Cairns - Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

We spent a few days in Cairns and on a dive boat on the GBR in July 2009

A Great Choice for Two Tired Travellers

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on July 1, 2010

For me, planning a holiday can be almost as much fun as going on one but the one area that drags me down every time is trying to find hotels. For our trip to Australia last summer we were in the lucky position of only needing to find hotels to cover 3 nights in Cairns since the rest of the time we'd be either on a plane getting there or back, on a boat on the Great Barrier Reef or staying with my relatives in Sydney. Added to that, my parents had paid for our flights so we could afford to push to boat out a bit on the hotels.

I knew nothing about Cairns and everyone I know who had been there told me that they really thought it was absolutely NOT my kind of town. They predicted I'd hate the high-rise hotels and cheesy seaside atmosphere of the place and that I would be ready to strangle a host of backpackers within an hour or two of arriving. I therefore decided to be a bit snobby and reject every place that was going to appeal to backpackers and look for something nicer. I used the trivago hotel comparison site to narrow down a list of hotels within 1 km of the town centre and then went through lots of hotel reviews, struggling to get a clear picture. Just as I was about to give up because my head was so full of information and I was no closer to making a decision, I got an email from Hilton Hotels telling me that they were running a summer promotion offering two nights for the price of one. Since I always like Hilton hotels and this seemed like a really good bargain, I booked for our first two nights and paid about £160 in total, opting to pay a bit extra for a room with a 'water view'.

~Getting There~

We flew to Sydney then took an internal flight up to Cairns with Virgin Blue, landing late in the evening. In the baggage collection area we found a company offering mini-bus shuttles to the city and we booked two places. We realised at the end of our trip that it would have been a lot quicker to just take a taxi and possibly not that much more expensive either but it was quite nice to take the slow approach and to see lots of other hotels on our way to the Hilton. I didn't feel envious of the others and arrived at our hotel thinking we'd not made a bad choice.


The location is fabulous as it's right on the waterfront, close to the jetties where the dive boats and day boats go out from Cairns to the Great Barrier Reef. This is at the south end of the city centre on a plot that's set back from the busier roads and is very quiet. The main inlet of the sea is right beside the hotel. It's also close to lots of restaurants including many along the boardwalk by the jetties, casinos (if that's what you like to do on holiday) and shops. We found no problems to just walk out of the hotel, wander around and take our chances on what we found. Even the museums and art galleries (yes, contrary to all the old jokes about Australia and 'culture' there are such places) were no more than 15 minutes walk.

~Arrival and First Impressions~

Australians seem to be a friendly bunch by nature and our welcome and check in was warm and seemed sincere. The guy on reception took a lot of time to tell us where everything was, what time breakfast was served, to reconfirm that it was included in our booking and to explain how the lifts worked.

The lobby is very imposing and done out in Hilton's revamped style with some very funky curved sofas and lampshades which I've seen in other Hilton hotels in the past couple of years. There's even a raked gravel garden if you're looking for a moment of zen-like contemplation. The bar was brightly lit with some amazingly shaped chairs that were really eye catching. But since we'd been travelling for a day and a half by the time we arrived, we went straight to our room to get some sleep. The lifts are card-activated for security which surprised me in a such an easy-going country as that's something I've only experienced in places like Russia and Poland where the hotel are trying to keep prostitutes away from the residential floors.

~Room with a View~
The rooms are arranged off open corridors which overlook tropical gardens. We really felt like we'd arrived somewhere rather special. Although it's one of Hilton's older hotels, the refurb that's been done is very impressive. Our room was light, fresh and very comfortable with walls painted in buttermilk and pistachio and the carpets were light green with a grey pattern. The first things I noticed were the rattan chaise longue and the French windows. Despite being night time we were straight out on the balcony to sniff the sea air. The bed was a king size with crisp white linens and my husband had the kettle filled and was making a brew before he had his shoes off. There was a small work desk (which I was happy not to need) and the TV was a massive flat screen with lots of channels. There was even a Sony Playstation but I don't have a clue what to do with one of those so it was purely decorative for us. Other services included several telephones and broadband. The room had some very attractive paper lampshades including a floor standing tall paper lamp which were classier than I've probably made them sound.

We paid a little extra for a water-view room (not actually the sea, it was a wide creek instead) and I'm glad we did. The view was beautiful and waking up in the morning to see sail boats floating past was really worth the extra cost.

