Cairns: Australia's Tropical Tourist Mecca

On our short 3-day sojourn to Tropical North Queensland, we managed to see a little of the city we were staying in!


Cairns: Australia's Tropical Tourist Mecca

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

When James and I heard about Jetstar's (one of Australia's budget airlines) buy-one-ticket-take-a-friend-free sale, we both had the same thought: the Great Barrier Reef. Both of us wanted our scuba licenses but were too poor to get them, so we thought an intro dive on the Reef would be a great place to start.

At first, we considered the Whitsundays, a beautiful group of islands south of Townsville. These islands are renowned as one of the most beautiful places in Australia; their white sandy beaches are surrounded by colorful reefs teeming with wildlife. Unfortunately, because they are so secluded, visiting is incredibly expensive; the plane tickets were the same price, but the only accommodation on Hamilton Island, where the airport is located, was a resort. We could have stayed in the hostels at nearby Airlie Beach, located on the mainland, but then we would have had to pay for plane trips back and forth to the islands. Instead of this, we opted for the most popular destination for people wanting to see the Great Barrier Reef: Cairns.

Cairns is a tourist mecca, and that's exactly what it feels like. That's not to say I didn't like it; I loved the city and how interesting it was to putter around the streets (although I am very happy I wasn't there during the oppressively hot & humid wet season). However, it is obvious that most people in the city are not from there from the numerous hotels and souvenir shops. And, if you walk down Lake St for any period of time, you'll pass four different car rental places!

The downside of it being a tourist hub is not getting any interaction with the locals. Even on day trips, such as the one we took with the Passions of Paradise (documented in another journal), most of the guides are living in the area for a short period of time, just for the opportunity of diving on the reef. However, the upside is that there is plenty to do. There are quite a few tourist information centres/Internet cafes where you can book any activity you like, from diving to parasailing to exploring the Atherton Tablelands. Shops stay open past 5pm and there is plenty of nightlife (although I can't comment on its quality because I was a bit of a bum on my trip!). ${QuickSuggestions} You can spend a whole lot of money in Cairns if you let yourself go. There are loads of activities, but many of these come at a high cost-the average for a day-long snorkeling trip seemed to be about $120, a live aboard diving trip can cost anywhere from $300-many thousands of dollars, a learn-to-scuba course can cost from $500 to $800, and a guided trip to the Atherton Tablelands costs about $130, to name a few. James and I definitely did our research before we went, and had a vague idea of what we wanted to do each day, and more importantly, what was in our budget. Because we got such cheap airfares, we were able to do a bit more, but we definitely took care to not go overboard.

Don't let the price scare you, although you should splurge on at least one trip (seriously, why come to the Reef and then not see it?!) There are cheaper options for snorkeling - if you don't want to go on a day trip such as the Passions one that I took, I would recommend a day trip to Green Island. A ferry takes you out there for about $54 round trip and provides snorkel gear upon arrival. Then you can wander around the island and jump in the water as you please!

There are plenty of things to do in Cairns that aren't related to scuba diving as well. Just to the north, the Kuranda Skyrail (which I have described in my journal on Tropical North Queensland) takes you in a gondola over a spectacular rainforest and a waterfall. Nearby, there Tjapukai, an Aboriginal culture park which my friends very much enjoyed. As I've mentioned above, there are plenty of shops in Cairns, many of which sell genuine Australian opals. I found, in combing the shops, that they weren't all touristy junk either. This is also where the Lagoon is located. The Lagoon is a saltwater pool, complete with sandy beaches, that is surrounded in a park. It has a great view of the sea and the mangroves along the shore as well. This brings me to my final tip: don't swim at any beaches between October-May. This is when the box jellyfish, the most dangerous jellyfish in the world, infests the waters, and I imagine it wouldn't be fun to be stung by. ${BestWay} I've detailed above some of the many things you can do in Cairns without a car. However, the area around the city is spectacular and not to be missed. There are beautiful beaches all the way up the Captain Cook Hwy to Port Douglas, and not very far north of Port, the Daintree Rainforest begins. This rainforest is World Heritage listed and is apparently great to take a walk through, as long as you don't swim in the rivers and try to make friends with the crocs! Near there is Cape Tribulation, a remote area of coast along the rainforest, which is a longer drive than most people think and not really a feasible destination if you are only in town a few days. Closer to Cairns, there are the Atherton Tablelands, which I have written about in another journal. This area is massive and cannot be explored in one day, but is definitely worth a trip.

