Put simply, Cairns is the most easily accessible gateway to one of the great natural wonders of the planet – the Great Barrier Reef. The reef skirts off the coast of this laid-back, tropical city, which can also be used as a base for trips into the World Heritage-listed tropical rainforest that surrounds it.
But taken on its own, it’s essentially a large holiday town that doesn’t really pretend to be anything more than that. It’s big enough to feel like a real place rather than a cynical, confected, facility-free dream though. Shorts and flip-flops are the uniform, the pace is chilled, and hair is permanently in relaxed, let-down mode.
A comfortable bed
Cairns is a big backpacker haunt, and the Calypso Inn Backpackers is one of the best bets on a tight budget. It offers a surprisingly large pool, swaying hammocks, colourful rooms and free airport transfers. Basic but decent doubles cost from A$62 (Dh177). The Mantra Esplanade has a prime location directly across the road from the artificial lagoon, plus a decent pool of its own. Rooms are a little on the bland side but have balconies. Plump for one of the one-, two- or three- bedroom apartments and you will get a full kitchen, washing machine and tumble dryer. Rates start at A$174 (Dh496) per night.
The high-rise Pullman Cairns International is the largest of the surprisingly few five-star properties. Expect huge balconies, a day spa, a sprawling pool, big breakfast buffet spreads and rather swoony marble bathrooms. Prices start at A$279 (Dh795).
Find your feet
The Flecker Botanical Gardens are in the city’s northern suburbs, and are a great place to start learning about the astonishing local plants and trees. There are two key sections – one which goes through the evolution of plants over the millennia (examples of all key steps in the process can be found in the nearby rainforests) and the other which covers traditional Aboriginal uses for plants.
There are plenty of good walking trails nearby but once you’re done with getting in touch with nature, head back into the city for the giant artificial lagoon on the Esplanade. It’s one of the world’s largest swimming pools and the city’s focal point.
In the evening, a two-hour presentation held on the second floor of a shopping mall might not seem all that exciting, but Reef Teach is superb. Here marine biologists engagingly explain what the reef is, what lives there and how the underwater ecosystem interacts. Going before you head to the Reef will almost certainly improve your experience while out there.
Meet the locals
The Atherton Tablelands, just west of Cairns, is one of the top food producing regions, and many of the local producers there have their own shops. Hiring a car for the day and doing a loop of the coffee roasters, cheese-makers, nut growers and ice creameries is a fabulous way of going beyond the reef and rainforest into a gourmet adventure.
Book a table
Dundee’s is on the waterfront, has a lovely outdoor terrace area and does A$41 (Dh116) sampler plates that allow you to try Australian meats you may never have tried before – including barramundi, emu, kangaroo and crocodile.
The waterside Salt House is a sprawling, open-air joint with one of those glorious menus where just about everything appeals. These range from a Penang curry-style Australian seafood hotpot to a slow-cooked short rib with chilli sambal. Mains come in around the A$38 (Dh108) mark.
The daily markets in Kuranda, the nearest town in the Atherton Tablelands, are the best shopping bet. Here you’ll find lots of local produce and crafts. Otherwise, shopping in Cairns is dismal. The Cairns Central Shopping Centre is the best of the malls, but don’t expect too much beyond standard mid-range chain fare.
What to avoid
Cairns has some beaches to the north, but don’t get excited about going for a swim from them. This is crocodile country – there’s a reason they built that giant artificial lagoon. A good general rule of thumb is to stay at least three metres away from the water’s edge – and that especially applies to creeks and river mouths.
Let’s face it – you’re out here for the Great Barrier Reef. And the Outer Reef is in much better condition, so make sure you go with an operator that heads out there.
Quicksilver Cruises is an excellent all-rounder’s option, heading out on a sleek catamaran and mooring alongside a large pontoon next to the Agincourt Reef.
There’s marvellously vivid snorkelling but also an underwater viewing trip in a semi-submersible boat.
The offered upgrades – including dives and a genuinely spectacular helicopter trip over the Reef – are great too. Prices start from A$246 (Dh721).