A list of the top 7 best islands off cairns! Discover which tropical island to visit, how to get to each and what to expect. The most comprehensive guide to Cairns Islands you’ll find online!
Cairns and Far North tropical Coral Coast is where the rainforest meets the reef. It’s one of the most beautiful, diverse and naturally rich destinations on earth. If you’re planning a visit to Cairns, then you need to head off shore and experience at least one of the many incredible islands that dot the cost.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend close to a year documenting, photographing and exploring the best destinations, attractions and Islands near Cairns and The Tropical North. Below is a summary of what I believe to be the most comprehensive and up-to-date list of the best islands off Cairns that you should visit.
Whether you’re into snorkelling, scuba diving, turtle spotting, rainforest hiking or boating, I’m sure that all of these incredible Cairns will have something for you. However, I acknowledge that you probably don’t have time to see them all. That’s why I’ve also included a short summary and comparison of each to help you plan your Cairns island adventures.
Also, if you’re planning your visit to Cairns, don’t forget to read my comprehensive accommodation guide for where to stay as well as my complete guide for things to do.
Which Cairns Island Can You Stay At?
Out of all of the options available from Cairns, there are only three islands that you can actually spend the night on. These are Fitzroy Island, Green Island and Lizard Island. However, you can also spend the night on the Great Barrier Reef Pontoon (more details below).
Fitzroy Island has one of the best Cairns Islands resorts and is also the closest island to Cairns. I’ve visited Fitzroy several times and can highly recommend the resort there. It features everything you need for a once-in-a-lifetime island getaway including a pool, snorkelling opportunities off the beach, a restaurant and a cocktail bar.
Book: Fitzroy Island Resort
Green Island features a resort with luxurious suites. It’s an eco-resort with 2 pools and a poolside bar. This island resort is top-end, with a day spa, massage and beauty treatments and a restaurant.
Book: Green Island Resort
Lizard Island is arguably one of the most incredible islands in Far North Queensland. It also has a 5-star luxury resort which is voted one of the best island resorts in Australia. The only catch is that to get here, you will need to get on a 1-hour scenic flight from Cairns.
That’s because Lizard Island is located 200 kilometres north of Cairns. But hey, if you wanted to see the Great Barrier Reef from the sky, this might be a win-win. This option isn’t exactly a budget-friendly one, but definitely the most amazing for those of you looking for a honeymoon escape or an extra-special experience.
Book: Lizard Island Resort (free flight from Cairns if staying more than 5 days)
The Great Barrier Reef Pontoon experience is a great option for visitors looking to spend a night on the reef. While not technically a Cairns island resort, the pontoon offers the opportunity to spend a night floating just off the reef and includes snorkelling and an optional 10-minute helicopter flight.
Cairns Islands: 7 Islands Off Cairns
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s dive right in. Below you’ll find my list of the 7 best islands off Cairns. But, just keep in mind that I haven’t ranked them in any particular order. Therefore, you should use this list to compare each islands flares and reasons to visit to make a choice for yourself.
To help you out, I’ve also included links to full blog posts which contain more details and information on what to expect for each island below.
VISITING CAIRNS? READ: The Ultimate Packing List
1. Green Island
Reasons to visit: Great snorkelling, several beaches and rainforest interior.
Green Island is probably one of the most popular islands near Cairns. It’s one of the closest to the Cairns coast and a fast boat only takes about an hour.
Highlights include snorkeling at the incredible fringing reef and at “the pinnacle”. You can also explore the island by foot, checking out the incredible tropical flora and white-sand beaches that line its shores.
Furthermore, Green Island is one of the only islands off Cairns with its own rainforest ecosystem. This makes it one of the most unique options for a day trip from Cairns. However, you can also stay here if you book a return ticket below (open-ended).
The Green Island Resort is one of the best tropical resorts off Cairns, especially for those looking for a luxury offering out on the reef.
Stay here: Green Island Resort
Read More: Complete Guide to Visiting Green Island
How to get here
You’ll have a few options to get to Green Island, the cheapest costs less than $100 per person. All boats depart from the reef fleet terminal on the Cairns Esplanade.
Below I’ve linked the most popular boat trip from Cairns which is also the cheapest:
2. Fitzroy Island
Reasons to visit: Cheapest island from Cairns, incredible resort, hiking.
Another incredible tropical paradise just around the corner from Cairns is Fitzroy Island. The fast boat to Fitzroy will only take you about 45 minutes, where you can choose to spend a day or even stay overnight at the Fitzroy Island Resort.
In my opinion, the best thing about Fitzroy Island is the incredible turtle population. I counted up to 13 turtles during my first time snorkelling, which is the most I’ve seen anywhere on the Australian East Coast.
