January 31, 2021

cairns lagoon sunrise Queensland Australia

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Looking to visit Far North Queensland, and wondering ‘Should I Stay in Cairns or Port Douglas?

If you ask anyone who’s been to the region before, you’ll probably find that they’re either strongly in favour of on over the other.

But the truth is that Cairns and Port Douglas are actually quite different, and what suits one person may not suit others.

So this blog is to give you an unbiased breakdown of the pros and cons of both Cairns and Port Douglas so that you can make an educated decision as to which place is going to give you the best experience possible.

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Cairns or Port Douglas tropical sunset
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Cairns Vs Port Douglas Accommodation

Port Douglas Accommodation

Typically, accommodation in Port Douglas is often a little more expensive that what you’ll find in Cairns.

In saying that, much of the accommodation in Port Douglas is focussed around ‘resort-style’ accommodation where you’ll laze by the pool, enjoy massages, etc.

As a rule of thumb, Port Douglas would suit those who are happy to spend the day at the resort and are perhaps looking for that luxurious’ getaway with day spas.

Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas, Queensland Australia

Of course there are still middle-of-the-range accommodations up in Port Douglas too. But, overall, Port Douglas just seems to have a very relaxed and slow-paced vibe compared to Cairns.

If this sounds like you, you’ll want to check out the Sheraton Mirage, or The Ramada for staying in Port Douglas.

Cairns Accommodation

On the flipside, I believe that Cairns is more suited to families and travellers who are more into exploring the region – spending their days heading out and doing things.

Accommodation in Cairns is typically more affordable than Port Douglas, which suits a lot of families. Places like North Cove Apartments, Getaway on Grafton and Jack & Newell being popular choices for these types of travellers.

If you prefer to stay in Cairns but you’re looking for that 5 start luxury hotel experience, you’ll want to check out the Crystalbrook Collection – The Riley, Flynn, and Bailey. There’s also the Pullman International and the Hilton Doubletree too.

Cairns is also a more lively place for young solo travellers wanting to head out for a night on the town.

Typically, this type of crowd will stay at places like Gilligans, Why Not Backpackers, or Mad Monkey Backpackers, which all start from around $20-$35 per night in dorm-style accommodation.

Things To Do in Cairns Vs Port Douglas


As I mentioned earlier, Cairns tends to have more tour options than Port Douglas, especially child-friendly tours.

Cairns is also home to the wildly popular Muddy’s Playground and Cairns Lagoon which is freely available for anyone to use and has an awesome cafe there for parents to grab a coffee, snack or meal while the kids are wearing off excess energy.

Sunrise and Cairns Lagoon Queensland Australia
Sunrise at Cairns Lagoon, Queensland Australia

The Cairns Esplanade has free BBQ facilities dotted along the parklands where you can enjoy an evening BBQ and enjoy the live music provided by local buskers.

The night markets are also wildly popular and are found in the heart of the Cairns City Centre.

Related Post: Top Ten Things To Do In Cairns Australia | The Ultimate First Timer’s Guide

Port Douglas

Port Douglas has a few free BBQ facilities, and playgrounds (although nothing compared to Muddy’s Playground), but is lacking the lagoon-style swimming facilities that you’ll find in Cairns.

Instead, Port Douglas has a better stretch of beach than Cairns, although it is worth mentioning that if you choose to swim at the beach you should do so with safety in mind as four mile beach has been known to have crocodiles, as well as stingers in the warmer months.

Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas

I personally believe the lack of public facilities is a because Port Douglas is more of a ‘resort town’ where you spend most of your time inside the resorts themselves.

The town is perhaps more targeted towards the demographic that does not have young children – although you will still find a few things to do.

Because of this, Port Douglas does not have the public facilities to accommodate for young families like Cairns does.

Two of the main attractions in Port Douglas are Four Mile Beach, and the Port Douglas Marina.

Port Douglas Marina Qld Australia
Port Douglas Marina, Queensland Australia

If you’re the kind of family that is out and about and wanting to do things and explore the region, I recommend Cairns.

If you prefer lazy days and really relaxing or enjoying a relaxed drink at a bar at the marina, the Port Douglas is going to be a great option for you because the resorts are very much set up for this type of traveller.

Getting to Cairns and Port Douglas

You can fly straight into the Cairns airport from a whole range of domestic and international flights. So, getting to your accommodation if you’re staying in Cairns is pretty straight forward.

Even taxis into the city won’t cost you a lot.

Port Douglas is around an hour North of Cairns, so it’s worth considering how you intend on getting to Port Douglas for your stay.

Most who stay in Port Douglas will choose to hire a car, however there are also shuttle busses which you can book to take between Cairns and Port Douglas if you choose.

If you think the shuttle bus is going to be the best option for you, make sure you book your trip in advance as there is no ‘hop-on-hop-off’ option available at a whim and taxis will be VERY pricey.

To book your shuttle bus, use this link.

Make sure you also consider your flight times when arranging your accommodation.

Because Port Douglas is an hour away, if you have an early flight back out of Cairns it might be practical to spend your last night in Cairns itself.

Many people will stay overnight at North Cove Apartments as it’s one of the closest accommodations to the Cairns Airport, and has a range of 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments (suitable for families or group travellers).

Many people enjoy the convenience of being able to use the in-room laundry facilities so they don’t have so much washing to do when they get home.


As a side bonus, staying in Cairns the night before your flight home will cut an hour off your travel time on the day you travel home after your holiday.

Great Barrier Reef from Cairns or Port Douglas

Some people say that the reef off Port Douglas is better than the reef in Cairns, but I believe that is not actually correct.

