Adventure to the Great Barrier Reef and Cairns

January 12 – 15, 2020

After graduating from the University of Tennessee, my mom and I traveled to Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii. I have told you about Sydney, Kauai, New Zealand, and the last to talk about is Cairns, Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef. We went to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef, which, like most people, has always been high on my bucket list. We flew to Cairns for three days from Sydney and flew to Christchurch to start our New Zealand leg. The flight from Sydney was about two hours and is definitely worth the trip. A beautiful part of Australia and worth the extra stop on our trip.


Great Barrier Reef – Our first excursion in Cairns was a boat ride out to the GBR. We booked our trip through a company called Down Under Dive. It was an 8-hour trip that included the hour and a half ride out to the reef, two snorkeling spots on the reef, lunch, and either the journey back or extra money you could take a helicopter back to Cairns. We took the boat the whole way, which was great, but if I could do it again, I would take the helicopter. Being able to see the reef from the air would have been worth the extra money, the areas we saw were blue and beautiful, and I would’ve loved to see more. The reef itself was mesmerizing. There were a ton of exotic looking fish, and we even saw a turtle while we were exploring. We also heard from one of the divers that they saw a small shark swimming around the area. The first stop had A LOT of jellyfish, but they provided lycra suits to make sure the stings wouldn’t hurt us. You could still feel the little stings which were irritating me, so I got out of the water, but shortly after doing so, the tide changed, so we got back in again and saw a ton of fish. If you decided you want to explore the reef more closely, they would teach you how to dive right off the boat’s back. This is a great thing to do if you’ve always wanted to scuba dive and want to be a little extra adventurous. Out of the two sites we stopped at, we liked the second the best that was the one with the turtle and larger interesting fish. The ride back was slightly choppy, but they had drinks, and we got time to talk to the two guys we had met on the boat. The day we went, it was slightly stormy, so I would love to see it when it’s sunny to see if it is even more spectacular. Even though it was pouring, it was still so worth the trip, and honestly, the rain felt like an added massage as we were snorkeling.

Kuranda Koala Gardens – Like every tourist that goes to Australia with my extra day, I wanted to get a picture with some of the native animals, aka a koala and kangaroo. We decided with our extra day, which we had nothing booked for, that we would book a day at a wildlife park. We went to Kuranda Koala Gardens, which is up in the rainforest and about 30 – 45 minutes from the Cairns Marina. We ended up taking an Uber there, which was quick and easy – even though the road was super windy, there were stunning views from the highway, so it was a nice ride. The tickets to the wildlife park were about $30 per person, and we bought them online before heading over to make sure we could get in. While you are there, it is like a typical zoo layout, except most of the habitats are open so that the animals don’t seem as cooped up as at a regular zoo. The first thing that you see when you walk in are crocodiles sitting in the water below the path. Many different animals are indigenous to Australia, where they live and their endangerment status. The highlights were the koalas hanging out in a tree, not five feet from the path, being able to take pictures with a koala, and being able to walk through the kangaroo exhibit and feed them a hand full of food. It was worth the day trip to see the animals and seeing the rainforest, which lived up to its name because it started pouring while we were hanging out with the kangaroos. We grabbed lunch at the Koala Gardens and then headed back to Cairns.

Kuranda Scenic Railway – As I said earlier, as we were in Kuranda, it began to rain. The rain only lasted about 20 minutes, but it led to a landslide that closed the road up to the Gardens. We didn’t realize this until we called our Uber back, and they kept canceling when finally one called and let us know. From there, we only had two options on how to get down. We could either take the Skyrail which honestly made me so nervous because it was a 45-minute ride in a gondola like box hanging from a wire over gorges and things. That to me just sounded like a panic attack waiting to happen, so we went with option two, which was the scenic railway. This was a great way to see the area while not feeling like you are going to fall out of the sky. The train ride was about 2 hours but had stunning views of the valley, gorge, and waterfalls. This was a great way to see the rainforest while listening to a recording that told us all about the building of the railway, which I can imagine was extremely difficult due to all the tunnels and being on a cliffside it was initially used for. I wouldn’t take the train both ways since that would be a LONG day, and you wouldn’t see anything new since it is the same route. It was worth going the one way and being able to see the rainforest and the surrounding area.

Where we stayed

Shangri-La Cairns – this hotel was excellent, and everyone who worked there was so lovely and helpful. We spent our downtime at the pool (the beaches in Cairns is like one nightmare after another – crocodiles, sharks, box jellyfish – you name it). The pool was an excellent way to relax after our long days of excursions before dinner.

Where we ate

As I have said in the past, due to my dairy allergy, I can be a creature of habit when it comes to restaurants. If I feel especially nervous, I usually eat at the same restaurant where I feel comfortable more than once, sometimes every night. In Cairns, that restaurant was Waterbar & Grill Steakhouse. This was a delicious restaurant attached to our hotel that we enjoyed. We both got something different each night, so it didn’t feel like we were eating at the same place. If you aren’t like me and like a little variety, there are many great places along the marina to eat. We walked down the boardwalk at the marina after dinner, and it was beautiful and lively (I miss that during COVID). There are a ton of bats, so look up as you’re walking, and you can see them flying across the marina to the rainforest across the water.


We liked Cairns and loved the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns was a great little tropical city right near the GBR and Australian rainforest. If you have wanted to go to the GBR Cairns or Port Douglas, up the coast about an hour, are pretty much your only two choices. I wouldn’t stay in Cairns much longer than two days unless you were looking to do some of the other activities in the area like ziplining, exploring more of the rainforest, or spending a second day at the reef.


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