Cairns – pronounced “Cans” by the Aussies – is the gateway to the area called Far North Queensland. Home to the Great Barrier Reef and some of the world’s oldest rainforests, Far North Queensland is one of Australia’s biggest tourist destinations, and Cairns is where everyone’s trip there begins.
Cairns itself isn’t a major city, but with approximately 150,000 residents, it’s the largest city in the region by a long mile. Originally founded as a place to service the mining community up in the hills and on the tablelands inland, it later grew into a major port for the export of gold, sugarcane, and other minerals and local tropical crops, such as mango, banana, papaya, and coffee. While the port remains an important part of the economy, it’s tourism that has really taken over.
For a city of such small size, you wouldn’t expect the airport to be anything more than one or two gates servicing a few small flights per day to the country’s two or three biggest cities, but the size of Cairns airport demonstrates the draw of this region. Flights operate daily to all major Australian cities and a ton of smaller ones in regional Queensland. Additionally, there are flights to New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the US, and all over Asia: Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia… it’s a proper airport for a little city. To compare size, it’s about the same as if Sioux Falls, South Dakota had a direct flight to Tokyo. Not going to happen ever, is it? But it happens in Cairns because it’s such a popular destination. And because of this popularity, the Aussies… well, they hate Cairns.
“Oh. You’re going to Cairns. You’re not staying in Cairns, right?”
“Cairns? Please tell me you’re staying in Palm Cove or Port Douglas instead?”
“Cairns? Are you renting a car and getting out of Cairns?”
“Why on earth would you want to go to Cairns?”
“Cairns is awful.”
About 99% of Australians will advise you to immediately get out of Cairns once you land because there’s nothing to see there and it’s just overrun with busloads of Asian tourists and smelly, drunken European backpackers in campervans. But, I decided to go against the advice (somewhat) and spend some time in Cairns (just a bit).
The tourist areas around the water make for a lovely place to walk and explore. The Esplanade runs along the waterfront day and night and our hotel was conveniently situated right on it.
As any Aussie will tell you, at closer glance, the beach is actually a big mud flat and not a beach. It’s not the most attractive piece of property, but given the crocodile situation, nobody was going in the water anyway.
In place of a proper beach, the city built a big ass “lagoon” swimming pool to serve the community and throngs of tourists that visit here.
The city even puts on Zumba and other fitness classes on the Esplanade so people can stay fit while eating all kinds of crap on vacation.
Cairns also has a few cute markets, ranging from fruit markets:
To some pop up markets on the Esplanade:
To the famous Night Markets, which sell all kinds of tacky touristy trinkets, massages, and some delicious local fruit too.
One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the Night Zoo at the Cairns Tropical Zoo. Located just a short drive north of Cairns near Palm Cove, we originally signed up for the Night Zoo rather than visiting the zoo normally during the day just to save time for other daytime activities. It was a bit of a lofty price, but it turned out to be well worth it in the end. The Night Zoo featured a delicious Aussie buffet, some super tacky (but actually super fun) bush dancing, and they even made us damper (bread that they make in the outback) and tea out at one of the exhibits. As many Australian animals are nocturnal, we got to see quite a few of them in action. Of course, this included our chance to hold a koala!
My sister got to hold a python. I opted to not shit my pants.
We even got to pet a wombat and pose for a picture with the cute creature and the strangely attractive and rugged zookeeper.
The best part was that the Night Zoo is limited in numbers – there must have been no more than 20 of us there that night. Even better, there was only one child in the whole group. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone visiting Cairns.
There are also some great outdoorsy activities in Cairns. We took a stroll along a mangrove boardwalk one afternoon and saw the crab holes in the mud. Ick.
But the crown jewel of Cairns, in my opinion, was the Cairns Botanic Gardens. Located what must have been just a three minute drive from our hotel, the botanic gardens were fantastic and can put any big city’s botanic gardens to shame. Of course, there were all the typical plants you’d find at a botanic garden.
But the gardens also had some lovely boardwalks which lead us to saltwater and freshwater lakes.
The adjacent Mount Whitfield Conservation Park had two hiking trails up to the top of Mount Whitfield – a quick 30 minute one and a tougher one all the way up that takes a few hours. We opted for the short one given my sister was only in normal sneakers, but I’m definitely doing the big one next time. The views from the top of the easy walk were great. In one direction was the airport and in the other direction was the Esplanade and the city itself. Also, just have to point out: I love the zoom on my new camera. Look at how far the airport is in the first pic and how close in the second!
The conservation park is also a cassowary habitat – right in the city! “What to do if you meet a cassowary”. First, introduce yourself. Second, shake hands. Oh wait… maybe not.
The botanic gardens also serve as home to the Tanks Art Centre, so called because they occupy formerly abandoned fuel tanks constructed for World War II. We poked around one of the special exhibitions until they turned the lights out on us. Only in Australia is it acceptable to close at 2pm. Again, I’ll need to explore that more on my next trip to Cairns.
The best part of the botanic gardens, however, was the brunch at the Botanic Gardens Restaurant & Café. It was probably one of the top 5 brunches I’ve had in this country. The food was stellar.
More importantly, there was a cute waiter in little shorts.
Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Cairns and I’d definitely recommend a day or two there for all visitors to the region… no matter what anyone else tells you!