So, if you can, I would recommend renting a car. James and I rented one for about $220 for two days, but that includes a $23 a day surcharge for being under the age of 25 and $22 a day insurance. I know that in some cases it's not possible to do so (don't get me started on trying to rent a car in New Zealand at the age of 20 - it's just not possible!), but it really comes in handy. This way, we were able to drive up the coast to Port Douglas and stop anywhere we pleased along the way. And, instead of paying ~$130 each for a day tour on the Tablelands, we paid $30 between us in fuel.

However, if renting is not an option, there are ways to get around. Some activities provide their own shuttle buses, like Tjapukai, the Kuranda Skyrail, and many snorkeling/diving trips. Many hotels and some hostels offer shuttle services as well, depending on how close to town the accommodation is located. Since the city is small, walking is a feasible option in many cases as well.

Unfortunately, public transport is very limited in this area. We did see some buses at the stops along Lake St, but there weren't many; taxis seemed much more reliable. The only train is the Tilt train, which takes you along the coast down to Brisbane; there are Greyhound buses that operate this same route as well.

Nomads Serpent

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

Once James and I booked our cheap tickets on JetStar, we launched I
into searching for the perfect place to stay in Cairns. There were plenty of hostels to choose from, since Cairns is a tourist city, and many of them seemed to have the exact same advertising--essentially, "great location, cheap beds!" We were able to throw out a few that friends had told us were terrible, but there was still a plethora to choose from.

At first, we were gung-ho for staying at the YHA, because I had a free YHA membership from my work abroad program. Unfortunately, this discount didn't help much, because both YHAs seemed to be so overpriced that, even with the discount, we would have ended up paying more than in most other hostels!

When we came upon the Nomads Serpent website, we were ecstatic. This was the hostel we were going to stay in. It looked nice, had a free shuttle both from the airport and into town, and offered free dinner every night. The beds were decently priced--we got a double room with shared bathrooms for $25 per person, per night (a total of $200 between us).

Everything went well when we arrived at the airport. James called the hostel, and the bus promptly appeared, driven by a tattooed Irishman with a raspy voice rivaling (Brisbane Broncos skipper) Darren Lockyer's. He checked us in (reception was closed, since it was around midnight), and we soon found ourselves in a small room with a double bed, a locker, a centrally-controlled air conditioner, and a window opening onto the swimming pool/gathering area.

The layout of the hostel was pretty cool, and nearly everything was open to the outside--even the eight-computer "internet café"! This was great for circulation and made the ground floor of the hostel seem very…well…open. Everything was decorated in bright colors and there were posters and brochures coating the walls, and the front desk had a section for booking trips you find in said brochures.

It was difficult to sleep that night; we baked in the oppressive tropical humidity (thankfully we hadn't gone during the wet season!), the pillows were terrible (James ended up going down to the front desk the next day to get pillows with more substance, and was handed two straight out of their plastic wrappings), and we were kept awake by the blaring music from the bar downstairs, which played well into the night. We considered asking for a different room the next night, but on inspecting the fire escape plan, we found that all of the double rooms opened onto the same central gathering area. This noise continued for the next three nights, so I would suggest staying somewhere else if you want a quiet trip! I'm sure it would have been fun if we had wanted to drink or party, but we were exhausted most nights and I got sick halfway through the trip and just wanted to sleep!

This entry is continued in Nomads, pt. 2.
Nomads Serpent
341 Lake St
Cairns, Australia, 4870
(800) 737-736

Nomads Serpent, pt. 2

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

This entry is a continuation of my Nomads entry.

