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Cairns: 6 Fun Activities You and Your Toddler Will Love

ANGELA SAURINE and her four-year-old find lots of fun things to do in the tourist hub of Cairns in Tropical North Queensland

Oliver in his element at Muddys Playground
Oliver in his element at Muddy's Playground

SNAP! Boris’s jaws smack together loudly as he leaps out of the water and attempts to catch the chicken being dangled above him. My four-year-old son, Oliver, watches with his mouth agape as the 4m long crocodile and his sharp-toothed mates take turns at the prize, pushing and nudging each other out of the way.

1. Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures

Things to do in Cairns with a toddler - meet a koala at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures.
Angela and Oliver meet a koala at Hartleys Crocodile Adventures

It’s extraordinary to be this close to a saltwater crocodile, let alone several of them. But Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is one place in the tropics where you are guaranteed to see these ancient creatures up close. There are around 30 living in the lagoon on which our boat cruises, and 3,000 on the site altogether. That’s because the attraction also encompasses a crocodile farm, with the animals raised for their skin and meat. You can take a tour of the farm to learn how it works and how farming crocodiles helps in the conservation of wild populations and their habitats. Fortunately, a glass panel separates us from the crocs, but we are warned not to get too close. “Your palm is like a chicken nugget,” the driver says. The “lagoon” is actually a man-made swamp on a former horse paddock. And despite it being home to saltwater crocodiles, it’s fresh water. They get their name because they secrete salt water on their tongues, we learn.

Simply the best place to see crocodiles and local wildlife in the North

Around 40 minutes’ drive north of Cairns and 25 minutes’ south of Port Douglas, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures originally opened as a halfway house for travellers in the 1930s. When the owner saw an ad for a wild crocodile in The Cairns Post, the local newspaper, he thought it would be an added attraction for visitors while they waited for their tea and scones. He was right. They lapped it up, and more and more crocodiles were introduced over the years, along with other animals. There are now over 80 species of birds, including flightless cassowaries, which are only found in tropical regions, on display. We meander along the pram-friendly boardwalks and paths, stopping to watch the kangaroos sleeping in the shade and feed the wallabies. Oliver especially enjoys feeding gum leaves to Beau the koala, patting his soft fur and touching his hand.

2. Cairns Aquarium

Things to do in Cairns with a toddler - Visit Cairns Aquarium
Oliver was in awe at Cairns Aquarium

But for little boys, there’s only one thing more impressive than crocodiles – sharks. We get a decent fix of these creatures of the deep on a visit to Cairns Aquarium. Oliver stands transfixed pointing and reaching out at the glass towards the reef sharks, stingrays and groupers as they loop around the reef in the main oceanarium. Originally, I’d wanted to take him on a day trip to the Great Barrier Reef, enticed by brochures depicting semi-submersible vessels I know Oliver would love. But eventually I resigned myself to the fact a long day on a boat with a toddler who still has a lunchtime nap was probably a bit ambitious.

Australia’s newest and most spectacular aquarium, located in the heart of Cairns

The Aquarium is definitely the next best thing, with colourful coral trout and Nemo-esque clownfish among the creatures on display. The journey through the Aquarium follows a drop of rain as it falls from the sky and joins creeks, streams and rivers, before travelling through the rainforest, across the mangrove flats and coral reef systems and into the Coral Sea. While it may not be as exciting for me as the reef may have been, seeing Oliver’s excitement makes up for it. “It’s going to eat it!” he cries when he sees a starfish under threat from a predator at the touch tank display. “We’ll let you out later,” he says thoughtfully to a lizard who seems eager to escape its enclosure.

3. Muddy’s Playground

Things to do in Cairns with a toddler - splash at Muddys Playground
Oliver loved splashing about at Muddy's Playground

To be honest, at Oliver’s age he’d be happy if the only thing we did on holidays (or any other day, for that matter) was go to the playground. And Cairns has what must be one of the best in Australia. As well as water play areas kids can run through, which are ideal for the hot and sometimes humid climate, Muddy’s Playground has a flying fox, sound chimes, a rope bridge, different sized slippery dips, colourful cubby houses, revolving tunnels, a seesaw, and puzzle games.

A huge playground suitable for the whole family

The astonishingly large playground overlooks Trinity Inlet along the Esplanade, which has a 2.5km boardwalk stretching along the foreshore. There’s also a barbecue, picnic tables and a great eatery, Muddy’s Café, which has a menu featuring tacos, burgers and fish and chips, as well as fresh juices, smoothies and milkshakes. Oliver would spend every day here if I let him … which I do. Going to a playground day in and day out may not sound that different to what you may do at home, but it provides a good balance, and you know that old saying – happy kids, happy parents. Plus, if you’re going to be stuck at a playground, it’s nice if it’s one in a beautiful tropical locale!

4. Cairns Esplanade Lagoon​

Cairns Lagoon. Image Tourism and Events Queensland
Cairns Lagoon. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

This large, manmade saltwater pool on the Trinity Harbour foreshore offers a safe swimming destination year-round, free from stingers and crocodiles. Patrolled by lifeguards, it has sculptures and water fountains, and is surrounded by picnic tables and barbecues.

5. Great Barrier Reef day trip

Learning about Indigenous culture on a Great Barrier Reef cruise with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel.
Learning about Indigenous culture on a Great Barrier Reef cruise with Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel. Image: TTNQ

If your kids are a bit older, taking a boat tour to the Great Barrier Reef is a must. With a floating pontoon with a waterslide into the ocean, a touch tank, snorkel tours and cruises over the reef in a glass-walled semi-submersible boat, Sunlover Reef Cruises is a great option for families. The Frankland Islands reef cruise boasts the shortest open water crossing of any of the Cairns day tour boats, taking you to Normanby Island in the Frankland Islands National Park island group. Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel offers both an Indigenous and scientific perspective of the Reef, with cultural presentations including dancing and performing, with the didgeridoo and clapsticks filling the time spent cruising to the Reef and back.

6. Skyrail Rainforest Cableway

Kuranda Skyrail Cableway. Image Tourism and Events Queensland
Kuranda Skyrail Cableway. Image: Tourism and Events Queensland

Soar over the rainforests and waterfalls of Barron Gorge between Smithfield, 15 minutes’ north of Cairns, and the mountain village of Kuranda. Once there, you can visit the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld and Koala Gardens, play mini golf, go ATVing, or take a riverboat cruise. Return via the Kuranda Scenic Railway (or vice versa).

The writer was a guest of Oaks Cairns Hotel, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures and Cairns Aquarium.

Where to stay in Cairns

The modern, 76-room Oaks Cairns Hotel is conveniently located on the Esplanade, with views over the lagoon and the Coral Sea from its rooftop restaurant, Oak & Vine. Rates start from $139 per room per night.

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