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9 Amazing Islands Off Cairns You Need to Visit

9 Amazing Islands Off Cairns You Need to Visit

Olly Gaspar

By Olly Gaspar, full-time traveler for 6 years. I visit every place I write about & share real tips, photos, & advice from my trips.

Discover 9 beautiful islands off Cairns and plan which tropical island to visit on the Great Barrier Reef + how to get to each and what to expect.

The Coral Coast region of Far North Queensland is where the rainforest meets the reef and is one of the most beautiful, diverse and naturally rich destinations in Australia.

While Queensland has over 900 tropical islands, some of the best are found right off the coast of Cairns. The most famous islands are Fitzroy Island and Green Island. However, after visiting countless islands and cays in the region, I’m here to convince you to check out some of the other hidden gems easily accessible on a day trip or overnight journey!

What are the Best Islands to Visit Near Cairns?

I've dedicated nearly a year to exploring, photographing, and documenting the premier destinations, attractions, and islands near Cairns and Far North Queensland.

If you're in a rush, here are my recommendations for islands to visit near Cairns. Read on for more suggestions, descriptions, photos and tips on how to get to each.

  1. Closest islands to Cairns: Fitzroy Island, Double Island, & Green Island
  2. Best snorkelling & diving: Frankland Islands & Vlasoff Cay
  3. Cairns Islands for a road trip: Dunk Island & Low Isles
  4. Best cay for bird-spotting: Michaelmas Cay & Green Island
  5. Healthiest Coral Reef: Frankland Islands
IslandWhy VisitKm from CairnsLodging
Green IslandSnorkelling, beaches, rainforest27 kmGreen Island Resort
Fitzroy IslandSnorkelling, beaches & turtles29 kmFitzroy Island Resort
Frankland IslandsHealthiest reef, for snorkelling45 kmDay trips only
The Low IslesSnorkelling, heritage-listed lighthouse67 kmDay trips only
Dunk IslandRainforest trails, vibrant reefs150 kmCamping only
Michaelmas CayBird sanctuary, exceptional snorkeling40 kmDay trips only
Vlasoff CaySecluded sand cay, shallow-water snorkeling27 kmDay trips only
Lizard IslandLuxury retreat, world-class diving240 kmLizard Island Resort
Double IslandClose to Cairns Northern Beaches23 kmPrivate resort facilities
Coastal islands off cairns, australia

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.

Green island sailing boat
Green Island

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.

Green island from a great barrier reef plane flight from cairns

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.

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Green island, cairns

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.

Alternatively, you can choose to spend a day or even stay overnight at the Fitzroy Island Resort, one of the best places to stay near Cairns (and is actually affordable)!

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.

Fitzroy island, 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.

Fitzroy island off cairns

How to Get to Fitzroy Island

Getting to Fitzroy Island is easy and there are loads of options available to book online. There are three main Fitzroy ferry companies running from Cairns:

  • Fitzroy Flyer
  • Sunlover
  • Fitzroy Island Adventures

Currently, the most cost-effective ferry to visit Fitzroy Island from Cairns is to book a return ferry ticket with Fitzroy Island Adventures on GetYourGuide.

This makes it currently the most affordable ferry ticket (and the cheapest island to visit from Cairns) at only $89, down from $95 if you book directly. Note that this only includes the fast-ferry catamaran transfer.

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Fitzroy island ferry wharf

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!

Frankland islands coral patch
Frankland islands day trip from cairns
Normanby Island, the Frankland Islands Group

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!

YouTube video

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!

Low island, port douglas, australia
The Low Isles

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 Luxury Catamaran
Book: Low Isles Sailing & Snorkelling Top Pick

Low island, low isles, port douglas

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.

Sandbar on dunk island, australia

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.

Dunk island sunsets queensland australia

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.

Dunk island and mound island 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.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef

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.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef
Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef

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.

Michaelmas cay great barrier reef

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.

Vlassoff cay aerial photo from cairns

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

Green turtle in the great barrier reef

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.

Great barrier reef near cairns, australia

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.

Lizard island off cairns, queensland australia

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.

Double island

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.

Double island near the northern beaches of cairns
Double Island Near the Northern Beaches of Cairns

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!

Sunset pool view at fitzroy island resort
Pool at Fitzroy Island Resort
Bar at fitzroy island beach
Welcome Bay, Fitzroy Island

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.

Green island off cairns, scenic flight
Green Island

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.

Lizard island near cairns
Lizard Island

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.

Book: Great Barrier Reef Pontoon Experience

Boat on the great barrier reef near cairns

FAQ About the Islands Off Cairns

What islands can I visit near Cairns for a day trip?

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.

Are there any islands near Cairns suitable for hiking?

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.

Do I need to book accommodations in advance for island stays near Cairns?

Yes, I highly recommend that. Many islands have limited accommodations, and some are exclusively booked for events or private getaways.

What is the island between Townsville and Cairns?

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.

How long is the boat ride from Cairns to Great Barrier Reef?

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.

Are the islands better from Cairns or Port Douglas?

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.

Are there any other islands near Cairns?

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.

When is the best time to visit the islands near the Great Barrier Reef?

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.

Nudie beach sunset on fitzroy island

More Cairns Travel Blogs

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 Queensland.

Below are some more of my Cairns travel guides and inspiration that I think you'll love.

Best islands near cairns, australia
Thanks for Reading

I'm Olly Gaspar, adventure traveler from Australia. I’ve spent the last six years traveling the world full-time, sharing my first-hand experiences & photography in over 700 travel guides on We Seek Travel. I visit every destination I write about to bring you unique travel itineraries, epic hiking routes, fun tour ideas, travel & photography gear ideas, & interesting places to stay.

I only make genuine, worthwhile recommendations based on my experience, expertise, & research. If you buy through my links, I may get a commission, supporting this website at no extra cost to you. Read my Publishing Ethics Statement.

Mary

Saturday 5th of June 2021

Wow!!

u have captured some amazing photographs of the different islands around Cairns. I could only wish to be as lucky as you to see all these amazing islands. Yep. im going to Cairns!

Olly Gaspar

Saturday 5th of June 2021

Thanks Mary, there sure are some epic islands around. That's great news, enjoy your trip to Cairns.

Helen

Wednesday 24th of March 2021

Great thank you very much

Olly Gaspar

Wednesday 24th of March 2021

No problem, glad you found it useful