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Cairns vs Port Douglas vs Palm Cove

Updated Tue 18 Jun 2024

Girls waking at sunset, Cairns, Australia

For those traversing the tropics, the only tough decisions involve where to eat, where to stay and where to laze in the sun. Boasting a handful of pristine, tropical beaches and , the Cairns region doesn’t make it an easy decision. That’s why it should come as a relief that we’ve got you covered. Here is our ultimate guide to choosing the right place to stay.


Why is Port Douglas so popular?

Just south of Cairns you'll find Port Douglas, a beautiful beach town that offers excellent access to some of the best spots in the Great Barrier Reef. Unlike Cairns, which boasts a bustling city vibe, or Palm Cove, with its village-like beachfront, Port Douglas offers visitors a blend of adventure and luxury.

Set off on glamorous yachts, kick back and relax at upscale resorts, splash out in boutique shops and local markets, all just a stone's throw away from one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.

Girls running through palm trees in Port Douglas


Is Port Douglas or Cairns better?

The beauty of both Port Douglas and Cairns is that they're just a short distance from some of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world, from the Great Barrier Reef to Daintree Rainforest. It's hard to say whether one destination is better than the other, with both offering their own unique charms. 

Both destinations have their charms and are jam-packed full of attractions. Choosing between them largely depends on the type of holiday you're looking for. While Cairns is a bustling city full of fun attractions, vibrant nightlife, and impressive shopping options, Port Douglas offers visitors a more laidback, lavish, and intimate experience. 

Sail boat in Port Douglas


Is it worth visiting Palm Cove?

It's absolutely worth visiting Palm Cove! This hidden gem is best known for its palm-lined beach, dreamy resorts, and quaint coastal village feel. 

Compared to its neighbours Port Douglas and Cairns, Palm Cove offers visitors a more tranquil, intimate beach experience. Treat your tastebuds at award-winning restaurants, get lost among the ancient Melaleuca trees, enjoy a lavish spa day, or take a leisurely stroll along the boardwalk.

Enjoy a proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and beautiful, lush rainforests, without being caught up in the hustle and bustle of larger neighbourhoods.

Palm trees on Palm Cove beach


Are beaches better in Port Douglas, Cairns, or Palm Cove?

Cairns 

While Cairns is the centre point of the Far North, the city itself isn’t your best bet if you’re looking for a lazy beach holiday. Luckily, it does boast a string of coastal suburbs just north of the CBD that should tick all of your boxes. Head upwards to Trinity Beach or Clifton Beach (a local favourite) to secure yourself a spot in the sun - or better yet, make your way upwards and onwards to Port Douglas and Palm Cove for dip.

Port Douglas 

The sleepy little town of Port Douglas boasts a world-class beach, so even if you don’t base yourself here, make sure you pop on up for a swim. This palm-lined haven is something out of a film - Four Mile Beach should be your first port of call, but when serenity is calling your name, seek out Wonga Beach.

Palm Cove

It’s the ultimate beach for lazing with a beer in hand - Palm Cove will have you feeling like you’re on vacation, even when you’re not. The bright-yellow sand at Palm Cove is one of Queensland’s best beaches. Looked after by the local community, the beach is surrounded by delicious food and is lined with centuries-old paperbark trees - perfect for dodging that hot summer heat!

Ocean freedom boat at the beach, Cairns


Is food better in Port Douglas, Cairns, or Palm Cove?

Cairns

As a backpacker paradise and the hub of the Far North, Cairns is home to a huge array of food and drink options. With grub ranging from budget to fine dining, there’s something for every traveller. As the tourist scene in Cairns is thriving, the city boasts delicious international food options, as well as a cafe scene that would impress the fussiest of all Melbournians. Special shout-outs go to Red Ochre, Cairns Burger Cafe, Bagus Cafe and Caffeind

Port Douglas 

Food choices in Port Douglas are a little more up the price scale than Cairns, but there’s still an abundance of bargains to be found here. The tiny port has quietly been sliding into foodie-glory over the last few years, with fresh caught seafood, eclectic tapas and boozy brunches on the menu. With over 40 restaurants and cafes in town, Port Douglas is filled to the brim with good food. Special mentions go to Mocka’s Pies & Bakehouse, Nautilus Restaurant and The Little Larder.

Palm Cove

Dining at Palm Cove is unlike dining anywhere else: what’s not to love about digging into a degustation while overlooking the beach? The esplanade is donned with fabulous restaurants and cozy nooks that are bound to please the hottest of dates - and even the rowdiest of families. Make sure you try Nu Nu, Vivo Palm Cove and Pete’s Place.

Smoothie bowl in a heart shaped bowl with coffee


Is nightlife better in Port Douglas, Cairns, or Palm Cove?

Cairns

If you’ve got your party shoes on, you’re bound to think Cairns is a hoot. Compared to Port Douglas and Palm Cove, partying in Cairns is more budget-friendly, free-spirited and varied. From nightclubs to snazzy cocktail bars and beer gardens, Cairns's nightlife is enabled by lively backpackers and locals. Check out Three Wolves, Kewarra Beach Shack Bar, Hemingway’s Brewery and The Conservatory Bar.

Port Douglas 

Although Port Douglas is smaller than Cairns, the night life is vibrant, eclectic and wacky. From classic cocktails to rainforest dining and toad racing, Port Douglas is set to appease every kind of traveller. While it may not be the place for all-night bar hopping, you’ll be spoiled for choice regardless.

Palm Cove

Just like the rest of Palm Cove, its nightlife is laid back with a hint of luxe. Featuring a number of different bars and cafes with live music, the balmy nights here overlooking the ocean are a world away from the nightlife in Cairns. 

To explore the nightlife of Cairns, Port Douglas and Palm cove, check out our local nightlife guide to the best clubs, pubs and bars in town! 

Restaurant and bar with colourful lights in Cairns


Is the reef better from Palm Cove, Port Douglas or Cairns?

Cairns

As the unofficial capital of Tropical North Queensland, Cairns boasts one of the best entryways into the Great Barrier Reef. Get sailing, take an Indigenous reef tour, go island-hopping and even soak up a deserted cay all to yourself. You can even learn to scuba dive or rest up on an eco-resort on Lizard Island. As the hub of the region, Cairns offers the widest array of ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef to your heart’s content.

Port Douglas 

As the closest mainland port to the reef, exploring the wonders of the world from Port Douglas is a grand idea. Swim Agincourt Reef, the Outer Reef, go diving or snorkel the Low Isles - there are enough marine activities here to keep you satisfied forever. 

Palm Cove

Offering the same sorts of reef adventures as Cairns and Port Douglas, most tours are also likely to pick you up from your hotel in Palm Cove. With the world at your feet, Palm Cove is the perfect place to base yourself when diving into the Wet Tropics if you’re chasing a laid-back getaway.

Cairns reef with blue fish and underwater coral


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