When you ask Baby Boomers for their travel Bucket List, a trip to Australia is always near the top. There’s just something about the land down under that sparks wanderlust in us!
Australia is not just a country, it’s an entire continent, so choosing a part of it to explore at one time is best. Cairns, in tropical northeast Queensland, is one destination that should not be missed. With its prime location on the Coral Sea, Cairns is considered to be the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef – one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The city is stylish and laid-back, and a central location for exploring an area pulsing with adventure and culture.
We recently experienced this epic destination, and it did not disappoint! Here are the highlights that you should not miss.
1. First, Stay at an Incredible Hotel
After our long overnight flight, we drove a mere 10 minutes from the airport to our early morning check-in at the DoubleTree by Hilton to take a short rest. We opened the door to our room and were immediately thrilled at the sight before us – a spacious room, elegantly appointed with contemporary furnishings, and floor-to-ceiling windows drawing the eye to the private balcony and stunning panoramic view of the Coral Sea. The location of the tropically landscaped hotel could not be better, smack in the center of the oceanfront Esplanade with all its amenities, and just a few minutes’ walk to the lagoon. It’s a great value-luxury choice for accommodations.
2. Discover the Great Barrier Reef
It was a milestone birthday, and I wanted to celebrate it with Number One on my Bucket List – diving at the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, made up of nearly 3,000 individual reefs stretching out 1800 miles. It’s even visible from outer space.
We are both scuba certified and loved our experience with Deep Sea Divers Den, especially the once-in-a-lifetime spontaneous sea turtle encounter. But you don’t have to be a diver to fully enjoy the stunning natural beauty of the reef and islands; there are numerous other ways to explore, such as snorkeling and boating.
3. Stroll Down the Esplanade
The Esplanade is the waterside boardwalk on Cairns Bay. For us, it was just steps from our hotel. It has a festive vibe with restaurants, cafes and shops. There are no beaches in Cairns, but there is a large, open-air, man-made saltwater swimming lagoon on the Esplanade. The lagoon is surrounded by a sandy beach and tropical gardens, and looks out to the Great Barrier Reef.
4. Sample the Cuisine
While Cairns is not known for having fabulous food, it’s still pretty good, and there are a few things you should try. The Raw Prawn on the Esplanade serves an “all-in-one” dish called “Hop, Skip, Jump, and Swim” which consists of kangaroo, crocodile, emu, and barramundi. It’s a great way to sample some of Australia’s iconic foods that you might have heard about.
Other delicious Australian favorites to sample are fish and chips, meat pie, and the famous Tim Tam chocolate candy. And of course you can’t visit the land down under and not try vegemite. The verdict? Kary thought it was alright. Me, not so much.
And…. for the very daring, there’s locally-grown durian fruit. It’s been described as “eating custard out of a toilet.” Would you try it?
5. Find a Beach
Just because there’s no beach right in Cairns proper doesn’t mean there’s not one nearby. Trinity Beach is considered a suburb of Cairns, just 10 miles from the city center. The beach stretches a mile along the Coral Sea. It is one of the better beaches near Cairns with white sand instead of the rough coral typical of the area. The community of Trinity Beach itself is small and charming. We enjoyed relaxing at sunset in one of the ocean view restaurants.
6. Be Captivated by the Culture
Cairns boasts that it has the oldest living Aboriginal culture, dating back over 40,000 years. We got to see this up close and personal at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. The park provides tourists with an educational, authentic Australian Indigenous experience by combining live performances, music, dance and storytelling.
We had a real hands-on experience, learning how to throw a boomerang and spear – I was terrible at both but Kary did really well (must be his years in the military). There was also a demonstration on how to play the Didgeridoo – the ancient natural wooden trumpet that makes the most bizarre but fun sounds!
7. Go to an Island
This was one of my favorite days in Cairns. A ten-minute walk from our hotel and we arrived at the Cairns marina where we boarded a 45-minute ferry to Fitzroy Island. The stunning 833-acre private island is open to the public. We’d brought our own snorkeling gear (because we both use a bifocal mask) so we could try snorkeling in crystal clear Welcome Bay. The water was nice and warm, but we did rent wetsuits, because it happened to be stinger season and we didn’t want to take any chances.
After lunch in an open-air café overlooking the ocean, we took a hike in the island’s tropical rainforest. You can do a short hike to a butterfly garden, or a longer hike to the island’s highest elevation for panoramic view. We opted for the shorter hike because we wanted to experience a variety of different activities.
Another option for a short walk is over to Nudey Beach. Once a clothing optional beach, Nudey is no longer a naked beach. Strewn with huge boulders giving it an otherworldly look, it is worth the hilly trek from Welcome Bay, sometimes scampering over large boulders.
To round off our day of activities, we rented a sea kayak to explore hidden beaches and coves along the calm shoreline. I may or may not have been too involved in taking selfies instead of helping to steer our craft away from the rocky shore. Luckily I have a strong (and patient) partner to help me out of these types of situations. J
8. Shop in the Night Market
The night market is located right on the Esplanade. There’s a good selection of souvenirs, and the prices are a bit lower than you’ll find in other places.
9. Journey into the Rainforest
We set off for a jam-packed day exploring Cairns’ pristine ancient rainforest. To get to what has been called “the world’s oldest rainforest,” we took a gondola on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. Gliding over the tropical canopy, we watched the vegetation pass under our feet through the glass floor of the sky car. At various points along the way, we were able to exit the gondola to admire the views and hike around the forest. I was amazed by the copious and lush vegetation…..and three humongous spiders as big as my head.
At the top of the rainforest is Kuranda, a colorful little village with markets, restaurants, walking paths, a butterfly sanctuary and a wildlife exhibit. The rich indigenous Djabugay aborigine culture survives there, showcased in the art, pottery, paintings, woodcarving, jewelry and handcrafts in the marketplace.
We took an alternative method to come down from the rainforest. Boarding the Kuranda Scenic Railway, we got a well-deserved chance to rest after our busy day in the rainforest. As we rumbled along the tracks, we got a stunning bird’s eye view of old bridges, mountain vistas and a stop at the Barron Gorge. The iconic restored historic train has been painstakingly restored with big, plush comfy seats into which we settled and were served drinks and snacks. What a perfect way to end our rainforest excursion!
10. Ride an ATV
Perry from Rainforest Journeys is the person to contact for an exhilarating ATV (all-terrain vehicles) experience. His family has lived in the rainforest for generations, so he knows it like the back of his hand. Hop on one of his ATV’s and follow him into the rainforest to explore the incredible wetlands.
You’ll stop at various points to check out unique plants, ancient trees, and if you’re lucky, he’ll treat you to a personal encounter with a friendly cassowary.
11. Uncover a Jungle Hideaway
Eco-accredited, Paronella Park is a lush rainforest and lost village beside Mena Creek Falls. The park contains ruins of a castle, a picnic area by the falls, bridges, and a tunnel. The park boasts 7,500 tropical plants and trees. We got our Indiana Jones on, trekking through the jungle, discovering the many hidden and overgrown structures.
Photos by Kary Kern
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of many of the above attractions during her stay in Cairns, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.