Being two of the most popular gateways to the Great Barrier Reef – as well as quality escape holiday destinations in their own right – both Cairns and Port Douglas are key players on the Aussie tourism scene. As two of the true gems of Queensland travel and sightseeing, and with their location relatively close to one another, the question often arises for those looking to hit the reef – which of Cairns or Port Douglas is better for me, and – perhaps more importantly - why?
Looking for all the best tours, activities and things to do in Tropical North QLD?
While it may seem like a simple question at first (they're both tropical semi-cities in Tropical North QLD so they can't be that different, right?), looking below the surface the answer becomes a little more complicated. It depends on a variety of factors, namely: What is most important to you as a traveller? Are you looking to relax or be active? Is shopping and nightlife a main focus of your trip? Or are you more of a purely nature-oriented soul?
All this and more come into play when choosing between Cairns and Port Douglas, and here we aim to give you a comprehensive breakdown of each spot's positives and negatives based on a number of different criteria point-by-point with a rating out of 10, leading to a final “overall” rating. In this clash of the titans of tropical QLD paradises, which of Cairns or Port Douglas will come out on top? Read on below to find out.
When considering the natural offerings of each of these destinations, it's perhaps best to look at both the towns themselves as well as the nearby surroundings, and this is especially the case with Cairns. This is because Cairns is much more of an actual “city” than Port Douglas – it's far more built up and along with that development comes all the positives and negatives in terms of nature. You'll have much more on offer in terms of modern, city-type conveniences in Cairns than you will in Port Douglas, however many of these may not be necessary if you're only visiting on holiday.
In a similar vein, despite its reputation as a tropical seaside getaway, Cairns has no real beach to speak of – the closest you'll get is its “Lagoon”, a public, man-made pool if you're looking for refreshment. Compared to other true cities in Australia, however, Cairns does still manage to maintain more of a laid-back atmosphere, and while there is traffic and the associated noise it's never as suffocating as it is in Oz's capitals. Views of both the ocean and the mountains are readily available from Cairns, however, and if you're willing to fork out more money for your accommodation you'll have plenty of options for a scenic waterfront stay.
"Cairns is much more of an actual "city" than Port Douglas, and has much more on offer in terms of modern, city type conveniences rather than pure nature."
Cairns also has a wonderful, publicly accessible Botanic Gardens that provide more of an exotic, “jungle” feel to the proceedings than can be found at similar venues at other spots around Australia. The Gardens feature a variety of different paths to walk through, each emphasizing a different aspect of Tropical North Queensland's complex ecosystem of flora, and it serves as an oasis right in the heart of the city that is within reasonable walking distance of most Cairns accommodation. As it stands, the Cairns Botanic Gardens offers a touch of the rainforest without actually having to make the trip to the Daintree and serves as a great starting point when you're just getting your bearings after arriving in the city.
While there's not much true beach to speak of in Cairns city, a short trip north to the Cairns Northern Beaches district can provide the experience you're looking for, and can be reached within a 15 to 20 minute drive from the Cairns CBD. Lastly, while Cairns may have less to offer in terms of nature within its boundaries, the city's location makes reaching many of the surrounding natural features – such as the Great Barrier Reef and Fitzroy Island – a very easy and pain-free process.
Touted as "the only place where two World Heritage areas meet" (referring to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest), “scenic” and “tropical” are two of the words most often applied when describing how Port Douglas differs to Cairns on the topic of nature, and although it's only an hour or so to the north of Cairns, Port Douglas definitely has much more to offer in terms of beaches and other environments one might expect from a tropical getaway destination. Port Douglas has a lovely main stretch of seaside paradise at its headlining Four Mile Beach that can be reached in a short walk from its central hub of Macrossan Street. The beach makes for a great spot for a stroll or to soak up some sun, however it's also known for a large number of jellyfish and stingers that can populate its waters during the warmer months (typically November through May) and great care must be taken if you're venturing into the water – stings from species such as the Box Jellyfish and Irukandji can be fatal, and swimming is generally advised against during this time. Lounges are available for public hire at the beach should you wish to simply kick back and soak in some sun, which may be the far safer option of the two during stinger season.
The town itself, meanwhile, is something closer to a village than a true city, with most of the construction of accommodation and other facilities done without disturbing the abundant tropical greenery of the area, which allows it to retain more of an organic, escapist landscape than the busier hub of Cairns. Port Douglas sits at the end of a peninsula with a charmingly beautiful natural harbour and vessel-filled marina on the opposite side to Four Mile Beach, allowing for two separate aspects each with a different outlook to the other.
"Port Douglas has a beautiful natural harbour on one side and Four Mile Beach on the other, allowing for two separately beautiful aspects."
