Taste of the Tropics: Cairns to Townsville Travel Guide

It’s one of the most popular road trips in Queensland, but the driving route from Cairns to Townsville is dotted with serene places to relax and soak up the tropical vibes. Don’t forget your sunglasses.


Old house resembling a temple is almost covered in surrounding jungle, Paronella Park, North Queensland

Chalk and cheese. That’s how you’d describe North Queensland’s two most populous cities: Cairns and Townsville. Many travellers base themselves in Cairns, with its world-class facilities and wide range of accommodation options. Townsville, on the other hand, is a more low-key option, although there’s almost just as much to see and do. Plus, it has 320 days of sunshine every year.

Take your time on the 350-kilometre journey and take it all in: pristine beaches, extraordinary natural wonders and towns with fascinating history. You’ll need at least two days, but take more if you have the time so you can explore detours to whatever else might catch your eye – and schedule a couple of days at either end of your road trip to enjoy all Cairns and Townsville have to offer.


Aerial view of couple walking along a long, sandy beach, Mission Beach, North Queensland

Handily located at the halfway point, Mission Beach is a spot you’ll want to spend some time exploring, so consider overnighting here (or even longer).

Here, 14 kilometres of golden sand link four villages. There are no crowds here, so unwind with a walk along the beach or rainforest trails, and keep your eyes peeled for cassowaries – they’re quite common around in this part of the world. If you thrive on adrenaline, Mission Beach is also considered one of Australia’s best skydiving destinations.


  1. Huge granite rocks have turned a stretch of creek into a series of natural swimming holes at Babinda Boulders. It’s only about an hour from Cairns, so bring your breakfast with you, have a morning dip then take a seat in the picnic area surrounded by lush rainforest. There’s a great short walk past cascades and waterfalls from the picnic area to Devils Pool, which is a significant site for the local Yidinji people. Be sure to swim only where there are signs – the fast rapids can be dangerous.

  2. Imagine building a castle in the rainforest. That’s exactly what José Paronella did. He and his wife Margarita toiled for six years to create Paronella Park, which they opened to the public in 1935. Join one of the 30-minute tours to get the story behind the dreamy setting that now resembles an ancient Mayan city in the Guatemalan jungle, then explore the architecture and incredible gardens, where it’s quite common to see the bright blue Ulysses butterfly.

  3. Less than a decade ago, you possibly would have had this spectacular swimming spot all to yourself, but social media has made Cardwell Spa Pool a star attraction for anyone driving south from Cairns. Part of a seasonal creek, it’s extraordinary blue colour is the result of the high levels of minerals from an underground spring.

  4. The small rural town of Halifax has been important for sugar cane growing since the 1860s. Beautiful features from around that time still remain on the main street, including the Halifax Hotel, which has been serving drinks and meals since 1882 (although it was rebuilt in the 1930s), and a row of heritage-listed shady mango trees.

  5. There’s no shortage of islands to visit in this part of the world, but Magnetic Island, a 40-minute car ferry ride from Townsville, is about two-thirds national park and home to koalas and incredible birdlife. Whether you’re after beaches, walking, sea kayaking or diving and snorkelling, you’ll discover it all on “Maggie”.


Mantra Trilogy

Each of the modern rooms at Mantra Trilogy in Cairns has a balcony – perfect for catching afternoon sea breezes – some with ocean views. Set on The Esplanade, it’s a short walk to restaurants, attractions and the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.

Eco Village Mission Beach

You’re just steps from the water at Eco Village Mission Beach. Choose from a self-contained bungalow set in tropical rainforest or a deluxe room with spa bath and balcony overlooking the tropical water feature.

Rambutan Townsville

Set around a pool, the rooms at Rambutan Townsville have a light, bright, beachy vibe. But one of this boutique hotel’s big attractions is its Mediterranean-style rooftop bar.


Aerial view of Magnetic Island Marina with yachts and headland, Townsville, North Queensland

The Apex Car Rental hub is at Cairns Airport. Book before you arrive then pick up your car once you’ve grabbed your bags. Easy! Cairns and Townsville are linked by the Bruce Highway, with many towns and attractions accessed by short detours off it. The distance between the two cities is almost 350 kilometres and the journey takes about four-and-a-quarter hours, although if you take two to four days, you’ll be able to see the best of the Great Green Way.


Woman walking through beautiful gardens with rocky mountain in the distance, Queens Gardens, Townsville, Queensland

Of course, you could keep driving along the coast towards Bowen and Airlie Beach. The other option is to head inland to Charters Towers, 140 kilometres away. Gold was discovered here in 1871. Over the next half century about 170 tons of the precious metal was extracted, and the town grew so big it was nicknamed The World. Some of the buildings from that time still exist, and the laidback town is steeped in history.