Besides being the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Cairns area is a great vacation spot. There are plenty of interesting diversions nearby and the laidback, friendly city is a nice place to stay for a few days..
by travelswithkids on December 7, 2010
Okay, so you've decided to come to Cairns, Australia in order to see the Great Barrier Reef in person. But your decisions aren't over yet, since Cairns (and other nearby cities such as Port Douglas) offer a wide variety of choices of How to visit to the reef: big or small boat, closer or outer reef, one or multiple stops, include an island or not, scuba or snorkel, overnight cruise or day trip,...To aid our decision, we read (books and online) a lot at home, made a spreadsheet of various costs and options, and talked to friends who had been there. The first consensus was that we should really try to get to some part of the outer reef, since it's generally superior. We didn't book with any particular operator until we got there, because we thought that once on the ground locally, we could maybe find a better bargain than a computer web interface would allow. Delaying the decision did work out well for us as we did wind up with a bit of a discount, we could get local advice, and we could adjust our schedule a little for weather. You probably don't want until the very last minute however, as boats can fill up (I think ours was nearly at capacity when it sailed).In the end, we chose Sunlover Reef Cruises. They take a huge catamaran (about 300 passengers) to a part of the outer reef where they have big permanent pontoon platform. Part of what we liked about Sunlover, is that in addition to all the snorkeling you want, they also offer a semi-submersible ride where you are inside and watching the reef through big windows, a glass bottom boat ride, and a few other activities, such as a viewing window on the pontoon where they do a fish-feeding at the end of the day.Sunlover also had a pretty good base fare, and the add-on for scuba diving was cheap with the special rate we got there. Obviously, you're trading off that lower fare for the bigger crowds and less individual attention. But the number of passengers turned out to not be such a big deal for us. Sunlover manages the crowd pretty well, and the pontoon area is big enough that you aren't terribly overcrowded. We got our turn on the semi-sub and glass-bottom boat with no problems. I did the scuba dive option (I was previously certified) and my dive was first thing after arriving at the reef, without too much waiting around.All right, how was everything? The big catamaran gave a pretty comfortable ride to and from the reef. Getting everyone aboard in the morning was the one time the crowd size was a hassle since they wanted to take professional photos of each couple or family. They took other photos during the trip, and on the ride home you could purchase prints for a ridiculous price.The reef location was good. We had fun seeing a variety of corals, fish, and giant clams. Their equipment for scuba and snorkeling was plentiful and good. They have a nice large area for snorkeling in so we weren't constantly bumping into others. The amount of time we had on the reef was about right (around 4 hours).Their semi-sub ride was an fun and different way to see the reef. The glass-bottom boat ride wasn't as impressive. On the pontoon, they have a tank containing various small sea creatures that you get to handle that was fun. Watching the fish feeding frenzy at the end of the day was also pretty cool.Sunlover served a pretty nice buffet lunch with a lot of food and good variety. I mentioned before the crowd size was really well managed. An interesting aspect of the crowd was seeing the oriental men dressed up in business attire for what we were thinking of as a very casual day cruise.In the end, did we make the perfect choice and see the perfect part of the reef? Probably not, but we had a very enjoyable outing, everything ran very smoothly, we loved the underwater reef that we did get to see, and we had a fun day for a pretty fair price. Next time I would pick a smaller, more personal, boat, but Sunlover was very nice for a first time experience.
by travelswithkids on December 4, 2010
Just a short drive north of Cairns, the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park offers tourists a glimpse into the culture of one tribe of the original inhabitants of Australia, the Tjapukai. We visited during the day and had a really good experience with the variety of activities they presented, but they also offer an evening program with a buffet dinner and cultural show. The evening show and dinner is much more expensive (about $100/adult), and I very much preferred the selection of programs that we got during the day.We started our tour in their Creation Theater, which shows dreamtime legends of the Tjapukai people. Unfortunately, there were problems with some of the equipment, so instead of the multimedia show, we had one Tjapukai man just telling us the stories. However, it wasn't really too disappointing as our speaker was very good, introducing us to bits of the language, facts and dangers of day-to-day life in the rainforest, social customs, and the legends of the culture. After that introduction to the Tjapukai, we moved on to a small outdoor amphitheater for a dance show. This entertaining performance included about 5 men of the tribe performing traditional dances and playing the didgeridoo and other traditional instruments.Next was a short lesson on how to play the didgeridoo. A didgeridoo is a long hollow wooden tube that makes an amazing array of sounds and tones, all at the same time in the hands of a master. For our lesson, the skilled player explained how he produces the various tones and rhythms and showed us how the parts can be combined to play them all simultaneously. Having all the bits explained gave us a new appreciation for the instrument.We moved on to the next demonstration area, Bush Foods & Medicine. Here a woman provided us a small taste (literally) of some of the foods the tribe would gather from the rainforest such as the bright blue cassowary plums. She also discussed some of the medicines, and explained the elaborate, days-long preparation methods that are required to remove toxins from certain rainforest fruits to render them edible. (We'd also heard about the latter in the Dreamtime Legends part of the tour.)From here, it was onto the more active portion of the tour. Everyone gets to try their hand at throwing a boomerang and spear. We discovered we'd be pretty hungry if we had to rely on our skills with these weapons, but everyone has fun trying.We ended our tour by viewing a documentary film showing the history of the Tjapukai since the arrival of the Europeans. This sobering film shows some of the atrocities committed against the Tjapukai by the whites, and their struggles to maintain their identity in the face of this hostility. It was very eye-opening for us as we had never really heard much of this side of Australian settlement before.One aspect of the facility that they did mention is that it is operated and staffed by the Tjapukai tribe with proceeds supporting them, so I feel that adds a little to the authenticity of the center. We came to the cultural park knowing almost nothing about the aboriginal peoples of Australia, and we had an entertaining and education day and were happy to have gotten to learn a little about one of the many tribes. They strive to appeal to all ages from school children through adults, and so I'd highly recommend the day program here to families visiting Queensland.