The free trip to Marlin Jetty went without a hitch, and saved us from having to walk 2.7kms in the rain. However, our problems began when we tried to go back to the hostel, exhausted after a day of snorkeling. After trying to get through multiple times on a busy phone line, we were finally told to go to the Lake St taxi rank. After a long search, we found it and, after waiting for 45 minutes, realized the shuttles run every 30 minutes…except between 5:30 and 9:30pm. The taxi ride didn't cost very much -$8 or so- but it would have been nice for the people at the front desk to tell us when we called, asking about the shuttle, that they weren't currently running! Fortunately, the next morning, we picked up a rental car and didn't have to rely on the shuttle schedule for transport.

We only ate the "free" dinner at the hostel one night. Once we collected the free passes from the front desk, the lady at the bar told us that the free portions were very small, and we could upgrade to a normal-sized meal for $4. The meal was some bizarre casserole that looked like it could have been composed of leftovers, but it wasn't bad and, because of the price, we couldn't really complain. They also served real meals, rather than just the "chef's special" that was the free meal, for $8-$10. We ordered a side of sweet chili & sour cream potato wedges that were good, but I can't judge their food on them, since it's pretty difficult to mess wedges up!

My other major beef with the hostel, besides the noise and the erratic shuttles, was our door mysteriously unlocking during the day. I didn't approve, since I had a laptop in my room that I had neglected to put in the locker, since I didn't expect anyone else to be in the room. However, the cleaning staff came in every day and didn't bother to close the door properly. Seeing as they were the cleaning staff, they had probably been in our room more than once and knew that the door needed a bit of a pull to close. After two days of coming back to find our door open, I complained to the front desk, who left a note saying we were not happy and to please close our door. The next day, it was, although by this point, it didn't really matter because I had already started locking all of our stuff in the locker before we left.

Our stay in the Nomads Serpent hostel was by no means terrible. There were no bedbugs, we left with all of our belongings, and the hostel did offer facilities that many others I have stayed in haven't. We just got our hopes up too much before the trip, only to have them beaten down when the hostel didn't live up to its advertising.
Nomads Serpent
341 Lake St
Cairns, Australia, 4870
(800) 737-736

Swordfish

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

After walking through the markets on the Esplanade on Saturday morning, James and I headed toward Budget Rent-A-Car by turning on Aplin St, which spanned the block between the Esplanade and Lake St, our destination. After passing three or four shop fronts, James suddenly stopped and started pointing at "Swordfish", advertised as a combination fish market and restaurant. "We're eating here tonight," he stated.

And eat there we did. After going in several circles looking for a parking place, we lucked into finding one and walked through the spitting rain to the brightly-lit market. Half of the restaurant was tables, while the other half was taken up by the "market"--essentially, seafood display coolers. It was definitely a different experience; we were able to walk up, look at the menu, and then look into the displays in front of us to see what our dinner would actually look like!

While there are the standard "fish and chips" meals here, the best deals were definitely the platters. These offered a combination of different seafood for two people and looked fantastic. However, James and I decided on a bucket of prawns, which cost $25 for the bucket and 2 Coronas. When we got to the counter, though, we promptly changed our minds when we saw that the special of the day was a barbecued seafood platter. Even though it cost $60, plus drinks and a side salad, we decided that we were on vacation and might as well splurge.

We found an open table on the sidewalk just outside the restaurant, which was covered, luckily, because it was spitting rain throughout the night. When the meal arrived, we were both instantly happy that we had decided to splurge. On the plate, there were 6 Moreton Bay bugs (one of the most expensive types of seafood you can find, and very good--if you can dig the meat out of them!), a pile of calamari, 2 fish fillets, and lots of prawns. Talk about a feast! After taking pictures of our meal, which at $60 still seemed like a steal for the amount of food we got, we dug in. We managed to finish all the seafood (especially the bugs!), but we had absolutely no room for the salad and fries, and had to roll back to the car! Unfortunately, this meant missing out on the yummy-looking yogurt bar next door.

We enjoyed our meal so much that we went back the following night for more. We didn't have the money to afford another barbecue platter, which wasn't the Sunday night special anyway, so we went for our Saturday night "reject", the bucket of prawns. Rather than a normal side salad, we split an Italian pasta salad, which went very well with our massive pile of prawns. It was a perfect meal--we didn't have to wait at all and it really hit the spot.

