Things to do around Cairns
Visitors to Far North Queensland are spoiled for choice when it comes to things to do and see around Cairns. Whether you’re a nature-lover, a foodie or an adventurer, the coastal capital of Cairns is the perfect gateway to the wonders of Tropical North Queensland.
Self-driving tours are definitely among the best ways to see this stunning far northern land beyond Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. Breathtaking waterfalls, rainforest drives, bespoke food producers, country markets and fascinating heritage add up to a treasure chest of exploration.
The Atherton Tablelands is located approximately 90 minutes north-west of Cairns, and is perfectly do-able as a day-trip. To get the full impact of this beautiful tropical region, it’s worth planning an overnight stay or two at the nearby towns Atherton or Yungaburra and heading out on a road trip you’ll never forget.
As proud locals, we’ve put our heads together to bring you some insider tips of the best things to do around Cairns and our home in the Atherton Tablelands. So grab your keys, pick up a map and hit the road. And don’t forget to bring a hearty appetite!
A road trip from Cairns through the Atherton Tablelands
Winding up the Gilles Range Highway from coastal Cairns towards the Atherton Tablelands, the landscape gradually transforms from tropical palm trees and cane fields to rich green, rolling hills. Driving along country roads surrounded by lush farmlands, past sheep and cattle with the clouds enveloping the top of Queensland’s highest peak, Mt Bartle Frere, in the distance, it’s easy to feel your mood lift as the humidity drops.
Welcome to the Atherton Tablelands, where food provenance distance is measured in steps, not miles; a place where the ‘paddock to plate’ lifestyle is the norm, not the exception. The Atherton Tablelands is considered the ‘food bowl of the North’, thanks to an abundance of local growers and producers, many of whom you’ll meet at the Yungaburra Markets on the fourth Saturday of every month.
While white-tablecloth dining is a rarity, farmhouse cafes and roadside honesty boxes are not. Here, dairy farms churn out award-winning cheeses, artisans create handmade chocolates, and coffee plantations and local distilleries are a growing concern. Here is a list of the best places to stop on a road trip from Cairns.
This gorgeous rainforest township will make you feel as though the outside world is a world away. It’s a charming destination for locals, holidaymakers and honeymooners. Set against the magnificent (and highly Instagrammable) Barron Falls, a 260m granite-faced waterfall in Barron Gorge National Park, lush tropical rainforest and a melting-pot of creative arts, it’s also famous for the daily Kuranda Markets (there are two locations, each with its own quirky, eclectic vibe). Enjoy the Falls from the boardwalk or take a ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Experience the sensation of gliding just metres above the rainforest canopy.
What better way to start your day than by gliding over the countryside watching dawn break in a hot air balloon? From Kuranda, Mareeba, the Tablelands largest town, is 30 minutes further up the highway. Rise early for the best spot in the house to watch sunrise, with Raging Thunder or Hot Air Cairns departing every morning from Mareeba.
As well as a centre for hot-air ballooning, Mareeba is also famed for its coffee-growing. And after all that early adventure, you’re likely to need that caffeine hit to set you up for the rest of the day. Coffee Works provides the perfect spot. What began as a single market stall at Cairns’ Rusty’s Markets in the late 1980s is now a world-class coffee experience with numerous styles and blends, a large range of fine handcrafted chocolates from local cocoa growers, liqueurs and the Coffee World Experience – an interactive all-you-can eat tasting space complete with historic memorabilia. The Gift Shop is also the perfect spot to pick up locally made mementos to take home.
Want something a little harder than coffee? Mt Uncle Distillery, based in the foothills of a banana plantation in Walkamin, just outside Mareeba, has built an unrivalled reputation producing award-winning premium spirits and liqueurs using as many local ingredients as possible. It was recently named as one of the six top craft distilleries in Queensland, and it’s The Big Black Cock Rare Single Barrel Single Malt Whiskey, and Botanic Australis Bushfire Smoked Gin both won gold medals at the 2018 Melbourne International Spirits Competition.
