Gear up for a truly magical road trip once you touch down at Cairns Airport. Cairns is the international gateway to the tropical north boasting two of the world’s most stunning natural wonders side-by-side, the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest. Both are equally impressive ‘must-do’ experiences when visiting Cairns and renting a car. Our talented rental agents living the dream in Cairns have created this 3-day Cairns Reef to Rainforest Road Trip so you can experience the absolute best of both worlds when hiring a car, because after all, nature never hurries, and it’s always there that you find the real hidden gems.
But first, there’s one vital piece of ‘road-tripping’ equipment needed before we begin – a rental car! The local East Coast Car Rental Cairns Branch is a short four-minute drive from Cairns International Airport. Once there our friendly Rental Agents will help you select the right type of car to suit your needs. We recommend the Large SUV Rental to make your experience comfortable and enjoyable.
From the sea to the rainforest, and back again…
We begin our journey heading east along Sheridan Street past the Cairns Airport and through the heart of Cairns City. Here you have the chance to take a short detour through the bustling inner streets of this international portal to the tropical north. A leisurely drive down The Esplanade shows just how temptingly metropolitan Cairns is, with an array of cafes, bars and restaurants dotting the foreshore. The vibe is laidback, with a cool, funky edge, and the attire is flip-flops and a singlet.
If the coastal feel and warm climate isn’t enough to make you stop and order the nearest seafood platter paired with a frothing glass of bubbly at one of the many ocean-caught dedicated eateries along the strip, then we recommend popping into Salthouse, Cairns’ premiere restaurant and bar at the tip of the marina. This venue boasts mountain and direct ocean views with sun-drenched day beds. Or for something intrinsically Australian, take a short drive to the award-winning Hemingway’s Brewery and wrap your laughing gear around one of the local lagers. The expansive 1900s warehouse overlooking the wharf features a 20-metre main bar with 50 beer taps and is the ideal way to spend a lazy afternoon. If you are looking for something more low-key and would prefer to hang with the locals, then check out Rusty’s Markets open every week from Friday through to Sunday where local producers showcase their specialty fares, including exotic fruits and vegetables, plus much more. There is heaps to explore in Cairns City and its surrounds when hiring a car, but we’ve left plenty of time for that later. So, once you’ve grabbed a cuppa, we’re ready to set off south down the Bruce Highway towards Gordonvale near the foot of the Gillies Ranges, our first scenic tour on the Cairns 3-day Reef to Rainforest Road Trip.
Into the rainforest I go to lose my mind and find my soul…
Keep an eye out for the distinctive silhouette of Walshs Pyramid as you drive the 24-minute trip to Gordonvale, a small sugar milling community. From there, you might want to venture a further 30 minutes south to Babinda Boulders, one of Cairns’ most popular natural pools. This heavenly swimming hole is unique, set among a series of smooth granite boulders resting in crystal-clear waters. It is the perfect antidote to a hot day as the water is cool even during the peak of summer so park up, and take a dip. If a quick dip doesn’t pique your interest, then continue your journey from Gordonvale to the Tropical Tablelands. The next official stop is Yungaburra, a 50-minute drive along the Gillies Range Road running south-west and following the Mulgrave River. This twisty road enveloped in ancient rainforest is known for its 263 corners and steep incline and is the perfect scenic drive when hiring a car. In one 19 kilometre stretch you will ascend over 800 metres! There are some phenomenal pitstops along the 50-kilometre journey through the Gillies Range, including the colossal Cathedral Fig Tree 40-minutes into the drive, and only 10 minutes from Yungaburra. Take a stroll among the giant roots of this enormous 500-year-old strangler tree in a dense section of the Daranbulla rainforest, renowned for its early morning bird calls. Its sheer size is breathtaking and will leave you marvelling at the majesty of Mother Nature. Another scenic stop only a short drive along as you make your way to Yungaburra is Lake Barrine. It is hard to believe this one-kilometre wide, tranquil freshwater lake was formed following a volcanic eruption some 10,000 years ago, with the resulting crater giving way to a plethora of flora and fauna. Take a peaceful break from your trip at The Teahouse Café set on the banks of the lake with Devonshire Tea consisting of locally grown tea and coffee and a secret scone recipe going back four generations. After you’ve had your fill of fresh air and tasty treats, it is a leisurely 8-minute drive to Yungaburra, a small country town nestled among the countryside, mountains and volcanic crater lakes unique to the area.