I would have loved to try everything else on Swordfish's menu, but unfortunately, we had to leave Cairns. There's always next time!
Swordfish Market and Cafe
5 Aplin Street
Cairns City, Queensland, 4870

Rattle and Hum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

When we arrived back in Cairns after our foray into the Atherton Tablelands, the sun was shining and the sky was nearly free of clouds - something we hadn't seen much on our rather rainy trip. Excited, we went to an Internet café that advertised parasailing trip bookings, hoping that I would make it on a trip that would give me a bird's eye view of the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, since it was only about 15 minutes before the last trip of the day and the last few days had been rained out, I didn't make it in time.

This gave us a lot more free time than we thought we would have, and the first thing we thought of was food. Our lunch hadn't been very large, so we were definitely rather hungry. Unfortunately, we were both in weird moods; I was in the beginning stages of a very bad cold that would make me utterly miserable on the plane flight home the next day, and James was beat. Therefore, we had a difficult time choosing what type of food we actually wanted to eat. We passed by Greek - not open yet - and seafood - we're eating that tonight - and then wandered for quite a while without seeing any restaurants at all.

Finally, when walking along the Esplanade, we walked through Rattle & Hum's outdoor eating area. We had a quick glance at the menu, which was right next to a kitchen, where you could see a cook making fresh pizza. These pizzas cost about $15 - reasonable considering the Italian restaurant near James' place charges double that - and looked decent, so we took a seat.

The waitresses were essentially only there for serving drinks, and the one we had was pretty slow at doing even that. You have to order at the order counter inside the restaurant, and when you do, you get one of two types of buzzer - a pizza one or an "everything else" one. This is because, when it buzzes, you either go to the pizza kitchen or back to the counter.

We ended up choosing a meat-lovers pizza, which was very good - better than your average Pizza Hut or Dominos. It was a decent size, but we were still hungry afterwards, so we ordered a $7 bowl of potato wedges with sweet chili and sour cream. Like most wedge bowls, it was huge and there was no chance of us finishing them; also, like most wedge bowls, they were great.

There were few, if any, people inside the bar, which seemed odd to me because the tables outside were packed. However, once going inside, I realized why. Rattle & Hum is definitely foremost a bar and second most a restaurant. There were places to sit inside, but there were also lots of TVs and a couple pool tables. It looked like it would have been a fun place to hang out at night, but we had absolutely no energy to try to stay until then!
Rattle and Hum
67 Esplanade
Cairns, Australia
+61 (07) 40313011

The Esplanade, The Lagoon, & The Sunset

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

After running ourselves ragged for nearly three days, trying to see everything that the Tropical North Queensland area had to offer us, we just needed a break. So, when we got back to Cairns around 3pm on Sunday afternoon, we took one. After going to the hostel to get some gear, James went to the Lagoon and I went shopping (which I have described in another entry).

After I finished shopping for family presents, I met up with James near the Lagoon. Since Cairns has plenty of beaches, but none that you can swim at for a vast majority of the year, the Lagoon is its very good substitute. It reminded me a lot of South Bank in Brisbane. Both are oases in an area where you can't normally go swimming; in Brisbane, this is because South Bank is next to the Brisbane River, which is often referred to as sludge (on its good days) and is an hour away from any beach, and in Cairns, this is because the miles upon miles of beautiful beaches are deadly for a majority of the year. And no, I am not referring to the intense sun and the fact that the ozone layer has a large hole in it above Australia, although this is obviously very deadly as well. The reason the beaches here are especially deadly is the box jellyfish, which is the most deadly jellyfish in the world and lives close to shore from October-May. You can go swimming/surfing if you have a full body wetsuit and plenty of vinegar to ward off potential stings, but the Lagoon seems like a much better option to me.

James had planned on going swimming, but since it was the middle of July (about as much in the "dead of winter" as Cairns gets), he had refrained. The pool was relatively empty, with the odd child jumping up and down in the shallow end or the odd teenager throwing a rugby ball around. The park, which surrounds the Lagoon and borders the Esplanade, Cairns' beachside street, was much more active. Everywhere, there were people having a good time tossing around rugby balls, playing cricket, or barbequing on the many provided electric BBQs. One thing that struck me the most about this was the number of languages I heard just sitting in the park--they ranged anywhere from Chinese to Portuguese to various African languages I can't even name.