Port Douglas also benefits from its location an hour to the north of Cairns by being closer to the green wonderland that is the Daintree Rainforest; a World Heritage listed area that is the site of the oldest living rainforest on the planet. The Daintree in general is a vast area covering a massive region, however most will want to visit the likes of Mossman Gorge, the Daintree River & Village, and perhaps make the trip to Cape Tribulation further to the north. The most popular entrance to the Daintree National Park sits an additional 45km from Port Douglas where its river ferry – which accommodates cars and makes regular crossings of the Daintree River – can be found.
The Daintree itself contains one of the most complex ecosystems in the world, where numerous species of wildlife – particularly bird species and crocodiles – reside amongst the likes of tropical rainforest, Aussie eucalypts and various sections of mangroves and wetlands. Both tours and cruises of the Daintree and its river are exceedingly popular, with the majority departing from Port Douglas and lasting anywhere from half a day to multiple days.
Looking towards the ocean, meanwhile, and Port Douglas' location makes it closer to the Outer Great Barrier Reef than Cairns, which can make for a shorter trip – however with the wider variety of tour operators in Cairns available that feature high-speed vessels, the time difference is mostly negligible.
If you're looking for a locale that is most likely to match up with your predetermined image of a postcard-style tropical oasis, Port Douglas is thus more likely to fit the bill of your expectations than Cairns.
The verdict: If it's pure nature you're looking for within the actual area you'll be staying, it's hard to recommend Cairns over the postcard-style natural surroundings that Port Douglas has to offer, with PD's proximity to the Daintree Rainforest being an added bonus.
While many of the other criteria on this list of the two locations may overlap, it's in this category where Cairns and Port Douglas are perhaps the most different. Simply put, if you're looking for a more energetic and upbeat adventure experience, Cairns is going to be your destination of choice – there's just a lot more going on in the city and its surrounds than the sleepy village of Port Douglas can offer.
Cairns has always been popular with the under-30 and backpacker markets, and many of the activities and other attractions are targeted at this audience; there are few spots in Australia that can combine both sightseeing and adrenaline as well as Cairns does. If you're single or a more active person, then Cairns will provide a smorgasbord of experiences available, whether it's partying the night away at one of the city's many lively bars or pubs, hunting for a bargain at the many markets, taking the plunge with a bungee jump that the region is famous for, or grabbing a friend of three and heading off for a whitewater rafting or quad bike adventure.
"It's something of an in-joke that Port Douglas feels like a seniors centre compared to Cairns if you're looking for a lively location."
Cairns tends to have much more of an international atmosphere as well, as its bigger name on the worldwide map and the larger quantity of backpackers make it a hot spot for Europeans and Americans coming to get their first taste of the Great Barrier Reef. This global targeting is also reflected in the facilities and signage that can be seen around Cairns – there's a wide range of dining options from various international locales, while many street sights are written in multiple languages to make getting to where you want to go easier for the foreign visitor.
It's something of an in-joke that Port Douglas will feel like a “seniors centre” if you're under 30 and looking for a lively location, and while this may be a bit of an exaggeration, it isn't entirely untrue – which makes Cairns the obvious choice if this is the demographic you fall into. With a casino, plenty of leisure activities and generally later closing hours for the majority of its entertainment options, Cairns' atmosphere is the choice for the more active traveller.
Atmosphere-wise, Port Douglas is all about taking things down a gear - if you're after a place to kick your heels up amongst some wonderfully exclusive tropical surrounds, then “Port”, as it's colloquially known, ticks all the boxes you're likely looking for. Port Douglas features a wide range of upmarket, 5-star resorts and the town itself has developed around this ideal – think beautifully landscaped gardens, pleasantly-designed pools and plenty of greenery encompassing it all and you'll have an idea of what to expect.
This aura of exclusivity is reflected in most of Port Douglas as a whole, with its restaurants, bars, pubs and even shopping boutiques all coming off as somewhat classier – or perhaps “snobbier”, depending on your perspective – than Cairns. Along with this comes almost universally earlier closing times as well; things generally die down relatively early of an evening in Port Douglas its assumed most of its visitors are either there to chill out or will likely be tired out from a day worth of exploring the surrounding reef or rainforest.
"The mantra for Port Douglas tends to be “you can do either as little or as much as you like”, and the casual, serene atmosphere supports this in every way."
Development and an excess of buildings has been kept to a minimum in Port Douglas, with none of even the larger resorts reaching over 3 stories high, making views of the natural surrounds unobscured and open from most places within its borders. The mantra for Port Douglas tends to be “you can do either as little or as much as you like”, and the casual, serene atmosphere, palm-tree-lined streets and overall relaxed vibe supports this in every way.
All this serenity and relaxation, however, may be just the opposite of what you're looking for if you're the get-up-and-go type, which is why Port Douglas is typically recommended for visitors ages 30 and over and is one of Australia's most popular spots for honeymooners and other couples looking for a touch of tropical romance. Lastly, it's commonly accepted that Port Douglas has a less hostile and slightly safer feel than Cairns – although this may be more a matter of perspective than an absolute truth.
The verdict: While it's obvious that the two destinations each have a different purpose and aim making atmosphere subjective; Port Douglas shines as an example of what most people are expecting for a tropical holiday retreat.
