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A Brief Guide to the Region for Families

Fun, Free, Inexpensive, and Simple Things to Do

This list is in no particular order, and intentionally leaves out arcades and other activities that too closely resemble opportunities kids have back at home. While this author has extensive experience traveling with pre-teens and adolescents in the region, he has none whatsoever with the wee ones. Use your good judgment; after all, you know your brood much better than we do!

Reef Trip Tips
Reef Teach
Walks and Hikes
Dining and Food
Day Care
Special Events
Farmers’ Markets
Sporting Events
School of the Air

Reef Trips - You can’t come here without heading out to the reef. However, with kids you should choose your reef trip more carefully. We recommend that you search our Reef Trip Index for “Reef Visitor” trips. These trips use larger boats with more deck space, often visit islands or large pontoons, or have semi-submersible boats, so part of your family can stay dry and have fun while others are in the water. These operators are also much more familiar with caring for families. Most of them have morning and afternoon snacks, lunch and have still more snacks for sale, but you might want to bring what you think is appropriate for your family for between meals.

Reef Teach
Cairns local Paddy Colwell runs a fast-paced and lively illustrated lecture on the Great Barrier Reef nearly every night in his shop downtown. We recommend this great introduction to the reef for kids 12 and up. If you’re planning a trip to the reef, we think it’s a must. Very affordable, perhaps AUS$10, and well worth it.

There are several outstanding one-day wildlife experiences operating here, led by personable and knowledgeable guides. Check out our list of them in our Adventure Trip Index to choose one that suits your family.

If you have less time there are three wildlife parks outside of town. Wild World is a bit touristy, but gets you up close and personal with most Australian wildlife. They have an amazing collection of snakes, and hold shows and demonstrations all day. About 15 minutes North of Cairns, Wildworld is serviced by bus. Admission is charged.

We really like Hartleys' Creek Crocodile Farm. They focus mainly on crocodiles, and an exhibit of koalas, kangaroos and cassowaries. Their new facility is a very natural, thoughtful and park-like setting. The paths wind around lagoons filled with crocs, and there are also guide boat tours, lectures, demonstrations, and other very educational and interesting presentations. They also operate a shuttle service between the farm and your lodging in Port Douglas or Cairns..

Rainforest Habitat - Located in Port Douglas this facility recreates local rainforest in an enormous enclosure, filled with the wildlife that is often difficult to see in the nearby forests without a guide. The collection of bird life here is especially interesting, and we like the fact that you can get very close to these animals (or they close to you) in a nature-like setting. Admission is charged.

All the beaches below have lifeguards on duty all year. Follow their advice about the hazards of swimming - stinger jellyfish are sometimes found in these areas during some months. Many of these beaches also have playgrounds of various sizes for the little ones.

Trinity Beach - This place wins our vote as the best beach for kids. It is a small (1/2 mile) beach with a swimming enclosure during stinger season, a number of food shops for snacks, and a beach rental outfit that will rent you anything from a beach umbrella to a windsurfer. Remember to follow the rules in stinger season. Bus service is available from downtown Cairns

Palm Cove - A little further out, with fewer snack shops. There is a dock to walk on and a long, long beach. Remember to follow the rules in stinger season. Bus service is available from downtown Cairns

Ellis Beach - This must be one of the prettiest beaches in Australia. About 30 minutes North of town, with one small café, and miles of nearly deserted beach, it is by far our favorite. Remember to follow the rules in stinger season

Port Douglas - Four Mile Beach - Four miles of sand, how wonderful. The cafes and lifeguards are nearest the town, and there is ample room for play or a stroll.

Walks and Hikes
Our favorite walks below should get you started. If you are really committed to exploring on foot, you may want to purchase a guide to walks in the area. You’ll find one in most bookshops in town

The Esplanade at Sunset - Lots of people, lots of strange and noisy birds late in the afternoon, and a good view of the mountains, mudflats and shore. The walk gets less and less crowded as you move away from town. (Bring binoculars if you got 'em.)

The Marina early evening - I don't know about you, but some folks, me included, just like to sit on the long finger of the pier and watch the mountains change color, as all the dive and fishing boats return starting at around 5:00 pm.

Mt. Whitfield - Check out two walks on Mt. Whitfield: The mile long red arrow walk is clearly marked and winds up through the forest to afford great views of Cairns and the airport. The Blue Arrow walk is about 8 miles round trip and is a bit more adventurous. Bring water and avoid the hot part of the day. About a 10-minute drive from downtown.

Centenary Lakes and Fletcher Botanic Garden - A good bet if you carry or push your little ones. This flat trail with a network of paved paths has lots of grass to run on and trees to hide behind. This area is about a 10-minute drive from downtown.

