Flybudget.com quietly puts a fiver on Cairns becoming the London Stansted of the South.

Map of Australia with Cairns marked on it.

With a population of only 120,000 Cairns is a small city by Southern Hemisphere standards yet a place that is as well known as Jakarta, Buenos Aries or Cape Town. The reason is simple – it’s become the gateway to the great barrier reef and attracts millions of tourists every year as a result.

Recently Singapore based Valuair launched services to Perth (one wonders whether Qantas has noticed yet as they’ve not said anything about it), and my theory is that Cairns is ideally located for budget airlines. A destination in its own right, lots of destinations are within reach of a next generation Boeing 737 (the plane of choice for most budget airlines). A 737-800 plane can fly 3,380 miles which brings Darwin, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Alice Springs, Canberra, Perth, all safely within range. Internationally, Port Moresby, Jakarta, Fiji, Auckland, Christchurch, Vanuatu and Bali also lie safely within this plane’s capability whilst at a pinch Singapore and even Apia in Samoa could be included.

The future is bright for Cairns; JetStar has started to fly between Brisbane and Cairns and traffic volumes are up by 41% with prices slashed although curiously in a quick straw poll of prices with Virgin, JetStar and Qantas on this route Qantas was the cheapest. Persistent rumours also suggest that Jetstar may be planning to start up Asian operations out of Cairns; this would put it into direct competition with Australian Airlines and as both of them are owned by Qantas so it would make little sense but I would expect Tiger Airways (Singapore’s baby airline) and Valuair (also Singapore based) to be considering a move into Australia soon. But why would anyone want to visit Cairns apart from looking at a few tropical fish?

History of Cairns

Captain James Cook sailed past in June 1770 and founded Cooktown when his ship berthed for repairs after it grounded on the reef. A further 100 years passed before white settlement took a firm hold in the region, mostly due to the dense vegetation, severe cyclones, disease as well as the rather unfriendly animals particularly the crocodiles and box jellyfish. Discovery of gold around 1872 changed all that and thousands of fortune hunters were soon attracted to the area despite its dangers. Cairns itself though wasn’t established until 1876 and the reason was due to the sheltered port provided by Trinity Bay as well as the relatively flat land North and South of the proposed site - this being less densely vegetated than other parts of the coast. Cairns was named after Queensland's first Irish born Governor, Sir William Wellington Cairns.

Like many others in the region at the time the fledging town was in danger of passing into obscurity until work started on a railway line to service the Atherton Tableland taking up workers and supplies and bringing back tin and timber. With an efficient port close by Cairns was the ideal starting and ending point for the rail system providing a transport route for raw materials. From here the product was to be shipped to the main southern ports where demand for these products was very high. The railway in question still survives to this day and is now a popular tourist attraction for people travelling to Kuranda for the day (see below).

Inevitably the gold rush eventually started to peter out and inhabitants of the region started to look elsewhere to make their money. The tablelands near Atherton turned out to be good for farming just about anything and now grows fruit, vegetables, diary and even tobacco. The lower lands soon became cultivated with sugarcane which continues to this day. Visitors to the region may notice narrow gauge railways criss crossing the roads in the area, these are used to carry the product by train from the field directly to the sugar factories in the region. If you're driving during the sugar harvesting season, take great care as the trains have priority at all times and most crossings do not have barriers or even warning lights. More recently an airport was opened in 1984 and a tourism boom began which has turned the city into what it is today.

Cairns today

Cairns Esplanade.

Now unashamedly a hive of backpackers with the upper budget visitors somewhat outnumbered, Cairns has established itself as the tourist 'capital' of the Far North and one of Australia's top travellers' destinations. Before inbound flights really started arriving in large numbers, it was just a sleepy tropical backwater and much of its allure and tropical languor has vanished amid the rapid growth of tourist infrastructure, but it is nevertheless still one of the best bases available for exploring the riches of tropical Queensland. From Cairns, you can arrange boat trips to either the Great Barrier Reef, Green Island or Fitzroy Islands, see the beautiful Atherton Tableland and the market town of Kuranda, or visit the string of stunning beaches stretching all the way north to Port Douglas, followed by the spectacular rainforest and coastal scenery of Cape Tribulation and the Daintree River.

The centre of Cairns is compact and most places of interest are in the area between the Esplanade and the Wharf. The Esplanade itself is a long strip of tourist junk shops and "information" centres which often tell you that the trip you wanted is full but they have a more expensive alternative. Naturally enough this alternative often gives them a major commission on top. Never book a trip through one of these outlets, either book direct with the operator, via your accommodation provider, or via the official tourist information centre which is on the Esplanade opposite the lagoon.

