One thing we’ve noticed after moving to Queensland is that, as nice as the beaches are, they are not the only beauties in our state. There are plenty of other marvels to discover if you head inland towards the hinterland. The Gold Coast hinterland amazed us, and the Sunshine Coast hinterland is one of our favourite places to head on the weekend. But recently, on our last holiday to Tropical North Queensland, we discovered the Atherton Tablelands, a hinterland region near Cairns. As usual, it did not disappoint.
The Atherton Tablelands is perched on a lush highland plateau that begins about an hour out of Cairns, a little bit off the main tourist trail. While holidaying in Cairns or elsewhere in Tropical North Queensland, be sure to visit this hinterland paradise.
There, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy, including stunning waterfalls, lush wet tropical rainforests, extinct volcano crater lakes, tea and coffee growers, many food producers, country markets, fascinating heritage and much more.
If you’re a nature lover who also loves eating fresh, local produce, the Atherton Tablelands might be a highlight of your trip to Tropical North Queensland!
As there is so much to see, we’ve built a list of the top 15 things to see and do there. This list is made for nature loving foodies like us! If you want to see them all, you will need to stay at least 2 to 3 days in the area.
1- Enjoy the views from the Kennedy Highway
Most people visit the Atherton Tablelands while staying in Cairns. The drive from Cairns is the first highlight of the trip as you follow the Captain Cook Highway and then turn onto the Kennedy Highway. The winding drive up into the hills offers some spectacular views, before you enter a thick rainforest. There are some viewpoints to stop at along the way to admire the scenery.
2- Go for coffee and breakfast at Skybury
I don’t know about you, but for me, first comes coffee and breakfast; then the day can start! The Skybury Coffee Plantation is said to be the oldest and largest coffee plantation in Australia, but it is also well known as a major supplier of Sweet Red Papaya and Lady Finger Bananas, two of Tropical North Queensland’s favourite fruits.
Order a coffee and a breakfast of fresh papaya and enjoy them on the outdoor deck of the restaurant, overlooking the farmland and the valleys.
3- Have tea and scones at the Lake Barrine Teahouse
Lake Barrine is a freshwater crater lake, part of the Crater Lake National Park. By its shores you will find the Lake Barrine Teahouse, a charming 90-year-old teahouse renowned for their tea and freshly made scones.
From the teahouse you can also take a 45-minute informative guided rainforest boat cruise if it’s running (it wasn’t when we visited).
4- Walk around Lake Barrine
Before or after your stop at the Lake Barrine Teahouse, take a walk around the circumference of Lake Barrine for some exercise. The Lake Barrine Circuit Track is a 5-kilometre walk and takes approximately 2 hours. It goes along gravel pathways and a boardwalk around the lake through rainforest. Keep a lookout for plenty of bird and wildlife.
If you are hot after your walk, jump in the lake for a swim. That will cool you down!
5- Admire the awe-inspiring Curtain Fig Tree
The Curtain Fig Tree is a heritage-listed tree located in the Curtain Fig National Park, about a kilometre north of the town of Yungaburra. It is one of the largest trees in Tropical North Queensland and one of the best-known attractions in the Atherton Tablelands. It is HUGE and totally worth a stop. This tree is believed to be at least 500 years old! Amazing.
6- Explore the prettiest town of the Atherton Tablelands, Yungaburra
Yungaburra is a charming old village lined with colourful heritage-listed buildings and beautiful flowers.
I think this little village is the prettiest in the Atherton Tablelands. Park the car and walk around the tiny town centre. Be sure to bring your camera! Along the way, stop at art galleries, cute little boutiques, or the bookstore. You can even have lunch at one of its country-style cafes.
7- Look out for Platypuses in Yungaburra
I have always wanted to see a platypus in the wild. Sadly, I never have. But there is no harm in trying! While in Yungaburra, head down to the platypus viewing platform for a chance to spot one.
You’ll find this platform hidden above Peterson Creek, not far from Nick’s Restaurant and Pizzeria.
If you don’t have any luck spotting one from the platform, you can try walking along the trail to the right. It leads under the bridge and goes on a short loop alongside Peterson Creek. Good luck!
8- Go chasing waterfalls
The Atherton Tablelands are packed with waterfalls. There are so many that you may run out of time if you try to see them all. But what you shouldn’t miss is a drive along the Waterfall Circuit.
The Waterfall Circuit is just half an hour from Yungaburra and is where you’ll find the most famous trio, Millaa Millaa Falls, Zillie Falls and Ellinjaa Falls which are just a short drive apart from each other.
The first one, Millaa Millaa is one of the most famous and most photographed waterfalls in Australia. It’s a good-looking waterfall and you can swim there. However, if you want to find it empty, you’ll have to get up early. Being so famous, it’s always packed.
The Zillie Falls are the second one along the road. They can only be admired from the viewing platform above them, so there’s no swimming here.
The last one on the circuit is Ellinjaa Falls. Ellinjaa Falls is so beautiful too and guess what, you can get down to the bottom, have a swim and it is way less busy!