Dining and Food
Eating out during the day should be no problem; heaps of food shops, called Take-Aways, serve everything from All-American burgers to Chinese fare to fruit smoothies. For dinner, you have lots of choices. We like the Cock and Bull Tavern, (1 mile from downtown), the China Café downtown, and the Boardwalk Café at the Pier. There is also a nice row of small restaurants right downtown on Shields Street between the mall and the Cairns Central Station Shopping Center

We highly recommend the Italian tradition of a "pasa giatta", an evening stroll between dinner and desert. Our walks always seem to end up at one of the many ice cream and gelato shops in the downtown area. There seems to be one on every block!

A visit to the night markets on the esplanade will expose your kids and your wallet to every Australian souvenir you can imagine. The markets are a series of small permanent booths, similar to a craft fair in style, with just about everything for sale, from fine gift items to cheesy trinkets

Two iconic and functional Australian souvenirs are the felt bush hat and the horse rider's raincoat. We buy our hats at Cairns Hatters in the Orchid Plaza downtown; they know their stuff and will fit you perfectly. We all bought our coats at City Place Disposals, a camping outfitter located in the brightest yellow building you have ever seen, at the corner of Shields and Grafton Streets in the Downtown area. They offer a great selection of coats at great prices.

There are lots of small playgrounds in the area, just about every beach and park has something. We list these because of their size and/or location.

Cairns Esplanade - About halfway down the esplanade there is a nice playground that gets a lot of use. It’s within walking or strolling distance for the little ones (or those carrying and pushing them.)

Kewarra Beach - This beach has an extensive playground area, set in the shade of some enormous eucalyptus trees back off the beach. There is no lifeguard on duty, but the beach here is very flat, and very shallow. (Remember to be aware of stinger warnings during the season, this beach is not netted.

Palm Park, Port Douglas - A park with a small playground, grassy and shady areas. A great place to watch the boats come in and out of the harbor too. You will find it on the point beside where boats enter the harbor.

Day Care/Child-minding services
Child care is in short supply in Cairns, we were not able to find a day care center that had spaces for casual use by visitors. However, Pelicans at Home, an offshoot of one of the best day care centers in Cairns, is an at home (or at your lodging) care agency. They charge AUD$40 for the first three hours of care, and $10 for additional hours. They are busy and popular, and urge those interested in their services to book well ahead of time. They can be reached by phone at 4032-0088. One of the DiveTheReef families has just had their first child, so expect a more detailed report on local child care over the next few months.

Special Events - Like any town its size, Cairns has festivals, a concert series, parades and other fun community events. Until we finish constructing an online calendar of these events, we recommend you consult the local paper, The Cairns Post, or the community news/entertainment weekly, Barfly, for goings on.

Farmer's Markets - Cairns and Port Douglas could have the most diverse farmers market on earth, both due to the variety of yummy foods available and the farmers who grow and sell them. You'll find fruits, vegetables and people of all colors, shapes and sizes. Local farmers warm right up when you show an interest in their diversity of exotic fruits. We enjoy visiting the market and buying wild-looking things we have never seen before. The less adventurous will recognize the staples, but don't pass up the mangos if they are in season.  

Other tropical fruits that kids like are rambutan, custard apple, mangosteens, mandarins, white sapote, and many of the small varieties of bananas. Indulge your kidís taste buds with some unique, delicious, healthy treats!

The Cairns market, known as Rusty's Market, is in the downtown area and open Thursday evenings, all day Friday and until early afternoon Saturday. The Port Douglas markets are open on Sunday mornings through early afternoon. Be forewarned, the Port Douglas markets are predominantly arts and crafts, be prepared for negotiating allowances and purchases.

Sporting Events
Cairns is a sporting kind of place, and nearly every weekend, and some weeknights, sporting events occur all over town. We recommend you check the Thursday through Saturday editions of the local paper, The Cairns Post, to see what’s going on. Sports include: pro basketball, rugby (two kinds), Australian rules football, cricket, and field hockey. Take note that the Football, cricket, and rugby contests take a while to play, and may test the younger audiences’ attention span.

School of the Air
Cairns is the central hub for a radio-based primary school conducted for children of families living in remote areas. Classes are usually held in the morning, and while this trip may not appropriate for younger kids, we have visited with teenagers who have been intrigued with the notion of sitting in one's kitchen and conducting lessons over a two-way radio with a teacher and classmates spread over many miles of terrain. The small operation is located next to the Flying Doctors Service Headquarters about 15 minutes from the downtown area.

The Cairns Esplanade has a free skateboard halfpipe for the shredders in your family. You’ll have to bring your own protective gear and skate though. Street skating is not permitted, stick to the skateboard park.

We’re interested in hearing about your experiences as you explore Cairns with your kids. Please feel free to contribute to our collection of information by adding your two cents. You can contact us at our email address kids@divethereef.com. We’ll share your hands-on experience with others who come to our site looking for unique and stimulating things to do with their little ones.

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