I had never heard of Cairns before this trip. I certainly didn’t know how to pronounce it. (For those wondering, it’s pronounced like the French city, “Cannes,” or like “cans” of beans, for you classy folks.)
Cairns is a small town on the east coast of Northern Australia. It has a population of about 140,000, and is a popular jumping off point for reef trips, tours to Fraser Island (World Heritage island renowned for great camping), and sailing expeditions to the Whitsunday Islands. But Cairns shouldn’t be discounted as simply a pit stop to somewhere better. The small coastal town is actually quite charming for a few days.
Here’s an overview of my trip, and some links and advice to do something similar if you feel so inclined:
I arrived to the airport at 9am after a 9-hour overnight flight from Shanghai. Immigration was fairly quick and my bags were waiting for me at the conveyer belt. No one pushed me, there was no yelling, and the airport employees were actually smiling. I’ve realized that, after living in China for six months, I am easily impressed.
At 10am I took a taxi to my hostel, Travellers Oasis, in the CBD (Central Business District). The ride cost $25 AUD, but I later found out a shuttle would have only set me back $5. The hostel was more like a guest house—complete with a pool, hammocks, and Bob Marley playing through speakers.
After a nap, I headed to a fruit and veggie market called Rusty’s (only open on weekends) to check out the exotic fruit, veggies and flowers from the area. This is always my favorite thing to do when I arrive to a new city, as it’s a great way to understand the local flavor. This market isn’t enormous or as exotic as ones in Asia, but it’s still a great place to kill an hour, and get some great tasting passion fruit.
Not gonna lie, this is pretty much all I did my first day. I did a little more walking around, and picked up some groceries from Cairns Central shopping mall, but no matter how much I travel, I have yet to master the art of sleeping on a plane.
Days 2 & 3
At 7:15, TUSA Dive picked me up at the hostel. Before arriving to Cairns, I had a hard time deciding on which company to book my Great Barrier Reef trip with, as there are many outfitters. But TUSA had gotten good reviews on TripAdvisor, and they offered a 2-day referral dive program with the necessary open water dives and two pleasure dives. As I wrote in the previous post, I was really happy with the company, and would recommend them for diving or for snorkeling trips.
From about 7:30am to 4:30pm on both days, I reviewed information I had learned during my pool dives and classroom instruction in Shanghai. I also learned how to plan dives, set up gear, break down gear, and use a compass (which I failed at, miserably). We reviewed many of the skills previously learned, like how to clear a flooded mask, and what to do if you run out of air.
TUSA took us to four different sites for a total of six dives, each dive lasting for around 40-45 minutes. The company also included two “tea times” with coffee, tea and pastries, and a healthy lunch buffet, with a multitude of salads, quiches, proteins and bread. For more information on my scuba trip, read my previous post: Diving the Great Barrier Reef.
When I arrived back to the hostel, I was able to attend an “authentic Australian BBQ” at their sister hostel, Tropic Days. For $14 I was able to sample barramundi, the area’s famous fish, emu, kangaroo, and crocodile. The emu was a bit like lean beef, the kangaroo like tender steak, and the crocodile, to no surprise, tasted just like chicken.
I decided to take a bus to Karunda, a small town about 45 minutes north of Cairns, renowned for its rainforest walks and koala-holding opportunities. It was an easy trip, and nice to see a different side to Queensland.
The Koala Gardens was like a little zoo, and took only 30 minutes to walk through. It was small, but still pretty cool. I was the first one there (9:15), so I was able to feed and pet the kangaroos by myself, and spend a little more time cuddling the koala. And, let’s be honest, this whole trip to Kuranda was mostly so I could hold a koala.
After I got my koala fix, I explored Kuranda’s Heritage Markets, where vendors were selling things like organic essential oils, imported clothing from Bali, handmade boomerangs, stuffed koalas and kangaroos, local honey, and traditional souvenirs. I tried my best not to shop for myself, or to buy my niece every stuffed marsupial I saw.
I stopped for a coffee at a place called Frogs in the market. It was a little pricey, but the restaurant had great local coffee, and a wide selection of organic teas and food items. The server was even nice enough to give me some local advice on what I should do while in Kuranda, and circled some highlights on my map.
I decided to take some of the walking paths through the rainforest and along the river. The tourist information center where you get dropped off has walking maps and can recommend paths depending on your fitness level and interests.
After about a 2-hour hike, I returned to the quaint town and ate lunch at a little outdoor cafe called “Well-Being Deli,” which was recommended by the woman who sold me honey at the market. I get a lentil burger the size of my head and saved half for later. The food was excellent, and they had vegan and gluten-free options.
To return to Cairns, you have a few options. The bus picks up in front of Anabelle’s Pantry at 12:30, 2:14 and 4:10. It is important to note, that the last bus leaves at 4:10, and if you miss it, it’ll cost you about $150 by taxi. Other transports include the scenic train and the skyrail . If you have the money, they both seem like beautiful options. I, however, had two more weeks in Australia, so I decided to spend $6 ($12 roundtrip) instead.
I returned to the hostel in the afternoon, took a nice long nap, then headed down to reception to reserve an airport shuttle for the next day. But since I was flying on Christmas, the shuttle Travellers Oasis uses would not be working. The hostel owner recommended Sun Palm Transport Group, which I will also pass onto you. It was a cheap, timely option, and the driver was extremely nice and professional.
After that was squared away, the owner also recommended that I attend a Christmas Eve pub crawl. And although the Aussies can be quite charming, I was happy just to pack, watch some Christmas TV, and of course, eat my leftovers.
I politely declined, and said, “Maybe next time.” I have a feeling I’ll be back.