Exploring Tropical North Queensland & Cairns

Man, do I love holiday weekends. Daniel and I took full advantage of the most recent one (Queen’s Birthday) from 10-13 June and headed north to Queensland to explore Cairns and the surrounding area. They don’t call it Tropical North Queensland for nothing as this place is a treasure trove of lush outdoor experiences, non-stop adventure and, of course, the launching off point to the incredible Great Barrier Reef. Here’s what went down:

Friday 10 June: We both worked a good chunk of the day before boarding the Qantas direct flight up to Cairns. 3 hours later, we landed and had just enough time to check out the phenomenal Esplanade and Coral Sea sunset view from our room at the DoubleTree Cairns, walk around town a bit and then crashed as we had an early start the next morning out on the Great Barrier Reef (which the locals simply call “The Reef” as it’s pretty damn self-explanatory).

doubletree cairns esplanade coral sea view
Sunset view toward Trinity Forest Reserve from the 6th floor of the DoubleTree Cairns.

Saturday 11 June: We were up early, SCUBA gear in hand and in the van heading north along the coast by 7am. We booked a 3-dive excursion out to Agincourt Reef with Poseidon Cruises which launches off from Port Douglas, about 50 minutes north of Cairns (70KMs). The winding drive between Cairns and PD is world-renowned for its incredibly beauty, particularly the stretch as you drive past Palm Cove and make your way in to Port Douglas proper. And then once you get to PD, it’s just…the perfect little coastal Australian town. Cute restaurants, lots of excursions and the Reef Marina.

reef marina port douglas qld
The Reef Marina at Port Douglas is simply idyllic. ‘Nuff said.

We boarded The Poseidon ship, which was large and extremely well-outfitted for the many snorkelers, newbie divers and (thankfully) a smaller group of certified divers with whom we would be diving for the day. By 830am we were pushing away from port and heading out for the 1.5 hour journey to Agincourt Reef.

We had three enjoyable dives on the Great Barrier Reef but I’m going to say something really blasphemous here…I’ve dived much, much better locations in the world. Cozumel is better. Bali is better. Grand Cayman is better. Bonaire is better…I feel terrible (and honestly a bit shocked) to admit this but there is no point in puffery. They were good but not great. Here’s a video summary of our GBR dives:

Now, the reality of the GBR is that it’s absolutely gigantic. 2,300KMs (1,400 miles) stretching along Australia’s northern coast, to be precise. Because of this, I’m totally unequipped to make a blanket statement that all of The Reef is underwhelming. I can confidently say that Agincourt – although a few nice dives – did not blow my mind. Maybe if this was one of the first places you’ve ever dived or if you had just recently been certified in a quarry….but definitely not what I had expected. Still, I’d rather be diving than working so yay for that. After the dives, we had warm drinks on the boat and settled in for the journey back to shore.

post dive nap
Ahhhhhhh the post-dive nap. There’s nothing else like it!

We made it back to Cairns City by early evening, grabbed a quick bite and passed out nice and early. This proved to be a very wise decision as the next day was a long one!

Sunday 12 June: *rubs eyes* Holy gawd a 415am pick-up time is bat-shit crazy when you’re on holiday. But we did it anyways to get a chance to go up in the sky with Raging Thunder Hot Air Balloons, who drove us from Cairns out to the Atherton Tablelands in Mareeba in the wee hours. It was surprisingly chilly standing out in a field that early, watching the balloonists carefully filling their vessels with hot air. We waited a bit while the first small group got up in the air before us. They had booked an ‘express’ trip which got them in the sky almost before the sun was even showing…I would argue they missed out but, hey, not my problem. We waved them a safe flight from the ground then we hopped back in the van and trailed along until we located where they landed. Now it was our turn.

hot air balloon ride cairns australia
Some nylon tied to a wicker basket, loaded with human cattle and powered by the exhalations of a dragon. What could ever go wrong?

In my mind, hot air balloon baskets carry maybe 4-6 people and are therefore quaint and compact. Whoops, I was wrong. Our balloon was absolutely enormous and could technically carry up to 20 people in its spacious basket. Thankfully, there were just 17 of us (*awkward grin*) so we had a bit of breathing room.

At this point, I want to emphasize how thankful I am that we did NOT take the express/earlier ride. We were treated to some of the most gorgeous views of the sun waking up and shining over the Tablelands…this was worth the extra 45 minute wait hands-down.

sunrise over the atherton tablelands in cairns hot air balloon
Sunrise over the Atherton Tablelands near Cairns Australia is best inhaled via hot air balloon. Just, wow. Wowowow

The whole hot air balloon ride including take-off, travel and tear-down lasted about 60 minutes, and I tried my best to trim it down to an appetizer-y, snackable cut from the GoPro but it’s still over 6 minutes. SorryNotSorry:

I refuse to be full of a false bravado here on my own blog. So I’ll keep this real, as per usual. I was quite happy to touch back down safely on land after the 30 minutes were up. I’m not saying floating around above the Earth in a wicker basket isn’t a bit terrifying…ok, yes I am. Yes, I am indeed. I had moments of fear throughout the whole flight and had a bit of a white-knuckle death grip on the basket edge the whole time. Troof. But still so much fun.

Miraculously, we were back in Cairns City by about 10am. Just about the time a lot of people were getting up to start their day, we had already been on a high-flying adventure. This called for breakfast followed by a nap so we could begin phase 2 of Sunday.

After recharging, it was time for the next adventure of the day: Cairns ZOOM & Wildlife Dome in the heart of Cairns CBD. We had 2pm tickets to explore this unique place and OMG we enjoyed every second of it! The Dome offers a variety of experiences within the premise: you can look at and learn about the native wildlife within, you can do a mid-Zoom or a hi-Zoom ropes course & zipline, you can climb the Dome and walk around the exterior roof and – hell yea – you can even jump from the top of the Dome down to ground level via the interior Power Jump. We did ALL OF THE THINGS.

kookaburra at cairns dome
My first Kookaburra sighting in Australia! Still my favorite bird sound, without question. These guys are chunky IRL. I was kind of surprised.
cairns dome mid and hi zoom experiences
We warmed-up on the mid-ZOOM before going all-out on the hi-ZOOM. Not only are they an absolute blast, you can totally skip the gym for the day after you’ve completed them.
cairns dome climb experience
What should we do on a rainy day with potential lightning hmmmm…oooooh I have an idea! Climb out to the 6th story of structure and circumnavigate it via a metal platform. I really do have all the best ideas.

We had a really nice rest of the day on Sunday, including dinner and drinks out on the Wharf with some awesome new friends we made there in Cairns (*waves* at Ben & Ricky).

Monday 13 June: After all the adventuring of the previous two days in Cairns, we finally had a sleep-in-late day. A rarity in our lives, for sure. Eventually we made our way from the DoubleTree over to the Hilton Cairns as I would be transitioning from holiday mode to work mode starting on Tuesday. We spent the day exploring the wharf area and generally taking it easy strolling around, enjoying the sun on our faces and relaxing.

The wharf in Cairns Australia looking across Trinity Inlet
The wharf in Cairns Australia looking across Trinity Inlet from our balcony at the Hilton Cairns. I could look at this view forever…
cairns esplanade at dusk
Dusk setting over the Cairns Esplanade. I patiently waited until someone yelled “release the white dove!” before clicking the shutter.

All told, we kind of fell in love with Cairns over this weekend. The adventures, the connection to nature, the seamless way the city and the water come together…it’s just a wonderful escape. And the best part? We’d be back up there a mere 4 weeks later…

Thanks for reading, kittens! XOXO -JW



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