by travelswithkids on November 30, 2010
Our holiday apartment Coral Towers was wonderful for our stay. For a reasonable price, you get two comfortable bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen, a dining table, and a living room with TV and couch. There's also a small laundry closet with washer and dryer, which came in very handy for us. Very roomy and functional for our family of four.It wasn't perfect and it isn't sparkling clean brand new, but it is nice enough. For instance, if I was really picky, I could say the bathrooms were a little small and old and the kitchen appliances were on the old side, but they still worked fine.The couches were a little worn, but the satellite TV was great.Location: Coral Towers is roughly midway between the airport and central Cairns. It is adjacent to the ocean, as close to the sea as anyplace in Cairns (across the street and then across the waterfront park), so we did have a nice ocean view from our apartment. However, keep in mind that Cairns itself doesn't have a beach, just tidal mud flats along the shore. If you want a beach, you can visit the smaller communities just north of Cairns. The Coral Towers neighborhood is pretty quiet. With a ten minute walk, you can get to a few restaurants or an expensive small grocery store for staples. It would be about a 30-40 minute walk to downtown Cairns. A little far to just step out for a quick dinner, but not impossible. We had a rental car for our stay and it worked out very well to drive downtown for shopping or dining.You are pretty close to the airport, so you will hear some airplane noise. But it didn't really bother us at all because 1) Cairns doesn't have that many flights/day 2) they don't operate all night long, and 3) with the airconditioning on, they really don't bother you too much.It's a relatively small, family run building, so there is no 24-hour front desk. If you arrive late you'll have to make arrangements to pick up your keys, but they are used to this, and it all worked out fine when we did it. The owners, Tony and Sandy, we very friendly and helpful with suggestions for tourist activities. There's also a small pool and a gas grill beside it for cookouts.The Coral Towers worked out great for our family. I would definitely stay here again and highly recommend it.
by travelswithkids on December 6, 2010
The Pier is a great casual dining choice in Cairns. It's located on the outside of the Marina Marketplace mall in downtown Cairns, facing the ocean. We were enticed to try it by one of their nightly specials -- pizzas from a wood-fired oven for a really great price. The crispy pizza was delicious and we returned another night to try other items from their menu, and were very pleased with our food. You do have to walk a few steps and put in and pick up your own pizza order from the counter (they give you a little pager that goes off to let you know when it is prepared), but with the good prices, it isn't a problem at all.The spacious restaurant has cool LED lighting in the interior and some pool tables for entertainment. But the best place to be is out on the long wooden deck with a view of the sea. The handsome bar has a nice variety of beers on tap and the friendly bartender was happy to give advice on a couple different brands to try.The Pier is just a short walk off of the main downtown drag of Cairns. But walking there and back is half the fun as you'll get to hear and see the raucous flocks of parrots swooping in as the come to roost in the waterfront trees. Those steps away from the Esplanade also buy you a much more relaxed dining experience, an infinitely more pleasant atmosphere, and a lot more value for your money.
by travelswithkids on December 8, 2010
If you want to buy Australian souvenirs, then the Night Markets in Cairns is the place to go. It is a series of stalls and shops chock full of T-shirts, magnets, sports jerseys, mugs, and any other cheap souvenir with a kangaroo connection you can think of. It also contains some slightly nicer stores with outback style leather coats and hats, kangaroo pelts, etc.Easily found right in the heart of downtown Cairns, it also has a large section full of fortune tellers, tarot card readers, and aromatherapists if you're into that sort of thing. There are also a few low-budget restaurants in its small food court section, mostly quick chinese food kind of places.The Night Markets draw a big crowd and it was fun to walk through and see the various shops and souvenirs. And they really do have about the cheapest prices for T-shirts and other little souvenirs. If you want a real modern mall with department stores and typical mall clothing stores, there is a big mall a few blocks away on the edge of downtown Cairns. But do check out the fun experience of the Night Markets also.
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