A list of the top 9 best islands off Cairns! Discover which tropical island to visit on the Great Barrier Reef, how to get to each and what to expect. The most comprehensive guide to Cairns Islands you’ll find online!
Cairns and the Coral Coast of Far North Queensland 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 offshore and experience at least one of the many incredible islands dotting the coast.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend close to a year documenting, photographing and exploring the best destinations, attractions and Great Barrier Reef islands near Cairns and Far North Queensland. I spent several months sailing here and have taken dozens of day trips out to the different islands while basing myself in Cairns.
Safe to say, I’ve learned a lot about the islands in this region. So, below is a detailed travel guide to the best islands near Cairns that you can visit on a day trip or overnight stay.
- Quick Answer: My Favourite Cairns Island Trips
- 9 Best Islands Off Cairns
- What are the Best Islands to Visit Near Cairns?
- Island Resorts Near Cairns to Stay on the Great Barrier Reef
- Planning a Trip to Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef
- FAQ About the Islands Off Cairns
- More Cairns Travel Guides and Adventure Inspiration
I'm Olly, a full-time traveler for the past 5 years. I visit every destination I write about & handpick all recommendations.
Quick Answer: My Favourite Cairns Island Trips
Basing yourself in Cairns and want to see the islands on a day trip? Below is a list of my most recommended island and Great Barrier Reef experiences that you can book in advance.
Fitzroy Island is the closest (and cheapest) Great Barrier Reef Island to visit from Cairns. Check out the world-famous famous Nudey Beach & hike to the island summit, one of my top islands near Cairns.
2. Great Barrier Reef by Catamaran Top-Pick
Visit the outer reef & snorkel or scuba dive at two pristine reef locations (either Flynn & Milne or Norman & Hastings). You could even get lucky & meet the local Maori Wrasse as we did in the photo.
Visit Cairns' popular Green Island on a quick day trip with a fast-boat transfer. Snorkel in vibrant coral gardens and take a walk through its lush island rainforest.
Travel tip: By far, my favourite islands for snorkeling in Cairns are the Frankland Islands (most pristine reef). There is only one boat trip allowed to stop on these islands and you can book this directly with BackpackerDeals + use code OLLY5 to get $5 off.
9 Best Islands Off Cairns
Alright, let's get into this list of 9 epic islands near Cairns to visit. Below you will find a short summary with my photos of the islands from my trips. I'll also include the different ways to get to each island to help you plan a visit.
Just keep in mind that I haven't ranked them in any particular order. However I have written comprehensive travel guides to each island, with a link to those guides below each heading if you need more information.
|Island||Why Visit||KM from Cairns||Lodging|
|Green Island||Snorkelling, beaches, rainforest||27 km||Green Island Resort|
|Fitzroy Island||Snorkelling, beaches & turtles||29 km||Fitzroy Island Resort|
|Frankland Islands||Healthiest reef, for snorkelling||45 km||Day trips|
|The Low Isles||Snorkelling, heritage-listed lighthouse||67 km||Day trips|
|Dunk Island||Rainforest trails, vibrant reefs||150 km||Camping only|
|Michaelmas Cay||Bird sanctuary, exceptional snorkeling||40 km||Day trips|
|Vlasoff Cay||Secluded sand cay, shallow-water snorkeling||27 km||Day trips|
|Lizard Island||Luxury retreat, world-class diving||240 km||Lizard Island Resort|
|Double Island||Close to Cairns Northern Beaches||23 km||Private resort facilities|
1. Green Island
- Reasons to visit: Great snorkelling, several beaches & a rainforest interior.
- Distance from Cairns: About 27 km (16.7 miles) from Cairns, accessible via a 45-minute ferry ride.
- Accommodation: Green Island Resort
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 roughly 45 minutes to one hour.
Highlights include snorkeling at the incredible fringing reef and at "the pinnacle". You can also explore the island on 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. Just keep in mind that this is a busy island to visit. However, I found that you can escape the crowds by walking over to the eastern side of the island, away from the main jetty for a quiet place to swim and relax.
Travel Tip: you can also stay on Green Island 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.
How to Get to Green Island
You'll have a few options to get to Green Island, the most cost-effective trip that I found costs $110 per person. This includes morning tea & snorkelling gear rental or a glass-bottom boat. However, you can also take the regular ferry for around $96 currently. 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 one I recommend to most travellers.