Most visitors are shocked to find upon arrival that Cairns does not have a beach and rather ugly mudflats become visible at low tides. Early historical records indicate that a beach used to exist, but dredging for Trinity Bay port during the gold, timber and tin days altered tidal flows in the area and destroyed the beach. The beach has had no chance to recover as dredging still continues although these days it’s more for the rapidly growing cruise ship industry – Cairns is in competition with Townsville as both attempt to launch themselves as a cruise ship destination.

The lack of a beach hasn’t seemed to hurt Cairns too much but just to be on the safe side 18 months ago the city built a totally artificial lagoon at the bottom of the seaside Esplanade near the Pier Complex. The lagoon area is very popular with backpackers and families alike – it's free and has onsite changing rooms as well as a police station. The complex has been gradually extended north, and and now extends most of the way up the tourist esplanade. It's a pleasant walk in the evening, walking over the boardwalk and looking down at the mud below spotting the sea birds and there are a few information stands giving additional history and information about the town, although the interactive touch screens were out of order when I was there. Further up the esplanade walking path (easily within walking distance from the lagoon) is a children’s play area with a few water features for them to enjoy getting wet. At weekends the whole area can get very busy indeed although families should note that some of the female backpackers do sunbathe topless, an issue currently causing a heated debate with the locals.

Cairns has surprisingly good shopping for its size. The heart of Cairns is the new Cairns Central Shopping Centre, a vast mall on the site of what was the old railway station - the new railway station is now found at the back of the shopping centre. There is a large and better than average Coles supermarket, the Central Cinema which shows the standard Hollywood offerings, and two floors of shopping containing most of the standard shops found in most large towns and cities throughout Australia. Brand new and at the time of writing not quite fully occupied, the Pier Complex (found near the Reef boat departure points) promises some more upmarket shopping, located as it is near the 5* Hilton and Radisson hotel complexes.

Reef Operators

If you're honest about it, the reef really doesn’t need any introduction. It’s 1,500 km long, the only living organism that can be seen from space, highly endangered, home of Nemo the little Clownfish and yes, begging for you to visit if you’re passing by. Unsurprisingly, there are lots and lots of operators for you to pick from. All provide lunch, snorkelling is usually free, and most provide no experience required diving for about another $50 or so (depending on operator). Qualified divers usually get up to $20 off, and anyone doing a second dive will also get additional discounts. As with anything else you really do get what you pay for. A five day trip out there diving with sharks is going to be a lot more memorable than a day trip to the heavily visited Agincourt, Saxon and Hastings reefs, but it’ll cost a lot more money too. All operators must charge a reef tax, and are heavily controlled as to where they can go and what they can do. Consult your accommodation provider or the tourist office for more information but here are some options below to give an indication.

QuickSilver - The 5 star option, used by the celebs and President Clinton. It’s pricey, but it’s fast, very professional and there’s a nice pontoon out there on the reef to use.

Down Under - One of the middle options. It does what it says on the tin and I was quite happy with it when I went on it.

Passions of Paradise - another middle option, again it does what it says on the tin.

Compass A budget option, popular with backpackers.

Attractions in the city

The lagoon in Cairns city centre.

The attractions around Cairns are far better than the attractions in Cairns but for those idly walking around the city, try the following:-


Cairns Regional Art Gallery
Corner Abbot & Shields Streets 07 4031 6865

The impressive classical facade of the Cairns Regional Gallery looks a little off-putting, however the interior more than makes up for this. It has a small permanent collection of artists who have made Tropical Queensland their home, while the larger spaces are filled with changing exhibits by local and aboriginal artists.

During the day there can be school tours which infest the main space on the first floor. The permanent collection in the modern air-conditioned second floor is much quieter, although you need to do some exploring to find the hidden staircase. There is a small shop on the left hand side of the main entrance (for which you don't need to buy a ticket to enter) which sells very good modern art, ceramics, and cards at surprisingly reasonable prices.

There is also a very good cafe on the veranda of the gallery which attracts the arty locals.

Entry A$4. Open 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday, 1pm to 6pm Saturday & Sunday.


Cairns Museum
Cairns Museum Corner Lake & Sheilds Streets 07 4051 5582

A dusty and musty museum, this is a throwback to what museums used to be like in the 1950's. There is all manner of household junk (from lawnmowers to typewriters) along with the occasional fascinating exhibit.

A vast array of photos line the walls, and these bring home the rapid changes in Cairns over the past few years. The curator is usually found behind the entrance desk and has many great anecdotes on how some of the exhibits were procured.

The museum is housed in the top floor of the old School of Arts building, built in 1907, but now housing several good cafes. Finding the entrance is a bit of a task - take the corridor and stairs up to the top floor.

Entry A$5. Open 9.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 3.30pm Saturday.


