The warm Northern Queensland city of Cairns welcomed me off a short four-hour flight from Perth at 6 am on a Friday morning. And, despite having absolutely zero sleep the night before, I was so excited for my next two days in the “Sunshine State”.
I decided to take a shuttle bus (AUD 16) to my hotel, which I assumed would be a lot cheaper than a taxi, and almost two hours later I arrived at the Rydges Tradewinds (just a 15-minute direct drive from the airport). After returning to the airport by cab (AUD 20) two days later, I realised I probably should have caught a taxi. However, the shuttle bus did give me a mini tour of Cairns.
After checking in to my hotel, I headed to the streets for a couple of hours to explore.
I was surprised to discover that Cairns is a city without skyscrapers, traffic jams and noise pollution, which sets the rhythm for its laid-back vibe. Unlike big bustling cities, Cairns is slow-paced and relaxed, similar to the feeling you’d have while visiting an Australian country town. I felt completely at ease and comfortable as I made my way to the esplanade.
I wandered along the Esplanade boardwalk, which leads to the Cairns Lagoon. It was 8 am and people were already out in numbers soaking up the northern Australian sunshine.
Cairns is home to an array of different people, locals and tourists alike. On the grassy area underneath the shade of a tree, I noticed a group of people, who I assumed might be a group of backpackers, were chatting amongst themselves. Close by, a middle-aged woman was sitting by herself on a patch of grass reading a book, while another tapped away at her laptop at one of the picnic tables.
Over in the lagoon pool, little children splashed their parents with water, while older children swam with friends. Some people sunned themselves on the man-made white-sand beach bordering the lagoon, and others dressed in activewear were strolling the boardwalk walking their dogs or pushing little ones in prams.
While the man-made beach was covered with vibrant towels and sun-kissed bodies, there was not one person on the natural beach by the esplanade. The shore in this particular spot was instead muddy and rocky, with water left by the outgoing tide collected in the muddy pockets of the terrain.
What I did see on the natural beach, similar to other Australian beaches, were seagulls and pelicans, which were huddled in groups across the shore. Many of which were preening themselves in the sun’s warmth or looking for fish trapped in the pockets of the terrain
Before I headed back to the hotel, I stopped in at Papparoti for a strawberry and white chocolate crepe. Under the mountain of ice-cream and whipped cream and a heavy dusting of icing sugar was a crepe that could have fed two or more people.
After a little too much indulgence, I returned to my hotel in time to catch a bus to Mossman Gorge and Daintree Forest, which I had organised earlier in the morning.
I was picked up at 10 am, and it took about two and half hours to reach the gorge, with a stopover in Port Douglas. The trip cost AUD 92, which included transfers to and from the location as well as my entrance fees to the park.
When we arrived at the Mossman Gorge about 1 pm, I walked into the welcome centre and out to the bus, which shuttles visitors up to the park entrance. The shuttles are said to run every 15 minutes, but they seemed to be more frequent.
Alongside the variety of wildlife including cassowaries and large blue butterflies, tranquil flowing streams, and, of course, the lush rainforest, there was one other thing that got visitors excited, while terrifying a few others, and that was the swinging bridge. While walking over the flowing Mossman River, the suspended bridge wobbles side to side as you walk across it.
Once you make your way across the bridge, there are multiple spots where visitors can swim in the fresh stream, or where you can perch atop a rock and watch the little fishes swim with the current and dart below the clear water’s surface.
I was dropped back at the hotel around 4.30pm. From there, I headed out to grab dinner before having an early night ready for my snorkelling trip on the Great Barrier Reef the next day.
I booked my Great Barrier Reef tour, which included snorkelling and a helicopter ride for AUD 250, a few days earlier with Down Under Cruise and Dive.
I made it to the 7.30am check-in ten minutes early and was one of the last to board by 8 am. As soon as the boat got going around 8.30am, the crew gave us a briefing on what the day had in store for us. Once we were introduced to the crew and knew where everything was, it was time to find our way upstairs and get fitted for snorkels and flippers.
After being fitted for snorkelling gear, the goggles, snorkel and flippers could be stored in your own personal pigeonhole, which is determined by the identification number you are given at check-in.
You also have the option to hire a wetsuit for AUD 10, which keeps you warm and safe from nasty jellyfish during stinger season. These are fitted and paid for on the day.
At the first reef, we were able to book a reef tour with a Marine Biologist for AUD 25. I decided to sign-up for a bit of education on the reef and its history.
Around 11.30am, lunch was served buffet style with a spread of typical Australian barbecue foods. While all us hungry snorkelers and divers feasted, the captain got us on our way to our second reef stop – Hastings Reef.
At Hasting’s Reef, I’d booked a helicopter flight that would provide an aerial view over the outer reefs. The ten-minute flight offered an incredible perspective of just how big the reefs are, and the different depths of the coral were obvious by observing the light and dark areas of the reef.
After an incredible day of exploring the Great Barrier Reef, we ended the tour with cheese and biscuits, wine and live entertainment as we cruised back to the marina.
Back on land, I noticed that people were still soaking up what was left of the warm and sunny winter’s day. I walked over the grassy area by the lagoon, occupied by people sitting around enjoying the company of friends and family, toward the street that seemed relatively quiet.
But when the sun begins to set and people start to feel hunger creep in, chatter would soon be bellowing from the restaurants lining the esplanade looking out toward the Coral Sea.