Family Travel Survival Guide: Cairns & Tropical North Queensland

Taking the kids across the Pacific Ocean can be daunting, especially if you're a first-timer. Here, one of our family-travel experts shares a survival blueprint to Tropical North Queensland and the city of Cairns.
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Tropical North Queensland, Australia
A charter boat full of masks and snorkels is an ideal way to enjoy a day with young kids in Tropical North Queensland.  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)
Access & Resources
Getting to Cairns has never been easier. Qantas and Air New Zealand depart daily from New York and Los Angeles. Average fares from Los Angeles start at $1,300 round-trip and $1,900 from New York. However, if you sleuth around, you can find low-season fares slashed to as low as $800 from the West Coast and $1,100 from New York. To enter Australia, you must purchase a three-month tourist visa online. The visa costs AUS$20 per person.

Australia rightly ranks near the top of many Americans’ travel wish lists, but the vast ocean that separates our two continents is typically a journey too far for time- and cash-strapped parents. However, if there’s one place on the globe that rewards adventurous spirits, it’s surely the vast and impressive Great Barrier Reef. Children and adults alike marvel over the sight of this natural wonder and its Technicolor coral reef packed with sea turtles, giant clams, and countless species of fish.

Back on land, Australia’s Tropical North Queensland—the name given to the part of the state that stretches from just south of Cairns to Australia’s northernmost point at Cape York—promises everything from lazy beach days and massages for grown-ups to riding the rails and hopping after kangaroos for the munchkins. Throw in that sense of laid-back friendliness reserved for the tropics, and you’ll feel proud you braved the jaunt over the international date line.

When to Go
The secret to scratching Australia off the wish list is to go during low season (the Antipodean winter, our summer). Luckily, the best time to travel to Australia’s tropical northeast region is from June to August, when temps mellow to a comfortable 80 degrees Fahrenheit; those pesky (and at times deadly) stingers don’t populate the waters; and flight costs are low enough to get your whole family there without digging into their college funds. The only downside is that this is also when Australians populate area beaches after monsoon season, so hotel rooms can be expensive and at times hard to come by. Tropical North Queensland typically enjoys only two seasons, the "green" and the "dry," the former being from November to May, when 75 to 90 percent of the region’s annual rainfall is recorded.

Getting There and Around
OK, let’s get over the major hurdle first—that 24-hour journey. Yes, it is long: almost an entire day of travel from the United States to Cairns, with no direct routes. Many airlines, however, offer free stopovers in Auckland or Tahiti (both choice destinations to explore for a couple of days if you wish), especially during low season.

Once you arrive in Cairns, keep to a light schedule the first few days as your family conquers the inevitable jet lag and the fear of driving on the left side of the road. The most efficient way to view the highlights of Tropical North Queensland (not including the 1,200 miles of reef offshore, of course) is to rent a car or RV (Aussies call them camper vans, and they use the word "hire" rather than "rent"). Though Queensland makes California look small—Brisbane to Cairns is a 1,000-mile drive, and you’re still about 500 miles as the crow flies from the state’s Cape York tip—in the Tropical North, at least, most destinations are within two hours’ drive. Conveniently, most major international rental-car agencies like Avis, Budget, and Hertz are located at the Cairns Airport. A good place to start your search is at sites like Camperman Australia, which rents camper vans starting at $84 a day.

The Lay of the Land
A natural wonderland, Tropical North Queensland is a stew of eye-popping beaches fronting the Great Barrier Reef, lush inland jungles teeming with wildlife, and vast, arid outback. The largest city, Cairns, is tourist central, making it simple to find day trips to the reef, reasonably priced accommodations, and edible cuisine for picky palates. About an hour north of mass-market Cairns, the swanky seaside villages of Port Douglas and Palm Cove sport plush accommodations, pricey eateries, and chic boutiques. To splurge, book a night or two on Dunk or Green islands for some serious reef action with the kiddos. If time permits, motor to one of Queensland’s string of outback parks like Tully Gorge or Undara Volcanic national parks (100 to 150 miles southwest of Cairns) where the kids can run wild, before settling in a seaside village like Mission Beach where the rainforest spills into the azure sea.

Published: 15 Feb 2012 | Last Updated: 22 Feb 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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