Mangrove Boardwalk
Cairns Mangrove Boardwalk Airport Avenue, 150 yards before the terminal

Cairns best keptsecret, is hidden just before the end of the runway at the airport. The free entry elevated Mangrove Boardwalk goes through all the different types of mangrove forest, and sub-tidal estuary systems. There are informative but rather faded boards describing what you can see.

There are two arms to the boardwalk. Both start at the small (and normally deserted) carpark just on the seaward side of the access road to the airport. The short arm going north takes a circular route around the different type Cairns Mangrove Boardwalk of mangroves, passing a platform on the airport creek where you can spot crocodiles (stay on the platform) and a tower from where you can see miles of mangroves. The longer arm doesn't pass as many types of mangroves, but does eventually reach the sea.

Getting to the mangrove boardwalk is difficult as there's no public transport - most people visit it by checking in at the airport an hour early, and then walking back along the road - a wildlife walk in itself, as its possible to spot all the flattened cane toads and other roadkill.

Entry Free. Open 24 hours.
Access at night is considered dangerous due to the crocodiles so don’t do it after dark.

Attractions in the region

Aside from the obvious attractions of the reef there are many other activities available in the region.


Raging Thunder

Water Rafting down the Tully River.
An hour and a half South of Cairns lies the sleepy town of Innisfail; (in itself not worth stopping for) at the nearby Tully River there is white water rafting rated as a grade 3-4, and several operators provide a day trip including lunch for around $150 depending on the time of year.

NB:- This is not suitable for children.

Raging Thunder also offer less stressful activities including ballooning as well as day boat trips to Fitzroy Island. An hour’s flight is expensive at around $250 for adults and $180 for children and requires an exceptionally early start at around 4:30am, but it does include an Australian breakfast (including champagne) as well as some stunning views over the rainforest. The adventure company dominates Cairns and enjoys a very good reputation.

Web:- Raging Thunder
Tel:- 61 (07) 40 307 900


Kuranda Scenic Railway & Skyrail

Kuranda SkyRail.
Most visitors to Cairns find time to go to Kuranda. As mentioned before, the Kuranda Scenic Railway climbs past waterfalls and ravines in its 90 minute journey up to Kuranda. Some of the engineering feats give cause for consideration and admiration, though at $35 a throw for adults it’s a little steep outside of the wet season as the Barron Falls are not at their best during the dry months.

Mostly diesel hauled these days, the line winds the 24 miles up a spectacular gorge and mountainside offering fantastic views of the coast and the Barron Falls national park. It took 5 years to build the line and it boasts 15 tunnels as it climbs 300 meters. On the train, there are two big highlights. One is where the train passes on a viaduct under the spray of a waterfall, and a few miles on the train stops at the Barron Falls to allow everyone to take photographs. During the wet season the views are stunning, but it should be noted that there’s no air-conditioning on the train.

Tickets can be linked to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway which I found much better value for money. A 5 mile long gondola that glides above tree level, it runs to and from Smithfield (a Northern suburb of Cairns) and has 2 thoroughly interesting stops along the way in the rainforest. A coach transfer from Cairns is required and usually included in your package, although you can save a bit of money by using the rather unreliable local buses to the Skyrail terminus.

Train website:- Kuranda railway website
Tel:- (+61) 1800 620 324

Skyrail Gondola:- SkyRail
Tel:- (+61) 7 4038 1555


Kuranda

Water Rafting down the Tully River.
This picture-postcard mountain village in the tropical highlands has a good market, recommended bird sanctuary (which I didn’t have time for sadly), interesting koala sanctuary (where you can photograph all the requisite Australian land animals within 20 minutes flat) and a small but impressive butterfly sanctuary (if you wear red or white they’re highly likely to land on you). It is worth wandering around for a few hours, if you can battle through the tourists.

The main reason people come to Kuranda is for those markets. Held each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday, there are some genuine finds among all the tourist junk. Some of the sarongs can be much cheaper than Cairns, and a little bird tells me that the jewellery stalls at the top of the town are very good.

There is a free bus on market days picking up at the station, and driving people to the top of the town, but you could walk it in about 3 minutes anyway.


Port Douglas

Port Douglas is Australia’s answer to Nice, Aspen or Beverley Hills. A celebrity playground, Elle Macpherson, John Travolta and Kylie Minogue have all been seen in town recently and rumour has it Sarah Marbeck, one of David Beckham’s various kiss and teller’s was also residing here for a bit. The town has a relaxed village feel and a venture up to Flagstaff Hill Lookout at dusk or along the superb Four Mile Beach is splendid way to watch a perfect sun set over the Coral Sea. On the negative side, it is definitely expensive so be warned.