Located on the Kennedy Highway, in the confluence of the roads leading in and out of the Tablelands, Emerald Creek Ice Creamery is a must-visit. Established out of a love for local fruits and creamy treats, this boutique ice creamery makes more than 40 flavours of ice-cream and sorbet, from all-time favourites such as rum and raisin to unique and exotic local ingredients including Davidson plum, dragon fruit, lilly pilly and wattleseed.
Atherton and Ravenshoe
Atherton is the second largest town in the Tablelands, but widely considered a central point for accessing all the region has to offer. Located just outside Atherton, Gallo Dairyland is a 1000-acre working dairy farm, with milking cows, geese, ducks, alpacas and a baby animal nursery for the kids. Adults can concentrate on the great selection of local teas, coffee, honey and jam alongside a fantastic range of award-winning cheeses and handmade chocolates.
Or start the day off early and head south to reach Ravenshoe – Queensland’s highest town. Grab a bite at the legendary Ravenshoe Hotel, which is on the way to Millstream Falls, Australia’s widest single-drop waterfall. The area is full of classic roadside honesty boxes courtesy of the local producers. Fill up on locally grown fruit and vegetables – the pineapples, mangoes and bananas are the best you’ll ever taste.
Millaa Millaa and Malanda
Next, enjoy the wonderful scenic drive along the ridge as you make your way back to Millaa Millaa. This town lies at the heart of the Atherton Tablelands Waterfall Circuit a must for every waterfall tragic among us (and we know there are plenty out there!). Millaa Millaa, Zillie, Papina, Elinjaa and Mungalli Falls make up the circuit, and each one is spectacular in their own right.
Stop in at Mungalli Creek Dairy – a biodynamic dairy farm just outside Millaa Millaa, that not only produces a wonderful range of cheeses, milks and yoghurts, but is a wonderland of native flora and fauna. This is a place to refuel and relax, with stunning views of Mt Bartle Frere.
While on the nature trail, the Atherton Tablelands are renowned for their population of platypus. The Australian Platypus Park at Tarzali Lakes is the perfect spot to view these shy little creatures. Head down in early morning or early evening for your best chances of seeing them, keeping as quiet as you can – the bill of a platypus acts as a ‘sixth sense’ for these very sensitive animals.
Sharing the property with Australian Platypus Park is Tarzali Lakes Smokehouse. Producing smoked bacon, sausages, chicken breasts, mackerel and even crocodile, Tarzali has been smoking meats for 20 years. The meat is locally sourced, seasoned with native ingredients and supplied on site in their open-air café or distributed to local traders. Or just load up with goodies and take them with you.
Within this beautiful landscape is our Queensland home. Nerada Tea Estate is near the dairy town of Malanda on top of the Tablelands. It’s very different from any other tea-growing region in the world. Rising more than 700m above sea level, the winning combination of rich volcanic soils, high altitude and ample rainfall provide the perfect conditions for growing our single-origin black tea.
Yungaburra and The Great Crater Lakes
Finally, make your way up to the historic village of Yungaburra, where, on the outskirts, you’ll find The Gillies Roadhouse, certainly worthy of a stop. A café, shop and information centre all in one, the Gillies Roadhouse is run by a local family with a passion for the Tablelands, and there’s little they can’t tell you about the region and its attractions. Time your trip right (make it the fourth Saturday of the month) and artisan goods from the iconic Yungaburra Markets will stay with you as a reminder of your time here.
For the nature lovers, save enough daylight hours to experience the Great Crater Lakes of the Tablelands, extraordinary natural structures that point to this region’s volcanic past. Be sure to pack your swimmers, because you won’t want to miss a dip in Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine. You can also take in a bird’s-eye-view from the platform along a boardwalk of the mysterious green waters of Mount Hypipamee. Lake Eacham is set amid beautiful tropical rainforest and is ideal for a picnic or barbecue (now you know why you’ll need to stop into Tarzali Lakes Smokehouse!). For a walk that won’t leave you short on breath, but still blown away, take to the Lake Eacham circuit track, which promises wet tropics rainforest to one side and views of the deep blue lake (with resident turtles) to the other.
So, there’s plenty to whet the appetite for venturing beyond the borders of Cairns. And the Atherton Tablelands are just the beginning.