There's no two ways around it: Cairns' nightlife is one of the main drawcards to the city for many people, as its energy and liveliness combined with a location in the middle of so many amazing natural features make it one of the more unique holiday locations in Australia. In fact, many of Cairns' bars and clubs go out of their way to accommodate later operating hours as they know the majority of their clientele are frequently “up for a big one”. The city is a buzzing hub of nightlife opportunities, and the huge backpacker market are a core focus, leading to a variety of venues with everything from relaxed pubs and bars up to upbeat, energetic nightclubs and discos that draw some of the top international music talent to what is otherwise a relatively small city on the global map.
Many of the nightlife destinations on offer in the city also offer surprisingly reasonably-priced drinks, and if you're willing to put in a little legwork you'll likewise be able to find some budget restaurants that serve decent meals for as low as five or six dollars per head. Some popular and highly-recommended venues to try out if you're looking to get your party on include The Woolshed (a raucous party and backpacker hotel), The Heritage (a fairly new pub, bar and restaurant combo that was opened in 2008), and the Blue Sky Brewery (which offers plenty of beer variety and tasting at a fair price).
"The entertainment value of Cairns' nightlife scene depends on your perspective; what some may consider wild, to others will be a great way to let loose."
Bar hopping in general is much more of a possibility in Cairns than it is in Port Douglas, as the majority of the venues available form a strip along popular nightlife avenue Spence Street, so moving on from one to the next takes a minimal amount of effort. The entertainment value of this type of nightlife scene of course depends entirely on your perspective; what some might consider unrefined or even wild, will to others be a great way to let loose and enjoy themselves.
Older travellers to Cairns will likely want to stick to the northern end of the city's Esplanade area or Shields Street, where more subdued bars playing bluesy and jazzy live music can be found, and even the Casino itself offers plenty of live entertainment at its Vertigo Cocktail Bar in the main foyer area of the complex. Whatever your demographic, if you're looking for entertainment at night in Cairns you'll never be left shortchanged of something to see and do - so if you're looking to get your drink or groove on until the sun comes up it's clearly the best choice of the two destinations.
While it's not a complete polar opposite to Cairns, Port Douglas' nightlife will never exactly set the world on fire. Given its smaller size than Cairns it's only logical that there will be fewer nightlife offerings, but it's not just the quantity that is the difference here – the general vibe of Port Douglas' night scene is more subdued than Cairns even in the wildest of its offerings. The majority of Port Douglas' night entertainment isn't hard to find – it's pretty much all concentrated within a 200 metre stretch of Macrossan Street, which makes for an easy – if limited – choices of places to head for a night out.
What Port Douglas' night venues lack in quantity they more than make up for in size, however; places such as the Central, Court House Hotel and the Iron Bar (recently expanded) are quite expansive, with plenty of room to move about without feeling crammed in. Most of the venues also do their best to reflect “Queensland”-style theming and reinforce the atmosphere of the town as a whole, with the Iron Bar in particular taking this a step further with maroon décor (the state colour of QLD) and even holding regular Cane Toad races. While the atmosphere in most of Port's bars and pubs tends to be quite pleasant, the prices most often aren't – for what is fairly standard pub-style fare you'll certainly be paying “tourist prices” for the privilege of sharing a beverage in these nice environments.
"Cairns-backers will often state that "the biggest difference between Cairns and Port Douglas nightlife is that Cairns has some."
Given the limited scope of its nightlife scene, many of the bars/pubs in Port Douglas convert themselves into makeshift nightclubs as the night goes on, and as a rule you won't be expected to pay a cover charge to enter which is a small bonus. The nightclub sections are given a more modern facelift as opposed to the typically more rustic bar areas that operate in the earlier hours, however most of them close relatively early compared to Cairns – all-nighters simply aren't possible in Port Douglas, with the Iron Bar being open the latest of all available venues with a closing time of 2am. There are also plenty of other smaller sized spots dotted throughout the town centre, however most of these are much more restaurant/dining focused than a hub for nightlife activities.
The town is also generally quite safe at night as opposed to Cairns, although common sense is needed as with walking through dark areas of any other holiday region. While Cairns-backers will often state that “the biggest difference between Cairns and Port Douglas nightlife is that Cairns has some”, this is an exaggeration – as long as you're not looking to raise the roof until daylight every night, then Port Douglas should suffice; hence its recommendation as a nightlife destination for the 30+ crowd.
The verdict: Whereas Cairns is often considered to be one of Australia's nightlife capitals, Port Douglas seems relatively sleepy and limited in comparison, making this category a big plus for Cairns in the appealing-to-party-animals department.
In terms of shopping, Cairns has everything you might expect from your average holiday city – all ends of the shopping spectrum are covered here, from larger shopping centres, to markets, to smaller boutiques and fashion outlets intermingled with tackier souvenir stores selling token made-in-China wares printed with “I <3 Cairns” at ridiculous prices. It's certainly convenient to have all types of shops available within a fairly short distance of most accommodation, however – particularly if you're only staying for a short period – the usefulness of having access to the likes of a hardware store is unlikely to be felt.