Cape Tribulation National Park

Daintree Rainforest.
The only place on earth where two World Heritage areas bump into one another. The Great Barrier Reef meets the rainforest at Cape Tribulation, one of the world's most outstanding areas of natural beauty. Stunning stretches of deserted beach lie adjacent to tropical rainforest, while the rugged, forest-covered mountains of Thornton Peak and Mount Sorrow provide a spectacular backdrop. Outdoor activity options include horse riding on the beach, kayaking, and nature and night treks. Ecotourism very much rules OK up here and facilities are particularly sparse due to efforts to minimise human impact on a highly sensitive environment. To this end entry is limited by an excessively expensive ferry (the local authorities have deliberately avoided building a bridge) and the road in is 4x4 only.

At 135 million years old, the rainforest is the oldest and most primitive rainforest found anywhere in the world. Occupying 1/10th of one percent of Australia, it contains almost half of Australia's bird species, nearly a quarter of Australia's frog species, more than 20 of which are endemic, a greater diversity of freshwater fish than any other region in Australia as well as over 60% of Australia's butterflies. It is also home to the Cassowray, a 2m tall 85kg bird resembling a blue coloured ostrich which is the only animal capable of distributing more than 70 types of seeds.

Web:- Daintree and Cape Tribulation information site

Basic facts about Cairns:-

Cairns has two seasons – warm and dry and hot and wet. The wet runs from Mid November through to around the beginning of May or so. When it's rainy season, it really rains, it's not called the rainy season for nothing. In New York you spot the tourists because they're staring dumbfounded at the neon adverts in Times Square - in Cairns you can spot the tourists because they're shocked at the sheer volume of the rain. If visiting during the wet season acquire a coat or umbrella and avoid wearing white when out and about. Humidity is almost always over 80%, and the temperature rarely moves more than 10C or so from 30C, so it feels steamy and sticky. Having said all of that, the wet shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting, just be aware that it’ll rain.

The dry season from June to October is the best (and most expensive) time to visit. In June and July (technically winter), evening temperatures can drop to nearly 10C, which causes the locals to complain at length about the cold. This is also peak season for Cairns hence it being expensive; the reason is that it’s Australia’s winter. Being right in the tropics, Cairns is largely unaffected by the winter and backpackers in particular arrive in large numbers to escape the big chill further south.

Cyclones:-

Cyclones (also known as Typhoons or Hurricanes depending on where you live in the world) can occur in Cairns during the wet season, but the city is built to cope with almost any hurricane up to a category 5. An extremely rare category 5 would flatten any city regardless - see NT's library website about Cyclone Tracy hitting Darwin on Christmas day 1974 to find out how bad they can be, but you will get a lot of warning and unless it's a category 3 or more most locals will stay put because they're used to it. If you're still dubious, refer to this website for further information or ask locals for advice. If they're not worried you shouldn't be either.

Partying for backpackers

There are two rival companies who both offer organised pub crawls. One is the Frog and Toad, the other is Ultimate Party and in the interests of research I did both. The Frog and Toad tours various hostels on a Wednesday and the major central bars/night clubs on a Friday, Ultimate Party only runs on a Saturday. The Frog and Toad is $13 on a Wednesday, and $20 on Fridays. Ultimate party is $35 for the Saturday. Both take in 5 venues granting you free entry, and you get 5 free drinks which works out as 5 free shots on entry to the club, be it whichever one. Frog and Toad was good, but Ultimate Party was excellent, on my night pulling in 200 punters, making for a big happy group traipsing round town by bus convoys. Great fun.

As an alternative there’s always the infamous backpacker bar the Woolshed, which is a venue for much drinking, and much more drinking. A tip for female travellers:- in wet season avoid wearing white when out partying because in heavy rain tops tend to go instantly see-through in seconds and also avoid high heels - the pavements can be lethally slippery when wet.

Frog and Toad Pub Crawl

Ultimate Party Pub Crawl

Recommended Accommodation

For any accommodation, please feel free to use the Hostel Listings link, but I recommend:-

JJ's:- Small, quiet, it's not as central as some of the others (15 min to walk or 5 min in the frequent free shuttle bus), but Simon and Tracy (who own it) go way beyond what I would expect for customer services, and they also do a mean barbecue for $5 as well as free trips to a local waterfall on Mondays on a first come first served basis. Also highly recommended by Lonely Planet Australia.

For the super tight budget, try Ross at ParkView Hostel.

If you need to be super central (as against only 15 min walk out), want an upmarket party experience and are willing to pay over the odds for that, look no further than Gilligans.

There's no need to use YHA (there are two of them in Cairns), they are over priced for the market and no better than the rest. Most hostels will do pickups from the train station, bus station or airport, email or phone them and ask.