2. Fitzroy Island
- Reasons to visit: Excellent for hiking, coral beaches, & sea kayaking, bonus of the Turtle Rehabilitation Center.
- Distance from Cairns: Approximately 30 km (18.6 miles) from Cairns, typically a 45-minute to 1-hour ferry ride.
- Accommodation: Fitzroy Island Resort
Another incredible tropical paradise just around the corner from Cairns is Fitzroy Island. If you're in a hurry to see the islands and don't want to spend a whole day on the boat, I recommend Fitzroy as it only takes about 45 minutes to get there.
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. Every time I come back here I always see turtles cruising in Welcome Bay.
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.
How to Get to Fitzroy Island
Getting to Fitzroy Island is easy and there are loads of options available to book online.
There are two main Fitzroy ferry companies running from Cairns:
- Fitzroy Flyer
Currently, the most cost-effective ferry to visit Fitzroy Island from Cairns is to book a return ferry ticket with Sunlover on GetYourGuide. I've taken both ferries and can confirm that this is currently the best price you will find online at $89 and only includes the fast-ferry catamaran transfer (fastest boat).
Tip: Book a Half-Day Trip
Only got time to visit the island for a few hours?
Currently, there's a great deal you can snag with BackpackerDeals, offering cheaper half-day return ferry tickets. Use code OLLY5 to save $5 OFF all tours.
3. Frankland Islands (Normanby Island)
- Reasons to visit: Incredible snorkelling, healthiest reef, river cruise included
- Distance from Cairns: Around 45 km (28 miles) south of Cairns, a boat trip that can take up to 2 hours, depending on the departure point
- Accommodation: None available– day trips only
Although a little further than some of the other islands around Cairns, the tropical archipelago of the Frankland Islands are definitely a must-visit when in the Tropical North!
These islands include High Island, Russel Island, Mabel Island, Round Island and Normanby Island. All of them are definitely less popular than the others on this list, but let me tell you, the Frankland Islands are amazing, and after snorkelling at all of the islands on this list, the reef around Normanby is by far the healthiest!
In fact, I honestly believe that the coral reef system here is healthier and richer than many of the popular spots on the outer reef!
If you're looking to see a real slice of the Great Barrier Reef on a nearby Cairns Island, don't miss out on this one!
How to get to Frankland Islands
There's only one company that runs tours to the Frankland Islands from Cairns. These trips are all-inclusive and run coaches down to Mulgrave River, where you'll board a scenic river cruise toward the islands.
These trips are still one-day trips from Cairns, which is a popular option for those looking to see the incredible reef and a Great Barrier Reef island in a single day.
Travel tip: The best deal currently is to book the Frankland Islands Day Trip on BackpackerDeals. Remember to use the code OLLY5 when booking to get yourself a $5 discount. This goes for all of the tours and activities on this website, and you don't have to be a backpacker to get the discounted rate!
4. The Low Isles
- Reasons to visit: Shallow lagoons are perfect for snorkeling and bird-watching. Also home to a historic lighthouse
- Distance from Cairns: About 67 km (41.6 miles) north of Cairns, off Port Douglas, reachable by a 1-1.5 hour boat trip or 15-minute speedboat
- Accommodation: None available. Best to stay in Port Douglas and take a day trip
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 of 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 a far-reaching fringing reef to explore. I've noticed that the snorkelling 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!
How to Get to Low Isles
You can get to the Low Isles by taking a speed boat called the Reef Sprinter, 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:
Book: Low Isles Sailing & Snorkelling Trip: Wavedancer Top Pick
Cairns Itinerary Tip: If you're planning your own DIY Cairns itinerary, I recommend renting a car and driving the Great Barrier Reef Drive to Port Douglas. From here, you can easily stay for a night or two, visiting the Low Isles before continuing on to Cape Tribulation.
5. Dunk Island
- Reasons to visit: Lush rainforest hikes, vibrant reefs for snorkeling, and a unique sand spit
- Distance from Cairns: Roughly 150 km (93 miles) south of Cairns, accessible via a 25-minute fast-ferry from Mission Beach.
- Accommodation: Was home to Dunk Island Resort, which is currently closed. Camping available.
Another must-visit and one 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, I highly recommend heading over to 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.
