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Before my trip people told me not to go to Cairns as it's 'dirty', 'ugly' and 'boring'. Never one to listen to comments like that, I still decided to stay there for a week, shunning Port Douglas and Palm Cover in favour of accommodation in Cairns itself, and was determined to enjoy myself, or at least experience enough to write a scathing review if need be. Happily this wasn't the case and I spent my week in Cairns wondering what it was that others didn't like.
Cairns is a base for exploring the local area, and is served by a busy international airport about 15 minutes from the town centre. I flew up from Sydney with Virgin Blue, paying £40 for a one way flight with this budget airline. From there I flew, a week and a bit later, down to Brisbane, paying a similar amount for a slightly shorter flight.
The one negative feature of Cairns is its apparent lack of history: similar to lots of other places in Australia there are few beautiful buildings or places of historical significance, and no galleries or museums worth mentioning (other than to say the ones I came across were not worth a visit). However, apart from this, Cairns has lots to offer, both immediately within the town and just outside.
~~~ Within Cairns ~~~
You can't swim in the sea in Cairns because of the stingers (and the resulting lack of developed beach…it's more like a wetlands park complete with scary birds) but the council made up for this by investing in a large, free, open air ESPLANADE SWIMMING LAGOON. This is set on the seafront in the town centre, and is open all day every day, with life guards on duty at peak hours. There are several interconnecting pools, the water is warm and free from debris, and the surrounding areas offer sunbathing space, lockers, showers and a snack hut. Because the pool in my hostel was nothing to write home about I spent time here almost every day, before and after other activities, often sitting on a ledge around the pool, up to my ribs in water, reading magazines and generally trying to stay cool.
The ADVENTURE DUCK TOUR is like many other duck boats I've been on but still fun. They only run the tour with a certain minimum number of guests and the first time I booked they rang and cancelled an hour before I was due to depart, so the next day since I was spending most of my time in the vicinity anyway I asked them to call when they had a booking I could join and I would make myself available at that time. This led to me going on their mid afternoon 1 hour tour (they advertise 10 tours per day, a mix of 40 min and 60 min ones that cost $29 / $38 per adult respectively). Everyone on the trip gets a free souvenir postcard and anyone who takes the wheel to drive the boat when on water gets a special certificate and sticker too. The tour starts at the shopping centre near the reef terminal and circles round along the Esplanade, past the botanical gardens and then down into the water. There was a live commentary provided by a girl of about my age who was very good, speaking clearly and interspersing her interesting notes with duck-themed jokes for the kids on board, though from the look on her face she had done this dozens of times and was now simply going through the motions.
Staying in a hostel with no TVs in the rooms and having limited books with me meant I had to find things to do in the evenings. Several times I went to the cinema (they have 2 in the city, one at the railway station shopping centre and one a few streets over) but one night I decided to go to see a show currently running at the Reef Hotel Casino, 'PLAY THE GAME'. This
Pictures of Cairns (Australia)
was heavily advertised in town, and not too expensive, so I booked a ticket. On arrival I immediately realised things weren't quite right and they tried to ply me with alcohol the second I walked through the doors. Was the show really going to be that bad? Needless to say it wasn't wonderful, but I laughed all the way through - quietly or in my head so as not to offend: this wasn't supposed to be a comedy. As some may know I had a childhood of dancing and gymnastics. What I don't think I've ever mentioned is that I got a magic set for Christmas at age 10 and fancied myself as a young Paul Daniels for, oh, about a month. I mention this now because as I sat through this show my mind kept coming up with sniping comments: 'I was a better dancer / gymnast / magician at age 11 than these people are'. Some of the choreography was virtually identical to the solos I used to compete in festivals (as a pre-teen) and the conjuror's tricks involved magic my sister could perform following her one-off 2 hour stint as a magician's assistant age 17. Seriously, at best this came across as a low budget variety show best suited to a church hall. Their tap dancing was