Port Douglas Vs Cairns

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You’ve decided to visit Far North Queensland and discovered that the nearest airport for Port Douglas is just north of Cairns City. To get to Port Douglas will take you an extra hour or so by road. So now you’re wondering if maybe you should just stay in Cairns instead. On this page, we’ll weigh up the pros and cons of staying in Cairns or Port Douglas for your tropical North Queensland vacation.

Port Douglas vs Cairns photos
Port Douglas or Cairns, which to choose?

Cairns and Port Douglas have an almost identical climate and all attractions in the region can be visited from either destination. Now onto the pros and cons of Port Douglas vs Cairns. Both have plenty of things to do, plenty of food options and a wide variety of accommodation.

Is Cairns Better Than Port Douglas?

Marina in Cairns Australia
The Marina in Cairns. The Marina, and Cairns City, is on an estuary.

Cairns has a city feel, it’s more of a residential working city than a vacation city. It is closer to the airport and it has more facilities. There is a moderate-sized shopping mall, a few cinemas, an aquarium and some small museums. You may find more affordable accommodation in Cairns and certainly more nightlife.

The aquarium in Cairns is very good and fairly new. Find out more about the aquarium and book tickets here.

Cairns has wildlife attractions (Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome), as does Port Douglas, we think the Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat is probably the best one to visit as it offers Breakfast With The Birds and a chance to swim with the crocodiles. You can feed local wildlife and interact with koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and more.

You can visit The Great Barrier Reef and Green Island From Cairns, and more boats are departing Cairns Marina than Port Douglas. For a guide to outer and inner reefs, check out this Great Barrier Reef page.

One big advantage is that live-aboard dive operators depart from Cairns. None are departing Port Douglas at the moment.

Another advantage is that Cairns has the beautiful, free, lagoon swimming pool on the Esplanade. So while you can’t swim in the sea directly from Cairns, there is a good pool. If you have a car there are beaches to the north of the city where you can swim. They have stinger nets.

If you haven’t read up on stingers yet we have an explanation of stinger season.

Cairns is possibly better than Port Douglas for families with small kids as there are bigger playgrounds and water play facilities. Port Douglas has playgrounds but they’re all small.

Cairns is much closer than Port Douglas to Kuranda, The Skyrail, and the Scenic Train (and also Barron River Falls). Several of the attractions on The Tablelands are closer to Cairns, including some waterfalls. Paronella Park is also closer to Cairns than Port Douglas.

Cairns also has a train station and regular bus service. Flying is usually cheaper in Australia than either train or bus.

If you’re looking for a hotel with a good pool in Cairns try The Hilton Cairns (5-star) or Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort. These hotels are usually cheaper than the luxury hotels in Port Douglas. (see below).

For a budget stay, Cairns has some huge backpacker resorts and party hostels, try The Jack Backpackers Cairns (often the cheapest). The backpacker accommodation in Cairns is usually slightly cheaper than in Port Douglas, but only by a dollar or two. There are far more options in Cairns.

Cairns and Port Douglas offer Sunset sailing, Port Douglas is maybe more romantic because of its setting and sunset views.

Is Port Douglas Better Than Cairns?

Port Douglas Marina
Port Douglas Marina. The Chinese junk and luxury catamarans offer both snorkelling and sunset sail trips.

The big advantage in staying in Port Douglas rather than Cairns, is that Port Douglas has a beach and it’s an easy walk from just about anywhere in Port Douglas. You can swim at Port Douglas Beach year-round thanks to the stinger net. (Give or take beach closures occasionally.) The swimming enclosure is at the north end of the beach, near Macrossan Street, so if you plan to use the beach you would do better to book a hotel at the northern end of the Port Douglas peninsula, rather than the south. This hotel is very close to the beach and Macrossan St.

We think that you’ll have a better experience and see better sections of The Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas. You can also visit Low Isles from Port Douglas to see a “desert island” with fringing reefs.

That said, The Pullman Sea Temple Resort and Spa, at the south end, has an excellent lagoon pool.

The Sheraton Hotel is also well located for beach access, it’s a moderate walk up to the stinger net. It also has an excellent lagoon pool.

Port Douglas is closer to the reef, The Daintree Rainforest and Mossman Gorge. You can still access all of the attractions near Cairns from Port Douglas and tour operators will take you south from your Port Douglas base.

We think Port Douglas is more beautiful than Cairns, it has a village feel and is more walkable. It’s arguably better for local sightseeing too, there are some cool old buildings around Port Douglas and The Flagstaff Hill Walk and Lookouts are worth experiencing.

Port Douglas is generally more expensive than Cairns for most things. But you might find a bargain!

Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas, near Palm Cove.

The best resort hotels for you in Port Douglas would be The Sheraton Grand Mirage and Pullman Sea Temple (both with lagoon pools) or maybe Oaks (formerly Rydges and QT), the latter is not on the beach. Both pools, being so large, can be cold in July, which is high season and arguably the best time to visit either Port Douglas or Cairns.

For a budget family stay check out the Lazy Lizard, this is quite cheap for Port Douglas and has studio rooms for families. The other top family pick is The Sheraton (above), but it is expensive. The Lazy Lizard wins awards for being a great place to stay, its location is OK, a short walk from the beach, marina, and Macrossan St.

If you’re looking for budget backpacker accommodation in Port Douglas you should look at Port Douglas Backpackers (formerly Parrotfish Lodge) or Global Backpackers (above Rattle and Hum on Macrossan Street.) Both are well located in the heart of town. Dougie’s Backpacker Resort has been sold, unfortunately. I stayed there myself when I first came to Port Douglas over 20 years ago, it’s due to be replaced by a hotel.

If you choose to stay in Cairns you will probably want to drive north to Port Douglas, it’s one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world with views of The Coral Sea, mountains and beaches. You may want to visit Port Douglas Markets, held on Sundays. So you’ll probably be visiting Port Douglas anyway, so why not stay? Or even split your time between Cairns and Port Douglas to see what both have to offer?

Which do you think is the better destination? Cairns or Port Douglas, and why? Tell us in the comments. Of course, you could also stay at Palm Cove or The Northern Beaches of Cairns, but let’s not make things too complicated for now.

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Alyson Long

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