We sat in the park for a while before moving to something that resembled the Seawall in Galveston. It was a tiny concrete wall separating the sidewalk from the beach, which had surprisingly little sand and surprisingly large numbers of mangroves lining it. Here, we dangled our feet over the sand until the sunset.

Even though there were people screaming and making noise all around us, this was definitely the most relaxing part of our trip. James was absorbed in the book that he had stolen from me (a very depressing "Dirt Music" by Tim Winton, whom we have decided is a very depressed man), while I just took in the sights. I watched the seagulls flapping as a flock from one side of the beach to the other, depending on where scraps of food were, all the while yelling "Moine! Moine!" As the sun slowly set behind the hills to our left and cast an orange glow over the children building sandcastles on the beach, I took pictures of everything around me. I ended up with about five of the same sunset picture, and one where James put his face in front of the camera, telling me to stop taking pictures obsessively!

With as many activities as Cairns and the surrounding area offer, it's hard to just sit still, relax, and take in the scenery. James and I tried to fit as much into our holiday as possible, but realized it when we tried to push ourselves too far. Slowing down was the best thing we could have done--after all, aren't vacations supposedly about relaxing?--and I thought that, along with our dinner at Swordfish, it was the best way possible to farewell Cairns.

Cairns Shopping & Markets

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by stomps on October 12, 2006

On the second morning of our three-day trip, James and I were scheduled to pick up our rental car at 9am. We decided to go into central Cairns early so we could check out the markets. This is something that all cities in Australia seem to have - weekend markets, where any local artisans can hawk their wares or food. Cairns, being a tourist city, doesn't stop here; every night from 4 to 11pm, the night markets pop up along the Esplanade. Unfortunately, we hadn't made it to these the night before, because we were too tired. Instead, we got a good night's sleep and, bright-eyed, headed for the Esplanade.

After checking out the Lagoon, which looked abandoned and gray under the equally gray sky (it looked much better the next afternoon, as I have described in my "The Esplanade, The Lagoon & The Sunset" entry), we went to see what the markets, under tents near the Lagoon, had to offer. There wasn't a whole lot, but we did talk to an artist who had painted beautiful landscapes of various different places in Australia. When James said he was from the Sunshine Coast, he pulled out a picture of Tewantin, part of Noosa on the Noosa River, and showed it to James, asking if he recognized it. He was a talkative and interesting older man, whom I wish I could have bought something from, but I couldn't afford $25 for a small picture. There was not much else in the markets that interested us, although I assume this was because it was early in the morning, since Cairns is known for having thriving markets containing great finds, if you only look for them.

The next day, I was back in the center of Cairns, once again with the intent of shopping. I would have loved to be relaxing at the Lagoon with James, but my mother had asked me to buy her and my brother a few T-shirts, and I thought Cairns, which seems to have a souvenir shop in every other building, would be my best chance to buy them (especially because I knew exactly what paltry, cheap shirts Brisbane shops had to offer).

I found that Cairns, of course, has its share of cruddy stores that will sell you junk at an exorbitant price. However, it had a surprising number of quality stores that had fun T-shirt designs that I enjoyed sifting through (including one that I didn't buy that had a cane toad staring at headlights of a car, thinking "Oh, s***!"), trying to find the perfect match for my family members. Besides shirts, there were plenty of books, postcards (of which I picked up quite a few), stuffed toys, lots and lots of opals (many shops were dedicated solely to these precious stones), the typical goofy Australian gifts (essentially, anything with kangaroos or koalas), Aboriginal artwork, and all manner of beach and scuba gear.

I did manage to find shirts for both my mom and brother that they love wearing, after an hour or so of scouring every shop along Lake St, the Esplanade, and all the connecting streets in between. Unfortunately, they were very expensive - upwards of $30 for a T-shirt - but they were no more marked up than anything else. The cheapest beach towel I saw was $30!

If you are looking for souvenirs, Cairns is definitely a great place to start looking. I truly was surprised by the overall quality of what I found, especially compared to the shirts I've found in Brisbane, which start looking threadbare after a couple washes. But if you do want to buy anything, be prepared to part with quite a bit of money to do so!

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