While there was once a bustling resort here, this has been abandoned since damage from cyclone Yassi in 2011. However there may be plans to rebuild it after it was recently purchased by tech billionaire's wife Annie CannonBrooks.
If you'd like to stay the night, you can get a camping permit online to stay adjacent to the jetty on Dunk Island Spit. I recommend doing this before departing as I've noticed internet reception can get bad, especially on the far side of the island.
How to get to Dunk Island
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 the MyRoo Ferry X boat from Mission Beach. This only costs $75 for the return trip and will get you to the main jetty area on Dunk Island within 25 minutes from Clump Point Boat Ramp near Mission Beach.
6. Michaelmas Cay
- Reasons to visit: Outer reef cay, great snorkelling and diving, renowned sea bird population
- Distance from Cairns: About 40 km (24.8 miles) from Cairns, usually a 2-hour boat ride.
- Accommodation: No overnight stays; only day trips.
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 and in my opinion is equally as good as the Frankland Islands.
However, this island 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.
How to Get to Michaelmas Cay
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 and costs around $250 for the day and will get you to the cay in about 2 hours, depending on the wind and sea conditions.
7. Vlasoff Cay
- Reasons to visit: Secluded sand cay on the Great Barrier Reef with great shallow-water snorkelling.
- Distance from Cairns: Approximately 27 km (16.7 miles) from Cairns, reachable by a 1.5 to 2-hour boat ride, depending on sea conditions.
- Accommodation: None available
Vlasoff Cay 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. I've visited this island roughly 8 times, staying out here with my family's home-built sailing boat and I've had plenty of time to snorkel and explore the reef here. Let me tell you, this is one of my favorite places in Far North Queensland and truly has to be seen to be believed.
Below is a short video I made to show what to expect here.
How to Get to Vlasoff Cay
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
8. Lizard Island
- Reasons to visit: Luxurious and exclusive retreat, world-class diving at the Cod Hole, and research station access for educational insights.
- Distance from Cairns: About 240 km (149 miles) north of Cairns, accessible via a 60-minute scenic flight.
- Accommodation: Lizard Island Resort
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 such as the popular "Fools Gold" film with Matthew Mcconaughey 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 and coral-lined bays to hiking around to the viewpoints, there's no way you'll run out of activities here.
Also, as I mentioned above, Lizard Island is home to one of the best Cairns Island 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.
How to get to Lizard Island
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.
9. Double Island
- Reason to visit: Private small island very close to Cairns' Northern Beaches
- Distance from Cairns: Just 23 km (14.3 miles) north of Cairns, accessible by a short 10-minute boat ride from Palm Cove.
- Accommodation: Private resort facilities
Usually, when I base myself in Cairns, I stay on the Northern Beaches near Palm Cove. If you're also doing this, then it's hard to miss the beautiful little green island of Double Island, just out from shore.
I've been told by Dave Rowland, a local at Palm Cove that the snorkeling here is also a treat when the waters are clear around high tide. While sailing up the coast, I've anchored here on a couple of locations but only been to shore once. There's a sandy, protected beach on the eastern side of the island which is great for relaxing.
How to Get to Double Island
Although it's located so close to the mainland, there are no ferries or regular day trips to this island. However, you'll find a few small local companies offering water sports and kayaking trips here.
Alternatively, the Double Island Apartments have recently begun offering their accommodations for a minimum of 3 nights for couples and special events.
What are the Best Islands to Visit Near Cairns?
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, Double Island, & Green Island
- Best snorkelling & diving: Frankland Islands & Vlasoff Cay
- Cairns Islands for a road trip: Dunk Island & Low Isles
- Best cay for bird-spotting: Michaelmas Cay & Green Island
- Healthiest Coral Reef: Frankland Islands
Island Resorts Near Cairns to Stay on the Great Barrier Reef
Out of all of the nearby Cairns islands, there are only four islands that you can actually spend the night on. If you're looking for island accommodation near Cairns, you'll want to check out:
Fitzroy Island Resort
In my opinion, Fitzroy Island has one of the best offshore resorts and is also the closest island to Cairns. I've visited Fitzroy several times and after staying in the island suite, I can highly recommend the famous Fitzroy Island Resort.
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!
Green Island Resort
Green Island features a resort with luxurious suites. It's an eco-resort with 2 pools and a poolside bar. The Green Island Resort is top-end, with a day spa, massage and beauty treatments and a restaurant.
