Hi! We are Ella and Ryan, a travel couple who have just started sharing our adventures on a new Instagram channel: @_lapofthemap. We have been using the pandemic as an opportunity to explore what Australia has to offer – leaving Sydney in early 2021, going on a Cairns road trip, and now making it to Western Australia. Our van “turbo” led us to some incredible places in Cairns and we would love to share these places with you.
Before we get started, we thought it would be a good idea to tell you a little bit more about ourselves – so you know who we are and why you can trust us to deliver this Cairns road trip guide! So, Ella is from New Zealand and Ryan is from Australia. We were both traveling solo in Europe in 2019 (after Ella traveled in Southeast Asia) and we met in a hostel in Poland.
Ryan was meant to move to the UK the day after we met, but he cancelled his flights and joined Ella. We spent the next three months exploring Europe together. Ella moved home and a month later Ryan followed her back. We then did long distance until Covid hit, and we weren’t able to see each other for eight months. We have both always had a passion for travel since we left school and were lucky enough to meet while traveling!
Our Year Long (and Counting) Australia Road Trip
After Europe, we had both visited 30 countries by the ages of 19 and 21 – and we were not ready to stop yet! Just before Covid hit, we had started planning a year-long trip to South America. But our countries shut the borders and that plan fell apart. During that time, we decided that the moment Ella could get into Australia she would move there permanently and we would do a lap of the country in a van (hence our Instagram name)!
We wanted to make the most of travel while we could, it just worked out that Australia was where we could do that. We have now been on the road almost a year and have covered almost everywhere between Sydney to Perth. In this time we have been able to travel through New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia – from Australia’s top beaches to the best national parks in the Outback.
A few of our favorite experiences from our Australian road trip have been sailing the Whitsunday Islands (Queensland), waking up for sunrise in Uluru (Northern Territory) and watching the camels down the beach every night in Broome (Western Australia). We also loved Cairns! We spent five whole weeks in and around the city, and were able to experience so many different things – including all the beaches, waterfalls and Walsh’s Pyramid.
Cairns, A Beautifully Diverse Destination
Having the Great Barrier Reef meet the oldest Rainforest in the world (Daintree), you really get the best of both worlds in Cairns. This region should be on everyone’s bucket list as it accommodates everyone’s desires. One day you can be soaking up the sun on one of the beaches, and the next exploring the waterfalls and trails in the Atherton Tablelands.
Cairns has so much variety as a travel destination and one thing is for sure that you will never find yourself bored in this place. It also has one of Australia’s highest adventure tourism industries – from whitewater rafting, canyoning, bungee jumping and skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef!
Our favorite spot in Cairns would have to be the rural township of Kuranda, just 30 minutes from the CBD. It’s known for its free spirited bohemian community located up in the highlands – accessible by car, Skyrail or the Kuranda Scenic Train. This place was so special to us as we felt welcomed by the locals, as their well known quirky markets really resided with travelers and nomads. We felt like we were amongst our kind of people.
8 Awesome Things To Do on a Cairns Road Trip
- Explore the City: The city of Cairns has an amazing range of bars and restaurants that you can enjoy lined along the esplanade, as well as a large aquarium and free swimming lagoon right on the beach.
- Go Canyoning/Whitewater Rafting or Do Other Adventure Tours: Cairns is one of the best places to experience these adrenaline pumping activities, and really put you out of your comfort zone! Our favorite memory on the trip was canyoning down Behana Gorge, with Cairns Canyoning. It was something we had never planned to do but ended up loving it! A full day spent abseiling, ziplining, sliding down waterfalls and huge rock jumps. It definitely wasn’t for the faint hearted, but we gave it a go and had no regrets – what traveling is all about!
- Drive the Waterfall Circuit/Lake Eacham: Located in the Atherton Tablelands is a loop around Cairns best waterfalls and swimming holes. During this drive you will visit the three most famous spots, including Millaa Millaa Falls, Ellinjaa Falls and Zillie Falls – all within a couple minutes drive of one another. On the way back to Cairns, you can stop into the picturesque Lake Eacham for a picnic, kayak or swim.
- Discover the Daintree Rainforest: One of the world’s most biologically diverse rainforests in the world that is home to a huge number of Australia’s unique animal population. Here you can swim in the epic Mossman Gorge, take an inspiring Aboriginal led cultural tour or embark on a thrilling crocodile cruise down the Daintree River.
- Snorkel/Dive the Great Barrier Reef: You can take a boat trip to the reef and spend all day admiring the vibrant colours of the fish and coral.
- Visit Fitzroy Island: A 45-minute ferry from Cairns to one of Tropical North Queensland’s most beautiful Islands. With gorgeous beaches, snorkeling, hiking and fishing, just to name a few reasons to visit.
- Head to Walsh’s Pyramid: One of, if not, the most photographed spot in Cairns – being the highest natural free standing pyramid in the world. If you are feeling extra adventurous, you can take the four hour hike up to the top to see a 360-degree view of the whole city and region.
- Take a Day Trip to Port Douglas: A beachy town known for its awesome resorts, beaches and boutiques located only an hour north of Cairns. During this drive you can pop into Trinity Beach, and Palm Cove, both tourist hotspots for those who love palm trees and dining with a view. The best beach in this area is definitely Ellis Beach, an incredible place to spend the day surrounded by even more palm trees!
Driving the Gorgeous Great Barrier Reef Drive
Due to the variety of places you will be visiting Cairns has a mix of highways, backroads and scenic roads! The best drive of all is where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef, known as the Great Barrier Reef Drive. Winding through these two World Heritage areas, this gorgeous 140km drive has to be the most stunning road ever!
If there is one thing you have to do while going on a Cairns road trip, it’s definitely the Great Barrier Reef Drive! The Atherton Tablelands also has a nice scenic winding road that takes you through to the Waterfall Circuit.
Travel Tips for your Cairns Road Trip
Being a city, Cairns is somewhere that doesn’t provide free camps in the CBD. In saying that, we came across one of the best free camps just 25 minutes south of Cairns in Gordonvale. This camp is called Greenpatch Reserve and does have a 72 hour limit, but we recommend this spot as a base to explore the region. Even better, it’s located next to Walsh’s Pyramid.
Remember to take things slow in Cairns. Spend the money and experience everything. We planned on passing through Cairns for one week and ended up staying five. There is so much to see in Tropical Far North Queensland and this city is a great base to make the most of your time.
We understand as travelers that it can be hard to fork out the money on expensive experiences but if there is one place you should do it, it would be here. If you have the extra time as well, utilize it in this region as with so much ground to cover, we recommend about two or three weeks if you are planning on including Cape Tribulation and Daintree. Thanks for reading about our Cairns road trip and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did!