teeming with schools of fish the next. Sail away on the carbon-neutral Passions of Paradise to one of 24 private moorings, according to the best prevailing conditions on the day.
2. Take your taste buds on a tour
Mangoes, guavas, lychees and rambutans are just some of the tropical fruits in season over summer in Cairns. You can taste some of these fruits and explore the food bowl of Cairns & Great Barrier Reef on one of Brett’s Outback Tasting Adventures. This gastronomic safari of the Atherton Tablelands includes stops at a dairy where cheese and chocolate are made, at a cafe specialising in smoked fish, and a distillery producing award-winning spirits and liqueurs. There is a tag-along tour if you prefer the comfort of your own vehicle. While in the Atherton Tablelands, take time out to visit Nerada Tea Rooms for a plantation-fresh pot of tea.
3. Sample native ingredients such as green ants
What many visitors to Cairns & Great Barrier Reef find is that, in between forays out to the reef and north to the Daintree, the vibrant city has a lot to offer on the food front, too. Chef Craig Squire pioneered the use of Australian native ingredients on the Ochre menu long before diners had heard of finger limes or lemon aspen. The restaurant is popular with gourmands who love the chef’s inventive use of native ingredients: try green ant gravlax, barramundi with a macadamia crust and wattleseed pavlova.
4. Get a bird’s-eye view of the rainforest
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, the first tourism operator in the world to achieve EarthCheck Certification, takes you soaring above the rainforest canopy, descending at two different stops to learn more about the oldest rainforest on Earth. The view from The Edge Lookout of the mighty Barron Falls is most spectacular in summer after heavy rains; you can feel the mist of the waterfall on your face as torrents of white water roar down the ravine’s steep granite walls. Enjoy watching the stirring of birds among the leaves and listen for the sigh of the wind as you admire the features of the emerald landscape from your glass-bottomed gondola while travelling on to the hill-top village of Kuranda. Return to Cairns via the Kuranda Scenic Railway.
5. Visit a nature park rich in surprises
The Rainforestation Nature Park is an oasis located on the outskirts of Kuranda in the Atherton Tablelands. Board an army duck to explore the park as the amphibious bus travels beneath a cathedral of arching branches, splashes through creeks and up steep hills surrounded by World Heritage rainforest. While bouncing and bobbing along, train your eyes to look for the local Lumholtz’s tree kangaroo and learn about the onsite koala-breeding program. After navigating the landscape, learn how the local Indigenous people used the seasons to help them find food at the Pamagirri Aboriginal Experience.
6. Watch prehistoric beasts in action
Summer is breeding season for many native Australian species, which makes it the best season to observe the native wildlife at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, as it’s when they are at their most active. A cruise upstream through the murky waters of Hartley’s Lagoon in summer is a mix of high adventure and action as passengers observe giant crocodiles soaking in the sun or launching out of the water for a feed. The tour guides provide commentary on the hunting habits of these prehistoric beasts while slowly manoeuvring the boat around the park. This reforested site is the home of the North Queensland Wildlife Trust and includes animals such as the Southern cassowary, quolls, reptiles and tropical birds. You can hand-feed wallabies and kangaroos and get up close to exotic animals such as the Komodo dragon.
7. Stay and play castaway on an idyllic island
As the tourist crowds thin and sun-kissed day-trippers return to Cairns, guests staying overnight at Green Island Resort toast their good fortune with celebratory cocktails. Staying on at the low-forested atoll is not quite a castaway experience — the tropical resort is 45 minutes from Cairns — but extending your time here means more time to snorkel over beds of sea grass where turtles feed or swim with colourful fish. Join a guided island walk to discover native birds and lizards or explore the reef-fringed island in a glass-bottomed boat. You will feel even better about staying on the island when you learn about the eco initiatives designed to reduce the resort’s footprint, including a crusher that turns glass into sand.
8. Cool off in a freshwater swimming hole
Whenever there is the slightest change in the sky’s mood over summer, locals head for the hills to cool off in tranquil swimming holes that are like glittering jewels in the rainforest. While back in the day most people learned about Fairy Falls by word of mouth, these days this hidden swimming spot can be found on a map. It’s worth venturing into the rainforest near the Crystal Cascades’ car park to find the natural swimming hole that has long been a magnet for locals. It’s also worth following the waterfall circuit that winds like a ribbon around the verdant Atherton Tablelands to get to Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie and Ellinjaa Falls. The falls along the circuit are at their most spectacular over the wet season when silvery sheets of water pour into pools below, sending misty rainbows skyward and a loud roar through the surrounding rainforest.