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Insider Tips: Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef Family Holidays

Tourism Tropical North Queensland CEO Mark Olsen shares his favourite family travel experiences in the region

Hartleys Crocodile Adventures between Cairns and Port Douglas
Hartleys Crocodile Adventures between Cairns and Port Douglas

Mark Olsen’s passion for Queensland’s tropical north is obvious! He and his wife, Helen Lawie, were married at Paronella Park south of Cairns 20 years ago and honeymooned at Silky Oaks Lodge in the Daintree. They love exploring the region with their two sons, George, 12, and 11-year-old Ted.

Hi Mark Olsen, why do you consider Tropical North Queensland to be a great place for a family holiday?

Kayaking at Lake Barrine in the Atherton Tablelands
Kayaking at Lake Barrine in the Atherton Tablelands

Despite the challenges of COVID, we’ve hosted a lot of our family and friends in the region on their family holidays over the past two years. The range of family-friendly experiences means that there is something for everyone, from pre-schoolers through to teenagers. 

What are some of your favourite things to do there?

Lake Eacham in Queenslands Atherton Tablelands
Lake Eacham in Queenslands Atherton Tablelands

We always get out on the Great Barrier Reef when people visit. There is always a new way to see it and depending on the family we find the right product and experience for them. The rainforest is also close to our hearts, so we never miss the chance to take our friends to a crystal-clear stream for a swim and to one of the thousands of waterfalls to soak up the re-energising vibes from swimming under a waterfall. The crater lakes are a favourite, particularly Lake Barrine, with its towering twin Kauri pines, and, of course, a deep dive into Lake Eacham followed by lunch at Yungaburra, in the hinterland. The wildlife parks always make the list, which one depends on the age of the kids, but we always want our mates to get up close with a saltie!

A trip across the Daintree Ferry and into the world-famous forests is a must — walking on the boardwalks out to where the rainforest meets the reef and lunch at a quiet spot with some games on the beach. The drive is one of our favourites, and we’ve been lucky enough to spot a cassowary on the road, so we always take it slow. 

The Laura Quinkan Dance Festival
The Laura Quinkan Dance Festival

Staying in a holiday house on the Cassowary Coast has become another favourite. It’s just so relaxing being in those seaside villages for a couple of days to unwind, and it’s a great base to explore the southern part of the region, including Paronella Park and the beautiful Palmerston Highway drive! 

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway and Kuranda Scenic Railway always get rave reviews, and at the Cairns Zoom & Wildlife Dome we love to get our friends out of their comfort zone. We have done the giant swing with our mates, but only I’ve been daring enough to try the bungy at Skypark Cairns. We are planning a trip to Chillagoe with friends because we love exploring the caves and had a great time with a local family doing the Laura Quinkan Dance Festival and exploring Cooktown – we are really spoilt for choice.

What family-friendly eateries do you like visiting?

Nu Nu Restaurant at Palm Cove
Nu Nu Restaurant at Palm Cove

There are such a great range of options on the Cairns Esplanade, including a sneaky dessert or gelato from the night markets. Palm Cove is a favourite for our mates from Sydney and Brisbane, so we always take the opportunity to have dinner on the beach at Nu Nu and a then take our pick of the other great spots on the Williams Esplanade for breakfast, lunch and an early dinner. 

Where are the best places for families to stay?

A girl playing at Paronella Park in North Queensland
A girl playing at Paronella Park in North Queensland

Our friends with kids have stayed on the Esplanade, in Palm Cove, in Port Douglas and places like Kurrimine Beach on the Cassowary Coast, with most choosing to stay in a few locations to make the most of the region’s variety. Each has its own unique vibe. Sometimes we love just grabbing a couple of poolside rooms in a resort and using it as home base; other times it’s a holiday house that feels like a home away from home. 

What are the top ways to travel around your region?

Mark Olsen and his family on the charter boat Allure Cairns
Mark Olsen and his family on the charter boat Allure Cairns

We love to mix and match the ways to get around because it’s so exciting to explore the region from different perspectives. Taking to the road is so much fun, because the roads are so picturesque and you are there before you know it — whether it’s counting the corners on the Gillies, or listening to our mates ooh and ahh on the Great Barrier Reef Drive to Port Douglas and across the river into the Daintree. You have to get out on the water, to the reef, and onto the rivers. We’ve been lucky enough to take a charter to the reef with some friends, which was epic, and they matched that with a quick trip in the helicopter to see it from the air, which is really special. 

Mark, are there any hidden gems that are great for kids?

Mark Olsen and his family at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures
Mark Olsen and his family at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures

There are so many great spots to take the kids for a swim in a rainforest stream or to find Fairy Falls. Cairns Boat Hire and Bad Fishy Jet Boat wowed the kids, with some fishing in the Cairns Inlet followed by the heart-racing thrills of the jet boat. Cairns Zoom also has lots of fun activities. We always like doing the Power Jump and hanging off the side of the building saying Hi to people.

Some mates had a great time with the Scuba Kids program with Divers Den, and Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is one you can’t miss for a memorable moment with a crocodile. The tour at the Gallo Dairy was lots of fun. We also love taking our mates river rafting and tubing, and I’m looking forward to drifting down the river in the Daintree in a cool (croc-free) rainforest stream. 

When is the best time to visit?

Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns
Nudey Beach on Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns

The patrolled beaches are always well signed to keep visitors safe from Irukandji jellyfish and we always swim between the flags and in the enclosures. Head out to the reef and the islands (Green Island and Fitzroy Islands are good options), and swim in the rainforest streams from November to May when it’s a bit warmer.

For more information visit: cairnsgreatbarrierreef.com

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