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Cairns versus Port Douglas Queensland
Experience Oz Presents

The Ultimate Guide to

Cairns vs Port Douglas

by Experience Oz staff

Cairns or Port Douglas: Which is better and why?

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 Australian tourism scene.

As two of the true gems of Queensland travel and sightseeing, and with their location relatively close to one another, the questions often arises for those looking to hit the reef; is Cairns or Port Douglas better for me, and why?

While it may seem like a simple question at first as they're both tropical semi-cities in Tropical North QLD, looking below the surface the answer becomes a little more complicated. It depends on a variety of factors, including; what is most important to you as a traveller? Are you looking to relax or be active? Are shopping and nightlife the 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 tropical QLD paradises, which of Cairns or Port Douglas will come out on top? Read on below to find out.


Nature

Cairns: 6/10

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 perfect 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 are traffic and the associated noises, it's never as suffocating as it is in Australia'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 versus Port Douglas Cairns Nature Daintree Rainforest

Daintree Rainforest

Cairns also has a wonderful, publicly accessible Botanic Gardens that provide more of an exotic 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 emphasising 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 Rainforest 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 process.

Port Douglas: 9/10

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.

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 is great for swimming and relaxing, however, from November to May the waters are populated with stingers. Great care must be taken if swimming as stings from species such as the Box Jellyfish and Irukandji can sometimes be fatal. 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 is closer to a village than a city, with most of the construction of accommodation and other facilities did without disturbing the abundant tropical greenery of the area. This allows Port Douglas 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.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Four Mile Beach

Four Mile Beach

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 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 is found. The ferry also accommodates cars and makes regular crossings of the Daintree River.

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, eucalyptus, 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, Port Douglas is 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 Port Douglas' proximity to the Daintree Rainforest being an added bonus.


Atmosphere

Cairns: 6/10

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.

Cairns has always been popular with the backpacker market 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 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 bungy jump, or grabbing a friend of three and heading off for a white water rafting or quad bike adventure.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Cairns Nature Cairns Esplanade

Cairns Esplanade

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.

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.

Port Douglas: 10/10

Atmosphere-wise, Port Douglas is all about taking things down a gear and if you're after a place to kick your heels up amongst some wonderfully exclusive tropical surrounds, then Port ticks all the boxes.

Port Douglas features a wide range of upmarket, 5-star resorts and the town itself has developed around this idea. 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 than Cairns.

Along with this comes almost universally earlier closing times as well. Things generally die down relatively early as it's 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.

Cairns versus Port Douglas

Port Douglas Waterfront

Development and an excess of buildings has been kept to a minimum in Port Douglas, with no large resorts reaching over three stories high, making views of the natural surrounds unobscured.

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 looking for an adventurous coastal holiday. This is why Port Douglas is typically recommended for visitors eager to take it easy 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.


Nightlife

Cairns: 9/10

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 makes it one of the 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 nightlife hub and the huge backpacker market is a core focus, leading to a variety of venues with everything from relaxed pubs and bars up to upbeat, energetic nightclubs.

Many of the nightlife destinations in the city also offer reasonably-priced drinks. Popular venues include The Woolshed and The Heritage.

Cairns versus Port Douglas The Woolshed

Image: The Woolshed

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 from a strip along popular nightlife avenue Spence Street.

The northern end of the city's Esplanade is where you'll find more subdued bars with live music and a relaxed scene while the Casino offers plenty of live entertainment at its Vertigo Cocktail Bar in the main foyer area of the complex.

If you're looking to do something at night whether it be dining, exploring or heading out, Cairns is the better option of the two.

Port Douglas: 5/10

In terms of nightlife, Port Douglas offers visitors a different experience. With low-key bars overlooking the water the norm, you won't find busy and crowded pubs here like you would in Cairns.

The majority of restaurants and bars are located on Macrossan Street, making it easy to browse all available establishments before settling in for the evening.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Iron Bar

Image: IronBar

Most of the venues do their best to reflect Queensland's laid-back style, 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 Douglas' 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 this beautiful location.

Given the limited scope of its nightlife scene, many of the bars and pubs in Port Douglas convert themselves into makeshift nightclubs as the night goes on. 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.

While supporters of the Cairns region will often state that the biggest difference between Cairns and Port Douglas nightlife is that Cairns has some, this is an exaggeration.

The Verdict:

Port Douglas seems relatively sleepy and limited in comparison to Cairns, making this category a big plus for Cairns in the nightlife department.


