This once-sleepy sugar-milling town is today a sought-after destination surrounded by some of Australia’s most incredible natural diversions
Cairns is a slick little city known for its laid-back atmosphere, winning location and tropical climate – set against a mountainous backdrop, it’s poised between swathes of ancient rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
The locals like to remind you that Cairns is simply a large country town. Indeed, by day it can feel deserted, with virtually everyone out exploring what surrounds it. Still, its global reputation means it has its share of gastronomic temples, luxury hotels, art galleries and after-dark entertainments. Its social hub is Cairns Esplanade, with its sidewalk cafes, restaurants and bars, plus a vast saltwater lagoon to cool off in, and landscaped parklands where you can relax. You can also stroll through the Cairns Botanic Gardens, cruise the mangrove-lined waterways of Trinity Inlet, or sprawl on one of many idyllic beaches. Wherever you decide to go, though, take notice of the crocodile warning signs!
Explore an underwater wonderland
Amid concerns that the world’s largest reef system is threatened by climate- change-induced coral bleaching, diving and snorkelling in this kaleidoscopic wonderland should be your priority.
Comprising almost 3 000 individual reefs, this undersea paradise teems with life – from toxic anemones and pretty clownfish to massive mantas, endangered dugongs, large green sea turtles, humpback whales and dwarf minkes. Explore the coral gardens by private charter or join a tour lasting anywhere from a few hours to several days. On Hinchinbrook Island, you can laze on isolated beaches and explore a wilderness studded with mangroves, waterfalls and sheltered bays, where sea turtles feed in the afternoon.
Penetrate ancient rainforests
Looking landwards, Cairns is the gateway to the Wet Tropics, a World Heritage Site-listed region stretching 450 km along the coast and encompassing Australia’s most magnificent tropical rainforests. Soar above the forest canopy in the award-winning Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, arriving in Kuranda. In this quaint heritage village, butterflies and parrots zip between the orchids and ferns, vying for attention with galleries, boutiques and market stalls. Return to Cairns on the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway, or head farther north to explore the 135-million-year-old Daintree, the planet’s oldest lowland rainforest, where you can spot rare tree kangaroos and endangered cassowaries – one of the world’s deadliest birds.
Experience Aboriginal culture
While visiting the Daintree, do not miss Mossman Gorge. It’s a spectacular section of rainforest with incredible bird life and, from the visitor centre, you can join Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks. These treks start with traditional smoking ceremonies warding off bad spirits – you then head into the rainforest with an Aboriginal guide who decodes the local Kuku Yalanji culture, identifying traditional bush tucker and medicinal plants. Just outside Cairns, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park tells the stories of indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through live music, dance and storytelling.
Taste authentic Aussie food
Do breakfast at one of the Esplanade’s hip al fresco cafes. Return for a Greek dinner at Yaya’s Hellenic Kitchen and Bar or tuck into Asian-fusion dishes at The Raw Prawn. At South Cairns’ The Paddock Restaurant and Bar, focus is on the finest pasture-fed, free-range Australian meat. Beneath Harbour Lights Hotel on the waterfront, Dundee’s does exceptional seafood platters and the mud crab is a treat. Cairns’ top pick, though, is Ochre – their Australian antipasto plate is a fine introduction to authentic Aussie cuisine.
Sleep in Paradise
The five-star Pullman Reef Hotel and Casino is close to the Great Barrier Reef terminal; it looks out over the majestic Trinity Bay inlet and has an extensive in-house entertainment complex. Also on the foreshore is the luxe Shangri-La Hotel: The Marina, boasting rainforest gardens and sublime views across the Marlin Marina. Port Douglas is where you’ll find Queensland’s most romantic resorts, including eco-friendly Thala Beach Nature Reserve – set on a private headland with coconut groves and pristine beaches.
Text: Keith Bain; Photography: Gallo/GettyImages/Alamy/Chris Putman