I imagined Kuranda to be one of those old time, remote towns. You know, so remote only the railway could get you there. Hopping off the train, you’d glance down the street only to see a a one street town. Maybe with a Lolly Shop and a General Store. This is what I saw in my mind’s eye anyway—a simple little town consisting of a few buildings, a few friendly people to say hello to—a place seemingly stuck in a time warp. Sort of Pleasantville, but in a good way. It most certainly was not tropical (my imagination works only thinking cool thoughts) and it wouldn’t be touristy either.
Boy, was I wrong.
It may have been those things, perhaps fifty years ago, but that was not the case today. It looked more like an outdoor market on a big shot of steroids.
I had done my research on Kuranda, of course. It was one of the places I had on my own Far North Queensland list. It’s not necessarily a Living List place, but I was curious to see it once there.
One of the frustrating things was trying to find specific information before we ventured to Kuranda. Sure there was a lot of information but somehow it didn’t answer the questions I had. We didn’t want to take a tour. We try to self-drive or self-explore as much as possible. Rich doesn’t like buses and neither of us like crowds so booking a ‘Down Under Tour’ or the like was not for us.
So, we checked the internet and found … very little. If anything, we were more confused than we were when we started. What to do?
We decided to just rock up to the SkyRail building (just north of Cairns) via car to see what we could find out. We decided that if we could buy tickets for that day, great. If not, we’d see if we could book ahead for the following days.
As it turned out, we bought tickets at the counter then and there. We headed up to Kuranda via the SkyRail (the sky cable system that takes you up through the Rainforest with stops along the way), with tickets to return via railway on our return. No waiting. We had missed the shuttle to take the railway up to Kuranda, but by taking the SkyRail up, we could enjoy the train ride down the mountain, after we were done exploring the town.
The town was quirky, that’s for sure. Way more touristy than I found even Cairns or Port Douglas to be. It was worth the day, most certainly, but I found the railway to be best part of the journey because it gave me that sense of journey that I was looking for. That history.
Now I will note that I wouldn’t recommend doing this in high season. We visited in March and, even then, it was busy.
Here is a bit of the knowledge we learned from our day:
How do you get to the railway from Cairns?
You can catch the railway from the Cairns station. You can also catch the railway from Freshwater. The train runs through Freshwater from Cairns before heading up the mountain. If you are staying on the north side, such as Trinity Beach or Port Douglas, I’d recommend driving to Freshwater and parking there. Alternatively, you can park at the SkyRail facility and catch the shuttle over to Freshwater station (included in your ticket). Just make sure you are at the Skyrail facility at least 45 – 60 mins prior to the trains departure. We arrived 30 mins before, thinking that was plenty of time and missed the shuttle by 15 mins.
How much does it cost? Heritage Class vs. Gold Class.
Let me just say it’s not budget travel. If you want budget travel to see Kuranda, drive the 20 minutes up to the town, park the car and wander. The train and SkyRail are expensive but you’re paying for the experience.
Please note that Gold Class are only available on certain trains.
How long do you stop at Barron Falls? Can you pause there and catch the next train? Can you walk around there?
When taking the SkyRail to Kuranda, you depart the carriage in 2 places between the SkyRail facility and Kuranda. One stop is Barron Falls for a look at the impressive water fall.
On the other stop, at Red Peak you walk the boardwalk through the rainforest before continuing the journey up to Kuranda. You can take as long as you want during these stopovers. Information boards are posted throughout the walk. When you’re done, you just return to the line and catch another pod.
There are some amazing lookouts on the boardwalk and I’m sure during wet season or after a good rain, the falls are incredible. Even at the end of wet season, we still found them to be pretty breathtaking.
When taking the train, the train stops to allow its passengers to disembark and see the falls (from the other side of the SkyRail). It stops for about 5 minutes. You’re asked not to walk too far off and you aren’t allowed to catch the next train.
What’s the experience like in ‘cattle class’ or Heritage Class?
Honestly, I don’t really understand why you would want to spend the extra amount more for Gold Class. Neither of the carriages is air-conditioned and you can bring your own drinks and snacks on to the train.