Lizard 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.
Bonus: Stay on the Great Barrier Reef Pontoon
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.
Planning a Trip to Cairns & The Great Barrier Reef
Still in the planning stages of your trip to Cairns and the Tropical North? Here's a quick list of essential travel resources that I use to plan and book all my travels around the world independently.
Flights: Find & compare flight deals to Cairns International Airport using Skyscanner. Use the "search by month" feature to discover the cheapest day to fly.
Hostels: When it comes to scoring epic deals on hostels and cheap stays your secret weapon is Hostelworld. If you're traveling to Cairns to meet people, use the “See Who's Going” function.
Travel Insurance: HeyMondo is my top recommendation for travel insurance for Cairns and the Wet Tropics. They've got your back with comprehensive coverage, from unexpected flight hiccups to those "oops" moments. Click the link to get 5% OFF your policy.
Internet & Connectivity: Stay connected as soon as you land in Queensland with Airalo's eSIMS. Aussie sims will work. But if you're coming from overseas, I'd download their app and grab an eSIM before you set foot on Australian soil.
Car Rental: Don't overpay for a rental at the airport. Compare rental car prices across all dealerships in Cairns and Port Douglas. Use DiscoverCars to choose the perfect ride for your journey, whether it's a compact car or an SUV for off-road adventures.
Transportation: Public transport is limited to the natural attractions around Cairns and its best to use tour companies or rent a car. However, if you're arriving at the airport, or need a transfer between Cairns and Port Douglas, use the popular Cairns & Port Douglas shuttle.
To learn more about independent travel to anywhere else in the world, read my ultimate step-by-step guide on how to plan a trip.
FAQ About the Islands Off Cairns
For day trips, I recommend Green Island, Fitzroy Island, Frankland Islands, The Low Isles, Michaelmas Cay, and Vlasoff Cay. Each offers unique experiences, from snorkeling to bird-watching. The most cost-effective and quickest trip is to Fitzroy, but it's also the most popular.
Dunk Island offers trails through rainforests and diverse ecosystems. Hinchinbrook, another island near the south coast near Innisfail is also famous for the Thorsborne Trail.
Yes, I highly recommend that. Many islands have limited accommodations, and some are exclusively booked for events or private getaways.
That's Magnetic Island and this is quite far (350 km+) from Cairns. I've spent quite a bit of time on Magnetic Island and written many guides about it. However, I would only recommend it as a trip from Townsville since it's too far from Cairns.
That will depend on which part of the reef you visit. Thee closest island with reef to visit is Double Island or Fitzroy. However, keep in mind that this is just "fringing reef". For the real Great Barrier Reef experience from Cairns, you'll need to visit the Outer Reef, including islands like Vlasoff Cay and Michaelmas Cay.
I recommend visiting the islands near Cairns since there are more to choose from, especially Fitzroy Island, Green Island, and Frankland Islands. The closest island to Port Douglas is the Low Isles. However, this is not as picturesque and the reef is not quite as healthy as the others.
While I've covered the top islands that you can visit from Cairns, some more in the broader Coral Coast Region include Bedarra Island, Haggerstone Island, Orpheus Island and Hinchinbrook Island.
The best time to visit the islands near Cairns is in the dry season from May to October. During these months, you'll enjoy cooler temperatures, lower humidity, and less rainfall, making boat trips and snorkeling more enjoyable. Additionally, this period falls outside the jellyfish season, which means safer swimming conditions.
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 Far North Qeeensland.
Below are some more of my Cairns travel guides and inspiration that I think you'll love.
- Cairns Travel Guide - your ultimate Cairns and FNQ resource covering 60+ fun things to do!
- Top Things to do in Port Douglas - a comprehensive guide to the sleepy Far North Queensland town of Port Douglas
- Cape Tribulation Travel Guide - discover where the rainforest meets the reef at one of my favourite places in Australia
- Cairns Hiking Guide - a huge list of epic rainforest, waterfall, and lookout hikes in Cairns
- Cairns Waterfalls - a huge list of epic waterfalls that I've visited in Cairns and the surrounding tropics.
- Best Things to do in the Atherton Tablelands - my guide to one of Far North Queensland's most underrated destinations
- Accommodation Resources: Discover where to stay in Cairns, the best hotels in Port Douglas and my Cape Tribulation accommodation guide.