Looking for more waterfalls? There are so many more. Millstream Falls, Dinner Falls, Mungalli Falls, Wallicher Falls and Tchupala Falls are others worth seeing but how many waterfalls can one really see in a day or weekend?
9- Have a cheese platter at Mungalli Creek Dairy
If you love cheese, you must stop at Mungalli Creek Dairy for lunch. Not only are they surrounded by lush rolling hills with spectacular views, but this biodynamic producer makes an awesome (and huge!) home-made cheese platter using their very own dairy products.
10- Visit the historic Village of Herberton
Herberton is the oldest town on the Atherton Tablelands and this fascinating historic village is listed on the National Heritage Register. A visit to Herberton is like stepping back in time with preserves, displays and fascinating historical exhibits from across Australia. Make this a must do and allow plenty of time to see all the 62+ exhibits and some very interesting memorabilia from our past.
11- Visit Paronella Park
Once an entertainment park, complete with lawn bowls, picnic tables, waterfalls, swimming pool, ballroom, and many hectares of tropical gardens; Paronella Park is now one of the most visited tourist attractions near Cairns.
This amazing Spanish Castle was José Paronella’s life-long dream, and he did pretty well realising it.
You could spend a few hours walking around the grounds and taking photos in this Instagram friendly park. The entrance fee also includes a 45-minute guided walk (which is great to learn all about the history of the park), a night tour for a sound and light display. The best part is that your ticket is valid for 24 months, so you can come back anytime.
Admission: Adults: $50 – Children (5-15): $28
12- Admire the rainforest canopy from the Manu Tropical Skywalk
For a nice, easy walk amongst the rainforest, head to the Manu Tropical Skywalk. The Manu Tropical Skywalk is home to a 350-metre-long elevated walkway, a 10-meter-long cantilevered viewpoint and a 37m high observation tower, offering visitors the exhilarating experience of standing at the top of the rainforest canopy. The experience provides spectacular panoramic views of the World Heritage rainforest landscapes and of the Lower Johnson River and surrounding ranges.
You can download an audio guide at the ticket office, or you can follow a booklet that explains what each of the numbered trees are along the walk. It’s a great way to learn about the rainforest.
You can buy a combination ticket for both the Paronella Park and the Manu Boardwalk for $70 per adults or $40.50 per child. Or if you only want to do the Manu Boardwalk the entrance fee is $27.50 per adult and $16.50 per child.
13- Ride the SkyRail and Kuranda Scenic Railway
The small village of Kuranda draws a lot of day visitors from Cairns.
The best and most scenic way to head to Kuranda is to take the Skyrail up and the Kuranda Scenic Railway back down. From the Skyrail you will be amazed by the views over the rainforest and looking back over Cairns. Breathtaking! There are two stops on the way, one at Red Peak for a rainforest walk with a ranger and the other at Barron Falls.
Once in Kuranda, you can spend time exploring the village. There are many shops, galleries, markets, a bird and butterfly sanctuary and many restaurants and cafes. Frogs is a good place to eat to spot the funny water dragons.
After a few hours exploring Kuranda, head back down via the Kuranda Scenic Railway. You really need a full day to enjoy this experience.
Read more about the SkyRail and Kuranda Scenic Railway here.
14- Go Hot Air Ballooning
See the beautiful Atherton Tablelands from the air at sunrise. Wouldn’t that be the best way to start the day? Hot Air ballooning rides over the Tablelands are operated daily from Cairns (weather permitting). If you haven’t been on a hot air balloon before, the Atherton Tablelands would be a great place to try it
15- Visit Queensland’s highest town
At 920 metres, Ravenshoe is the highest town in Queensland. It’s a quaint little town worth a stop for its character and history.
While there, check out the local art gallery and the nearby Windy Hill Wind Farm. The 20 windmills owned by the farm produce enough power for 3500 homes.
Where to stay in the Atherton Tablelands?
Sharlynn by the River
Set in Malanda, Sharlynn by the River offers a seasonal outdoor swimming pool, free WiFi, a 24-hour front desk, and room service. Boasting free private parking, the lodge is in an area where guests can engage in activities such as hiking, fishing, and canoeing. Guests at the lodge can enjoy a continental or a buffet breakfast. Check their latest prices here.
Crater Lakes Rainforest Cottages
Located on the border of the World Heritage-listed Crater Lakes National Park, these cottages are surrounded by rainforest with wildlife on the doorstep. Each cottage has a spa bath and a private deck with BBQ. Check their latest prices here.
Birds ‘n’ Bloom Cottages
Located in Yungaburra in the Queensland region, Birds ‘n’ Bloom Cottages provides accommodation with free WiFi and free private parking, as well as access to a hot tub. Check their latest prices here.
BIG4 NRMA Atherton Tablelands Holiday Park
Set amongst award-winning gardens, this peaceful retreat offers an outdoor swimming pool and free WiFi. Guests can enjoy local birdlife while relaxing in the outdoor cabana. Check their latest prices here.