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A feast for all the senses in Tropical North Queensland

Stretching from Cardwell to the Torres Strait with Cairns as its sparkly hub, this spectacular region of Australia defines ‘tropics’. Accessible? Yes. Unforgettable? Yes.

Tropical North Queensland is the adventure capital of Australia. This rich region stimulates every sense, from the roar of waterfalls cascading down into rock pools to crisp watering holes in which you may later dip your toes for the ultimate immersive experience.

This ancient land, home to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for more than 60,000 years, is all about cultivating curiosity, creativity, and inclusivity. Whether you are diving rainbow-coloured reefs; soaring sky high above the rainforest; admiring Mother Nature’s wonders or partaking in contemporary culture, art and food, Tropical North Queensland offers something for everyone.

Taste, smell, see, hear, touch and feel the beauty, where the rainforest meets the reef. Welcome to Tropical North Queensland.

A wheelchair user wearing a backpack photographed from behind wheeling along a paved path through Tropical North Queensland rainforest
Find a feast for all the senses in Tropical North Queensland. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Produced in partnership with Tourism Tropical North Queensland.

See Tropical North Queensland

Did somebody say culture? Tropical North Queensland has this in spades with a firm commitment to ensuring that it’s accessible to everyone. 

Head four kilometres north of the Cairns CBD and within the Cairns Botanic Gardens precinct discover Tanks Art Centre, so named as it’s housed in three converted WWII naval oil storage tanks. This facility – home to music, visual arts, workshops and children’s activities – is a fully-inclusive venue which invites people of all abilities to engage with its vast array of shows, exhibitions and programs. Accessible parking spaces are at the main entrance, as well as a dedicated drop-off and pick up zone on Collins Avenue. An accessible unisex bathroom is available at Tank 5. Companion Card is accepted for most programs and performances and assistance animals are permitted in all areas.

In the Cairns CBD the historic Court House building has been converted into an eclectic gallery. Head to the Court House Gallery for a dynamic program of visual and performing arts conducted in numerous innovative spaces. This accessible building includes graded paths; a unisex accessible toilet; and several dedicated accessible parking spaces. Telecoil software is activated for speeches and musical presentations.

Cairns Aquarium is an accessible and peaceful place in which to visualise the underwater world for which this region is world famous, without getting wet. Open your eyes to the wonders of the reef and enjoy a crowd-beating “Aquarium by Sunrise” two-hour guided tour with a wildlife educator before the facility opens. Service animals are welcome, and the Companion Card is accepted for entry into the aquarium.

A family looking at colourful fish in a large tank at Cairns Aquarium
See the famous underwater world of Tropical North Queensland without getting wet at Cairns Aquarium. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Hear Tropical North Queensland

Find yourself immersed in the constant chatter of rainforest birds one minute, and serenity and silence the next. The choice is yours.

Wildlife Habitat offers an experience where you can Breakfast with The Birds at the aptly-named Curlew Café. This Port Douglas nature park offers wheelchair accessibility for most areas and those with prams or wheelchairs have front row views of CrocArena. (Those squeals of fright and delight are real). Personalised tours are offered for those who require assistance or enjoy unique interests.

For a roaring and rollicking good time, Rainforestation Nature Park at Kuranda is an accessible experience in which you can experience the rainforest aboard an amphibious WWII Army Duck for 45 minutes. Those with accessibility needs can embark and disembark the vehicle on the Army Duck Platform by sliding onto the rear seat which is at the same height. Accessible parking and accessible toilets are available and ramps enable access to the Pamagirri Experience dance show and Dreamtime Walkabout and Wildlife Park.

Shuttle bus services between Rainforestation Nature Park and The Australian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda Village are also accessible, with low floor entry, a ramp and an allocated space for wheelchairs or mobility scooters.

Two travellers sitting with a First Nations man at Rainforestation in Tropical North Queensland
Hear the sounds of the world’s oldest rainforest at Rainforestation Nature Park. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Tropical Scents

Few things beat the scent of saltwater on your skin and the smell of the ocean. Luckily, Tropical North Queensland has this in abundance.

A great way to start your underwater adventure is through Palm Cove based Marlin Coast Diving which ensures a range of certification courses based on DDI (Disabled Divers International) protocols. Offering everything from pool, scuba, snorkel, scuba and open water dive courses, this business caters for people with physical, mental or emotional disabilities.

Cruise with the Quicksilver Group from Port Douglas to Agincourt Reef aboard the Quicksilver VIII catamaran which enables accessibility into this undersea paradise through a water-powered lift which lowers into the water. Dive, snorkel or simply dangle your toes in the water from a platform at the back of the vessel. There’s plenty of assistance, equipment, safety stops and staff to ensure you inhale that heady sense of salt.

Divers Den offers tours to the outer Great Barrier Reef and even if you are not able to snorkel or dive there’s viewing platforms on its boat and its newest vessel AquaQuest has a sunken platform for easy access to the water. The Spirit of Cairns hosts dinner and lunch cruises from Cairns Marlin Marina but be aware that none of its vessels are wheel-chair friendly. Frankland Islands Reef Cruises work closely with travellers who are blind, visually impaired and hearing impaired to awaken other senses aside from sight when out on the reef.

Two people in bright blue water wearing wetsuits hanging onto floatation noodles
Quicksilver Cruises lets you tailor your experience so that it’s right for your needs. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Tantalising Tastes

It’s the epitome of Tropical North Queensland on a plate. Rusty’s Markets in the Cairns CBD has been serving up tastes of the tropics since 1975 and these days has exploded like a juicy mango into 180 stalls. Think: exotic fruit, vegetables, bread, chocolate, coffee and seafood among its bric-a-brac, flowers, clothing, jewellery and other delights. Rusty’s is accessible to wheelchair users but arrive early to beat the crowds. 