Reef trips that leave from Cairns and Port Douglas visit a whole range of different reefs, so the experience is going to be quite different.

Scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef with colourful fish and coral off of Cairns
Scuba Diving Reef Trip from Cairns Queensland

Your experience of the Great Barrier Reef is greatly dependent on other factors such as water visibility, tide depth and wind.

This has nothing to do with whether you get on a boat in Port Douglas or if you do in Cairns. I truly believe that there are many reefs which you can visit (from either location) which will give you one heck of a display.

If you intend on visiting the Great Barrier Reef during your time in FNQ, I recommend choosing the best weather day for your reef trip before planning out the rest of your days on holiday. Once your reef trip day is set, you can then figure out your other days/activities around this.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Things To Do In Cairns Australia | The Ultimate First Timer’s Guide

Top Recommendations for Reef Trips from Cairns

Snorkel/Dive Boat

This snorkel / dive boat visits two different locations on the reef as a full day trip and is best suited to travellers who will happily spend most of their day in the water (snorkeling, swimming and scuba diving).

It’s a high quality, luxury catamaran and I consider it to be excellent value for money.

Down Under Evolution Luxury Snorkeling and Dive boat docked at Cairns Harbour
Down Under Cruise & Dive Luxury Catamaran Reef Trip, Cairns Queensland

This boat also happens to have the best package deal with a scenic helicopter flight if you’re feeling adventures.

Reef Pontoon

This Outer Great Barrier Reef tour takes you to a pontoon which is permanently moored on the reef (one location) as part of a full day tour.

Being a pontoon, you’ll find more activities that a snorkel/dive boat.

Pontoon Reef Trip from Cairns Queensland Australia
Great Barrier Reef Pontoon – Cairns Australia

As well as the snorkelling and scuba diving, you can enjoy other activities like

  • Sea Walker Helmet Dive
  • Corkscrew slippery slide into the Great Barrier Reef
  • Glass Bottom Boat
  • Guided Snorkel Tours
  • Certified and Introductory Diving
  • Scenic Helicopter Flights
  • Underwater Observatory

Those that are less confident in the water but are keen to try their hand at snorkelling, can use a life vest for buoyancy. Or, take a break by grabbing onto one of the floating rings which are spotted around the reef off the pontoon.

We love this pontoon experience for families with kids who are confident in the water! It’s the only one with a spiral slide into the waters over the reef!


Fitzroy Island and Green Island are around 45 minutes from Cairns by boat. Both islands have their own pros and cons depending on what your ideal day looks like.

Arriving at Green Island Queensland Australia
Green Island, off of Cairns Queensland Australia

You can learn more about the islands around Cairns here.

Green Island or Fitzroy Island For Snorkelling?
21 Memorable Things To Do On Fitzroy Island
7 Best Islands Off Cairns For An Unforgettable Day Trip

Top Recommendations For Reef Trips From Port Douglas

Snorkel/Dive Boat

If you’re looking for a diverse experience of the Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas, I recommend this boat.

The day trip takes you to 3 different sites over the course of 8 hours for the day, giving you a unique experience at each and every one of the sites.

Snorkeling equipment for the day is included, as well as morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea.

If you want to try your hand at scuba diving, you can do this by booking either an introductory dive (without a diving licence) or a certified dive.

snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns
Snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns Queensland

The company that runs this day trip to the Outer Barrier Reef, has 29 mooring sites along the Coast between Cairns and Port Douglas, so they’ll choose the best site based on the wind and weather on the day.


If you’re wanting to enjoy the extra activities that you can do from a pontoon, I recommend using this tour company.

The boat is well known for being high quality and is kitted with stabilizers to minimize motion sickness.

If you’re travelling with people who are non-swimmers but are still keen to experience the reef, this is the perfect option.

Semi-submersible vessels, an underwater observatory, Sea Walker Helmet Dive and helicopter flights will keep the non-swimmers entertained all day.


Picture making your way to a small, sandy island amidst clear, tropical waters, surrounded by coral.

In the centre of the island stands a single light house surrounded by palm trees; which provide you a shady sanctuary to relax under after a morning of snorkeling.

Welcome to Low Isles.

Low Isles, Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking for a relaxed, low-key, resort-style holiday, I’d recommend Port Douglas

If you’re the type of traveller that’s looking for an activity-based stay and more things to do, then Cairns is going to be your best option.

Cairns is typically more affordable than Port Douglas, especially for families. And from our own personal experience, I find Cairns to be a more comfortable place to holiday with kids.

If visiting the Great Barrier Reef, then there are plenty of options from both Cairns and Port Douglas that will take you to beautiful and memorable spots on the reef.

Port Douglas is an hour from the Cairns Airport by car, so it’s worth considering your options for getting to and from Port Douglas in time for your flights.

Of course, depending on how much time you have in Far North Queensland, you may also wish to split the holiday so that you can experience both places and gain two very different, unique experiences.

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Sunset over Palm trees and ocean at Cairns or Port Douglas | Pin This Trip

Leave me a comment below if you found this helpful, or if there’s anything else that has you tossing up whether Cairns or Port Douglas is going to be the right choice for you.

Until next time!

Kate xx

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About the author 

Kate Mannion

Hi, I'm Kate! Mum of 2, and Cairns local for the last 7 years. I love taking photos (although I still have a lot to learn) and taking the drone up to see this beautiful region from a different perspective. I hope to help you have a once-in-a-lifetime experience while visiting the region! 

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