We considered taking Gold Class but could not justify the extra cost.
Yes, the seats are more comfortable and it’s perhaps less crowded. Yet, visiting in mid-March we found that there was plenty of space, and despite the assigned seating, we were encouraged by the staff to spread out to find a seat with a better view and a bigger window. I ended up having an entire section to myself. We even moved carriage for a less busy section.
How do you get from the skyway back to your car if you leave it at the railway?
There are shuttles between that disembark outside the facility. It is the same in reverse.
Just how hot is it on the train?
Despite the incredible heat of Far North Queensland and the breeze flowing from the north (equatorial heat), I found myself cooling off as I drank cold water all the way down the mountain with the breeze cooling me as we went. If you sit away from the crowds and near a window, you’ll find it pleasant.
If you find yourself squeezed in with others, go in search of another seat in your seating class away from the crowds. (Of course, you want to not be visiting during high season and you also want to avoid the last train of the day).
How do you catch the skyway back, if you take the train up to Kuranda?
If you’ve purchased a ticket that allows you to do this, the stations are side by side in Kuranda. You can also purchase a one-way ticket at the station.
What restaurants are available in Kuranda for lunch?
There are a lot of options and a lot more varied than we imagined. (Asian aplenty). It’s hot and humid, but inexplicably, there is fried something on offer everywhere. We weren’t interested in that. We found falafel wraps that were fresh and delicious. Air conditioned places are also a rarity.
For more information on what restaurants are available, check out: http://www.kurandainfo.com/info/kuranda-village/
There is also a supermarket in town where you can pick up some picnic items. Alternatively, you can bring your own goodies and have a picnic in the park.
Is it worth buying tickets for the Railway and Skyrail?
The answer is yes. Even for this frugal traveller, I found it a fun day out.
The SkyRail offers some amazing views of Cairns and of the rainforest. It’s a longer ride than I imagined and well worth the money.
The railway provides with an oral history of the railway and some amazing views as well. We saw some great vistas and amazing waterfalls along the way. Better yet, you get to sit back and enjoy the sense of journey.
- It’s only a 15-minute drive by car, but it’s worth taking the 90 minuute train up to Kuranda and the 90 minute SkyRail trip back (or vice versa).
- Be aware that there are only a certain number of trains and generally a lot of tourists, so plan accordingly.
- To give you some perspective: We got the SkyRail up at 9.30 and the earlier train back at 2.30 pm. It was enough to look through some shops, talk to some shopkeepers, grab some lunch and explore the butterfly sanctuary. By that time, we were ready to go.
- Take some cool drinks with you for the railway. There is cold water in every carriage no matter which class you take and the staff come around with refreshing towlettes about ¾ of the way through.
- Wet a paper towel from the railway bathroom before you board, then take it on the train with you. As you go through the 15 tunnels, cover your mouth. You won’t smell the pungent smell of diesel as you work your way through them. Or least not as much.
- You are assigned seats when you make your booking. For whatever reason, they cram everyone together. As I mentioned previously, if there’s space elsewhere, find another seat in your class and make it by a window. The staff don’t care. They want you to have the best experience.
- Kuranda is quirky – but it’s also touristy. Be prepared for that. Take your sense of humour because there are some really tacky souvenirs sold here. But, there are also some hidden gems. Just take your time to find them.
- Our recommendation for lunch is Falafelicious. Tucked into a small corner of the market, it’s run by an Israeli who’s been in Kuranda for only 8 months. He told us the move was the ‘best decision he’s ever made in his adult life’. (I guess he’s used to the heat). His enthusiasm is infectious and his food is fresh, light and delicious—food most welcomed in the oppressive heat and humidity.
- If you love butterflies, The Butterfly Sanctuary is worth entry. While it’s a bit costly, you get your money’s worth when you take advantage of the guided tour (it’s part of your ticket). You’ll get a lot more from your visit. The butterflies are abundant and through the guided tour, you’ll learn about their life cycle and the breeding program to keep them thriving.