Cairns has two major shopping centres – Stockland and the Central Shopping Centre (located in the centre of the city as the name implies) which are home to various specialty and department stores which should cover every need you'll have on a holiday. The likes of Coles and Woolworths grocery stores cover all your food requirements should you wish to cook yourself and save a bit of coin rather than continually dining out, while Myer and Target also have a presence here. All pretty standard stuff, but having access to them is a large advantage over Port Douglas' more limited offerings.
"Cairns has everything from larger shopping centres, to markets, boutiques, and tacky souvenir stores selling various China-made "I <3 Cairns" wares."
Where Cairns' shopping shines, however, is its vibrant night market scene where you'll want to head if you're looking to pick up an actual souvenir to commemorate your time in Tropical QLD. Plenty of local merchants and talented craftspeople peddle their wares at the markets on the city's Esplanade, and unique goods such as glass-blown decorations and custom airbrushed clothing are a much-praised favourite. The markets also make for a top spot to grab a reasonably-priced meal or some finger-food, with one end of the market acting as a dedicated “food court” that is home to an extremely popular Chinese buffet stall. The range of stalls on offer is extensive; from local rainforest teas to hand-crafted jewellery and much more, you'll be able to come away with a decent keepsake that is actually well-made.
Lastly, a tip of the hat should be given to some of Cairns local galleries which provide the chance to both view and purchase paintings and photography that feature numerous scenes but specialise in showcasing Cairns' wonderful natural surroundings. Summing it all up, and it's not hard to see why Cairns is Tropical North Queensland's premier shopping destination – assuming you are careful not to fall into any of its tourist traps.
Port Douglas may not be the hub of shopping activity that Cairns is, but there are enough facilities available to cover all of your basic needs and then some. There is a Coles supermarket in the centre of the town that is open until all-hours as well as various other smaller grocery stores that will do in times of need; however it's once you get past the basics that cracks in Port Douglas' shopping scene start to show a little bit.
One of Port Douglas' focal points is its marina precinct that should be a vibrant shopping hub with its prime location adjacent to the water, yet its main Marina Mirage shopping complex has gradually become more and more neglected to the point that many stores have closed down and has begun to look shabby. What was once home to a number of charming and up-market boutiques has now dwindled to hosting only a few enduring restaurants and cafes. While it's still worth visiting to grab a bite to eat and watch the activity of the boats on the water, it's in dire need of a facelift and doesn't exactly serve as a glowing beacon of what Port Douglas' shopping scene should be.
"Port Douglas' Marina Mirage shopping complex has gradually become more neglected to the point that it has begun to look very shabby."
One area where Port Douglas' retail aspect does shine, however, is – much like Cairns – its market scene. While Port's markets are only open on Sundays, they are a great little way to temporarily become part of the local community as they've been an integral part of the town for some time, and the skills of some of the local talents are what keep them thriving. While not huge, there is plenty to see and do here, with a range of fairly exotic local tastes to try (milk straight from the coconut and sugar cane juice should help anyone to fulfil their stereotypical “tropical escape” dreams), while the number of arts and crafts including clothes and hand-craft kids toys are standouts. Perhaps the only downside to the Port Douglas Sunday markets is that they can quickly become very busy, particularly during the high season, so if you're looking to attend you'll want to try and ensure you get there early before all the top items get scooped up.
There are also several stores selling high-end consumer fashion items and a couple of well-respected art galleries (pay a visit to Des Spencer Art on Macrossan Street if you're a fan) to round out the experience. All in all, while Port Douglas can't offer a massive range of quality shopping options, this is part of the sacrifice that needs to be made for the town to retain its rainforest-nestled environment.
The verdict: As can be expected largely in part due to its size, Cairns dwarfs Port Douglas in terms of shopping options, however if you're just after the essentials and perhaps a few keepsakes, both locations will have what you need. Port Douglas would rank higher if its Marina Mirage was given an extensive facelift, however.
Comparing Cairns vs Port Douglas in terms of restaurants, bars and dining options is a very apples-to-oranges undertaking, and on Cairns' end of the spectrum you're mainly looking at the takeaway-and-bars as opposed to fine-wining-and-dining. That's not to say that Cairns lacks quality restaurants – the sheer number means there are several higher-end offerings if that's your thing – however the Cairns locals know their market, and getting cheaper eats focusing on value for money is largely the name of the game here. The range of cuisines on offer in Cairns is impressive and covers nearly every kind you could hope for; Asian, French, Mexican, Greek and traditional Aussie surf'n'turf style offerings of varying quality can all be found in Cairns.
