The natural attractions of Cairns and Port Douglas

Credit: Tourism and Events, Queensland

Joanne Brookfield

Posted December 23, 2021

If there is one thing Far North Queensland can deliver, it’s the ability to amaze with its diverse array of natural beauty, with Port Douglas and Cairns well up the ‘pointy bit’ of Australia.

Both of these coastal idylls are located on the Coral Sea which, as the name suggests, means there’s a spectacular underwater world of kinetic, kaleidoscopic colours ready to leave you with a lifetime of memories.

Incredibly, there’s not one, but two World-Heritage listed sites up here, with the Great Barrier Reef neighbouring the ancient Daintree Rainforest.

With only an hour’s drive separating Cairns from Port Douglas, which are linked by the scenic Great Barrier Reef Drive, you can opt to see a lot during your stay, or simply flop and relax.

The best natural attractions

Great Barrier Reef

Comprised of almost 3000 individual reefs scattered among 900 islands, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system on the planet.

In fact, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is 344,000 square kilometres, meaning it spans over 14 degrees of latitude, bigger than Victoria and Tasmania combined.

Despite the magnitude of the Great Barrier Reef though, it’s not visible from the end of a pier, and you must travel out to it.  Fortunately, though, Port Douglas is the closest mainland departure point.

From here, you can get to Agincourt Reef, considered one of the best diving and snorkelling sites in the world given it is on the edge of the continental shelf - but it will still take an hour and half in a high-speed boat to reach it, which is why day trips are the go.

Reef day trips and overnight cruises cater to all tastes and visit a variety of locations, so if you’re not up for snorkelling or scuba diving, you can view the marine life through glass bottom boats, semi-submersible submarines or, hop on a chopper and see the manta rays, turtles, dugongs, dolphins and whales that way.

While Port Douglas is technically closer to the outer reef, Cairns has a greater range of boats and tours departing from their shores, so you can't go wrong either way.

Islands in the reef

While the focus is rightly on what’s going on under the water, there’s also islands to explore. From Cairns, you can do full day tours to Green Island, a unique coral sand cay that is home to a tropical rainforest and a crocodile park, or Fitzroy Island, with similar nature walks and a turtle rehabilitation centre.

While not naturally occurring, there’s also a couple of floating platforms that you can cruise out to and spend a day on, or swimming off, such as Great Adventures Pontoon and Marine World platform.

Or opt for some of the least visited islands, a little further south of Cairns, and check out the five Frankland Islands. There’s also the Lowe Isles, accessible from both Cairns and Port Douglas. Don't forget, RACV Members can enjoy savings for any of these day trips and more.

Great Barrier Reef Drive. Image: Tourism and Events, Queensland
Green Island. Image: Tourism and Events, Queensland
Green Island National Park. Image: Tourism and Events, Queensland


If the thought of looking at one more school of flamboyantly-coloured tropical fish is too much (because you can also see them in air-conditioned comfort at Cairns Aquarium), then swap the spectacle of the reef for the serenity of the rainforest.

The ‘Wet Tropics’ is almost 9,000 square kilometres of wet tropical rainforests, which includes rivers, volcanic lakes, waterfalls, and as much biodiversity as the Galapagos Islands.

From Cairns, Daintree and Cape Tribulation rainforests are to the north, the tropical Atherton Tablelands to the west, and Mission Beach to the south. You can explore the forest via boat along the Daintree River (and spot some crocs along the way), 4WD day tours or on horseback at Cape Tribulation.

Kuranda, the mountain village within the rainforest 25 kms northwest of Cairns, offers activities such as the scenic railway and skyrail cable car to view the scenery from a whole other angle. There’s also hiking trails and wooden boardwalks for self-guided forest adventures.

The gateway to the Daintree, which is at least 130 million years old, is Mossman Gorge, which you can experience through the eyes of local Indigenous people on a guided walk. 


Kuranda Scenic Railway. Image: Tourism and Events, Queensland
Agincourt Reef. Image: Tourism and Events, Queensland
Mossman Gorge. Image: Tourism and Events, Queensland

RACV Members save more on amazing travel experiences.
Discover more →