Cairns may be the gateway to some of Australia’s most memorable wilderness experiences, but there are plenty of reasons to linger in this blissful Tropical North Queensland city.
There are not many places in the world where I’d feel comfortable walking along the street at night sans shoes. But on a steamy summer evening in Cairns, ditching my heels and strolling barefoot along the Esplanade after dinner seems like the natural thing to do. In fact, it’s this moment that I know my dreamy Cairns holiday is well underway.
This city in Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) is Australia’s fourth most popular destination for international tourists. But, it’s a world away from the bustle of Sydney, Melbourne and even Brisbane, around 1700 kilometres to the south.
The vibe here is sleepy at its quietest, and laid back at its busiest. And it does get pretty busy, if statistics and tourism developments are anything to go by. Recent figures show 15% increase in domestic visitors to TNQ for the year ending September 2018. Many in the industry predict numbers will reach all-time highs in 2019 and beyond. This is thanks to a boom in new infrastructure, not least the just-opened Riley hotel.
Luxury Cairns holiday accommodation
Riley is the first new five-star lodgings to welcome guests to Cairns in two decades. Riley joins the fast-growing portfolio of homegrown hospitality group, Crystalbrook Collection. The property is a snappy redux of the tired Tradewinds motel, which had enjoyed a prime Esplanade position overlooking the Coral Sea for decades.
The once-drab building has been transformed into a light-filled, nature-loving cocoon of white and wood. It has 311 rooms and suites split across the original space. Plus, a new Olympic torch-shaped tower with12 storeys top-and-tailed by dining establishments and a spa.
The entire complex envelops the central pool, which has direct access to the lobby, waterfront and an all-day-dining restaurant. And this time next year Riley will have two new Crystalbrook sisters in town: Bailey and Flynn. Both will be within (barefoot) walking distance along the Esplanade, and all three with distinct design “personalities”. Crystalbrook is also planning two new properties at the Port Douglas Superyacht Marina, around 70km north-west of Cairns.
Since the trio of Cairns holiday lodgings were announced, the city’s other accommodation offerings have been forced to take note. A number of them – including the Shangri-La, Pullman and Novotel – are renovating to keep up with Crystalbrook’s brisk pace of expansion.
Exploring Cairns and surrounds
Above and beyond the shiny new hotels, the real reason to come to Tropical North Queensland is to get outside. While Cairns itself doesn’t have a beach, it does have a 4800 square metre saltwater lagoon pool. Perfectly positioned for Coral Sea views, it’s part of the enormous Esplanade waterside precinct. There’s also a skate park, volleyball courts, weekend markets and numerous cafes and restaurants.
I have dinner booked slightly further along the marina at Hemingway’s Brewery. The breezy new restaurant and bar sits in the shadow of hulking cruise ships that port just metres away. House brews here range from a tropical lager to an XPA. Whatever you order, it’s best enjoyed outside in the garden, with sticky chicken wings or salt-and-pepper squid on the side.
Add some heritage to your Cairns holiday
Experiencing close to 250 days of sunshine a year, Cairns is the gateway to two World Heritage sites; the Wet Tropics of the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. I spend my first day exploring the latter – from the sky, from the sea, and from the ocean’s depths.
My GBR Helicopters chopper adventure begins at Cairns heliport. We fly low over water so crystal clear it’s as though someone has taken my glasses and cleaned them for the first time. We zip across opalesque lagoons toward Green Island, home to Cassius, the world’s largest croc in captivity. He’s a whopping 5.5 metres long! We then touch down on a long stretch of Fitzroy Island sand, where a picnic lunch awaits.
In this part of the archipelago, you can stroll along the sea floor off Green Island with Seawalker. Or take a mini yellow submarine ride around Fitzroy and experiece TNQ’s marine bounty without getting your hair wet. But I have an underwater date a little further east on Moore Reef, where my chopper lands atop a pontoon that offers horizon views for days.
Indigenous Tropical North Queensland
The Yirrganydji and Gimuy Yidinji people are the traditional landowners of Cairns. Many more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities having a connection to the Great Barrier Reef.
I join cruise expedition Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel for a tour of the world’s largest coral reef system through Indigenous eyes. The company’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers tell us 60,000-year-old Dreamtime stories about the reef’s creation. We slip into the water to snorkel among the 1500 species of fish that call the Coral Sea home. Drifting between bommies and coral fans I spot cardinalfish, moray eels, clownfish and turtles. The boat’s marine biologist tells me the reef is home to six out of seven of the world’s turtle species.
Exploring The Wet Tropics
Back on dry land, the indigenous songlines surrounding Cairns are just as strong. West of the city, rainforest-draped mountains are home to the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. I go over the Great Dividing Range on the former, and come back to the coast on the latter.
Constructed in the late 1800s, the railway is still considered one of Australia’s greatest engineering feats. On my journey, I glimpse orchids, palms and strangler figs, not to mention the incredible fauna. One staff member tells me to keep watch for the country’s second-largest bird, the southern cassowary. As few as 2000 of them remain in the wild. On the return journey, waterfalls cut beneath me through a dense matting of the world’s oldest rainforest, casting a prehistoric shadow over the countryside.
When I jump off the Skyrail I make a beeline for Tjapukai, a cultural centre celebrating the region’s traditional landowners. Visitors can learn to play the didgeridoo, taste bush tucker, watch indigenous dancers and storytellers, and join a corroboree in the evening. By day or night, this is a magical introduction to Tropical North Queensland.