I would highly recommend pooling your accommodation and activities budget and booking a trip on one of the region’s live aboard dive boats. If you’re not scuba certified you can completed your open water training on a number of the boats that explore the inner reef, however if you’re good to dive straight in, pardon the bad pun, you can join one of the adventurous 3/4 day trips that leave from Cairns and take in the EPIC untouched Ribbon Reefs, and even the remote atoll Osprey Reef where you can dive with sharks – I’ve done this trip and it is immense!
The only concern here would be your fly/dive time post trip. If you let me know your current accommodation bookings and flight details I’d be happy to put something together for you. If your flights restrict the chance to join a live-aboard I can recommend the best companies and dive sites to opt for, as well as some of the best places to stay by the water. Check out some of the photographs from my two weeks diving the GBR.
Arrive at Port Douglas and Chill on 4 Mile Beach or Take Flight above the GBR
If the 18th is a travel day, I recommend spending whatever time you have after checking in at Shantara, relaxing on 4 mile beach.
The clear waters will wash away the stresses of travel, and with numerous sections of more isolated sand you can find find your own tropical island hideaway and block out any thoughts of the 9 to 5 you left behind.
You’ll find sun loungers and umbrellas to rent in the more populated areas of the beach, a great option for ultimate beach comfort if privacy and peace are not a major concern. Head to Port Douglas Surf Club for a laid back meal and a sea view.
Should the wind pick up and ruin your relaxation, head over to the The Reef Marina on the opposite side of Port Douglas where you can sit and sip a cool beverage in the beautiful Queensland sun, before grabbing a bite to eat at On The Inlet, a seafood restaurant and cocktail bar famous for its mud crabs and waterfront ambience.
If the 18th is the first day of your stay in Port Douglas, why not start your holiday in style and take a reef and rainforest hot air balloon ride? Hot Air Balloon Port Douglas will collect you from the Shantara at around 5am, and you’ll rise above the earth to watch the sun appear above the stunning Atherton Tablelands and azure tones of the Great Barrier Reef.
An epic way to experience the Great Barrier Reef, taking flight under such serene conditions will provide a unique and memorable travel experience.
Snorkelling/Diving Day with Wavelength
Pre arranged snorkelling / dive day trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
Wavelength advises that you bring –
Hat and sunglasses,
Change of clothes,
Jacket or Jumper (in Winter),
Sea sickness medication or measures,
I would suggest you also consider taking a waterproof camera/GoPro to capture your adventure on film, plus a few sweets to suck on in case sea sickness cripples your journey out to the reef.
A Day in the Daintree Rainforest
I highly recommend spending a day exploring the Daintree Rainforest whist you’re based in Port Douglas. The tropical rainforest ecosystem of the Daintree is one of the most complex on earth. Its plant diversity and structural complexity is unrivalled on the Australian continent, and provides a great setting for a 4WD adventure.
After the thrills of yesterday’s aquatic experience immerse yourselves in the incredible diversity of the Daintree, and discover why the region is World Heritage Listed. Tony’s Tropical Tours offer luxury 4WD transport and small groups – 6 to 8, as they take you to exclusive and private Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation locations.
An exclusive Rainforest wilderness experience you’ll first head over to the dramatic Mossman Gorge, then onto the Daintree River to join a river cruise, where you may come face to face with the elusive “Estuarine” crocodile. Stunning native and migratory bird life, butterflies and breathtaking scenery pass you by as you make for Alexandra Lookout to enjoy sweeping views extending from the Daintree River Estuary to the Coral Sea.
From here it’s onto Noah Valley which supports some of the most spectacular, pristine rainforest found anywhere in the world. Enjoy a refreshing swim in the crystal clear rainforest stream, before tucking into a gourmet BBQ lunch in a private treehouse surrounded by rainforest.
After lunch an interpretive guided rainforest walk in the heart of the Daintree rainforest with a stop at Kulki Lookout in Cape Tribulation for unsurpassed views of the rainforest and beach.
Most 4WD tours will collect you from your Port Douglas Accommodation.
