Escape to Cairns: 5 must-do weekend roadtrips

By Cathy Finch 8 February 2023
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If you’re seeking a restorative weekend escape, head to Cairns in Tropical North Queensland where self-drive options are abundant. With so much on offer, it’s easy to choose a route conducive to your getaway vibe.

Wander village markets, stroll along secluded beaches, and reboot your body and mind within the surrounding ancient rainforests and reef.            

In Tropical North Queensland there’s a swag of soulful sabbaticals on offer, as well as unbridled action for the more adventurous – challenging hikes, hidden swimming holes and adrenalin-inducing activities. Combined with a growing list of ways to sleep and eat sustainably, your prospective itinerary can be vast and varied.                 

Here are five weekend road trips out of Cairns to help you unravel your travel.       

1.  Head north to Port

Cairns to Port Douglas is only an hour’s drive, but there’s much to experience along this stunning section of highway, so take it slow. Stop to stroll along Palm Cove’s melaleuca-lined esplanade. Continue north along the wending coastal road, which is sandwiched between rainforest and sea, and stop at a handful of designated viewing points to soak in the magnificent tropical coastline. If you’re feeling peckish after all this sightseeing, 58-hectare Thala Beach Nature Reserve welcomes visitors to eat (and sleep if you choose), while enjoying the surrounding forests and unsullied shoreline. When you arrive at your destination of Port Douglas, you’ll discover a chic township that serves up a long list of things to do, from eateries serving up locally grown produce, a host of resort-style shopping options and a local market under a canopy of towering fig trees selling everything from artisan jewellery to fresh fruit and veg.

And of course, you must visit nearby Mossman Gorge – join the local Kuku Yalanji on a Dreamtime walk – and explore the Daintree Rainforest – in the company of Walkabout Cultural Adventures. Both will open your mind and heart to the stories and significance of this region from its Traditional Owners.

While you’re there, set your senses adrift on a unique river snorkel and float with Back Country Bliss Adventures, or head to the Daintree Wilderness Lodge for a peaceful sleep. Add on Cape Tribulation and, further north, Cooktown, for a longer staycation.

2.  Chasing waterfalls

Go chasing waterfalls on a road trip south from Cairns to Mission Beach where there are abundant riches. Pull up for a bushwalk or wander through the lush grounds of Paronella Park, a 1900’s Spanish castle. Behana Gorge, Babinda Boulders, Josephine Falls and a short detour to Etty Bay to spot a local cassowary, should all be added to your itinerary. Mission Beach is one of my favourite laid-back coastal towns, filled with passionate local operators all wanting you to join them on an adventure. Many enthusiasts gather here for the surrounding white-water rapids, sea-kayaking experiences, scuba and snorkelling, skydiving, fishing and boat hire. If you’re a water baby, this is the trip for you, finishing off with a short water taxi ride to nearby tropical Dunk Island. Transfers to the island are available through Great Barrier Reef Fishing and Island Tours

3. Lake escape

Just over an hour’s drive south of Cairns, Crater Lakes National Park contains two volcanically formed lakes – Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham. Known as Yidyam or Wiinggina to the local Ngadjon-Jii people, Lake Eacham offers a picturesque spot to take a swim – the lake’s clear blue water reaches depths of 65m – and cook up a feast at one of the onsite barbeques. Walk off your food on the 3km track that skirts the lake or if you’re staying at Lake Eacham Tourist Park grab a canoe or kayak and workout your arms and shoulders. At nearby Lake Barrine, refuel with a Devonshire tea served on the balcony of a 90-year-old teahouse, which is flanked by stunning bull kauri pines and has beautiful views of the water. A boat ride is also on offer to learn more about the area and spot the local waterbirds. Nearby, discover the township of Yungaburra, brimming with history, and the crowd favourite, Millaa Millaa waterfall, is also within easy reach. 

4.  Fronds to farming – heading west

Pick up an Apollo Camper in Cairns and head inland to the Atherton Tablelands and the multicultural township of Mareeba to unearth the food bowl of the tropics, where coastal palm trees give way to eucalypt woodlands and thriving wetlands. En route, and before leaving the rainforest, stop at the rainforest village of Kuranda to enjoy colourful hilltop markets (Wednesday to Sunday) and immerse yourself in the local art and crafts on offer. Just 5km out of town, Barron Falls boardwalk and viewing platform offers spectacular vistas of this dramatic gorge and surrounds. Catch a ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway or wander the picturesque trails or continue your drive to Davies Creek National Park, where you can cool off in the natural infinity pool at the top of the falls and take a walk into history and culture on the Bunda Bibandji Rock Art Walking Track, home to the largest Aboriginal rock art complex in the Cairns Hinterland region. Nearby Emerald Creek Falls is also a favourite for a refreshing dip. 

Arriving in Mareeba, it’s all about wine and coffee. Visit a winery or enjoy a cuppa at a plantation or indulge your caffeine addiction along the entire coffee trail. Meet some of the local rock wallabies on the outskirts of town at Granite Gorge Nature Park, or if birds are your passion, take a tour with FNQ Nature Tours to the Mareeba Wetlands. In the morning, inflate your lungs with country fresh air on a hot air balloon ride, floating high above the surrounding farmlands.           

5.  Volcanic drive

If you are up for a few extra kilometres on your weekend drive, a trip into Tropical North Queensland’s Gulf Savannah Country offers something very different. Undara Volcanic National Park is roughly three-hour’s drive from Cairns and if you’re a lover of geology, this is the trip for you. 

Undara is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘long way’ and this is one of the longest lava tube cave systems in the world. The tubes formed 190,000 years ago when a molten volcano erupted, spilling enough lava to fill Sydney Harbour three times over. When the lava drained, a series of hollow tubes remained and these were further shaped over the years by water, wind and rain.

To see the geological wonders, you’ll need to join one of the Undara Experience’s Savannah Guides – the two-hour Archway Explorer tour covers some of the highlights of the system via boardwalks and stairs while the Wind Tunnel Explorer guarantees adventure, taking you to three sections of the tubes across.

Undara Experience is open between March and November annually but there are many other well-preserved volcanic features within the park, including craters, lava ponds and perennial springs, to explore at any time of year. Once home to 164 volcanoes, the park includes a range of walking tracks. To really get a lay of the land, take the Kalkani Crater Walk, which follows the line of the volcano and the crater rim. The views of lava plains and other volcanic vents are mesmerising – set aside 1.5 hours for this 2.5km return walk.

Mossman Gorge rainforest and river.

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This article is brought to you by Cairns & Great Barrier Reef.