~Food Glorious Food~

We ate a leisurely breakfast in the Hanuman restaurant on the first morning and grabbed a very early and very rushed snack on the second morning because we were leaving for our dive trip. The long breakfast was excellent with a spectacular selection of food from all continents. This is a place where you can have a bowl of oriental congee (if you're mad enough), some sushi, American pancakes or a full English – the world is your eating oyster! (no oysters actually but nearly everything else you can think of). Smartly dressed waiting staff were happily running back and forth doing made-to-order cappuccinos and omelettes whenever anyone wanted them. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows that look out over the hotel gardens and towards the wedding chapel. You could also catch a glimpse of the 50 m freeform swimming pool.

~The Atmosphere~

I was a little worried that the hotel might be a bit too fancy. I've suffered in the past from dragging my very relaxed and scruffy husband into hotels where he just felt a bit uncomfortable. The Hilton in Cairns manages to be visually stunning without making you feel that if you sit on the sofas you'll make the place look messy. Perhaps this is party that Australians just don't 'do' formality and certainly don't do 'dressing up' but we didn't feel at all uneasy at this hotel. It's plush without being posh, comfortable without dipping into condescension and friendly without being fussy. It worked perfectly for us.

~Would I go again?~

In all honesty, probably not but only because I was disappointed by our dive trip. Perhaps 15 years of longing to see the Great Barrier Reef meant I was pre-destined to find it disappointing. I would go again, but probably not to Cairns since – as predicted by all my friends – it really wasn't my kind of town and I think we did everything there was to do during our few days there. However, if for some reason I had to be in Cairns again, then I loved the Hilton and I wouldn't hesitate to go back for another stay. Since I'm usually a total tightwad who books cheap budget hotels I was glad that on this occasion we'd gone a bit more up-market and after a long journey, it was really worth paying for a bit more luxury than normal.
Hilton Cairns
34 Esplanade Cairns Queensland
Cairns, Australia, 4870
+61 (7) 40502000

Use Your Noodle - China Cafe

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 8, 2010

On our first night in Cairns we'd arrived in the evening after a 26 hour flight from London to Sydney and a further 3 to 4 hour flight from Sydney to Cairns. Our body clocks were pretty confused by that point so we decided the worst thing we could do would probably be to go straight to sleep. We owed it to ourselves to get out and wander around, get some dinner and then go to sleep. Our wanderings brought us eventually to the Cafe China noodle bar. This was located on Abbott Street between the art museum and the casino. I loathe gambling and if I'd realised the business was connected to the casino I probably would have gone elsewhere but I was so tired and disorientated that I didn't realised which is probably a good thing because I loved the food we had.

Two things attracted me – the outdoor terrace and a near overwhelming urge for noodles. If you ask me to characterise the culinary highlights of two weeks in Australia then noodles play a large part in all of the more memorable meals.

We headed up a few steps, across the verandah and into the noodle bar. It was one of the least fancy looking places in the city and that's probably partly why I didn't spot the casino connection. The building is known as the Customs House and the noodle bar is located in the lobby of the building. There's apparently a fancier Cafe China restaurant inside the casino that's much more expensive and more swanky but we were more than happy to keep things simple.

We chose our dishes off a large board fixed to the wall behind the serving lady which listed the available dishes. We ordered two seafood laksa at just under AU$12 per person and added a beer for my husband and a glass of white wine for me which together added another $9 to the bill. A 'help yourself' set up allowed all diners to take as much free iced water as they wanted so we also filled up with a couple of glasses.

Whilst the food was being prepared we took our drinks out and found a table on the verandah. Looking across the street we admired the old cast iron balconies on the buildings opposite and started to soak up a bit of the atmosphere of Cairns.

We had ordered the 'regular' size dishes and 'small' had been available for a couple of dollars less. When our noodles arrived I think we realised that small would have been plenty and that regular could probably feed two people. Thank goodness we'd only ordered one small portion of prawn toasts as a starter although it arrived at the same time as the noodles so we'd rather failed on the idea of having two courses. The toasts were small and fat with a thick layer of minced prawn and sesame seeds on top but we could easily have done without starters completely due to the speed of the service and the size of the dishes.

Digging around in my bowl I found green lipped mussels, three or four giant shell on prawns, lots of juicy fish balls and surimi sheets. The sauce was a mild creamy curry sauce which was good but not as spicy as I'd hoped it would be. The creaminess showed that it contained a lot of coconut milk and I hate to think how much fat there was in the dish. I reassured myself that I'd be off diving for three days and could worry about burning it off some other time. There were two types of noodles in the dish; thin rice noodles and thicker egg noodles.