Shopping

Cairns: 8/10

In terms of shopping, Cairns has everything you might expect from your average tourist destination. All ends of the shopping spectrum are covered here, with larger shopping centres to markets and boutiques.

Cairns has two major shopping centres, Stockland and the Central Shopping Centre, which are home to various speciality and department stores. There are also grocery stores in each centre so if you're looking to prepare your own food you'll be able to find everything you need at either Coles or Woolworths.

Cairns versus Port Douglas cairns markets

Cairns Night Market

Cairns' night markets are a highlight for many, with various stalls selling a range of souvenirs and keepsakes to commemorate your visit. You'll find the likes of handmade jewellery, glass ornaments and more. The markets are also popular for visitors looking to grab a relaxed bite to eat. There are a number of food vendors selling pizzas, burgers, noodles and more, meaning you'll be able to satisfy a number of different palates in the one place.

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.

Port Douglas: 5/10

Port Douglas may not be the shopping hub that Cairns is, but there are enough facilities to cover all of your basic needs and then some. There is a Coles supermarket in the centre of town that is open late as well as various other smaller grocery stores.

The Port Village shopping centre is home to a number of eateries, clothing stores and necessity stores such as a newsagent, pharmacy and medical centre. Though quite small, you'll find a number of different shops to suit your needs.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Sunday Markets

Port Douglas Sunday Markets

One area where Port Douglas' retail aspect shines is with the local markets. Only open on Sunday, the Port Douglas Market is a great way to mix with the locals, purchase some handmade goods and grab a bite to eat.

Perhaps the only downside to the Port Douglas Sunday Market is that they can quickly become very busy, particularly during the high season. If you're looking to browse the markets without the crowds, try and get there relatively early.

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 beats 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.


Food & Drink

Cairns: 8/10

Comparing Cairns vs Port Douglas in terms of restaurants, bars and dining options is a very apples-to-oranges undertaking. 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 Australian 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. 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 delicious meals that won't break the bank account.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Dining

Image: Tjapukai Cultural Centre

If the 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 authentic pizzas, and Perrotta's at the Gallery provides a delicious Mediterranean menu.

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. You'll not only find a number of quality restaurants, you'll be treated to beautiful views over the water while you dine.

Drinking-wise, Cairns' nightlife scene shines bright (see the Nightlife section above). 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.

Port Douglas: 7/10

There's a perception that Port Douglas' dining options are all expensive, however, this isn't the case. Port Douglas' restaurant scene is fairly expansive with 42 restaurants catering to a population of a mere 4500 (during peak), and some of its restaurants are truly high-end considering its relatively regional location. The major difference in offerings between the two cities shows when looking towards drinking venues such as pubs and bars.

A few main pubs and bars can be found in Port Douglas which form the major hangouts for those looking to enjoy a drink. With an enjoyable, laid-back atmosphere the only downside is that drink prices are typically steeper than average.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Dining

Port Douglas Waterfront

Meal-wise, Port Douglas' dining facilities are generally more upmarket 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. 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.

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.

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.


Price

Cairns: 5/10

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 book into backpacker style accommodations.

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 relatively down in Cairns is sheer competition. Port Douglas' smaller scale means there are fewer options to choose from. In terms of accommodation, consider this, Cairns has around 68 hotels 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.

Of course, this cheaper average can also sometimes come with a decrease in quality as a large number of accommodation facilities are oriented towards the backpacker market and are largely no-frills affairs which 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.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Cairns Lagoon

Cairns Esplanade Lagoon

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. While many may be tempted to stay on one of the many nearby islands to fulfil their tropical dreams, 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 nearby attractions, including 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. In saying this, it is the opposite case if you're wanting to visit the Daintree Rainforest or the Outer Great Barrier Reef. There are various tour operator in the Cairns region, so it's best to do your research and book your tour online to avoid missing out once you arrive.

Cairns' bus system is also quite well-run and buses are available that can help you get to some of the most popular attractions at a reasonable price. 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 looking to travel up to Port Douglas.

Add this to the additional savings on transportation 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 affordable food, 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.

Port Douglas: 4/10

While generally, Port Douglas has a reputation for being a more exclusive destination which carries over in price, 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 five-star resorts and luxurious surrounds, Port Douglas has backpacker accommodation, reasonably-priced meals at pubs, and tours to some popular Tropical North QLD destinations can actually work out cheaper than Cairns.

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.

Port Douglas 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.

