A little planning goes a long way on family holidays when you have kids. We know all too well it can be tricky keeping every member of the clan happy while away from the routine and creature comforts of home. Fortunately, Cairns and Tropical North Queensland is home to two World Heritage-listed sites of the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. And fortunately, those two sites are a natural, pristine wonderland providing hours of entertainment for the whole family.
Now keeping in mind it’s not all about the kids – you want to enjoy your holidays as much as the little ones, after all! So we’ve pulled together our top 10 things to do in Cairns with kids. Read on and hopefully you’ll find some inspiration.
1. Great Barrier Reef
A visit to Cairns wouldn’t be complete without a day tour to the Great Barrier Reef. Teeming with vibrant coral and marine life, including some well-known characters such as Wally the friendly Maori Wrasse, the reef is a spectacular day for all. The world’s largest reef system, people travel from across the globe just to explore this awe-inspiring living structure and tick it off their bucket list.
Whether you’re staying in Cairns or Port Douglas, there are plenty of tour options, but our hot tip is to book this as soon as you’ve locked in your accommodation. Spaces on the boats are hard to come by during the school holidays. Depending on the age and swimming abilitiy of your kids, depends on which reef trip would be suitable for your family. If you have young children you may prefer an Island day trip. A pontoon reef trip caters to a wide range of abilities, and then a snorkel or dive boat is great for those with older kids with good swimming ability.
2. Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
This 4800sq m saltwater lagoon located in the heart of the Cairns CBD, right on the Esplanade, is hard to miss, just look out for the five, stainless steel woven fish sculptures. Offering visitors a year-round swimming option, free from stingers that arrive during the summer months, it’s a place to soak up the sun with the Trinity Inlet and coastal mountains providing a stunning backdrop. A lifeguard monitors the area – this, coupled with plentiful shallow spots, makes it a safe space to swim and perfect for the younger ones to splash about. The Cairns lagoon is filled with water from the Trinity Inlet via a filtration system. So, if you can’t swim in the ocean, this is pretty close!
Muddy’s Playground, located nearby, is a popular waterfront park for children under 5. There’s a rope bridge, play houses, slides, a see-saw, and a water play area. A dry option for play time – or if the kids need to expend even more energy after their swim.
3. Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park
Mossman Gorge is where both locals and tourists descend during the hot, summer days for a refreshing swim. Located in the southern part of the Daintree, the most popular swimming hole is set against a backdrop of steep, rainforest-clad mountains, while cool waters feeding the spot cascade over smooth, gigantic boulders. A popular family activity is the half day drift snorkel tour.
The Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk is well worth it. Ngadiku means stories from a long time ago. The Kuku Yalangi Indigenous people have a deep connection to the land and your guide will share the stories that have been passed down over generations as you explore the rainforest on foot. You’ll be welcomed with a cleansing smoking ceremony, learn about the medicinal and culinary qualities of plants, and visit a sacred ceremony site. Your guide will also point out wildlife and vegetation that you otherwise would have walked straight past.
This activity is recommended for children 5 years and above. The guides are great with young children, but if you do find your little ones are getting restless, the popular water hole and gorge itself is only a five-minute bus ride away. And you can reward yourself, and the kids, with a coffee and ice-creams afterwards.
4. Kuranda, Atherton Tablelands
Known as the ‘Village in the Rainforest’ Kuranda is enveloped in World Heritage rainforest. Enjoy a day trip to Kuranda on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, where your gondola will glide just metres above the rainforest canopy, or hop aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway. As you make your way past thick rainforest, waterfalls, deep ravines, and jaw-dropping views, you’ll understand how lives were lost during its construction between 1886 – 1891; considered an extraordinary engineering feat even by today’s standards. You’ll receive a commentary along the way that’ll delve deeper into the history of the railway and the area.
Once in Kuranda are plenty of family-friendly activities to choose from, including Birdworld Kuranda, home to more than 60 species of tropical birds; Australia’s largest butterfly sanctuary, with over 1500 butterflies; and the Koala Gardens where you can pat a koala and hand feed wallabies. The river cruise is where you’ll spot crocodiles, turtles, and water dragons.
