Cairns or Port Douglas? Where to stay in North Queensland

Cairns or Port Douglas? It’s no simple choice, throw in Palm Cove and Cape Trib, and it gets even harder! We have struggled with this question pretty much every time we have visited. Especially on our honeymoon, so we have worked up a list of pros and cons for each spot so you can make an informed decision.

We have a particular fondness for Tropical North Queensland. 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.

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How to choose a base for your reef holiday

Should you stay in Cairns or Port Douglas or Palm Cove or Trinity Beach?

We have stayed in all 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 you could decide to split your time on a more extended visit or choose to spend some time to choose the best town 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 in some places.
  • Do you want to party at night? Lots of these spots can be very quiet after 9 pm.
  • Are you travelling with kids? Some areas have more attractions.
  • How many days do you have? Stay closer to Cairns on a quick visit.
Cairns North Queensland
Cairns town centre Credit: Bahnfrend

Getting the lay of the land – Tropical North Map

Distances from Cairns Airport to local towns in Far North Queensland

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 sunset drinks sessions at the Courthouse Hotel and enjoyed how friendly everyone was.

Four Mile Beach Port Douglas Queensland
4 Mile beach Port Douglas Beach Australia

There is plenty of visitor accommodation here with hotels, resorts and a huge number of serviced apartments.

Who should stay at Port Douglas?

If you want a variety of restaurants and cafes, then Port Douglas is a brilliant choice. There are also a lot of self-catering apartments here. We think it’s the best area if you are staying for over 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 absolute 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

Desert four mile beach Port Douglas
Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas

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 available and there is the Port Douglas Bus service, which is not a public bus but a service that drops you from the Visitors’ Centre to the major attractions.

Our Favourite Port Douglas Resorts

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
Palm Cove Beach

In our view Palm Cove is the most stylish of the areas, you almost feel 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 minor 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 for 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. 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

Trinity Beach

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

Trinity Beach Cairns
Trinity Beach Cairns

Who should stay at Trinity Beach?

Trinity Beach is just 18km north of Cairns, with a beach very similar to Palm Cove. The major 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.

Trinity 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 Trinity Beach Accommodation

  • Sea Change Trinity Beach – Affordable self-contained apartments with stunning ocean views and lovely pool – We spent a week here and loved it!
  • Sea Point Trinity Beach – 1 and 2-bedroom Deluxe apartments are wheelchair-friendly and include an accessible bathroom – direct ocean views
  • Vue Apartments Trinity Beach – Luxury apartments with a stunning horizon pool (infinity pool)


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.

The Lagoon on the waterfront in 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, Petronella 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 you’re travelling with kids, they will love the pool at the Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort

For a splurge

When is the best time to visit North Queensland?

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

Road to Port Douglas
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 they may cancel boat trips because of storms and poor 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 to 25 degrees Celsius. Warm enough for swimming for most people.

Where to stay if….

So where would we stay if we were you?

  • 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

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