Cairns versus Port Douglas stand up paddle boarding

Four Mile Beach

In terms of accommodation, Port Douglas' quality (and by association, price) shines through here, with some truly uniquely designed and luxurious venues on offer that justify its position as one of Australia's top honeymoon destinations. If you're willing to fork out the money you can expect a highly-equipped, wonderfully-furnished, impeccably clean and perfectly located experience at any of the above.

As mentioned in the Cairns pricing section above, Port Douglas may make it more expensive/difficult to travel to some of the inland tourist hot spots, however, getting to the Outer Reef is a breeze. Port Douglas serves as the reef's unofficial gateway and is a better springboard to access other popular regional locales such as the Daintree Rainforest, 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 price.

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.


Things To Do

Cairns: 10/10

Oh boy, where do we begin? There's a reason that Cairns has earned its reputation as one of Australia's adventure capitals, 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.

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. Cairns offers numerous options for exploring its many wonders as the majority of reef tour operators base their operations out of here.

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 Island and Fitzroy Island.

The list of reef tours from Cairns is extensive and ranges from short, half-day trips to the closer areas of the reef all the way up to multi-day adventures that dock at specialised activity pontoons at the Outer Reef.

Cairns versus Port Douglas great Barrier Reef

Green Island

A popular itinerary is to take a trip out to Green Island from Cairns in the morning combined with a glass-bottom boat ride that will allow you to take in the variety of marine life without getting wet. This is a great idea if you aren't a confident swimmer or are travelling with children. Reef tours depart from the Cairns Reef Fleet Terminal along The Esplanade.

In Cairns, the man-made swimming lagoon at the Esplanade attempts to make up for the city's lack of beaches and is a great way to cool off during the often-humid days if your accommodation's facilities aren't up to scratch. The 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 ZOOM & 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 crocodiles.

The wonders of Kuranda, the village in the rainforest, is home to a bunch of other ecological goodies, with its Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway immensely popular ways travel to the village. 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.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Kuranda

Image: Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Once at Kuranda, additional attraction options open up. You can 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, which is home to over 1500 tropical butterflies, BirdWorld Kuranda and its 75+ species of exotic and colourful birds, and the Kuranda Koala Gardens, the destination of choice for 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 an adrenalin punch, Cairns caters better to your needs. The region is home to Australia's only bungy tower and a favourite activity for thrill seekers from all over the globe. It can be found just a short distance from the city at Smithfield, stands 50m tall and offers great views of the reef and rainforest to those game enough to take the plunge.

White water rafting is also a popular activity in the area, with the Barron River to the north and the Russell and Tully Rivers 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.

Port Douglas: 9/10

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, classy tropical village vibe coupled with its close proximity to both the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest gives Port Douglas an advantage when it comes to the vision of a Tropical North QLD holiday.

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, 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 Douglas itself.

As the closest mainland point to the Great Barrier Reef 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. This allows you to spend more time diving, snorkelling or participating in whatever other marine activities you've signed up for.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Low Isles

Low Isles

Water visibility on 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 popular island destinations from Port Douglas is the Low Isles, a pair of pristine coral cays just a 15-minute boat ride from Port Douglas which 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 its 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, as it offers a superior level of coral quality, diversity of animal life and sheer colour as opposed to those around the cays. While it requires more significant time and money investments, 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 including Mossman Gorge, which is a highlight, with its crystal-clear water and walking circuit into the heart of the rainforest an essential spot to adventure through.

Cairns versus Port Douglas Jungle Surfing

Image: Jungle Surfing

The Gorge is reached either by parking at the Daintree Visitor's Centre and walking in or paying for the bus 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 the plant and animal life 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.

Taking just under 2 hours from Port Douglas, once you've reached the Daintree River, a car ferry is available to transport you to the other side. 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 without much trouble. While there are only a few accommodation options (including four 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 enjoyable isolated parts of Tropical North QLD.

Escapism and relaxation are the name of the game in Port Douglas, and while there are fewer things to do, it's likely to leave you with fewer 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.


Overall

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.

Cairns: 52/70

  • Food & Drink
  • Shopping
  • Price
  • Things to do
  • Nightlife

Port Douglas: 49/70

  • Nature
  • Atmosphere
  • Relaxation
  • Reef Quality

If you're looking for things to see and do in and around Cairns, check out our full catalogue page and book your tours and attractions online today.

Browse All Cairns Experiences

To browse all available Port Douglas experiences, have a look at our full catalogue with a range of things to see and do around the region.

Browse All Port Douglas Experiences