At the more budget-conscious end of the scale, many of the pubs in and around the city aim to provide cheap eats for their backpacking market, and a large number of them do 10 dollar lunches that include both a main and either a pot of beer or glass of wine. If you're not too fussy about gourmet cuisine and simply want a decent feed, both the Esplanade (southern end) and Spence Street provide a huge range of choices to fill your belly. Pay a visit to the likes of Vibe Bar & Lounge, PJ's Irish Pub on Lake Street, Kani's on the Esplanade or Grill'd burgers for some basic-yet-hearty meals that won't break the bank account.
"The Cairns locals know their (backpacker) market, and getting cheaper eats focusing on value for money is largely the name of the game here."
If price isn't a concern, then your options for dining in Cairns open up exponentially and your choice will largely depend on what sort of cuisine you're after. For the best Italian pasta and other authentic dishes, check out Bellocale on Shield Street; good sushi is available at Sushi Paradise on Grafton Street; Houdini's on Sheridan Street does pizza properly, and Perrotta's at the Gallery provides a superlative mediterranean menu (with prices to reflect the quality!). If you're short on ideas for eating out in Cairns or simply want to stumble across something new, just head down to the pier and walk around; it's not only got a bunch of great restaurants of all kinds, but you'll have the chance to enjoy your meal while overlooking the water if you're lucky.
Drinking-wise, Cairns nature as a party city shines through as well, as the number of pubs and bars are almost too numerous to count, and each takes turn vying for the attention of travellers who are after a drop of the fine amber. If atmosphere and a good drinking environment are what you're after, then it's hard to go past Rattle 'n' Hum on the Esplanade or Salt House on the pier which make for a pair of great venues for both downing an ale of three and people watching. A mention should also be spared for raucous nightlife establishment the Woolshed which has become something of a local icon – the watering hole of choice for backpackers and party animals alike that offerings reasonably priced drinks.
Regardless of if you're looking to eat or drink on the cheap or open your wallet and make a splash, there's a restaurant, bar or club for everyone in Cairns.
There's a perception that Port Douglas' dining options are all prohibitively expensive, however this is only the case if you're careless with your choice of places to eat or looking to indulge. Similarly, while one might think Port Douglas is relatively lacking in dining establishments due to its size in comparison to Cairns, this is also not the case; Port Douglas' restaurant scene is also fairly expansive and offers solid variety, with 42 restaurants catering to a population of a mere 4500. The major difference in offerings between the two cities shows when looking towards drinking venues such as pubs and bars – reflective of its less-partying nature, the number of watering holes in Port Douglas pales in comparison to Cairns.
A few main pubs and bars can be found in Port Douglas which form the major hangouts for those looking to enjoy a drink (the Court House Hotel, Paddy's Irish Pub, Iron Bar and Port Douglas' branch of Rattle 'n' Hum), centred around the main “hub” of Macrossan Street. Each of these provide an enjoyable, laid-back atmosphere although drink prices are typically steeper than average for both alcoholic and standard beverages. The drinking “culture” is likewise not as strong in Port Douglas as in Cairns, which can be a negative if you're looking to indulge or a positive if you're looking for more peaceful streets at night.
"The "drinking culture" is not as strong in Port Douglas as it is in Cairns, which can be a negative if you're looking to indulge or a positive if you're wanting peaceful streets at night."
Meal-wise, Port Douglas' dining facilities are generally more upmarket than Cairns (a tip of the cap to the typically older and more financially comfortable crowd the town attracts), and staff at many of the restaurants do tend to have a bit more of a small-town, hands-on and friendly approach than those of Cairns (although your miles may obviously vary). As Port Douglas resident Emily Byrne says, “This carries over into a providing guests/customers with a more accurate impression of what life is like for the local community because we're a smaller town who all work collaboratively to provide the best possible experience. You become 'one of us' for the length of your stay.” While it will obviously depend on the individual, staffers of Port's restaurants often seem to be more willing to strike up and hold a conversation rather than just dump your dishes on the table and only return to bring you the bill.
Some of the top rated establishments in this regard include Harrison's Restaurant and Bar (a French-Aussie blend of cuisine run by award-winning owner/chef Spencer Patrick that's delicious but a bit pricey), Salsa's Bar and Grill (high-end modern Aussie food with a twist that also serves as a popular destination for hosting weddings), Zinc Restaurant & Lounge Bar (a pleasant blend of both dining and drinking locale) and the Bazaar at the QT hotel (a complete and comprehensive buffet menu), as well as many more options which all bring something individual and unique to the table.
As long as you're not keeping too tight a grip on your purse strings, the options for dining in Port Douglas are – while not as completely abundant as Cairns – plentiful enough that you'll always have something new and delicious to try.
Hot tip: for a sneaky-good and wonderfully scenic dining experience, fresh prawns can be brought straight from the trawler and eaten with a glass of wine at sunset in Rex Smeale Park, which provides spectacular views overlooking the Daintree.
The verdict: Cairns has one of the most diverse arrays of dining options available in Tropical North QLD, but Port Douglas doesn't fall far behind in its offerings either; however it's slightly easier to find cheaper meals in Cairns than it is in Port Douglas.