It was a hot evening (by English standards) and we took a long time to get through the dishes before eventually admitting defeat with quite a lot of noodles and sauce still in the bowls. We took another glass of water each and then paid our bill and headed back to the hotel. The meal of one portion of prawn toasts, two seafood noodles, a wine and a beer came to a total of $38.50 which at the July 2009 exchange rates was just under £10 per person. I liked the food enough that I'd have been happy to go back and try some other dishes but Cairns was just so full of great inexpensive food that we found new places to go each time we ate out.

Pack your Sense of Humour to Enjoy this Gallery

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 7, 2010

Culture in Australia? If you believe the old jokes, you’ll find more culture in a yoghurt than you will down under but whilst it’s easy to knock our antipodean cousins it’s not always fair. In the Tropical North Queensland city of Cairns we found a museum that was well worth a visit even it if hadn’t been raining (though I’ll admit that the weather did influence our decision to go). We were on a mission to find something artistic in this brash and rather ugly city and hoped that the Cairns Regional Gallery would fit the bill.

The gallery is in a building on the corner of Abbott and Shields Streets that dates back to 1936, making it old enough to be considered a ‘heritage’ building in such a new country. The building was originally the office of the Public Curators. I’m not sure what they were curating for the public but the office closed and was reopened in 1995 to become the Cairns Regional Gallery. To be fair the building with it’s pillars and classical touches does give the impression of being a lot older than it actually is. From the outside one notices not only the architecture but also the presence of a café-restaurant spilling out onto the sidewalk outside.

We arrived about 15 minutes before the gallery was due to open on a Sunday. Whilst it’s open daily, on Sundays it’s closed in the morning and we were a bit too early for the 1 pm first entrance. We sheltered under the covered area by the door and waited for action to commence.

Entrance fees are not high and it cost us just AU$ 5 each to get in. At the time that was about £2.50 equivalent. Once we’d paid and picked up a pamphlet about the gallery we got stuck into wandering around. There’s very much a local theme about the place with a strong emphasis on art connected with the North Queensland area, either through the artists themselves or the subject of their work. It’s predominantly very modern in feel, a bit like the city and the country itself, and probably won’t appeal to people who like easy accessible art. The ‘I don’t know much about art but I know what I like’ brigade may well find that they DON’T like a lot of what’s in here.

We started on the ground floor in the Lady Hunter Gallery where the exhibits had a strong environmental theme with sculptures made of flotsam, plants with acupuncture needles sticking in them, sculptures of coal and solar panels and a fascinating series of photographs of a floating hut placed in different environments to contrast and challenge ideas of paradise. There were pieces relating to a quarantine island and large patches of sand prints on the floor. I won’t claim that everything was accessible or entertaining but a lot of it was fascinating.

Up on the first floor we found a modern design exhibition showing work by artists from Queensland. This ranged from furniture and lamps through door handles and a group of so-called ‘hard furnishings’. I think my favourite gallery was one showing an exhibition called ‘In your dreams’ in which a large number of local and international artists had been given a simple wooden box and challenged to express their dreams or their interpretation of dreams within the constraints of the boxes. Some decorated their boxes, others put things inside them or around them but everything was different. There were photographs, models, embroideries and all manner of different ways to explore the dream world.

Finally up on the top floor we found a display of strange metal work with sinuous curves and combinations pieces of wood and metal together. Seahorses, musical instruments and people were all expressed by a single artist in very different ways. Would I want one in my home? Probably not, but with my husband who started his working life as a sheet metal worker standing next to me, there was no risk of me being allowed to not understand just how difficult this work was to do or how much I should be admiring it.

We headed back to the ground floor for a final look around the Lady Hunter gallery again before passing 15 minutes buying nothing in the shop and then heading off in search of coffee. If you can’t see the art or the humour in modern art then it’s probably best to avoid this gallery. If you’re open-minded enough to give it a go and have sufficient sense of humour to not take it all too seriously, then I recommend a visit.
Cairns Regional Gallery
Cnr Abbott And Shields Streets
Cairns, Australia, 4870
+61 (07) 4046 4800

Cool, Calm and Close to the Sea

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on July 11, 2010

All divers will know that however much they might want to hop straight on a plane at the end of their holiday, that's just not possible. You need to spend a day letting your body recover from the diving before you can fly. After our trip to the Great Barrier Reef, we needed to find a hotel for our day of 'down-time' before heading back to Sydney. I struggled to find somewhere because I couldn't afford to go back to the Hilton, lovely as it was, because the deal I got there was for 2 nights. The other hotels were almost all big concrete blocks or backpacker places and neither appealed. What I really wanted was something with a bit of style or a bit of history - two factors in short supply in Cairns. I was intrigued by the plantation style and old wooden buildings of The Hotel Cairns and, after shopping around, I got a rate I was willing to pay, and opted for a so-called Plantation Room. I paid £77 pound for one night for a room with a king-sized bed.