Perched along Cairns’ Harbour Lights Boardwalk Ochre Restaurant is one of the many easily accessible restaurants and favoured for its distinctly Australian dishes utilising local produce. For those visiting in peak times, advise the restaurant of your wheelchair needs to snag some additional space.
Take the elevator to Rocco at Crystalbrook Riley for not only flavoursome Middle Eastern inspired cuisine but 270-degree views of Cairns and the Coral Sea with the outdoor deck easily accessed by wheelchairs users.

Two women examining fresh produce at Rusty's Markets
Rusty’s Markets has a taste of everything that makes Tropical North Queensland great. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

A touch of TNQ

Never smile at a crocodile! One of the best places at which you can meet this reptile is at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Sure, crocs are all the rage here, but keep your limbs inside the cruise boat – accessible to wheelchair users – as touching is strictly out.

Instead, save your strokes for some of the other wildlife at this long-standing park, 40 minutes north of Cairns and 25 minutes south of Port Douglas. There’s a range of premium Wildlife Encounters on offer here including cuddling a koala, holding a python or lizard, patting a wombat, and feeding a cassowary. Accessible parking spaces are located close to the entrance and large stand-alone accessible unisex bathrooms are available. The Companion Card is accepted. Most of Hartley’s has level pathways aside from two small, marked areas which are steep and not recommended for those in manual chairs. Those who are hearing impaired can access Hartley’s fact sheets during presentations. 

A couple standing on a fenced boardwalk holding a pole with meat hanging off it on a line to a crocodile rising out of the water below
Feel the adrenaline rush of feeding the residents at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Feel Tropical North Queensland

About the only thing that rivals the reef for those TNQ “feels” is the rainforest. Soar like a bird above the emerald canopy aboard Skyrail Rainforest Cableway on a 7.5km journey from Cairns to Kuranda, above this World Heritage Listed rainforest which has remained relatively unchanged for 130 million years. Depending on wheelchair size, and you should check with Skyrail before booking – manual wheelchairs can access the gondolas. Along the way stop at Red Peak and Barron Falls terminals with accessible boardwalks. Rangers host interpretive tours of the region. There are also accessible bathrooms at the stations.

Mamu Tropical Skywalk, an hour south of Cairns has wide pathways, plenty of chairs, rest stops and glass panels and visitors are rewarded with incredible rainforest views of Wooroonoon National Park. An app provides commentary about the flora and fauna and Braille signs are available. Companion Card is accepted, and tickets are valid for two years enabling free return visits.

Skypark Cairns by AJ Hackett offers a wheelchair bungy jump. While crew currently carry people to the top, they are in the midst of a tower restructure which aims to include a lift within the next year. Dangling from string not your thing? This park also offers a Giant Swing which has a deck with a pulley system that launches from ground level to 45m high. Soar over the rainforest canopy at speeds of up to 120km per hour in just 3.5 seconds. Share this experience with up to two other people in what is Australia’s only multi-person swing. The Giant Swing is accessible with no terrain and boasts a solid concrete pathway to the action. Entry to the park itself is easy with wide, solid concrete pathways from the carpark to the main building.

A couple seated in a cable car on a line over a rainforest canopy in Tropical North Queensland
No view compares to the rainforest canopy from the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Arriving in Tropical North Queensland

The journey starts at Cairns Airport with its commitment to inclusivity and accessibility including the Hidden Disability Sunflower Program in which airport staff and ambassadors are trained to spot the green Hidden Disabilities lanyard or a yellow sunflower wristband signalling passengers may be seeking support or assistance. Hearing loops are fitted throughout the terminal buildings and a dedicated quiet room is available within the domestic terminal.

Getting around TNQ

Enjoy Cairns Esplanade – best experienced by travelling along its lengthy, accessible boardwalk at sunrise or sunset when the birds come alive. 

At Palm Cove, a Sandcruiser beach wheelchair is free to borrow from the lifeguard tower during patrol hours, allowing easy access to this piece of paradise halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas.
Four Mile Beach in Port Douglas, is a stretch of firm sand, making access relatively easy for those in wheelchairs who wish to explore the shoreline. The Lifeguard Hut at Four Mile Beach also has a Freewheeler beach wheelchair which can be used by signing an indemnity form at the Port Douglas Surf Lifesaving Club.

A family on firm sand at Palm Cove beach surrounded by greenery with the water and horizon visible in the background
Find paradise at Palm Cove, between Cairns and Port Douglas. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Accessible Accommodation in Tropical North Queensland

Tropical North Queensland is home to a range of accessible accommodation to experience the region in comfort and style. 

Crystalbrook Riley, along the Esplanade, has a number of accessible rooms. The spacious accessible bathrooms feature sliding doors and shower with bench seat. The lagoon pool has a sandy edge and shelf but no pool hoist.

DoubleTree By Hilton Cairns offers two accessible rooms on the hotel’s ground floor. These rooms are ideal for wheelchair users and bathrooms include good circulation space and a step-free shower. The private courtyard includes ramp access.

The Novotel Cairns Oasis Resort provides three ground floor accessible rooms and two accessible parking bays. One of the highlights of this hotel is its lovely lagoon-style pool with sandy edge which enables relatively easy entry for those with a mobility restriction.

A sign for Crystalbrook Riley above a row of bikes available at the hotel to borrow
You’re spoiled for choice of accessible accommodation on your next trip to Tropical North Queensland.

This feature first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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