And now we come to what is going to be, for many, the major sticking point between the two destinations. It's with this in mind that we can safely say that Cairns is generally cheaper across the board than Port Douglas, particularly if you're willing to “rough it” or are travelling as a backpacker yourself. In addition, it's not just the cost of staying, eating and drinking in Cairns that often works out cheaper – factors such as travelling to some of the inland sightseeing hotspots if you're taking a tour or getting transfers can help cut back on additional costs as well.
One of the major driving factors that keeps the price of everything from accommodation to tours to food down in Cairns is sheer competition – Port Douglas' smaller scale means fewer options to choose from, and fewer options means that there are also less variations in price. In terms of accommodation, consider this: Cairns has 68 hotels on offer in total, with an average nightly stay price of $99.30 AUD. This is in opposition to Port Douglas, which is home to 47 hotels at an average of $128.72 AUD for a night's stay – that's a 23% cheaper price on average in favour of Cairns, and this ratio tends to carry over in general to other required spending across the board.
"Cairns has 68 hotels on offer in total, with an average nightly stay price of $99.30 AUD as opposed to Port Douglas, which is home to 47 hotels at an average of $128.72 AUD for a night's stay – that's a 23% cheaper price on average in favour of Cairns."
Of course, this cheaper average can also sometimes come with a decrease in quality as well, as the large number of accommodation facilities oriented towards the backpacker market are largely no-frills affairs and drag the average price of Cairns accommodation down significantly; stays are available for as low as $15 per night if you're willing to sleep in a dormitory, but don't expect anything other than a mattress and some air-conditioning if you're lucky. On the upper-end of the accommodation spectrum, there are numerous high-end resorts in Cairns that offer an atmosphere of exclusivity on the waterfront (highly-rated hotels include the likes of the Pullman Reef Hotel and Casino, Shangri-La Cairns and the Cairns Hilton) and while many may be tempted to stay on one of the many nearby islands to fulfil their tropical dreams (Green Island may be doable, but Lizard Island is extremely top-tier and will put a serious hurting on your wallet), it's much more budget-conscientious to stay at a high-level resort on the mainland and then take your day trips out to the islands instead.
Tours to various locales – such as the “inner” Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda and the popular Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Experience are also typically cheaper from Cairns than Port Douglas owing to the combination of distance and competition, however this is the opposite case if you're wanting to visit the Daintree Rainforest or the Outer Great Barrier Reef (which most would agree is cleaner and more beautiful than areas closer to the shore). Various operators have a range of different tour packages available (you can view our lineup of Cairns tours here) and competition is fierce, so if you're looking to book on the day rather than online, it doesn't hurt to ask if they can do a discount – you may be surprised at the result.
Cairns' bus system is also quite well-run and buses are available that can help you take the “first step” towards accessing some of the more popular locales at a reasonable price (such as the scenic Northern Beaches), however if you're going to be visiting multiple areas or attractions during your visit, hiring a car can work out cheaper – especially if you're going to make the drive up to Port Douglas.
Add this to the additional savings on transportation (however small) that can be garnered from flying directly into Cairns as opposed to having to arrange an additional trip from the airport to Port Douglas, the larger range of options for cheap eats, and the potentially cheaper tours, and it's all these little things that can make the average Cairns experience that bit cheaper overall than Port Douglas.
While generally Port Douglas' reputation as a more exclusive destination carries over in price as detailed in the Cairns section above, it's more a matter of self-control than anything as it is entirely possible to experience Port Douglas “on the cheap” - perhaps just not as cheaply as Cairns. Instead, Port Douglas can basically be as cheap as you want it to be to a certain extent – while the public image is certainly focused around 5-star resorts and luxurious surrounds, Port Douglas has backpacker accommodation (which is actually of a surprisingly high quality), reasonably-priced meals at pubs, and tours to some popular Tropical North QLD destinations can actually work out cheaper from Port Douglas than Cairns.
"Port Douglas serves as a cheaper springboard than Cairns to access popular regional locales such as the Daintree, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation."
There's no denying, however, that the price of the average stay in Port Douglas is going to work out pricier if you aren't careful, as the “upmarket” atmosphere of the town tends to carry over into all aspects of the travel spectrum – the service is generally better, warmer and more polite at restaurants, for example, but you are paying for it, so most would argue that it should be. Port Doulgas is also home to some of the highest quality dining establishments in the region as mentioned in the Food & Drink section above, with several run by internationally-acclaimed chefs, and if you're willing to loosen the purse strings you'll be in for some delectable and original taste experiences.
In terms of accommodation, Port Douglas' quality (and by association, price) shines through here, with some truly uniquely designed and plush venues on offer that justify its position as one of Australia's top honeymoon destinations. The pure luxury on offer at such hotels as the Shantara Resort, Peppers Beach Club, Coconut Grove Apartments and Sea Temple Resort and Spa is spectacular, however you're looking at an average minimum price of around $170 per night in off-peak times for the privilege of staying in the most basic of rooms in any of these resorts. If you're willing to fork out the money, however, you can expect a highly-equipped, wonderfully-furnished, impeccably-cleaned and perfectly-located experience at any of the above.
