When you’re not from Tropical Far North Queensland, the first thing that you notice upon arriving in Cairns is the heat. As soon as you leave the plane and arrive on the tarmac, it hits with a thunderous, breathless force. It feels immediately enervating – how could anyone survive even more than a few minutes here, you ask yourself. It didn’t turn out that way. What I would soon discover over the course of a week is that both the searing heat and Cairns itself are full of contradictions.
Known as the gateway to Tropical Far North Queensland, Cairns has long been the main base for travellers visiting the Great Barrier Reef. Until you arrive there, it’s difficult to describe the transcendent beauty of the world’s largest coral system and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. While boat trips are popular for snorkelling and fishing, a helicopter ride above it really spotlights the overwhelming size of the reef. Cairns becomes a twinkling vision in a distant land as you fly out until all you can see is the shimmering dance between the blue and green colours below. You’re filled with a magnificent sense of your own smallness looking down.
Cairns is blessed to have the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep and it knows it. A plethora of touring operators loudly advertise all manners of day trips to the coral system; images of Clownfish – Nemo to us laymen – make even the city’s rubbish bins look nice. To be blessed with one natural beauty is a privilege but to have two surrounding your city is just showing off. Looming over Cairns on the other side is Daintree Rainforest, part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland Rainforest. This area is the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest in the entire world and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
While rightly celebratory of its natural wonders, Cairns hasn’t been content to rest on its laurels. A burgeoning cosmopolitan city has sprung up around the old gold mining port. The hawkish souvenir shops and boorish backpacker bars of the tourist town now take a backseat to trendy eateries and swanky nightlife spots. A glamorous Gucci store competes beside a rustic market (that’s not creative licence – Gucci is just a 2-minute walk along the street from the city’s Night Markets).
Ocean Alley at Cairns Summer Sounds 2022
The food scene contains offerings that wouldn’t look out of place in Brisbane or Sydney. There are alluring French bistros and grand Australian steakhouses to be found among the plentiful servings of seafood (some of the best fish you’ll find in the entire country). And thanks to a surprisingly strong Italian community, a striking number of inviting Italian restaurants are dotted throughout the city.
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Back to that heat: the temperature might rarely fall below 30 degrees but the humidity is sweltering without ever being stifling. The Cairns weather plays a subtle trick on visitors, for it’s the sort of heat that perversely – peculiarly – makes you feel freer: it makes you care less about what you wear, it makes you care less about what other people are doing, it makes you care less about intricate planning; all you can think about is being in nature, or in water, or in a cool air-conditioned bar.
And of the latter, there are many and they are varied. The waterfront is lined with enticing options, with everything from German beer houses to Polynesian tiki bars. All have plentiful outdoor seating with views of the harbour and ocean beyond it. People filter by slowly as you sip on your drink, walking dogs, enjoying the grass under the sun, and you can rest assured that you’ll probably see them inside that very bar later in the same day.
That’s because Cairns is so compact that you’ll see the same friendly faces throughout your stay; the manageable size of the city is something to be appreciated in the midst of the humbling size of the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest. The CBD is full of inviting balconies that recall the French Quarter of New Orleans (both share a lot of intriguing similarities, including the humid climate) but the true heart of Cairns is its iconic esplanade. The waterfront is a mecca for beautiful hotels these days, including recent arrival, the luxurious but environmentally-friendly Crystalbrook Flynn (more below). The boardwalk is lined with gorgeous palm trees and the sun is always shining – it’s Santa Monica without the preening and posturing.
Right in the middle is Cairns Lagoon, a free-to-use pool that offers the perfect opportunity to cool down day or night. As you walk along the esplanade towards the harbour and look back towards the city, its skyline – towering glistening hotels with lush rainforest overhead – looks a lot like a miniature version of Rio de Janeiro (Rio’s Harbor, incidentally, is one of the other Seven Natural Wonders of the World).
It’s the promising arts scene that really marks the cosmopolitan future of Cairns though. The CBD’s Arts Precinct is an easy walk from the esplanade and features three heritage-listed buildings, including the Cairns Art Gallery and The Court House Gallery. A lovely lawn area sits at the centre of the precinct, tailor-made for picnics and food trucks. Such is the potential of the area, the government is set to inject a massive $10 million into making it a world-class level of attraction.
Cairns Performing Arts Centre
There’s a reason major national artists are consistently coming to the city these days. Cairns Summer Sounds 2022 is taking place at Cairns Performing Arts Centre throughout February, and the venue has a lot to do with that. Only opened in late 2019, the pristine $70 million venue has already won the Queensland Architecture medallion, a prestigious architectural honour.
