Cairns or Port Douglas? Where to stay in Tropical North Queensland

Cairns or Port Douglas? It’s no easy choice, throw in Palm Cove and Cape Trib and it gets even harder! So we have worked up a list of pros and cons for each spot so you can make an informed decision.

We are a bit partial to Tropical North Queensland, we spent our honeymoon here many years ago, and it’s been a special place for us ever since. At the time we struggled with choosing the best area to stay for our Great Barrier Reef holiday so we know how hard it can be! Below is our mini guide to these areas and our tips to help you decide the best choice for your vacation.

How to choose a base for your reef holiday. Cairns vs Port Douglas vs Palm Cove vs Trinity Beach

We have stayed in all of these towns, so have put together this page to help you narrow down your choice. They are all great but have very different vibes so it’s good if you can either split your time on a more extended visit or choose the best one for your travel style.

Things to consider when choosing your reef holiday accommodation are:

Do you want to rent a car? If not transport could become an important factor
Does your dream reef holiday include a water view room? This is harder and almost impossible at some places
Do you want to party at night? Lots of these spots can be very quiet after 9pm
Are you travelling with kids? Some areas have more attractions
How many days do you have? You may want to stay closer to Cairns on a very short visit
Cairns
Credit: Bahnfrend

Getting the lay of the land – Tropical North Map

Distances from Cairns Airport

Town Distance Drive Time
Cairns 7km 12 minutes
Trinity Beach 20km 25 minutes
Palm Cove 26km30 minutes
Ellis Beach 28km 31 minutes
Port Douglas66km 65 minutes
Fitzroy Island off the coast of Cairns45 boat ride away
Distances from Cairns Airport to the most popular areas to stay

A Guide to Tropical North Queensland Towns and Villages

Starting north and making our way down the coast back to Cairns we share our views on the beaches along the way.

Port Douglas

Famous as being the place where the rainforest meets the reef Port Douglas is a classic beach holiday town with an upmarket vibe. Port, as it’s known locally, has a lovely laid back feel. During our last week-long stay, we met several regulars at on sunset drinks sessions at the Courthouse Hotel and enjoyed how friendly everyone was.

4 Mile beach Port Douglas Beach Australia

There is a lot of visitor accommodation here with hotels, resorts and a huge number of service apartments and Airbnb properties.

Who should stay at Port Douglas?

If you want a variety of restaurants and cafes, then Port Douglas is a great choice. There is also a lot of self-catering apartments here. We think its the best area if you are staying for more than 3-4 days because of the variety of things to see and places to eat on offer here. Port Douglas is also an excellent choice for nature lovers wanting to explore the rainforest.

Pros: Close to Mossman, Daintree and Cape Tribulation.  Daily walks on 4-mile beach

Cons – No beachfront resorts, The beach is south facing so afternoons are well shaded which for some may be less than ideal. For me it’s perfect.

Budget tip: Head to Mossman Gorge (free entry) for a swim

Port Douglas Transport

There is an airport shuttle service that will transfer you from Cairns. Once you arrive, several shuttle services will pick you up from your resort and drop you at a variety of spots around town for a few dollars. Uber is also operating, and there is the Port Douglas Bus service which is not a public bus but instead a service that drops you from the visitors centre to the main attractions.

Our Favourite Port Douglas Resorts

  • Peppers Beach Club Port Douglas – in the centre of town with pool access rooms
  • Mantra Aqueous Port Douglas – affordable comfort
  • PortSea Resort – 100m to the beach and a great pool

If you need more space check out our selection of fantastic Airbnb homes in Port Douglas

Palm Cove

If you are thinking beautiful tropical palm tree-lined beach, then Palm Cove is probably what you have in mind. Home to just under 2000 people, the central area is only one street of resorts and properties lining the beach.

Palm Cove Beach

In our view it is the most stylish of the areas, you almost feel like you are on a tropical island as you stroll along the beach here.

There are several resorts lining the main street that is separated from the beach by a small road. There is also a good choice of restaurants and cafes.

Who should stay at Palm Cove

Palm cove is perfect for honeymooners, resort holiday lovers, those wanting a relaxing break. If you stay outside peak season (especially school holidays) it really is paradise.

Pros: Good range of high end properties, compact dining and shopping strip which means everything is just a couple of minutes away.

Cons: Some people find Palm Cove too quiet, you really need a car if you are staying more than a few days if you would like to explore the area.

Budget Tip: If you like the sound of Palm Cove but you don’t have the budget check out Ellis Beach Bungalows. The accommodation is reminiscent of cabins in a caravan park but the location is hard to beat. There is also a backpacker hostel in the back streets just behind the main resorts. A little further up the highway is a free camping area.

