Gateway to the Northern GBR

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Cairns is the major northern hub for visitors to the off-lying islands and reef that make up the GBR. It’s also a terrific destination itself, with a plethora of things to do within an hour or two of downtown Cairns. The Whitsundays has Airlie Beach, far north Queensland has Cairns, though on a much grander scale. North Queensland’s biggest city, day trip and liveaboard charters depart all day, every day from downtown Cairns Marlin Marina. Some island attractions are within easy reach for daytrips, others are more suited to overnight cruise or dive charters.

Ocean Free Cruises are highly recommended, whether you want to visit the GBR by power or sailboat. Terrific knowledgeable crew who are passionate about the delicate environment they work in, Ocean Free offer a boutique-style cruise product with a personal touch. They have their own moorings away from the crowds at Green Island, allowing guests to snorkel and dive this popular coral cay simply by hopping over the side of the boat.

Quicksilver Cruises are one of the biggest cruise operators in the region. If you can’t find a Quicksilver tour to excite you, well you’re probably best to stay in bed.

Reasons to Linger
The outlying reefs and islands have an irresistible appeal and are of course the reason most visitors flock to Cairns. But there are plenty of reasons to linger a little longer in Cairns itself. It’s a bit of a tourism Mecca, attracting travellers from all over the world.

The hinterland mountain range west of Cairns is one of the locals best kept secrets. A web of rainforest trails weave through the ranges, which are popular with mountain bikers, hikers and trail runners. The book Tropical Walking Tracks of North QLD offers info on trails in the area. Road cyclists will find the Cook Hwy between Cairns and Port Douglas one of the most scenic bike rides on the planet. For good reason it’s chosen as the route for cyclists in the annual Cairns Ironman event. A challenging ride can also be had along the Kuranda Road, which ascends from sea level to around 600m.

Overlooking Cairns Marlin Marina is a swanky waterfront precinct called The Pier. Here you’ll find elegant restaurants, casual cafes, funky bars and designer boutiques spilling onto the boardwalk. The Shangri-La Hotel Cairns is also located here. The alfresco boardwalk is the prefect spot for lunch, afternoon sundowners or dinner, as well as some retail therapy. It’s also a pretty popular route for walkers and joggers at all times of the day or night.

Call into Salthouse for dinner, drinks or just to chill out and listen to live music a couple of times a week. It’s where the locals hang out, with lots of alfresco seating, comfy couches and a really cool vibe on the edge of the marina. The Mojito’s aren’t too bad either.

Pullman Reef Hotel & Casino is a few minutes walk from the waterfront: it’s a self-styled entertainment precinct, complete with a casino and bars, popular once the sun goes down. The Sports Bar is home to the largest LCD screen in the southern hemisphere, broadcasting major sporting events. The 20m tall glass dome atop the casino is home to Cairns Zoom, a tropical wildlife oasis and interpretive zoo that showcases far north QLD flora and fauna. Wildlife and birds roam freely so that visitors can interact with birds, reptiles and other wildlife, depending on the time of day. Exciting developments (opening early Oct 2012) include a zip line and rope course strung across the dome, including the enclosure for Goliath, a 4m saltwater crocodile. Future plans also include an external Dome Walk which should keep adrenalin junkies satisfied with splendid views of Cairns city and surrounds.

Cool Down in the Heat
Connected to The Pier by tropical gardens is the Lagoon, a cool waterfront park open every day. It’s Lifeguard patrolled and best of all – it’s Free! The lagoon style saltwater swimming pool is a welcome cooling alternative to the adjacent tidal mudflats. The lagoon pool has shallow wading sections for toddlers as well as deep water for lap swimming or playing around. There’s plenty of shaded areas surrounding the pool as well as a kiosk selling snacks. Relief for sun-ravaged bodies is also on hand at divine Mii Spa at the Sebel Cairns Hotel.

Surrounded by rainforest-clad mountains, Cairns is a buzzing, throbbing city of around 150,000 heat-tolerant souls. The population swells during the winter months (the dry season), between April and October. It’s no wonder, with day time temperatures in the high twenties (degrees Celsius) and balmy nights that barely drop below the high teens.

Shoppers looking for retail stores, including Myers, are sure to find something at Cairns Central Shopping Centre, plus there’s factory outlets at DFO for bargain hunters. Both are airconditioned mall-type centres and are on the Sunbus public transport route.

Further Afield
I’d highly recommend you leave the city behind temporarily at least, and explore ancient wet tropics rainforest that clambers up the steep mountains. Cape Tribulation is a couple of hours north, beyond Palm Cove and Port Douglas. In this region you’ll find World Heritage listed rainforest tumbling into World Heritage listed marine park. Quite some treat for nature lovers.

Misty Mountain Retreat
Kuranda is a village in the rainforest in the hills behind Cairns. Popular with tourists because of its market scene, Kuranda is a pretty little town in a gorgeous setting. It’s also usually cooler than Cairns due to its elevation. It’s easy enough to drive there, taking the Barron Gorge Rd. But it’s much more interesting to take the Skyrail in one direction and the Kuranda Scenic Rail in the other.

The Skyrail takes visitors up above the forest canopy suspended in glass gondolas, stopping at one station midway. Kuranda Skyrail winds back down the mountain, stopping for a peek at mighty Barron Falls.

Check out these links for more info on enjoying the Northern GBR region:

At A Glance


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