more stomping than tapping and the aerialist smirked into the audience with a glance which said 'Look, my legs flail about as if independent from my body'. So? Whose don't? The costumes were a blatant attempt to distract from the performances - think cheap and nasty and with gratuitous bum cleavage. Seriously, my mother who, by her own admission, cannot sew, rustled up far superior outfits to these for me in my dancing days. But by far the worst (or best) bit was the love story between the two main characters. Imagine if Robbie Williams was Australian, tanned, camper than Carson from Queer Eye, and broke enough to do anything for a pay cheque. Then pair him with a woman who looked like a drag version of Danni Minnogue, sporting a mullet and a screeching voice. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? No, I really, really won't. In short, not recommended for a serious night of theatre. ~~~ Day trips ~~~
I did several day or half day trips while in Cairns, the highlights of which were:
· KURANDA, a popular self-guided yet fully organised tour including a trip on the Skyrail cable car (just like the one in Matlock Bath) and a return on the scenic railway with several hours at the mountain village in-between. The cable car has several stations on the way up where you disembark for however long you wish and can explore the rain forest at each stop. Kuranda itself is a nice village catering almost exclusively to tourists and features numerous gift shops and Aboriginal galleries, cafes and restaurants and a wildlife sanctuary. I went on a boat trip while there which was fascinating as the guide was very knowledgeable but relaxed. We got to feed the tiny turtles that swam near the boat, spotted several rare birds and critters hanging out in the trees and had a lovely photo opportunity for the Skyrail as the river runs beneath the route it takes. I lunched at the Kuranda Rainforest View Restaurant on the main street which I would not recommend as the service was slow, it was not air conditioned as advertised and they added a random service charge, but the ice creamery almost directly opposite gets a thumbs up for their make-your-own-sundaes. The scenic railway takes a couple of hours, and is rather warm, but the views are spectacular. However it has assigned seating so not everyone is by a window. I was - thanks to booking several months in advance - but if you book on the day it's hit and miss. There are morning and afternoon trains and someone told me (after booking) that it's advisable to do the train in the morning before the weather heats up in the early afternoon. I would very much recommend this day as it has a good mix of experiences and free time, and you get free information packs that told me, for example, what special fauna to look out for at each of the 36 towers, and stats on the cable car journey (7.5 km long, built in 1995 etc). The return trip (one way on each) including return accommodation transfers is about £30 which is not cheap but perfectly reasonable for everything that's included.
· FITZROY ISLAND was my sole trip to the Reef. I don't like fish so wanted an island with more to do than simply snorkel or dive, and Fitzroy won me over due to its promise of a trampoline - my first and last bouncing opportunity in Oz. Boats leave for the island 3 times per day, morning and afternoon, and packages include accommodation or snorkelling or diving or just transfers - this is what I opted for. Fitzroy has a small restaurant with very limited menu, and the shop sells a random mix of mainly chocolate, crisps, biscuits and drinks so take a packed lunch if this does not appeal. The main centre is the swimming pool (beautiful, clear water, very warm) which is bordered by said restaurant and shop and the reception. Various activities are available - I went on the trampoline (disappointing but a trampoline none the less) and on a glass bottomed boat tour which let me see the reef up close without getting my hair wet. I also hiked around the island on the various tracks as well as lazing by the pool. A relaxed day for about £30 including the transfers and two activities.
· AJ HACKETT's is the place most people go to bungee their corneas away (working in an Australian hospital I heard lots of horror stories). Me, I don't bungee as I have a few bouncing competitions in me yet, and as such value my eyes and back too much, but I went along for a morning of watching silly people throw caution to the wind. I did, however, go on the Minjin jungle swing which flings you through the air at a speed faster than a bungee and from a point higher up than the bungee tower, 2 things I did not know before doing it. But, it was a lot of fun, and cheap at £20 including transfers, even if I did have to indulge the boys in the group with the fantasy that I was a swinger.