Our dive company dropped us at the hotel after we'd collected our luggage. It was well placed, just a block back from the esplanade and a few blocks from the city centre. It was a bit quieter I'm sure than if we'd been closer to either the sea or the centre. I was a bit surprised to find it looked more like a glorified motel than the swanky hotel on the website, but I'd been living in a cabin 6 foot by 6 foot for the previous few nights with 30 seconds of hot water in a shared bathroom so anything bigger that didn't sway was going to be very welcome.

The receptionist was astonishingly friendly and welcoming. Australians really do warmth better than any other nationality I've come across in the hotel trade. Perhaps it's because they're paid a proper wage and not just expected to live off tips like in many countries. I knew from the website that they had a small fleet of Smart Cars and I asked her how the 'free' hire worked. She explained that guests pay $30 a day for insurance plus the cost of any fuel that they use. I was tempted - very tempted - but couldn't persuade my husband who thought (incorrectly as it turned out though I hate to say "I told you so") that it would be easier to just get the bus.

The reception desk offered cold drinks and snacks and we took a quick wander around to see what else was available. The small swimming pool was deep blue and surrounded by sunbeds and the restaurant and bar were filled with masses of wicker furniture. Somebody must have been in love with Lloyd Loom because the hotel was home to more LL wicker products than I've seen in my life. There was a do-it-yourself laundry available as well as a gym, internet access, meeting rooms and plenty of car parking space.

Our room was really cool and calming, painted in shades of cream and pistachio. The floor was tiled with terracotta quarry tiles and the windows were covered with louvred plantation shutters. The large bed had a bedspread in green and brown blocks with a mound of soft pillows and cushions. We had two Lloyd Loom chairs and a small glass-topped wicker table. There was a flat screen TV and a DVD player, a minibar, air conditioning as well as a ceiling fan and - to keep hubby happy - a tray with tea and coffee. The tea on the boat had suffered for being made by a French cook - need I say more?

The standard of the room was really good although the furniture was all a bit squeezed in. The bathroom was not up to the same level and seemed to have been overlooked when the rooms were refurbished. The bathroom was divided into two separate areas - one with the sink and vanity unit, with wardrobes and mirrors, a hairdryer and an iron with an ironing board. The main bathroom had an enormous marble-sided bath with a big round shower-head that was a bit too low since I could only just get under it and I'm only 5 foot 8.

Outside our room there was a pretty courtyard with sun umbrellas, more wicker furniture and some large palms in big terracotta pots. I liked the style of the hotel and the wicker and pot plant approach to keeping the place cool and fresh.

We found the room a bit noisy because our room was close to the road but we slept soundly none the less. Although the hotel wasn't quite as 'historic' as I'd hoped, we were comfortable and enjoyed our stay. We checked out the next morning before taking the bus to the zoo and the hotel were very accommodating about hanging onto our luggage for us. I'm glad we chose a low-rise, independent hotel rather than one of the multi-storey chain hotels and I would probably consider this hotel if I went back to Cairns again, which isn't actually very likely.
The Hotel Cairns
Cairns, Australia, 4870

We're Going to the Zoo - You Can Come Too

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 8, 2010

Cairns Tropical Zoo is an award-winning attraction that's been open for 40 years and offers the opportunity for visitors to get a bit more 'up close and personal' with the animals than many of Australia's larger zoos. It is located on the main road that runs north of Cairns towards Port Douglas and it was our chosen destination for killing time on our 'decompression day' after three days out on the Great Barrier Reef. It hadn't taken long for us to realise that there wasn't much else in Cairns that could hold our attention and fill time before we headed back to Cairns airport for our flight back to Sydney.

Cairns Tropical Zoo should be about a half hour drive from central Cairns unless you foolishly choose to take the bus which takes so many detours through beach communities that it took about an hour and a half. We were seriously starting to wonder if we'd missed it because the bus drive was so long. We were very relieved when we started to see signs by the road indicating that the Zoo was coming up very soon and were very pleased to get off and head in.

Viewed from the outside you can be forgiven for thinking it might be quite a small place as it's hard to tell from the road how far the zoo spreads. It's actually got a total area of six hectares. Considering that the entrance prices are AU$32 per adult, we did wonder if we were going to get our money's worth. It's also only open between 8.30 am and 4 pm and after our long bus ride we didn't arrive until nearly 1 pm. Putting our reservations behind us (and thinking that there was no way we wanted to head back on the bus again) we paid up for two tickets and two bags of wallaby food and headed in to see the animals.

