Cairns, Australia's closest port city to the Great Barrier Reef, was once little more than a jumping-off place to the reef or the remote Daintree rainforest 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 travellers to venture beyond 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 snorkelling 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 snorkelling 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 swimming pool designed to separate tourists from the crocodiles that frequent some of Cairns' ocean beaches.
Cairns is a pedestrian-friendly city that buzzes with travellers day and night. Don't miss its vibrant waterfront. Within 10 minutes from the cruise terminal (if you dock downtown), 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.
Services such as ATMs, coffee shops, Internet cafes, restaurants, a casino, shopping and representatives for land and water tours are readily available in the Cairns central business district (CBD).
Outside the main cruise 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 the footpaths 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.
The Great Barrier Reef. At almost 2,000 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide (1,243 by 50 miles) at some points, the Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest living organism. Astronauts reported that it is visible from space. Even when a ship docks in Cairns overnight, the arrival and departure times can make it difficult to fit in a snorkel trip booked with a local operator. In this instance, a cruise ship shore excursion to the reef might be your only option.
Cairns Esplanade. In addition to the lagoon (see Beaches), the Esplanade offers the Harbour Walk boardwalk for strolling, 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 Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located at the corner of Abbott and Shields Streets.)
Cairns Wildlife Dome. An all-weather wildlife exhibit encased by a 20-metre high glass dome, the wildlife dome is located on top of the Cairns Casino in the city centre at 35-41 Wharf Street. Here, koalas pose for photographs with adoring tourists, free-flying parrots swoop from tree to tree and land on the shoulders of unsuspecting visitors, and pythons curl around the trees. Goliath, a four- metre-long (13-foot) saltwater crocodile, eyeballs visitors as they walk past his viewing enclosure. If you are feeling daring, more than 65 different high-ropes crossings -- including a climbing wall, log bridges, tunnels, swinging chairs, ziplines, seesaws and cargo nets -- are suspended throughout the dome. (Open seven days from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Entry costs depend on your choice of activities.)
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. The cableway offers a unique perspective on one of the planet's most significant rainforests. Allow approximately 2.5 hours for the 7.5 km return journey by cable car. To get the most out of your trip, take some time at the two mid-rainforest stations to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Australian bush, and keep an eye out for huge electric-blue Ulysses butterflies. Skyrail can also be taken one way and combined with a return trip on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. (Open 9 a.m. to 5.15 p.m.; priced from $50 for a one-way Skyrail trip.)
Daintree Rainforest. This tropical rainforest reaches the edge of the sea and 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 the Daintree, though many people choose to hire a car to drive the scenic Captain Cook Highway. You can only get so far into the 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.
Thala Beach Nature Reserve. Located on a private headland between Cairns and Port Douglas, this pre- or post-cruise hotel offers eco friendly accommodation, its own beach and rainforest walking trails. Rooms overlook the resort's 145-acre property with views from Cape Tribulation to the Great Barrier Reef. Included in the room rate are experiences such as star-gazing, guided bird walks and Australia's only coconut tour. Native animals frequently roam the property, and you're almost guaranteed to meet the friendly wallaby that visits the lobby each day. (Priced from $189 per room per night; thalabeach.com.au)
On Foot: Most of Cairns' city tourist attractions are within a 20-minute walk from the CBD.
By Taxi: Metered are readily available in the CBD for activities such as the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, which is a 20 minutes' drive from downtown Cairns. Even if you call for a taxi at Yorkeys Knob, they can be hard to come by.
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 of the road.
Swimming at Cairns beaches such as Palm Cove, Trinity Beach and Kewarra Beach can be delightful, but think twice during stinger season, which generally runs from November to May. Stinger-resistant swimming enclosures at local beaches give a high degree of protection against Box Jellyfish, but are not 100 percent 'stinger proof'. Most locals wear full-body Lycra suits for added protection. Beaches might be closed when stingers (or crocodiles) are present, so always heed any signs that advise against swimming.
While it is possible to swim at Cairns' attractive northern beaches, do not go swimming in the ocean around the CBD at any time of year. Here lie crocs and plenty of mud when the tide is out. Instead, head for the manmade 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 and plenty of sunscreen.
If you want to experience the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, sign up for a half-day tour to an inner portion of the reef, which is about an hour away by fast boat. Most tours include snorkelling gear and sightseeing. Some boats have glass bottoms for watching fish near the reefs. While you will see tour operators that offer half-day snorkelling and/or cruising trips, don't tempt fate with a tight turnaround for getting back to the ship as sea conditions can impact your arrival time back into Cairns.
Cairns is known for its variety of seafood, and there are fish restaurants along the waterfront and near the Esplanade.
Dundee's on the Waterfront, a classy restaurant with beautiful views, serves modern Australian cuisine, local seafood and 'bush tucker' for those after something a little different. Try a bucket of (Moreton Bay) bugs and prawns or the Australian sampler plate featuring chargrilled eye fillet, pan-seared wild barramundi, kangaroo, crocodile and tiger prawn satays and emu chipolatas. (1 Marlin Parade. Open 11.30 a.m. until late.)
Mondo Cafe Bar and Grill has tables shaded by an enormous Poinciana tree and attractive water views. This casual eatery is equally good for drinks and nibbles or a three course meal. (34 Esplanade Street. Open noon until 10 p.m.)
Ochre is the place to taste Australia, from crocodile to kangaroo. The lunch menu includes crocodile sliders and chargrilled kangaroo sirloin with a chilli glaze, sweet potato fritter and pak choy in hoisin sauce. (43 Shields Street. Open Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m; dinner daily from 5.30 p.m. until late.)
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 serves some of the best coffee in Cairns. Inside, you can browse Cairns Regional Art Gallery. (38 Abbott Street. Open daily 6:30 a.m. to 10 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. Open daily 9 a.m. to midnight.)
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 (weekends only), lunch and dinner, and offers day beds for relaxing in between. The venue has an open kitchen with a big woodfire grill, raw bar and seafood platters (a big one for two at dinner is about $130). (6/2 Pier Point Road. Monday through Friday, noon to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to midnight.)
Cairns has a cruise terminal on Trinity Wharf, minutes from the heart of the compact city centre. The terminal has an information booth normally staffed when a cruise ship is in town. Tourism reps can offer directions and a local map.
Larger cruise ships that cannot anchor at the main cruise terminal use tenders to ferry passengers to and from Yorkeys Knob, a northern beaches suburb located a 15-minute drive from Cairns. Cruise ships provide a shuttle service into the centre of town, usually for a fee.
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 are also 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.
Australia has its own dollar; visit XE.com for current rates. ATMs 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. Expect a foreign currency transaction fee from a few cents to a few dollars for each ATM and credit card use.
An Australian brand of English, varying in accent by region, makes even pronouncing the name of this town a bit of a challenge. 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 might never have heard of, such as a dingo or a wallaby, or using slang like "arvo" (afternoon) or "esky" (insulated cooler).
A photo of you hugging a koala at the Cairns Wildlife Dome is a classic souvenir. Australiana-themed keepsakes such as fluffy toy kangaroos, magnets, key rings and tea towels abound at tourist stores lining the city streets.
Despite international marketing of Foster's as "Australian for beer," many Aussies prefer brews produced in their home state. Cairns is in Queensland, and many Queenslanders prefer XXXX, sometimes called Fourex, in two styles: Gold or Bitter. If you want to go hyper-local, try Cairns Gold or FNQ Lager, made at the boutique Blue Sky Brewery.
--By Tiana Templeman, Cruise Critic contributor