· MOUNT N RIDE took me on a horse riding adventure as I'd never been on a horse and was beginning to wonder if I'd had a lost childhood prancing and dancing around instead of being a horsey girl like most of my class. Half an hour into the ride I knew this wasn't at all the case - and if I never again went on a horse that would be ok - but I'm very glad I did it, and my comments are in no way a reflection of the company as they were excellent. I was the only person in my session as a small group had cancelled at the last minute so I got a private tour for the price of a group. We rode in water and on land, through rain forest and past sugar cane crops, and apart from being attacked by various branches I survived unscathed. The highlight of the day, though, was the trip back in which the owner took it upon himself to talk business with me, determining (correctly) that I wasn't really a proper backpacker and was more someone just on holiday. The comment of the day had to be, in reference to one of the riding school's employees: 'I'm telling you, if he doesn't pull up his socks I'm going to stop sponsoring his visa and have him deported'. Hah. I wish I could have used a threat like that in my last job when I was having staff issues.
· ON THE WALLABY took me to the rainforest waterfalls, gave me the best tour lunch I had my entire trip and entertained me throughout, all for £30. I wanted to see the waterfalls but hiring a car alone is expensive, and in my case impractical as I would have had no idea where I was going and as such would have been unlikely to find even one of the falls. The day was perfect - lots of stops for swimming, a chance to visit the Cathedral Fig Tree, the stunning Millaa Millaa, Zillie and Ellinjaa falls and, once again, a chance to explore the rain forest. I was so over the rainforest by this point - but looking back I think that's a nice point to get to as it just meant I'd seen a lot of the country.
~~~ Eating / Drinking / Shopping / Sleeping~~~
Cairns has a ton of places to eat and drink, cheaply and tastily. I can recommend the food (though not the service) at Tosca Trattoria in Cairns Central Shopping Centre, but Fasta Pasta and La Porchetta get thumbs up for both. Al Porto at the reef terminal did good breakfast pancakes, and the buffet at the Reef Hotel and Casino was luckily significantly better than their attempt at 'theatre'. The various food courts had a good choice, and for slopped together meals made sitting on benches on the seafront the supermarkets at Cairns Central have all the necessities and are a lot cheaper than the numerous 7/11s and Nightowl convenience stores. I tried all the ice cream places in town - obviously - and all were good in different ways, but the 2 that get shout outs are Ice Age for their fancy cookie sandwiches and Dippin Dots for their unusual yet fantastic take on ice cream - it's a bit hard to explain, but imagine tiny balls of freeze dried ice cream that begin to melt as they are scooped into your cup and you get a vague idea of what this 'ice cream of the future' is.
For shopping, the streets leading down to the Esplanade all sell the same things at the same price, yet you feel obliged to go in all of them. For proper (non-souvenir) shopping Cairns Central is fab and was where I bought several Christmas presents and some be-aut-if-ul board shorts.
Accommodation is wide ranging and based along the Esplanade and the associated back streets. There are many holiday apartment complexes as well as hotel and hostels, and these work out very cheap for families.
~~~ Summary ~~~
Most people use Cairns as a base for trips to other places - it's not a destination in its own right - but I very much enjoyed my time in the area. Not somewhere I'd choose to live, perhaps, but an essential part of any trip to Australia, for the gateway it offers to the reef and rainforest if nothing else. The weather is fantastic - I was there in summer which is their off season due to the heat - and the place easy to learn your way around. I like to write travel reviews as a reminder to myself of all the places I've been (the list's getting longer all the time) but they serve a dual purpose of trying to bring a bit of the place over here, to refresh the memories of the many people who have been here and to ignite an interest in the many more who haven't but hope to one day. Looking back it seems I've said mostly extremely positive things about Australia - not because I'm exaggerating, but because it is that good, and I had a blast. So believe me when I say you should see Cairns no matter what other people tell you. It's not boring or dirty or plain - it's just a town with lots going on and lots to enjoy - and I will go back.