The first animals to greet us were two birds – a large white cockatoo and a splendid blue macaw. Past them and we met a couple of wallabies, hanging around waiting to be fed. The poor little chaps had been getting fed all morning by visitors and were clearly a bit jaded and most of the food was stolen by ducks who'd worked out that hanging out with the wallabies was a good way to get a full tummy.

With our maps in hands and a rough timetable of some of the key events on offer, we headed off to just wander around and enjoy the animals. It was July, the middle of the local winter, and the morning rush had already passed and the zoo was very quiet. Highlights included the very non-native red panda who must have been a bit bemused at finding himself such a long way from his Himalayan habitat. I can (and do) watch red pandas for hours every time I see them and this was a particularly fine beast. We headed off to see lemurs and weird little monkey things before finding ourselves amongst some rather more local beasts. A dingo reclined on a rock, a cassowary waved its wattle in our direction and we walked through several large aviaries of very friendly and colourful birds. Something large and white pooped on my husband which I'm sure was lucky (and very funny).

We gathered at one particular pen to wait for the marsupial chat from one of the keepers. She entered the wombat pen with a large mail koala and proceeded to tell us and another couple about how the two beasts were similar and how each was adapted to its particular habitat. The wombat was less impressed with being discussed and shot inside a tree trunk whilst she explained that they have really tough nether regions that can withstand getting bitten by predators. Basically they leap into a hole, stick their bums in the air and ignore anyone biting them. The koala went by the name of Romeo and we learned that he had a couple of wives and babies in the maternity ward which we'd be able to see later.

Next we headed back to the birds, seeing some of the unique weird feathered Australians – kookaburras, frogmouths and the weird long legged chaps with bug eyes that seemed to be wandering all over the centre of Cairns. We then joined a large group of people waiting to get scared silly by the crocodiles. There is something so ancient and primitive about these beasties that they really do give me the heebie-jeebies. We were introduced to a killer-croc who'd been sent to the zoo after getting too aggressive. Aside from a couple of impressive tooth-baring yawns, he wasn't in the mood to look too menacing. After about 15 minutes of the warden trying to show how tough the crocodiles were, he gave up and explained that it was just too cold, and the crocs weren't in the mood to do much other than just sit around trying to warm up. Usefully I learned to tell the difference between fish eating crocs and ones that might have a go at a human although I'm not sure I'd stick around long enough to check the shape of a crocodile's nose if one was heading my way. I was happy to leave the big beasts behind and head over to the enclosures with the much smaller lizards and their friends.

One of the highlights of the zoo came next and was a visit to the 'nursery' where the new mum koalas and their little ones are kept in a relatively quiet male-koala-free zone. Most of my photos show the koalas fast asleep although I did manage to accidentally catch a bit of action on my video camera when one of the mums handed her baby over to her friend, walked along a branch and peed before heading back to reclaim her little one. Koalas mostly just wedge themselves between branches and sleep – it's not a bad life.

Close to the nursery is a place where you can have your photograph taken with an animal of your choice (from a selection obviously, you can't just go and grab a crocodile and ask him for a 'snap'). They charge AU$15 per photograph for doing this and we weren't interested because we'd prefer to see the animals in a less 'staged' setting. We headed back to the far side of the zoo to meet the kangaroos and to observe some children completely ignoring the 'no entry signs' but despite hanging around with some degree of anticipation, none of the roos gave the kids a good kicking so we decided to do a quick once-round again of our favourite animals. In my case this of course meant going straight back to the red panda for another 15 minutes of gazing lovingly at a sleepy beast. If anyone is familiar with the website and their photos of so-called mono-rail cats (cats lying with their legs hanging down on either side of a branch or sofa-back etc) I can happily confirm that red pandas also love to adopt to monorail position.

When we'd seen everything we wanted to we headed out of the zoo, crossed the road and waited absolutely ages for a bus to take us back to Cairns by an even longer and convoluted route than the one that we'd taken in the morning. If you want to try something REALLY different, they have a wedding chapel on site for the ultimate in unusual wedding locations. All of the animals appeared to be very well looked after and free from the usual signs of captivity anxiety. I've always had mixed feelings about zoos, but this was a small, friendly place that was clearly taking seriously the responsibility to educate visitors about their animals and environmental issues. Whilst I thoroughly recommend a visit to Cairns Tropical Zoo, I can't say the same for the local buses. Get a taxi or a hire car if you can.
Cairns Tropical Zoo
Captain Cook Highway
Cairns, Australia
+61 7 4055 3669

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