It’s Tanks Arts Centre that really leaves an indelible impression – the word “unique” is overused but it neatly describes this place. Nestled within the lush greenery of Cairns Botanical Gardens, these five redeveloped concrete fuel tanks were originally built during World War II to help the Royal Australian Navy cope with the demands of naval operations in the Pacific. A lesser city would have let the tanks rot into obscurity but Cairns has repurposed this historical spot so that present generations can enjoy them.
Art exhibitions are held in some of the tanks but it’s Tank 5 that’s most memorable, a concert venue that, owing to its unique structure, has some of the finest acoustics in the whole of Australia. The likes of Midnight Oil have played the venue, prompting many a dad joke about there being plenty of oil left in the tank. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Tanks Arts Centre is one of the most underrated venues in the country; it certainly won’t remain this unheralded for long.
Australia is finally opening up to the world again. International travel is a growing possibility and the temptation to flee to Bali or Hawaii or any number of far-flung destinations will be strong. It’s important to remember, however, just how decimated Australia’s hospitality and travel industry has been these last few years. What a place like Cairns proves is that there’s no need to leave for distant climes just yet: in its pleasing combination of nostalgic classic Aussie summer holiday and cosmopolitan city break, Cairns has struck gold again.
Read below to find all the information that you’ll need to plan the perfect Cairns trip!
Cairns is fast becoming one of Australia’s best places to find culture. Taking place throughout the month of February, Cairns Summer Sounds 2022 has attracted some of Australia’s best live acts to Cairns Contemporary Arts Centre (CPAC). Ocean Alley played last weekend, followed this Friday, February 11th, by acclaimed singer-songwriter Vera Blue.
This year’s Summer Sounds will then finish in style with the renowned touring event RocKwiz Live on Friday, February 25th and Saturday, February 26th. A unique blend of music trivia, comedy, and live music, hosts Julia Zemiro and Brian Nankervis know how to put on a fascinating show. Cairns Summer Sounds tickets are on sale now via ticketlink.com.au or 1300 855 835.
The uniqueness of Tanks Arts Centre is quickly attracting curious artists to perform there. Hockey Dad, Caravána Sun, and Tim Rogers are just some of the stellar names playing the centre in the coming months. The iconic Midnight Oil are returning to the city in April, playing what should be a spectacular show at Cairns Convention Centre.
2022 is also a big year for Cairns Festival as it celebrates its 60th anniversary. Taking place between August 26th and September 4th, expect it to be packed with exciting events to live up to the historic occasion.
For luxury with a sense of responsibility, the Crystalbrook Flynn is hugely attractive. Situated at the heart of the iconic waterfront esplanade, the hotel is made for party lovers. There are three restaurants over three floors – the cool Whiskey and Wine bar, Flynn’s Italian restaurant and the lively Boardwalk Social – and two outdoor pools where drinks can be brought directly to your deckhair at the simple press of a button. There’s always a DJ already ready to play and a cocktail ready to be devoured.
In a city looking out on a natural wonder that’s being swiftly eroded, it’s the sustainability of Flynn that really stands out. No plastic, straws, or single use amenity bottles are used; at least 80% of its restaurant’s produce is sourced from within just a three-hour drive; room key cards are made from recycled wood, while the iPad Control Centre completely reduces paper waste.
The Flynn might be a five-star hotel but this isn’t reflected in the price. Cairns Summer Sounds Ticket Holders can access exclusive 20% off accommodation deals at Crystalbrook Collection’s Riley, Flynn and Bailey Residences by using the promo code SOUNDS when booking.
Sitting on a boat in the water, the wonderfully-named Prawn Star offers a stunning location for dinner, floating right in the picturesque Marlin Marina. The hearty seafood platter they serve up is definitely worth the short walk from the esplanade. For a more upmarket occasion, Rocco is nestled high above the CBD on the 12th floor of the Crystalbrook Riley hotel. The sweeping views of the sea from your table compete with the sublime – and extensive – menu on offer.
Sister to the waterfront Vitalia’s, Vitalia’s Street Food is a favourite late night spot. Run by two charismatic Italian imports, old Italian film posters containing the likes of Roberto Benigni and Monica Vitti adorn the walls. The windows to the joint proudly advertise their calzones and rightly so: they are behemoth creations but with a mouthwatering lightness that never leaves you feeling full. A truly authentic little spot. For more relaxed Italian fare, try the traditional restaurant Bellocale for fine pastas and delicious wines.
Unsurprisingly, the bar scene is centred around the esplanade. The selection is excitingly varied, with a spot to suit whatever kind of night you fancy. There’s the blink-and-you’ll-miss it Flamingos Tiki Bar, hidden in the basement floor on the esplanade’s front. A modern interpretation of the Polynesian bar, this sweet tropical oasis has indulgent and original cocktails to help combat the heat.