The Kuranda markets are a big drawcard too, with an array of arts and crafts, plus delicious, homemade sweet treats.
5. Waterfall Circuit, Atherton Tablelands
This little adventure is guaranteed fun for the whole family. Make a day of chasing waterfalls by breaking up the circuit with visits to a few of the other key attractions found in the rolling hills of the Atherton Tablelands. Malanda Falls, for example, is located only nine minutes away from the Curtain Fig Tree in Yungaburra. Estimated to be more than 500 years old, you’ll feel tiny against this towering natural structure. The crater lakes of Lake Eacham is a lovely spot for a swim, and Lake Barrine offers a wildlife cruise for spotting local animals.
Only a 20-minute drive away, be sure to include Millaa Millaa on your list of falls to visit. At 18-metres tall, it’s probably the most photographed of all the waterfalls. The ample grassy area also makes it a good spot to stop for a picnic too, before kicking on to more swimming holes. Or you could visit the Mungalli Creek Dairy, only 12 minutes away, for a bite to eat – how does a cheese platter, Ploughman’s Lunch, or a chicken pot pie sound? – on your way to Mungalli Falls.
6. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures
With origins dating back as far as 1933, this award-winning outfit sure knows a thing or two about crocs. It was the first place in Australia to breed crocs in captivity, committed to the conservation of the species as numbers started to dwindle in the 60s after years of hunting. Now Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is one of the oldest, most visited attractions in Tropical North Queensland.
A cruise around Hartley’s Lagoon is certainly one of the highlights. Their custom-built boats have been designed so every seat has a view of a croc leaping into the air to secure its snack. But it’s not just about the crocs. You’ll learn about other revered animals, such as the endangered Cassowary. Stick around for the 4.30pm feed of the koalas, when they eventually wake up! There is so much for the kids to absorb, they’ll be fast asleep on the drive home.
7. Fitzroy Island and Green Island
Both Green Island and Fitzroy Island are popular day trips with families. Adorned with lush rainforest, open woodland, and coral beaches, they area apart of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and only a 45-minute ride from Cairns.
Enjoy some optional snorkelling, island walks, beach activities, resort cafes and more. If you have time, squeeze in a visit to the island’s Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre at Fitzroy island. Run completely by volunteers, it’s a non-profit organisation dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick and injured turtles. Places on the tours are limited though, so book as soon as you arrive on the island.
8. Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas
No matter what your age, hand-feeding a wallaby or patting a koala is downright heart-warming. And what better place to do it than at an immersion exhibit at in Port Douglas.
Wildlife Habitat has a whole range of family-friendly activities to choose from, including Breakfast with the Birds, Picnic with the Parrots, and the WildNIGHT Nocturnal Tour, where you can get to know the Lesser Sooty Owl, the endangered Mahogany Glider, and many more characters from the night shift. Or perhaps your 8 – 14-year-old has shown a keen interest in the life of a zoo keeper, or simply can’t get enough of cuddly little critters of any sort. Enrol your child in the Junior Keepers program and they’ll get hands-on experience and an insight into the life of a wildlife keeper. The four-hour session runs during school holidays from 11.00am – 3.00pm, includes lunch and afternoon tea, and is limited to 15 kids per session. You can now also even swim with a Crocodile!
10. Sugarworld Waterpark, Cairns
Ask a local what their favourite thing was to do as a kid and you’ll receive, “Sugarworld!” as a response, without hesitation. Ask the same local what their parents did, and you’ll hear: “They went on the slides too, of course,” coupled with a puzzled expression.
And in a tropical climate, waterpark action, that’s fun for the whole family, really is a no-brainer. Set on 17 hectares of land, among tropical gardens and fruit orchards, with peacocks elegantly roaming freely, Sugarworld has been entertaining generations of kids for nearly 30 years. There are also plenty of shaded areas that you can watch the kids from if you’ve had your fill of waterslide action. The kiosk serves up burgers, hot chips, salad sandwiches, and cold drinks and ice creams. But if you’d prefer to bring your own, there are also BBQ facilities and picnic areas. Located on the south side of Cairns - a hire car is needed.
Read more about Family Friendly travel tips on the Great Barrier Reef.