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Cairns, Australia's closest port city to the Great Barrier Reef, is growing up. This tropical city of 130,000 was once little more than a jumping off place to the reef or to the remote rainforest of Daintree to the north. Now, with the busiest airport and cruise port in Australia's northeast state of Queensland, and enough tour operators to plan a month of activities, there's reason for travelers to visit beyond just the reef and the rainforest.
Most cruise passengers won't have enough hours to do the best of what Cairns offers -- a major diving or snorkeling trip to the outer reef, for instance, takes a full day -- but there are plenty of tour choices that are unique to Australia. They include a half-day snorkeling trip to see an amazing array of sea creatures on a nearby portion of the reef, hugging a koala at a tropical zoo, or just hanging around the beach of a city-built saltwater lagoon, meant to separate tourists from the sea crocodiles that frequent Cairns's ocean beaches.
Cairns is a pedestrian-friendly city that buzzes with travelers day and night. Don't miss its vibrant waterfront. Within 10 minutes from the cruise terminal, you'll find shopping, dining and, most important to the economy of Cairns, dozens of tours designed to get you out of town. Excursions include bungee jumping and white-water rafting, glass-bottom-boat rides and a Skyrail cableway that runs above the rainforest canopy.
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Other Australia & New Zealand Cruise Ports:
Adelaide • Auckland • Brisbane • Cairns • Christchurch • Darwin • Dunedin • Hobart • Melbourne • Napier • Noumea • Perth (Fremantle) • Sydney (Australia) • Tauranga • Wellington • Whitsundays
Despite international marketing of Foster's as "Australian for beer," most Aussies drink beers produced in their home state, which provides travelers opportunities for a series of tastings. Cairns is in Queensland, and many Queenslanders prefer XXXX, sometimes called Fourex, in two styles, Gold or Bitter. (Farther south, in Sydney, try Toohey's.)
A photo of you hugging a koala is a classic souvenir from the Cairns Tropical Zoo.
An Australian brand of English, varying in accent by region, makes even pronouncing the name of this town a bit of a chore. From locals you'll hear CANES, CANZ (though never CAHNS), and something that sounds like Cairns with the "r" mostly implied by retracting and lifting the back of your tongue near the roof of your mouth.
The rest of Aussie English is a problem only when the speaker is talking about something you may never have heard of, such as a dingo or a wallaby, or using slang like "arvo" (afternoon) or "esky" (insulated cooler). Most Aussies are willing to repeat what they just said, and they seem to understand American English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Australia has its own dollar; visit XE.com for current rates. ATM's are plentiful and are the cheapest way to acquire local currency. Credit cards generally are accepted in shops and restaurants, though not at outside markets. As most world travelers now connect a PIN number to their credit card for protection from thieves, you will be asked for yours. If you don't have a PIN, you can simply sign for the charge. Expect a foreign currency transaction fee from a few cents to a few dollars for each ATM and credit card use. No one in Australia seems interested in accepting American dollars.
Where You're Docked
Cairns has built a new cruise terminal on Trinity Wharf, minutes from the heart of the compact city. The terminal, finished in 2010, has an information booth normally staffed when a cruise ship is in town. Tourism reps can offer directions and a local map.
Within a walk of 5 to 10 minutes, you will find services such as ATM's, coffee shops, an Internet cafe, restaurants, a casino, shopping and representatives for land and water tours.
Outside the terminal, to the right, is a map on a signpost, which shows two choices for walking, both of which meet after about 10 minutes. Either way, you can't go wrong. One choice is a paved path along the water toward restaurants in a building called The Pier, which overlooks a marina. The other choice is to cross Wharf Street and follow sidewalks toward the Esplanade. If you choose the Esplanade path, you'll soon pass an ATM, an Internet cafe, a casino and a travel agency with agents ready to book day tours.
On Foot: Most of Cairns' city tourist attractions are within a 20-minute walk from the port terminal.
By Taxi: Taxis are available at the port for such activities as the Tropical Zoo, which is about 25 minutes away. Taxis are metered.
By Rental Car (called "car hire" in Australia): Rentals are available. Remember to bring your driver's license from home. Driving is on the left side, as in England.
Watch Out For
Crocodiles and jellyfish. A good rule of thumb in Australia is don't swim where there isn't anyone else in the water, or if you see a sign warning against swimming. The estuarine or saltwater crocodiles are the largest crocs on earth, and they hang around muddy areas such as the tidal coastline at Cairns. The waters of Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef also are home to two of the most deadly jellyfish in the world – the box jellyfish, which inhabits coastal waters, and the Irukandji. The latter is mostly at sea but northerly winds can sometimes bring them to the reef and to coastal beaches. Stinger season is October to April.
Crocs and jellyfish are the primary reasons that Cairns built the huge public saltwater pool called the lagoon. It is safe and free.
Great Barrier Reef. At 1,200 miles long and 50 miles wide at some points, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest living organism. Astronauts reported that it is visible from space. Some cruise ships offer shore excursions to the reef; some do not. On the Esplanade, and at the Reef Fleet Terminal, you'll see booths for tour operators that offer half-day trips to cruise to the inner reef and/or snorkel.
Cairns Esplanade. In addition to the lagoon (see Beaches), the Esplanade offers the Harbour Walk boardwalk for strolling and birdwatching, public art for photo ops, a bouldering park and fitness circuit, a craft market, restaurants, bars and live entertainment.
Cairns Regional Art Gallery. This museum of fine arts showcases work from Australian artists, including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as international exhibits. (Open Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 1 - 5 p.m. Located at the corner of Abbott and Shields Streets.)
