The first thing that most people said to me when I mentioned that we would be basing ourselves in Cairns when visiting tropical North Queensland for the first time was: don’t.
Everyone said to go to Port Douglas instead.
Port Douglas does sounds beautiful but as one of main reasons we wanted to visit northern Queensland other than to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef was to visit our friends Kelly and Robbie and their new baby London, and as they are based in the Northern beaches of Cairns, Cairns was where we were going to stay.
We booked a couple of different Air BnB stays, one in Cairns for two nights and one at Trinity Beach in Cairns’ northern beaches, as well as a night in a resort on the fabulous Fitzroy Island, for a treat.
Arriving in Cairns my expectations weren’t that high.
I usually find that is a good thing. When your expectations are low to begin with, you are going in with a blank slate and it is easy to be impressed by the little things.
After a three hour flight from Sydney (seriously, this country is freaken MASSIVE!) we arrived in Cairns and into air that slapped me in the face with its wet heaviness. Humidity: my nemesis. Sapper of energy and harbinger of frizzy hair and bumpy skin. I really am more of a temperate climate kinda girl.
Kelly picked us up with baby London and we headed straight up to Palm Cove for brunch and a look around. I marvelled at the gorgeous green scenery on the way up. It was dark, thick, luscious green of the jungled variety, none of the washed out, slightly fluoro green I have come to associate with a lot of Australia.
This was my kind of green.
The Glitzy Glamour of Palm Cove
Palm Cove is like the Monte Carlo of the Cairns area. In this small village there are luxury hotels and resorts, upscale dining options, and expensive boutiques. It is a place to see and be seen and to spend a lot of money doing it.
Palm Cove was peaceful on this quiet Thursday morning in the shoulder season. I noticed how well-manicured it is immediately. Evenly spaced palm trees lined the detritus free beach, a paved path stretched along the coastline with views of the glittering ocean. It looked very much like paradise.
Until you looked closer at the signs along the path warning not to enter the water because of crocodiles and jellyfish (stingers).
To step into these seemingly inviting waters (apart from in the small netted swimming section) could mean a painful death. Shit really does just gets scarier the further north you travel in Australia.
Welcome to tropical North Queensland.
Away from the potential danger of the ocean, I ate a very Aussie brunch of vegemite and avocado on toast with poached eggs, sitting on a deck overlooking the water. I had that holiday feeling and I liked it. A lot.
Walking along the beach I noticed that the water wasn’t as clear as I thought it would be. It was actually quite muddy. Kel said it was because it was still the rainy season and that in the dry it was beautiful and clear. To prove her point it started raining quite hard while we were eating but luckily we were under cover and it only lasted about 20 minutes before the sun came out again.
With the sun back out we walked to the end of the pier which had views over Double Island. Apparently you can SUP around it although I doubt I would have the fitness for that. Or the bravery – there’s crocs and stingers after all!
Palm Cove is a nice little spot and not as pretentious as I imagined it would be, it actually had quite a relaxed feel to it while still retaining an air of opulence.
Being Charmed by Cairns
I braced myself upon entering downtown Cairns. I was looking forward to seeing the Esplanade Lagoon – a giant free pool right on the waterfront – but I envisaged the rest of the place to be full of drunk English backpackers and tacky tourist oriented businesses. I wasn’t too far off the mark on that one but there was a certain charm to Cairns that excused its faults. Along with the many, many backpacker travel agencies pumping pop music into the streets, there were also quite a few unique and quirky boutique shops and I saw many dresses that I wanted to buy (I restricted myself to only buying one, it was hard).
Visiting Cairns in the shoulder season also helped me form a favourable opinion of the place I’m sure. There were enough people around for a pleasant holiday buzz but not so many that you end up having to elbow people out of the way just to walk along the footpath.
It also wasn’t as large as I thought it would be. There are only a few blocks of shops, restaurants and a shopping mall. There were also no tall buildings. I thought it would look more like Surfers Paradise on the Gold Coast (a place that I really, really don’t like) but it wasn’t as tacky or developed. It was a very pleasant surprise.
Downtown Cairns doesn’t have any nice beaches and is in fact set on mudflats but the lovely esplanade walk and lagoon definitely made up for that. The lagoon made Cairns unique, there are a lot of cities and towns in Australia that have beautiful beaches but none of them have a gigantic swimming pool overlooking the sea that’s free to enter. There is even a white sand beach and lifeguard tower at the lagoon giving it a beachy feel.
Swimming in the lagoon was blissful under a starry night sky as well as during the blue sky days of scorching heat. Every day we had in the Cairns area was sunny which we were told is unusual for this time of year when it is still technically meant to be the wet season. We were very lucky.
The sunset we watched from the esplanade boardwalk was a spectacular display of pinks and oranges. Around sunset was the perfect time to walk along the picturesque path, when the air cooled to a more manageable temperature and the lights of the resort town slowly started to blink on as the shadows deepened.
The Night markets were another surprise. I was expecting tacky tourist crap but there was actually some good stuff as well including cute hippy dresses, handmade bracelets and necklaces, printed singlets and products like honey and coffee from the nearby Atherton Tablelands. You could also find very cheap massages. Like Asia cheap – almost unheard of in Australia. We meant to go back to get one after snorkelling the reef but we were too tired.
The food options weren’t fantastic and mostly amounted to fast food joints, chain restaurants and a few pubs but we managed to find good dinners both nights we were there at the delicious healthy burger place Grilld, and at a small and unassuming Malaysian Restaurant attached to the Best Western.