Also, if you like a good hike, there are plenty of walks to choose from. The highest of which takes you to one of the best viewpoints on the Cairns Coast; The Fitzroy Island Summit. I’ve featured this walk in my list of the best hikes in Cairns!
Since these first two Cairns Islands are the most popular, I’ve also written a comprehensive comparison guide to Fitzroy Island vs Green Island to help you choose. Otherwise, keep reading to find more islands off Cairns to visit.
Read More: Fitzroy Island Things to Do and See
How to get here
Getting to Fitzroy Island is easy and there are loads of options available to book online. As mentioned earlier, the fastest boat only takes 45 minutes but there are also island and reef- hopping trips that include a trip to Fitzroy.
Stay the night: Fitzroy Island Resort (includes ferry)
3. The Low Isles
Reasons to visit: 15-minute fast boat from Port Douglas, loads of guided snorkelling options.
Located closer to Port Douglas than Cairns, The Low Isles are still one of the best islands worth checking out from Cairns. The great thing is, Port Douglas is just an hour north from Cairns and is worth at least a day-trip in its own right.
The Low Isles is a set of two smaller islands; Low Island and Woody Island. Woody Island is reserved for bird nesting so Low Island is the only accessible part of the Low Isles.
On the island, you’ll find a picturesque lighthouse and far-reaching fringing reef to explore. The snorkeling is not quite as good as what you’ll find on Green Island, but it’s still an epic Great Barrier Reef Island not to miss!
Read More: Low Isles Travel Guide
How to get here
You can get to the Low Isles by taking a speed boat, which is ridiculously fast – only 15 minutes to the islands from Port Douglas! However, if you’d prefer to visit this Cairns island on an organised snorkelling or sailing trip, then check out these options below:
HEADING NORTH?: Guide to the Cairns to Cape Tribulation Drive
4. Dunk Island
Reasons to visit: awesome sand spit, hiking trails and lookouts
Another must-visit, and of my personal favourite islands off Cairns is Dunk Island. This one is located a little further south of Cairns, accessible from the Mission Beach area.
On the island, there is an abandoned resort, an old airstrip, plenty of hikes, great snorkelling and an incredible reaching sand bar that’s a favourite on Instagram.
If you decide to visit Dunk Island, don’t miss Mound Island, which sits just opposite the main beach. You’ll need a kayak or boat to get over there, but if you do, you’ll get a small taste of isolated island life.
How to get here
Dunk Island is popular with both Innisfail and Mission Beach locals, as well as the many backpackers and travellers that visit the Tropical North every year. While there aren’t many ways to get to Dunk Island on an organised trip from Cairns, you can book a fairly cheap and quick boat if you’re driving south to Mission Beach anyway.
The most cost-effective way to get to this island is to take the water taxi ferry transfer below.
Book the best price: Dunk Island Ferry Transfer
5. Michaelmas Cay
Reasons to visit: Outer reef cay, great snorkelling, sea bird population
Want more of a taste of the outer Great Barrier Reef? If you’re in Cairns, then you’re in luck. Fortunately, Cairns is one of the best places in Australia to access the Great Barrier Reef, with both epic islands and reef cays just off the coast.
One of the best island cays on the outer reef is Michaelmas Cay. Compared to the other islands off Cairns, Michaelmas Cay and the surrounding reef has the best snorkelling and diving you’ll find.
This cay doesn’t have much in terms of things to do on land. But, let’s face it, Cairns island hopping is all about the underwater world! There is also a sea-bird population that returns to nest each afternoon on Michaelmas, which is great for nature lovers and bird watchers.
Read More: Guide to Visiting Michaelmas Cay
How to get here
There are no fast-boat ferries that regularly visit Michaelmas Cay. As a result, you’ll mostly find boaties and the occasional catamaran tour here. However, there is one boat that makes the trip out on an island-hopping, diving and snorkelling trip. This is run by Ocean Spirit
6. Vlasoff Cay
Reasons to visit: most scenic Cairns island cay, epic snorkelling.
Vlasoff is perhaps the most famous and iconic cay on the Great Barrier Reef off Cairns. You’ll often find it on promotional posters and tourism campaigns. That’s because it really is the most perfect, iconic little patch of white sand that has to be seen to be believed.
A similar size to Michaelmas Cay, Vlasoff offers similar snorkelling but without the sea bird population.
How to get here
The tricky part about getting to the outer Great Barrier Reef islands and cays is that many of the tours will change their itinerary based on weather and other boats.
What this means is that getting to cays like Vlasoff mostly comes down to luck, depending on where the reef-hopping tour will go that day.
However, rest assured that if you book an outer reef experience, especially with Down Under Cruise & Dive (my favourite), you’ll get to experience the outer reef in all its glory, no matter which spot they pick for the day.