Been There, Done That
Cairns Tropical Zoo. Queensland is among the few places in Australia where you can legally pet a koala. This zoo, about 25 minutes by car from the cruise terminal, will satisfy all your Australia animal needs. You can feed a kangaroo, cuddle a koala (and take home a picture), feed a lemur, and take pictures of crocodiles, a boa constrictor, wombats, dingoes, red pandas, lizards and cassowaries. You can pre-book tickets online.
Daintree Rainforest. This tropical rainforest that reaches the edge of the sea starts about two hour's drive north of Cairns. Much of the rainforest is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which preserves, among animals and other vegetation, ferns that are some of the earliest plants on earth. There are guided tours into Daintree, though many people choose to hire a car to drive the scenic Captain Cook Highway. You can only get so far into Daintree without a four-wheel drive vehicle, but you can cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry and drive to Cape Tribulation, named by James Cook in 1770 after his ship hit a reef northeast of the cape.
Do not go to the coastal beaches, at least not within 20 miles or so of Cairns. Here lie the crocs, and plenty of mud when the tide is out. Instead, head for the man-made Esplanade Lagoon, a walk of about 10 minutes from Trinity Wharf along the Esplanade. The lagoon is big, safe and full of saltwater, with a beach, lifeguards, a snack bar and restrooms. And it's free. Bring a towel from the ship. (If you must, you will find a McDonald's across the street.)
If you want to swim in the ocean, sign up for a half-day tour to an inner portion of the Great Barrier Reef, which is about an hour away by fast boat. Most tours include snorkeling gear and sightseeing. Some boats have glass bottoms for watching fish near the reefs.
Cairns is known for its variety of seafood, and there are fish restaurants along the waterfront and near the Esplanade.
Paddywhacks is a busy lunch spot with a menu featuring burgers, fish and chips, a chicken/avocado sandwich, seafood platters and steaks. There's occasional live music. Lunch specials are available until 3 p.m. Paddywhacks has a boutique beer bar with 100-plus beers and 20 wines by the glass. (41a Shields Street. Tel. 07 4051 1123. Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Monday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.)
Ochre is the place to taste Australia, from crocodile to kangaroo. The lunch menu includes a croc burger -- a patty of minced crocodile and chicken with avocado, brie and sweet chili sauce, salad and fries, and a char-grilled kangaroo sirloin with a chili glaze, sweet potato fritter and bok choy.(43 Shields Street. Tel. 07 4051 0100. Open daily from lunch until late in the evening.) ?
Perotta's at the Gallery, outdoors on Abbott, is popular for brunch and lunch particularly on the weekends. It's known for its innovative modern Italian/Mediterranean menu and claims to serve the best coffee in Cairns. Inside, you can browse Cairns Regional Art Gallery. (38 Abbott Street. Tel. 07 4031 5899. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Flinders Bar & Grill, on the first floor of Pullman Reef Hotel and Casino, across the street from the cruise terminal, serves casual meals -- burgers, steak pies, salads -- to adults only (18 and over). (35-41 Wharf Street. Tel. 07 4030 8888. Open daily 9 a.m. to 12 a.m.)
The Salt House, at the Cairns Marina, looks across Cairns Inlet toward the Coral Sea, with views of passing yachts and sea birds. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and offers day beds for relaxing in between. After midday, choose from a la carte or tapas menus. The venue has an open kitchen with a big wood-fire grill. The chefs use a local plantation hardwood to add a smoky flavor to meat and seafood. Or, try the raw bar and seafood platters (a big one for two at dinner is about $100). (6/2 Pier Point Road. Tel. 07 4041 7733. Monday through Thursday, 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Friday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 7 a.m. to 12 a.m.)
Staying in Touch
The closest Internet cafe, five minutes from the ship, is the Jordan Convenience Store, open 24 hours a day on the right side of the Esplanade as you walk from the terminal. Internet minutes are inexpensive, and the store sells international telephone cards to use with its phones, as well as such useful items as bottled water and snacks. Other cafes are Global Gossip (125 Abbott Street), Reef Highspeed(2/31 Shields Street) and Vibe Bar & Lounge (39 Lake Street).
Best for First-Timers: The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway takes you about four miles over a tropical rainforest canopy to the village of Kuranda, where shops sell handcrafted goods. Visitors may pay to see koalas, butterflies, native and exotic birds, kangaroos and reptiles. The Skyrail has six-person gondolas. Passengers return to Cairns by bus, or do the trip in reverse, with the bus first, returning by Skyrail. An alternative excursion focuses on the Autralian Butterfly Sanctuary in Kuranda. These trips take four hours and do not include meals.
Best for Active Travelers: Take a rafting tour through Barron Gorge National Park, in the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Rafters ride for about two hours on Barron River, which is along a traditional pathway used by the indigenous people of Australia. An afternoon snack and souvenir picture are often included.
Best for Marine Life Enthusiasts: On an all-day Great Barrier Reef tour, a catamaran takes you out to a pontoon along the reef. From the pontoon's viewing area or a glass-bottom boat, you can peek underwater at the marine life. Or jump in to snorkel or swim with the fish.
For More Information
On the Web: Tourism Tropical North Queensland
On the Web: Visit Cairns
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Australia and New Zealand
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Australia
-- By David Molyneaux, Cruise Critic Contributor
Photo of "Dining at the Regional Gallery" was taken by Peter Lik and appears courtesy of Tourism Queensland.