We stayed in a retro inspired house in the Cairns suburb of Westcourt which was a 30-40 minute walk into the town centre and esplanade. Our host Dani was a lovely Canadian expat and along with her kelpie Ding, made us feel very welcome. With a hammock in the lush gardens out the back, I spent a couple of happy hours decompressing while I read in the palm-shaded patch of jungle.
Although I loved the house and our host, I didn’t think much of the suburb. With many bland and run down looking brick houses, dead grass and not much in the way of trees; it wasn’t a very inspiring walk into town and ended up feeling a lot longer than it actually was. The heat and humidity definitely played a part in this too. With a car it would have been no problem.
Snorkelling the Outer Great Barrier Reef
A snorkelling trip to the outer Great Barrier Reef was a must for our visit to Cairns and one of the reasons we planned this trip. As we both don’t have our Open Water Diving certs (yet, Koh Tao here I come!) we decided it would be the best value for money to snorkel the reef this time around.
After doing a bit of research and asking around we settled on the cheapest company that was recommended to us, Reef Daytripper. They offered day trips to the Upolu Reef, one of the many reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef and which is located far enough out for there to be little to no reef degradation.
It was an early start, with us needing to be at the marina for an 8am departure. The boat was a catamaran manned by three staff members and with only about another 15 people taking the tour, it was a smaller group than most of the day trip boats. I don’t like crowds so it was a perfect number for me.
We slowly set out for the outer reef, and I mean slowly. It took over two hours to get there with the other boats passing us easily a short time after leaving the marina. I liked the slow pace at the beginning as I lay on the netting at the front of the boat and enjoyed the cool breeze and sunshine. But after about an hour I just wanted to be out there and in the water.
Finally arriving I felt a bit seasick. I couldn’t get of the boat fast enough and once I was in the swimming pool waters of the reef I felt a lot better. I quickly realised that if I lay down when I was on the boat I would instantly feel better, so on snorkelling breaks I lay on the netting at the front of the boat and read my book in the sun. I probably would have done that anyway.
We had to swim about 20 metres to reach the reef at our first snorkelling stop and as soon as we did I saw my first green turtle of the day. It was having a nibble between the coral directly below me before moving off into open water. I followed it for a bit but it was too fast for me. I have been lucky enough to swim with turtles in Belize and Hawaii before this and it never gets old.
The coral wasn’t that impressive in our first spot and we didn’t see a lot of tropical fish, there were a few but nowhere near what I was expecting. A small remora started following Trav around and trying to catch a ride. The thought of a fish suctioning onto me freaked me out so I steered clear of Trav until the little hanger-on turned its attention to another girl in our group.
We moved onto another spot on the reef and things got infinitely better. The coral and the sheer amount of fish of every colour you could imagine were mind-blowing.
THIS was what I was expecting of the Great Barrier Reef!
I have never seen coral of such incredible colours before – electric blue, bright purple and even giant clams with leopard print lips! Amazing.
Floating a metre or two above this vast underwater world made me feel like I was in Finding Nemo (we found him and his parents too) or the Little Mermaid. It was a bustling underwater metropolis with all of the different fishies going about their day to day business while we watched from above.
Along with finding nemo we also saw a giant maori wrasse, beautiful butterfly fish, blue sea stars, angry looking lion fish, lots of anxious looking gobies with their comical downturned mouths, and so many more fish that I don’t know the names of with various splotches or stripes of colour. We didn’t see any sharks which Trav was very disappointed about (not me) although the guys on our boat who went diving did.
Back on the boat we were given a mediocre lunch of cold chicken drumsticks and a couple of different salads – not exactly the tropical buffet they had advertised. The staff weren’t particularly friendly either and had a bit of a bad attitude, something we found to be woefully common in and around Cairns with male tourism staff. I know it’s relaxed up here but I don’t think that means you should be indifferent and rude to paying visitors.
I was also disappointed that our boat didn’t go to the sand cays that appear at low tide on the reef as we saw a couple of other boats in the area landing on them. If I did it again I would pay the extra money to go with a faster boat with better food but I can’t fault the snorkelling – it was gosh darn amazing!
Quiet and Relaxation in Trinity Beach
We wrapped up our time in tropical North Queensland with a night on Trinity Beach located in Cairns’ Northern beaches and home to our friends Kelly and Robbie. Trinity is a quiet beach suburb and reminded me a lot of where we live in the northern beaches of Sydney. The beach was pleasant enough but like Palm Cove, you could only swim in the life guard patrolled and netted area because of the stingers and crocs, and the water was murky.
Trinity definitely had a more laid back feel than Palm Cove and seemed to have a close-knit little community, with lots of locals greeting each other and stopping for a chat on the street. I would much rather live somewhere like this rather than in a resort area that is geared towards tourism.
We stayed in a comfortable Air BnB apartment with a local tour guide only a couple of minutes’ walk from the beach and down the road from where our friends live. It had a pool in the apartment block so we headed there for a swim rather than swimming in the murky sea water.
Our last meal was one of the best we had in tropical North Queensland. We went to the popular L’unico Italian Restaurant across the road from the beach with Kelly, Robbie, Kelly’s Dad, his partner and another friend of Kel’s. I ordered a beautiful bug pasta with chilli, garlic and white wine. Bugs are shovel-nosed lobsters very similar to langoustines and equally delicious.
Night was my favourite time up there and a gentle sea breeze cooled us down while we were eating by candlelight.
It was a lovely ending to a fantastic Easter holiday.
Cairns may not be perfect, it is full of tourists, and the humidity was almost unbearable, but I ended up loving my time there and am already plotting my return to experience more that this area has to offer. Like Port Douglas.