Possible 3 Day Live Aboard on the GBR
Ok so I’m throwing this suggestion at you because if you can make it happen it will provide you with THE BEST diving experience possible on the GBR within your time frame.
Mike Ball is world renowned for 5 star luxury dive trips, and the sites that this trip encompasses are world class too. There is a 3 night trip fly/dive trip leaving on the morning of the 20th – this might mean you’d have to cancel a night in Port Douglas? If this is possible I would choose this option. You can read my trip report from the 7 day Coral Sea Safari here.
Port Douglas to Cairns
If the live abroad trip doesn’t suit you plans, you’ve 4 days to spend in Cairns.
For AUD32 you can book a seat on a shuttle bus which will drive you the 50 or so kilometres south to Cairns. I’d recommend looking into booking a return from Cairns if you plan to fly into Cairns initially. Book here.
Next look at accommodation. If you’re in the mood for hostel style dorms with fellow budget travellers there are a billion to choose from. I’d probably opt for Travellers Oasis. Alternatively consider an apartment rental through Airbnb. For slightly more a night you can have your own digs and not worry about communal bathrooms or cooking facilities. This one looks great, location is perfect, easy access to great bars/restaurants in the evening and activities during the day.
Cairns is a crazy party city so if you’re looking for a good time you can find fun almost anytime of day. The Esplanade Lagoon is a meeting place for the young and bronzed of Cairns, so if you’re looking to meet people this is a good place to start. The Esplanade is also the place for markets, free activity and fitness classes, it makes a great running route or place to clear your head after a heavy night.
I’d say that by the time you arrive in Cairns today you’ll be ready to head out for a beer. Try the pizza at Rattle n Hum, and then head to Gilligans for midnight madness.
2 Day Live Aboard with Divers Den
Back to the GBR! If the Mike Ball trip doesn’t come off, Divers Den offer 2 day, 1 night trips – if you want to do this book asap as trips fill up quickly.
Note that you will be out of the water by 12pm on the 2nd day so take this into consideration along with the time and date of your departing flight when you book. PADI recommend 18 hours minimum surface interval before flying, leave 24+ if you can.
Inspiration for Three Days in Cairns
If none of the diving options come to fruition here are some suggestions for other ways to make the most of your stay;
Raft The Mighty Tully River – Regarded as the best rafting river across Australia and New Zealand, the Tully is a white water force to be reckoned with. Cairns Rafting will collect you from Cairns and take you down the grade 3&4 course before returning you safely 12 hours later. Cost pp AUD199
SkyDive The Reef – See the beauty of the GBR from above as you test your nerve and take a leap of faith with over one of the world’s most scenic landscapes. Book here. Cost pp Height dependant AUD299+
Adrenaline Highs Bungee Jumping and Minjin Jungle Swinging – Nestled in the heart of a lush rainforest surroundings, this is the place to go for those looking to get the blood pumping in Tropical North Queensland. Book here. Cost pp AUD159+
Favourite Food and Drink
Head to Rusty’s Market for mouthwatering cheap Asian eats, glasses of sugar cane juice and fresh coconuts
The Pier Bar
A chilled out, fun atmosphere and a killer location The Pier Bar ranks highly on the nightlife hot list. As well as having a killer cocktail menu and revolving list of bartenders’ specials, the Pier Bar is also the home of a string of stellar regular events. Wednesday is the weekly busker night,Pier Pong Thursdays is also a fun time, with prizes including Reef Trips and bar tabs up for grabs.
Shop Around for Tours and Activities If budget is a concern, shop around before booking tours and activities. You can often get a good deal by going direct to the operator and quoting prices you’ve been pitched by 3rd parties. Ask for a 10-15% discount and suggest that by dealing with you direct they are reducing their outlay in commission, and giving you a good deal. Win-win!
Cheap Eats Abound in Cairns There are plenty of low cost eating options in Cairns. I love Grill’d Healthy Burgers and Paradise Sushi. Late night favourite Pie face is open 24/7!
Book an AirBnb Stay If you fancy having your own space, close to the Esplanade but within budget. Look at the wealth of AirBnb listings in central Cairns.