Book: Great Barrier Reef Tour With Down Under Cruise & Dive
See Vlasoff Cay from above: Scenic Reef Flight from Cairns
7. Lizard Island
Reasons to visit: Epic resort, large island to explore, great snorkelling & diving
Lizard Island is perhaps the most remote island off Cairns, located 200 kilometres to the north. Chances are you won’t meet too many people who’ve been here but that hasn’t stopped Lizard Island’s international acclaim. It’s been featured in several Hollywood films and is often featured on Cairns travel posters and ads.
There are loads of things to do on Lizard Island. From exploring the many beaches coral-lined bays to hiking around to the viewpoints, there’s no way you’ll run out of things to do.
Also, as I mentioned above, Lizard Island is home to one of the best Cairns islands resorts. So, if you make the effort to see this tropical gem, it’d be a shame not to spend at least a night here.
Book: Lizard Island Resort
How to get here
Being the most remote island off Cairns, you’ll need to book a scenic flight to get here. I recommend searching SkyScanner for great deals or checking the Cairns airport website for up-to-date departure information.
The flight from Cairns international airport takes just under an hour and isn’t just a regular commercial flight. It’s a low-flying scenic flight that also passes some of the best aerial views of the Great Barrier Reef. Currently, there’s a promotional deal where if you book at least 5 nights at the resort, you can get a free return flight to Cairns.
Check flights: SkyScanner
The Best Islands off Cairns: A Summary
After reading this island list, I’m sure you’re itching to get out and explore the tropical beauty of the Far North. If you’re still tossing up which Cairns island to visit, then below is a quick summary that might help you make the call.
Closest islands to Cairns: Fitzroy Island & Green Island
Best snorkelling & diving: Vlasoff Cay & Lizard Island
Cairns Islands for a road trip: Dunk Island & Low Isles
Best cay for bird-spotting: Michaelmas Cay & Green Island
To save you time and money, I’ve selected the best-rated and most cost-effective options to getting to each Cairns Island above. However, if you want to search for more deals or island hopping trips, I suggest checking Klook, GetYourGuide and Viator. These are the three best tour booking companies and they always offer the same if not cheaper rates than booking at the ticketing office.
Sailing or boating on the Coral Coast? Read about my adventures sailing on a homebuilt yacht up the East Coast of Australia.
Cairns Accommodation Guide – Where to Stay
Planning a trip to Cairns and wondering where to base yourself? Below I’ve listed some of the best options near Cairns Esplanade. I’ve also written a comprehensive accommodation guide to Cairns, so make sure to check that out too before you book!
Also, if you’re looking to stay in Port Douglas, I’ve got some tips on finding great accommodation deals there too.
LUXURY RESORT WITHOUT THE PRICE TAG – Rydges Resort
This hotel offers the best bang-for-buck. In terms of an epic stay for a decent price! The location is perfect, close to the esplanade and features include three swimming pools, two tennis courts, a jacuzzi, a fitness centre and even an award-winning restaurant.
BEST 5-STAR LUXURY HOTEL: Pullman Reef Hotel Casino
If luxury and location are what you’re after, you can’t beat the Pullman. It’s rated Cairns’ best hotel and features restaurants, a pool, live music gigs and even a casino! If nightlife is your thing, don’t go past this one.
STAY ON THE ISLANDS: Fitzroy Island Resort
If you’d rather sleep out on one of the picturesque Great Barrier Reef Islands, look no further than the Fitzroy Island Resort. While you can get out here on a day trip, I highly recommend spending the night so you get more time to explore the reef, coral beaches and rainforest walking trails.
BEST BUDGET HOSTEL WITH A POOL – Gilligan’s Backpackers
The best backpacker option for a great vibe in Cairns is Gilligan’s Backpackers. That’s because this one has a swimming pool, AC, a complete kitchen and a great common area to meet other travellers.
More Cairns Travel Guides and Adventure Inspiration
I hope that this travel guide to the best islands off Cairns has given you a better understanding of what to expect from the paradise that is the Far North. I’ve spent several months exploring the best hikes, activities, waterfalls and even places to stay in Cairns, so make sure to check out some of the other posts on this blog.
Below are some that I think you’ll love.
MY CAMERA AND PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT
- Mirrorless Camera: Canon R5
- Drone: DJI Mavic Pro 2
- 360 Action Camera: Insta360 One X2
- Landscape Lens: Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L
- All-Round Lens: Canon RF 24-105mm f/4L
- Telephoto Lens: Canon RF 100-500mm f/f/4.5-7.1 L
- Long Action Pole: Insta360 Invisible Pole (BulletTime)
- Landscape Lens Filter: Hoya Circular Polarizer
- Camera Backpack: F-Stop Tilopa
- Favorite Photography Accessory: Peak Design Capture Clip
For a list of all my recommended photography gear (including what I use and why) check out my guide to camera gear for travel.