Over the coming months, Experience Oz is running a series answering the frequently-asked question by many potential travellers: “When is the best time to visit...?” for some of the most popular destinations in both Australia and New Zealand. Here, we look at Cairns – fast becoming one of Australia's most internationally-visited travel destinations.
A brief overview of this article:
August dubbed the best time of year to visit Cairns
Average temperatures during this period: Max - 26.5°C (79.7°F), Min - 17.4°C (63.3°F)
Travel in this period means avoiding school holidays
Essential spots to visit while you're there: Green Island, Mossman Gorge, Fitzroy Island, Daintree/Kuranda (via Skyrail)
Cairns sure has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time; it seems that year by year, what was once a little, isolated town up in Australia's tropical north has grown to become one of the most popular sightseeing and party destinations in the country – not just domestically with Aussies, but on the international map as well. All it takes is a simple glance, however, to realise that it's not hard to understand why – Cairns offers an absolute smorgasbord of things to see and do as the area is spoiled with natural riches surrounding it in all directions.
The most obvious of these, of course, is that most stunning of natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef, which offers such a huge range of things to see and do that in itself more than justifies a visit to Cairns. Look inland, meanwhile, and the impressive ecosystem of the Daintree Rainforest also beckons, making for one of the most diverse natural environments to explore within easy reach of a major tourist hub. Cairns itself is no slouch either in terms of activities and other goings-on; the city features a vibrant, energetic nightlife, multiple levels of accommodation facilities ranging from budget backpackers up to 5-star resorts, and plenty of great local eateries to grab a bite to eat without having to bleed your wallet dry.
Cairns' tropical climate in particular makes it a favourite destination of those looking to escape to warmer weather either from colder states down south or for those travelling from the northern hemisphere, and although it suffers from the sporadically heavy amounts of rainfall that comes with the territory due to its proximity to the Equator, there are certain times of the year where you'll be able to experience consistently blue skies and comfortable temperatures. You'll likely want to time your trip to coincide with these periods as best as possible, given that the vast majority of entertainment in Cairns is outdoor-focused, making travelling during enjoyable weather a high priority.
So when, exactly, is the best time to visit Cairns? We asked this question to our various contacts in tourism including regional tourism organisations, travel operators and general “locals in the know”, who – coupled with our own firsthand experience – helped us come up with a consensus. Combining all of this feedback, the best time of year to visit Cairns is... August, for a variety of reasons. Here's a breakdown of exactly what makes August a great time to visit.
Why Cairns in August?
As mentioned above, Cairns shines in August for a variety of reasons – perhaps the most obvious of which, is going for most people to be the weather. While it's technically in the “peak of winter”, the word “winter” is a very relative term when visiting Australia's tropical north; temperatures are almost universally comfortably warm, with only the occasional cool night coming close to what anyone would likely consider “cold”.
Daily average maximum temperatures in Cairns during August typically hover around the 26.5°C (79.7°F), making it an exceedingly popular destination for those from southern states looking for an escape from the winter chill. Couple this warm weather with a far lower humidity level than can be experienced in the hotter months – along with the lowest amount of rainfall of any month of the year – and you have yourself a far greater chance of a guarantee of sunny days on which the majority of things to do in Cairns are so reliant.
These weather factors don't come completely without negatives, however; as it's the coolest time of the year, many will find that water temperatures are too low for swimming or snorkelling without a wetsuit unless you've got a high tolerance for cool water conditions. Fortunately, most tour companies will provide wetsuits as part of their package upon request, and there are numerous facilities in and around Cairns and the surrounding islands that offer wetsuit hire.
August also brings with it the added benefit of falling outside Australia's school holiday season, meaning that while prices may still be fairly high given the area's popularity during this time, you won't have to contend with an extra factor that can make booking accommodation and getting a bit more peace and quiet otherwise more difficult. Along the same theme, August generally also avoids the bulk of the overseas/international peak season which typically occurs around June-July as well. It's a good thing the weather is pristine during this time too, as there's a ton to do once you're in Cairns.
After settling in to whatever accommodation you've booked, most people will want to turn their eyes immediately towards the Great Barrier Reef, and with good cause – the bevy of stunning islands, wildlife-rich coral cays and prime diving and snorkelling sites is big enough to be almost overwhelming. Your initial choice will most likely come down to choosing between visiting one of the nearby islands, or making the greater trek out to the Outer Great Barrier Reef.
Generally speaking, the islands make for a better target for those either operating on a limited schedule or who are prone to seasickness, while the Outer Reef offers perhaps the “ideal” vision of the reef that most people will have while requiring a little extra effort and investment of time/money to garner a greater reward.
In terms of islands to explore near Cairns, two of the most popular and easily accessible for most visitors and first-timers are both Green Island and Fitzroy Island – both of which lie just off the coast of Cairns yet still offer pretty spectacular reef experiences (particularly for newbies who have no other basis of comparison). Your choice between these two islands will also come down to what you're looking for from an island environment; Green Island tends to be more “touristy” - which can be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your tastes – while Fitzroy is more of a destination of preference for the locals.
Green Island can be reached from Cairns within around 45 minutes to an hour and offers a number of great snorkelling opportunities in its surrounding waters. The island has plenty of fish and coral to be found just off-shore, meaning you won't necessarily have to travel very far to take part in some quality aquatic adventures (again, bearing in mind you'll likely need a wetsuit to swim comfortably during August).
This ability to snorkel almost directly off the beach is a major benefit of choosing Green Island for your trip. If you're not much of a swimming or too confident in the water meanwhile, glass bottom boat tours from Green Island are also exceedingly popular, allowing you to get a glimpse of the marine life below while staying dry aboard what are typically pretty stable vessels.
In addition, one of the most popular -and fairly recently added - activities to on Green Island is its Seawalker diving experience that allows you to equip a fully-enclosed diving helmet and walk directly on the sea floor, taking in all the coral and fish life without having to either be a strong swimmer or take off your glasses/contact lenses. It's suitable for kids as well, so if you're travelling as a family it can be a highly enjoyable – albeit pretty expensive – way to enjoy the crystal-clear waters and colourful marine life of the reef without investing a ton of time into the process.
Those wanting to stay on land have an enjoyable range of experiences available at their fingertips on Green Island; there are various visitor facilities such as pools and underwater viewing areas to take part in, while the simple act of relaxing on its pristine beaches and soaking in the sunshine can be entertainment enough in itself.
Fitzroy Island, on the other hand, is a destination focused a little more towards the relaxation as opposed to the active side of things, although there are plenty of activities to take part in if you're seeking them. Fitzroy Island is more mountainous than Green Island, and is thus more sheltered from the elements than its neighbour as it was originally part of mainland Australia as opposed to being formed as a coral cay. In fact, according to Tim Moloney of Fitzroy Island Resort, its Western-facing bay makes Fitzroy "the ideal reef destination even in poorer weather - this is something Green Island cannot offer due to its lack of mountainous land formations", which is undoubtedly an asset in the cooler months of the year such as August. Fitzroy Island also has its own turtle rehabilitation centre, with daily educational tours and talks for the public, so if you're interested in gaining some extra insight to these gentle and graceful marine inhabitants, it's a great place to do so.
In terms of age as a travel destination, Fitzroy Island is also one of the newest contenders in the Cairns region, having been in operation for only three years - it's still relatively unknown on the worldwide scene, and was recently named as one of Australia's 100 Best-Kept Secrets by Australian Traveller. As a result, crowding tends to be less common than at some of the busier destinations in the area, so if you're looking for slightly more seclusion then it may be the location of choice to suit you.
Looking inland away from the water, meanwhile, you'll most likely want to pay a visit to either or both of Mossman Gorge or just explore the Daintree and its many natural highlights itself. As the world's largest rainforest, the Daintree has plenty to offer for those who appreciate the greener side of things, and the trip to Mossman Gorge contained within is widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and relaxing on offer in Tropical North QLD. The gorge itself - with its crystal-clear, supremely fresh water - is a sight to behold, and the lushness of the rainforest surrounds only serve to add to the atmosphere. While the water is swimmable at other times throughout the year, you'll likely want to give taking a dip a miss during August - "chilly" would be the operative word here, and if it's flowing due to recent rainfall it can actually be quite dangerous.
The Mossman Gorge area also features a walking circuit that takes you into the heart of the rainforest, with plenty of side paths and other smaller offshoots that allow you to get up close with any plant life or other points of interest that may take your fancy. The main walk stretches for around 2km and can be slippery at times (the lack of rainfall in August can help alleviate this slightly) so be sure to bring proper walking/hiking shoes along with you to help avoid any mishaps. Getting to Mossman Gorge is possible in a couple of ways, depending on how fit you're feeling.
If travelling independently, you'll have the option of parking and then walking from the Daintree Visitor's Centre (several kilometres - be prepared) or be able to pay for a relatively cheap bus ride to the gorge itself (a big time and energy saver, especially considering you'll likely be walking several ADDITIONAL kilometres around the gorge area anyway).
Plenty of tours include Mossman Gorge as one of their core focal points as well as offering various other regional highlights - such as Cape Tribulation and more in-depth Daintree exploration options - on their itineraries. A Daintree river cruise is one particularly popular option, as winding your way through the heart of the rainforest while soaking up the peaceful surrounds can be quite enticing. And, of course, one can't forget the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway - basically an impressively-located cable car - that takes you up above the canopy of the rainforest and provides some spectacular views of the rainforest/reef contrast below.
The Skyrail features different stops at various highlights (the Barron Falls and Kuranda "village in the rainforest" are both absolute musts) that are famed throughout the region while providing a great sightseeing journey in itself, so although it's quite expensive - be sure to buy a family pass if you are bringing kids - it's well worth it.
Add all these factors and travel options together and - assuming you're willing to tolerate the occasional bout of cool weather at night that may break your "tropical" conception of the region slightly - it's not hard to see why most in the know feel that August is the best time of year to visit Cairns.
Bonus Question: Can I experience Cairns in a weekend?
Kind of... but not properly. You'd be much better advised to take at least one extra day off and make yourself a long weekend (as opposed to travelling on “actual” long weekends with public holidays as otherwise you'll be fighting crowds all scrambling to do the same thing) to try and get the most out of a short stay. However, if you're limited to two days, most experts advise on splitting your itinerary into "reef one day, rainforest the next"; luckily, the close proximity of both natural features to the city makes this definitely doable.
If you're pressed for time, this is the case where you will likely want to book a tour or three to ensure you get the most out of your journey - the majority of tour operators understand that many who visit are short on time and have designed itineraries in order to help maximise this.
Numerous packages are available that provide reasonable discounts on providing tour itineraries to multiple locations – for example, bundling Green Island and the Kuranda Skyrail together – that will allow you to experience the best of both worlds, while individual options such as a day trip to Fitzroy Island can be combined with other full or half-day options depending on how busy you want to keep yourself. Bear in mind, however, that if you go this route you'll likely have little “down time” to simply relax and enjoy Cairns and its offerings other than at night – so you may want to at least give yourself half a day to wander around the city or relax on the beach.
Lastly, if you're looking for a range of other things to do in and around Cairns not only in August but at various other times throughout the year - including tickets to some of the area's most popular attractions and tours - be sure to visit our main Cairns region section to browse and book online.