Palm Cove Transport

There is a public bus service from Cairns to Palm Cove. The 110 bus takes about 55 minutes to make the journey with plenty of stops along the way. The bus operates between 7am and midnight. The trip costs approx. $7 each way. Uber also services the area. If you book any tours double check they will pick up from here, most do.

Our Favourite Palm Cove Accommodation

Our Favourite Port Douglas Resorts

  • Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort – rooftop spa rooms and good family rooms
  • The Reef House Palm Cove – MGallery – smaller resort with an adults only pool
  • Peppers Beach Club & Spa Palm Cove – 3 swimming pools and swim up bar

Prefer an apartment – check out these Airbnb properties in Palm Cove

Trinity Beach

More local with apartments rather than resorts, we spent a week at Trinty Beach and really liked it.

Trinity Beach Cairns

Who should stay at Trinity Beach?

Trinity Beach is just 18km north of Cairns with a beach very similar to the one at Palm Cove. The main difference is this area feels more local and less resort, not necessarily in a bad way

We are a little partial to Trinity Beach having spent the first week of our honeymoon in an apartment in Sea Change at Trinity Beach directly opposite the beach. It’s close enough to the attractions of Cairns, especially if you have a car but far enough away to relax with a good book on the beach.

Pros: Gorgeous beach with fewer travellers than Palm Cove.

Cons: Fewer restaurants than the other locations; however, plenty for a few nights. Don’t miss L’Unico Trattoria Seafood for a lovely night out.

Budget Tip: Trinity Beach is great for self-catering holidays with a supermarket and lots of holiday rentals.

Trinty Beach Transport

A public bus, route 111 travels between Cairns Central and Trinity Beach. The trip takes approx 35 minutes. There is no public transport between Trinity Beach and Palm Cove.

Our Favourite Trinty Beach Accommodation

Cairns

In recent years Cairns seems to have been working hard to shake off its backpacker town image with several stunning new 4 and 5-star hotels and a range of fine dining and small bars. If you are looking for man-made attractions, shopping, restaurants and bars then Cairns is your best bet.

Cairns Queensland
Cairns Lagoon on the Esplanade

If you plan on taking lots of tours or want a family friendly holiday Cairns is probably the best place to base yourself. Attractions like Millaa Millaa Waterfall, Patronella Park and Babinda lie south of Cairns and are easier to reach from here.

Pros: The biggest range of accommodation, shopping and dining. If you like to be near the action you will like Cairns. Proximity to Fitzroy Island

Cons: Cairns sits on a mudflat so no beach right in town but some good options only 15 minutes drive away, these are serviced by buses, good nightlife, backpacker vibe however recently some great new hotels have opened up changing the mix a bit.

Our favourite accommodation in Cairns

If your travelling with kids they will love the pool at the Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort. For a splurge

  • Riley, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort – exceptional views and lovely rooms
  • Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns
  • Rydges Esplanade Resort Cairns

When is the best time to visit Port Douglas and Tropical North Queensland?

You can visit Port Douglas year-round. The weather is warm and sunny and it’s never too cold to swim however there are a few things to bear in mind.

The road to Port Douglas

Stinger Season – November and March is Stinger season where only the brave swim in the ocean. There are enclosed swimming areas that are less likely to have jellyfish and some beaches state they are completely safe but many people wear stinger suits to be safe. We just walk by the beach and swim in the pool!

Cyclone Season – officially November to April, we visited in March 2006 a week after Cyclone Larry, and the storms made visibility on the reef very poor. We did not go out that time, it would have been a waste of money. There was plenty to do so it did not upset our plans too much.

Wet seasons – The wet season the days are warm and humid with temperatures of 30 degrees. There is a risk at this time of year that boat trips may be cancelled due to storms and bad weather. The locals call this “green season” and rainforest and waterfalls are stunning at this time of year. If you find humidity challenging you might prefer to visit in the dry season.

Dry Season – From March to October, the temperatures range from 20-25 degrees Celsius. Warm enough for swimming for most people.

Where to stay if….

In OUR opinion:

  • If you don’t have a car stay in Cairns or Port Douglas
  • If you have kids Cairns is probably the best choice with the most to do and more kid-friendly food
  • If you are on a budget stay in Cairns
  • If you want late nightlife options stay in Cairns
  • If you want to stay somewhere romantic choose Palm Cove
  • If you want to self cater consider Trinity Beach
  • If you want to stay in a big friendly beach town Port Douglas is a good pick
  • If you are want to be close to nature and rainforests choose Port Douglas
Trinity Beach
Credit: By Paul Toogood via Wikimedia CC

Join our Facebook Community

Got a question? Head over to our Facebook Community and ask locals and experienced travellers for help.

Save our thoughts on Cairns or Port Douglas or Palm Cove for your holiday planning

Share this with a friend

Leave a comment