In addition, as mentioned in the Cairns pricing section above, while Port Douglas may make it more expensive/difficult to travel to some of the inland tourist hot spots, getting to the Outer Reef is a breeze – Port Douglas serves as the reef's unofficial “gateway” - and also serves as a better springboard than Cairns to access other popular regional locales such as the Daintree, Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation among others. If you're basing yourself out of Port Douglas for a substantial period of time and looking to explore the surrounding areas other than the reef, car hire is an almost essential requirement, so be sure to factor this in as an additional cost.
Regardless of where you stay or what you're doing in Port Douglas, prepare to have some smaller additional costs tacked on to the average Aussie price – it's pretty much a requirement that's necessary to keep such an environmentally pleasant location (and the businesses that operate therein) humming as well as it does.
The verdict: While both Cairns and Port Douglas can be fairly expensive places to holiday if you don't do your research, the level of competition and range of options in Cairns tends to self-regulate pricing a little bit more strictly than in Port Douglas.
Oh boy, where do we begin? There's a reason that Cairns has earned its reputation as Australia's adventure capital, and the combination of its location, active atmosphere, variety and natural surrounds make seeing and doing everything it offers both an extremely fun and challenging process – particularly if you're operating on a limited time frame. Simply put: you'll never be bored in Cairns, no matter how active or relaxed you want your holiday to be.
We've highlighted some of the things to see and do in and around the city earlier in this guide in terms of nightlife and dining, but the key focus of most people visiting Cairns (and Port Douglas as well, for that matter) is likely to be the Great Barrier Reef – and Cairns offers numerous options for exploring its many wonders as the majority of reef tour operators base their operations in Cairns. Over a dozen tour boats leave Cairns each day to carry their guests out onto the reef, with each providing a different point of emphasis. Some cruises focus on snorkelling, some on scuba diving, some offer glass-bottom boat rides and others pay visits to the likes of Green and Fitzroy Islands.
"There's a reason that Cairns has earned its reputation as Australia's adventure capital, and the combination of its location, variety and natural surrounds means you'll never be bored."
The list of reef tour itineraries from Cairns available is extensive, and range from short, half-day trips out to the closer areas of the reef all the way up to multi-day liveaboard adventures that dock at specialised activity pontoons at the Outer Reef. A commonly popular itinerary is to combine a trip out to Green Island from Cairns in the morning that includes a glass-bottom boat ride and will allow you to take in the variety of marine life visible below; an especially good idea if you aren't a confident swimmer or are travelling with children. Cairns reef tours depart from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal along the esplanade, so it's simply a matter of booking your cruise and then meeting your chosen operator at the designated departure time.
In Cairns itself, the man-made swimming lagoon at the Esplanade attempts to make up for the city's lack of a beach, and is a great way to cool off during the often-humid days if your accommodation's facilities aren't up to scratch. Its Botanic Gardens mentioned previously are also well worth a visit for something (free) to do, while the Esplanade itself is a hive of activity for a walk, shop, or simple dose of people-watching amongst scenic surrounds. In the heart of the city, Cairns Wildlife Dome is an animal exhibit enclosed by a 20m-high glass dome on top of the city's casino, and is a cheap way to get a wildlife fix Tropical North QLD-style.
Looking outside the city, the list of options grows even wider; if wildlife is a point of interest (or you've got kids with you), Cairns Tropical Zoo can be found just 20 minutes to the north of the city centre and is a great – and reasonably-priced – place to see the likes of koalas, wombats and (of course) crocodiles; you'll even be able to cuddle a koala (which is prohibited in many other states by law). The wonders of Kuranda – the so-called “city in the rainforest” - and its surrounds are also home to a bunch of other ecological goodies, with its Scenic Railway and Skyrail Cableway immensely popular ways to ascend to the treetops while garnering spectacular views of the coast meeting the sea. On your way to Kuranda, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Experience can be found at the bottom of the range where the Skyrail and Scenic Railway begin, and is well worth a visit if you're interested in indigenous culture.
Once at Kuranda, additional attraction options open up – take some time to enjoy the rainforest surrounds and explore the markets, or pay a visit to other wildlife facilities nearby such as the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary (home to over 1500 tropical butterflies), BirdWorld Kuranda (featuring over 75 species of exotic and colourful birds) and Koala Gardens (the destination of choice for – you guessed it – those who love koalas). Spreading your time out amongst these attractions, combined with the return train-and-skyrail trip and time to explore the village itself can easily take up a full day if you're not rushing and provides a nice counterpart to the reef.