Avoid the loud and inauthentic P.J. O’Briens and walk a few blocks up Shields Street to find the quiet little Irish watering hole McGinty’s. With a nice pour of Guinness and pictures of old Ireland on the wall, it will combat the homesickness of any expat, at least for the duration of several drinks.
The backpacker bar scene is still, of course, strong in Cairns. Much of it takes place on the thoroughfare Shields Street, and it gets pretty vibrant there on a weekend night. Skip that street, however, and find a hipper party atmosphere at Boardwalk Social. Located underneath the Crystalbrook Flynn at the heart of the esplanade, a DJ is on hand every evening to curate the vibes on the esplanade – it’s not uncommon to catch a couple of revellers dancing on the grass a few yards away. The menu has inexpensive cocktails and local beer, as well as good bar bites if you get peckish.
Situated down an inauspicious laneway is the trendy Three Wolves. Hosting just 60 people at a time, this cosy spot changes its cocktail menu every few months to keep things spicy. It also serves beer from local brewery Barrier Reef Brewing.
There’s nothing provincial about the collection at Cairns Art Gallery. Over three floors, the gallery proudly advocates for Australian artists both old and new. Currently there is an absorbing exhibition that perfectly corresponds to the natural beauty outside: Botanical Art of the Tropical Rainforest brings together hundreds of drawings and illustrations of legendary Australian artist William T. Cooper AO. Many of them haven’t ever been seen in public before, and all bring to life the majesty and colour of the rainforest and its wildlife. (it should be noted that entry to the gallery is always free). Beside it, the historic Court House Gallery hosts vibrant exhibitions and also contains a huge performance space. Rotating exhibitions fill one of the tanks at Tanks Arts Centre, a little haven for art in the midst of the enervating heat of the Botanical Gardens.
Indigenous culture is well-represented in the city. On the esplanade you’ll find Aboriginal art galleries are potted around the city, including the promenade’s Doongal Aboriginal Art & Artefacts, which has a specialist focus on local Aboriginal Rainforest Art. Bulmba-ja Arts Centre is a theatre and creative development space that showcases the unique stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Bulmba-ja means house or place in the local Yidinji and Yirrganydji languages and there’s always some important artistic work being shown.
Just one street removed from the esplanade is the DFS Galleria: with its famous store names, white sandstone facade, and airy corridors, it feels more like a Beverly Hills shopping mall than something you’d expect to find in Tropical Far North Queensland. Tommy Bahama, Chanel, Fendi, and Gucci will keep you busy (and loosen your purse strings) for hours. A two-minute walk from there is the iconic Night Markets, a bustling collection of vendors selling all manner of intriguing curiosities. The first Night Market in Australia is teeming with life from 4:30pm every day of the year.
Markets are something Cairns prides itself on. The most famous example is Rusty’s Markets, a popular weekend gathering spot. 180 stalls contain some of the freshest produce you’ll taste in the country, with exotic fruits and vegetables aplenty. Rusty’s also has specialty products and international food stalls if you fancy a taste of something further afield.
There’s lots to do if you’re the adventurous type. AJ Hackett runs Australia’s one and only bungy right in the heart of the Cairns rainforest. Standing 50m above a natural lagoon, the epic jump is not for the faint of heart. Cairns Aquarium is located in the CBD and is home to the myriad species and ecosystems of Tropical Far North Queensland.
An unmistakable towering landmark in the CBD, Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome lets you zip around the world’s first high ropes course in a wildlife park. So get up close and cuddle with a koala immediately after undergoing the adrenaline-fuelled journey along three zip lines.
Two feats of engineering, both modern and old, are on hand to take visitors into Daintree Rainforest. Just 15 minutes outside of the CBD is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a 7.5km journey that takes you high above the trees and wildlife below. As the cable car rattles and shakes, any nerves soon dissolve in the face of the all-encompassing natural beauty: the rainforest stretches as far as the eye can see, and its sounds are so powerful that they even penetrate the cable car all the way up in the sky.
The Skyrail stops at Kuranda Village, where the Kuranda Scenic Railway awaits to take visitors back to Cairns. Construction began all the way back in 1886 and wasn’t completed until 1891, such was the tremendous difficulty of building the train tracks through the rainforest. As the train merrily chugs its way back to the city over an amiable two hours, you’re allowed to really bask in the history of the journey. The brief stop to view Barron Falls is worth the entire day trip alone: the waterfall tumbles down into the Cairns Coastal Plain and its power is so mighty that water splashes your face even on the distant viewing platform.
The village they both depart from is just as fascinating. Kuranda is a proper hippy enclave, with a decadently slow vibe and picturesque mountain location. The village’s old markets are a winding mess of intoxicating cafes and mysterious bric a brac stores.
To find out more about visiting Cairns, head to Cairns Regional Council www.cairns.qld.gov.au
The writer was the guest of Cairns Regional Council and Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ).