If I get to choose between going for a short while and not going at all, then I will definitely opt for the short trip. You might think that it’s a waste of money on airfare if you don’t spend considerable time at your destination but for me it’s an opportunity to leave behind the known and enter the world of the unknown.
My destination of choice? Cairns in tropical Queensland. My challenge – to make the most out of a long Australia Day weekend, seeing and experiencing as much as possible without losing the joy of travelling and the feeling of relaxation that you would normally get from a long weekend off.
You may know Cairns as the gateway to the wonders of the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef, and this is certainly where most people in Cairns will find a living. From Cairns you can charter boats for fishing, snorkelling and diving, you can fly over in a helicopter or enjoy a ferry trip with a glass bottom boat. Really, you would be silly not consider at least one of these options while in Cairns. There is something for everyone and for every budget.
But there’s more to Cairns than that. It is a thriving little city, with a number of attractions and very attractive public spaces that make the most out of the hot, wet tropical climate.
There is on the one side the Boardwalk along the Trinity Inlet to the side of the city centre. Reasonably new and in very good condition, it is a wonderful walk past the luxury hotels of the city, the top-end restaurants and cafes and of course the marina, which is where most reef tours will depart. The boardwalk is lined with flowering trees, artwork, BBQs, and a wonderful adventure playground. The views are amazing – across the water you can see the mangroves and the unspoilt forests, up the inlet your can see the hills and mountains in the distance, to the other end the open sea. If you don’t have enough spare change for a meal at the restaurants, buy some fresh seafood right off the boat and cook it on one of the public barbecues.
Then there is the spacious yet compact city centre. It is hard to believe that Cairns was declared a township as recently as 1903. There are a number of really nice old houses that you can view, but here’s my tip – visit the Rusty’s Markets on Spence Street. This is a fresh food market where you will find a great range of locally produced fruit and vegetables: mangoes, bananas, pineapples, dragon fruit and durians, but also of course fresh leafy vegetables, squash and other healthy stuff. Too healthy for you? Just browse the stalls in the entrance where you can get some really nice pearl and coral jewellery as well as summer dresses and souvenirs.
If you are too busy during the day or if you rather not want to wander the streets during the daytime heat, then the Cairns Night Market might be an option for you. Here you will be able to not just find the regular tourist stuff like kangaroo fur and smaller versions of outback road signs, but also locally produced honey, hand-crafted gifts and lots of jewellery.
The Chinese played a very important role in the early development of Cairns, and you will be able to find traces of this relationship for example in the remains of the Lit Sung Goong Temple. While the actual temple came into disrepair over time and was demolished in the 1960s you can still read up some information about the Chinese community at its former location in Grafton Street.
While the earlier mentioned boardwalk attracts the more settled, wealthy tourist, the Esplanade is in particular popular with young families and international backpackers. And of course you don’t need to wonder why – the Lagoon is like a magnet in these hot and humid conditions, the only real waterhole you can enjoy in the tropical heat. In the beginnings of white settlement Cairns did have its very own sandy beach, but due to human interference this turned into mud plains that are today home to numerous mud dwellers. Simply dumping sand onto this landscape is no longer an option.
With no real beach to claim, and the risk of dangerous saltwater crocodiles and lethal stinger jellyfish in the water, the lagoon is the only viable alternative in Cairns. And it’s a very well laid out, attractive looking pool that is fun for everyone. With lifeguards on service, and fun water games as well as a sand beach, there is so much to do and discover you won’t get bored.
The city of Cairns is making sure that the Esplanade area is enjoyable for everyone. Live music, pop-up shades, public BBQs – you can spend all day here in company and have a really good time. And if you would like to learn more about the history of the area, not just the white history but also something about the thousands of years of aboriginal history, just keep on walking and follow the Esplanade. You will come across public shelters that have all the information you would want to have, including audio samples and intriguing photos of the past.
Let’s finish this post with some handy tips for a stay in tropical Cairns – thanks to the hot and humid climate Cairns can be a living hell. It is really hot up there. You need to cater for this accordingly: make sure you drink plenty of fluids (and by fluids, I mean water), cover your head to prevent sunstroke, use plenty of sunblock several times a day, and don’t forget your insect spray for the night. During the wet season between October and March, expect heavy monsoon-like rainfall. While we were there, these happened as soon as night fell, with lightening and thunder that would make your hair stand on end. Under no circumstances simply hop in the water – the crocodile warning signs are there for a reason, and besides, during stinger season from November to May bathing in the tropical waters of Queensland is a very bad idea indeed. It’s different when you want to visit the reef – the tour companies will make sure you can swim and snorkel by supplying a specifically designed stinger suit. But if you ever wondered why Queensland’s tropical beaches are not packed with swimmers – that’s it.
Despite all this we had a fabulous time up north, and I am more than happy to share with your some things you can do up there.
Follow the next couple of blog posts to see what else you can see and experience in Cairns and on the Great Barrier Reef.