For those in search of a dose of adrenaline meanwhile, Cairns caters better to your needs than perhaps any other spot in Australia. The Cairns region is home to Australia's only bungee tower,a favourite activity of backpacker and other thrillseekers from all over the globe, which can be found just a short distance to the north of the city at Smithfield and stands 50m tall, offering great views of the reef and rainforest to those game enough to take the plunge. White water rafting is also hugely popular in the area, with both the Barron River to the north and Russell River to the south of the city offering quality rafting experiences ranging from difficulty grades 1 through 4.
Reflective of the city itself, many of the things to do in and around Cairns are more upbeat as opposed to Port Douglas, so if you're looking for adventure then this is the clear choice between the two. However...
… while Port Douglas might not have the sheer breadth of things to do that Cairns can boast, there are few other destinations in Australia that can form the basis for an ideal reef adventure as well as Port Douglas can. The smaller, funky yet classy tropical village vibe coupled with its closer proximity to both the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest give Port Douglas an advantage when it comes to creating the image most likely have in their head when envisioning Tropical North QLD.
While “relaxing” would likely be at the top of any things to do in Port Douglas list, it's the call of the reef and its wonders that draw most people here. The quality of the reef systems just off the shores of Port Douglas also tend to be higher than those of its southerly brother as well, although you'll find many of the cruises and tours in fact make their way from Cairns and stop to pick up more passengers from Port Douglas instead of launching from 'Port itself. As the closest mainland point to the Great Barrier Reef itself, however, hopping aboard with a local tour operator and departing from the town's Marina Mirage will typically mean you're out on the Outer Reef in as short a time as possible, allowing you to maximise time you've got to spend diving, snorkelling or participating in whatever other marine activities you've signed up for.
"There are few other destinations in Australia that can form the basis for an idyllic reef adventure as well as Port Douglas can."
Water visibility in the reef areas off the coast of Port Douglas is almost always very good, making it an easy task to see the various vibrant coral formations and spectacular marine life. One of the most popuar island destinations from Port Douglas is Low Isles, a pair of pristine coral cays just a 15 minute boat ride from Port Douglas that make for a great base for marine exploration. The Isles are renowned for the quantity of colourful fish and turtles that populate their waters, and their short distance from the shoreline can make for a great mini-trip from Port Douglas without breaking the budget. The Outer Reef is typically the most acclaimed part of this natural wonder, however, as they offer a superior level of coral quality, diversity of animal life and sheer colour as opposed to those around the cays, and this is where most visitors will want to head. While it requires a more significant time (and money) investment, the results are almost universally more worth it.
Aside from the Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas also serves as a great base from which to explore the Daintree Rainforest, a natural cavalcade of tropical flora and fauna. The drive north to the Daintree is scenic yet winding, and so the extra hour that can be saved by departing from Port Douglas rather than Cairns can go a long way to cutting down on both stress and fatigue while allowing for more daylight hours left to explore its offerings. The Daintree and its ancient trees are home to numerous must-see sights; Mossman Gorge is a highlight, with its crystal-clear water and walking circuit into the heart of the rainforest an essential spot to adventure through. The Gorge is reachable either by parking at the Daintree Visitor's Centre then walking (several kilometres – be prepared!) or paying for the relatively cheap bus ride from the Visitor's Centre to the gorge itself (a big time and energy saver). Cruises are also available that will take you down the Daintree River and allow you to see its plant and animal life (hello, crocs!) without breaking a sweat.
Further north lies Cape Tribulation which stands as another superb example of the wet tropic, World Heritage rainforest, although you'll either need to book a tour or hire a car to get there – which takes just under 2 hours from Port Douglas. Once reaching the Daintree River, a car ferry is available to transport you to the other side, however bear in mind that if there has been heavy rain recently the river may be flooded and the ferry unable to carry you across. After crossing the river the road is sealed and you'll be able to reach the Cape itself without much trouble. While there are only a few accommodation options (including 4 resorts and a few backpacker hostels) in the area, the exploration options that Cape Tribulation offers including guided walks, kayaking and even “jungle surfing” make it one of the more enjoyably isolated parts of Tropical North QLD.
Escapism and relaxation are the name of the game in Port Douglas, and while there are fewer total things to do, it's likely to leave you with a few less wrinkles – and a slightly lighter wallet – than a trip based from Cairns.
The verdict: From rafting to nightlife to shopping and adrenaline, Cairns offers variety and action that Port Douglas cannot – yet Port Douglas will likely do a better job of giving you the tropical escape you may have been envisioning.
As can be seen from their overall scores, there is little separating the two destinations, with Cairns narrowly edging Port Douglas by a small margin mainly by virtue of its wider variety of things to do, slightly more convenient location, and broader appeal to those on a budget, while Port Douglas excels in providing the more idyllic "tropical escape" experience. However, as a simple general rule if you're still not quite sure which place to choose: Cairns if you're under 30 years old or more active, Port Douglas if you're 30+ and looking for a relaxed escape.
+ Food & Drink
+ Things to do
+ Best for 30 yrs & under
+ Reef quality
+ Best for over 30s