A new day and a new adventure awaits. We’re straight back onto the open road and heading east towards the Kennedy Highway where we embark on a leisurely 40-minute cruise through the towns of Atherton, Tolga and Walkamin. Feel free to stop in and soak up some of the rich history harking back to colonial times or pick up a cheeky snack for the road ahead at one of the many country bakeries. Our first top Cairns destination for the day is Mareeba, the home of liquid gold, or as city slickers like to call it, coffee! Interestingly though, Mareeba was once a gold mining town, but the course of history and its rich volcanic soil unearthed a completely different type of exploration, one involving the growing and production of the popular and addictive coffee bean. Mareeba is the epicentre of the Australian coffee industry growing more than 80 per cent of Australia’s coffee crop. There are several coffee plantations dotted along the Mareeba countryside which you can visit, but we have chosen only one for its truly indulgent and one-of-a-kind experience, a full day of unlimited coffee, tea, chocolates and liqueurs at Coffee Works, a boutique roastery and chocolaterie. If that isn’t enough to keep you buzzing, there is also lots to see and do here with the world’s largest and most significant coffee and tea antiquities collection in the world showcasing 500 years of coffee making history. The museum boasts the first ever espresso-maker among 2000 other specialty items of coffee cultural importance. Sip away until you’re ready to kick-start the journey back into gear and onto something just as epic, but a little more refreshing. We’re driving 30-minutes towards the spectacular Barron Falls, just a 7-minute drive from Kuranda.
Driving west from Mareeba to Kuranda along the Kennedy Highway is a journey through orchards and produce farms, and as you edge closer the lightly timbered country of the Lamb Range comes into view with the Great Dividing Range making an appearance on the outskirts of what is popularly known as the “village in the rainforest”. The namesake could not be more fitting with the town of Kuranda tucked away in the mountains and surrounded by one of the world’s oldest living tropical rainforests. The village has attracted visitors for well over a century and is world famous for its markets with two locations to choose from, the Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets and the Heritage Markets, open every day of the year offering a wide range of local Aboriginal artefacts, handmade leather goods, wood and jewellery. We recommend visiting the Butterfly Sanctuary for an ethereal experience wandering around the abode of over 2000 magnificent tropical butterflies. The sanctuary is the largest indoor light aviary and exhibit in Australia and the southern hemisphere and is the perfect place to escape for a couple of hours if the tropical weather turns to a light drizzle. You can take one of the guided tours at no extra cost throughout the day and make sure you wear brightly coloured clothing to attract even more of the floating angels to flutter all over you. There is also the chance for a behind-the-scenes tour of the breeding laboratory which houses 4000 caterpillars in varying stages of development, a great learning experience for the kids. For more unique wildlife encounters, visit the Kuranda Koala Gardens for a cuddle with one of the full-time furry residents or try Birdworld Kuranda, the home of over 500 species of Australian birds including the colourful rainbow lorikeet, macaw and many more varieties. Following a jam-packed morning of sight-seeing and activities, we recommend parking for the afternoon and visiting Frogs Restaurant situated at the Heritage Markets opposite Birdworld and the Koala Gardens. The almost 30 year-old family owned restaurant is considered an icon by locals and tourists alike with a perfect lunch setting out on the deck surrounded by rainforest and water dragons playing at your feet.
We have saved the best for last, with the Barron Falls our last excursion for day two of the Cairns Reef to Rainforest Road Trip. Possibly the most famous waterfall lookout in Tropical Northern Queensland, the ruggedly tiered Barron Falls is magnificent to behold in the height of the wet season. Water thunders down the deeply incised gorges and sculpted rocks enveloping onlookers in a cloud of mist as it tumbles endlessly to the river 125 metres below. To get there, drive 3.5 kilometres along Barron Falls Road following the signposts to the Barron Falls car park where you can easily access the lookout. Catch a glimpse of the gondolas of the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway gliding above the far-side of the gorge and the Kuranda Scenic Railway tourist train pulling into the platform below the lookout as you take in the glory of the falls. The falls descend from the Atherton Tablelands to the coastal plains of Cairns and out towards the Coral Sea, the perfect way to round-out our Cairns Reef to Rainforest Road Trip as we make our way down the mountains for our final destination of the day, Palm Cove. It will take just over 30 minutes to reach Palm Cove beginning with a 16-minute drive east along the Kuranda Range Road, a long winding highway through lush greenery and a steep descent into the suburb of Smithfield. A quick stop at the Henry Ross Lookout 6 minutes into the journey is an opportunity to absorb the contrasting vast coastal plains of Cairns and the Coral Sea, and the lofty mountainous tablelands in one long, panoramic view. When you reach the base of the Kuranda Range it is from here we switch routes heading north to Palm Cove, a romantic beach paradise lined with palms and century-old “paperback” Melaleuca trees. You are spoiled for choice in Palm Cove, with accommodation to suit almost any taste or budget including international resorts and hotels, holiday apartments and holiday homes. We recommend dining at Nu Nu Restaurant, Palm Cove’s only absolute beachfront dining venue with a menu inspired by the landscape of the far north before settling down for the evening.
Today is all about getting back to the sea (literally!) and we really want you to see, touch and even taste as much of it as possible. First things first though and a short drive down the esplanade for a hearty breakfast from Chill Café is a must. Palm Cove is known as an exclusive destination for the rich and famous and this little corner café perched on the beachfront is a great place for a spot of people-watching. After two days behind the wheel, it is time to release a bit of tension with some spa time right after breakfast to nourish the body and soul. Palm Cove is dubbed the “Spa Capital of Australia” with an abundance of day spas available within a short walking distance along Williams Esplanade. We completely understand why you might want to stay a couple of nights in this idyllic and relaxing destination and if you do we recommend a visit to Exclusive Spas at the Peppers Beach Club where all treatments begin with an ancient foot ritual and an Aboriginal “smoking ceremony”.
The Great Barrier Reef still beckons and in keeping with the laidback vibe of Palm Cove we have chosen an up-close and personal tour aboard Ocean Free, a 16.5 metre sailing schooner. Drive 36 minutes southwest through Trinity Beach, Yorkey’s Knob and central Cairns for an early morning departure from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. The Ocean Free experience is exactly how the reef was intended to be enjoyed with a leisurely sail to your own private reef and the number of onboard guests capped at 25. You can snorkel directly from the boat at any time of your choosing and enjoy trips to the nearby Green Island for bird watching, a cocktail and a walk along the beach. The menu consists of morning tea, a tropical smorgasbord including seafood for lunch and an afternoon tea of cheeses, fresh fruit and cakes topped with a glass of wine for the trip home. It doesn’t get much better than this!
We are at the end of our Cairns 3-day Reef to Rainforest Road Trip, but we can’t let you go without sharing one last secret Cairns hideaway that is a must before you leave. Once you have returned your car to our Cairns Airport retail branch treat yourself to a much earned rest at the secluded Fitzroy Island Resort, a place where the rainforest literally meets the reef. Over 95% of the island is listed as national park with the rainforest encircled by its own fringe reef system. The island is a 45-minute boat ride departing from the Cairns Marlin Marina and offers accommodation for all budgets including a 99-room resort and camping facilities. A delicate coral beach will greet you as you arrive at the aptly named Welcome Bay. And, as the sun sets on the final day of the Cairns Reef to Rainforest Road Trip be sure to grab a bottle of wine and ice bucket from Foxy’s Bar and take the short, 15-minute trek to Nudey beach. From there you can laze about in the warm, blue tropical waters of Cairns sipping a crisp Australian sauvignon blanc as the coral encrusted beach tinkles in harmony with the waves lapping the shoreline. Raise a toast to the towering Cairns hinterland off in the distance where your journey began. Absolute magic.
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