Sunny and often steamy, Cairns is an intriguing mix of old-Queensland style and slick modern tourist haunts. As a launching pad for the Great Barrier Reef, this tropical city sits between rainforest and reef and is a comfortable base for exploring both. Many of Cairns’ attractions lie outside the city centre, giving plenty of reasons to see the surrounding beaches and hinterland. Secluded Palm Cove is the brightest gem in the necklace of white sandy beaches that starts 15 minutes north of the city.
There’s plenty to do if the Reef’s not on your radar. The tree-lined Cairns Esplanade is a cool green hub for relaxing, and a dip in the man-made lagoon offers stinger-free swimming year-round. The Pier has top-to-bottom-dollar shopping plus an array of food halls for cheap eats, but you’ll do better to head to cafe-lined Grafton Street where Rusty’s Markets bargains can be had. For the best coffee and snacks in town, head to Caffiend (in an alley lined with street art) and Candy Cafe Bar, with its faux hedge and off-beat murals.
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Head for the hills aboard the Kuranda Scenic Railway, rated as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. The train snakes through the magnificent Barron Gorge National Park, past gorges and waterfalls on the 90-minute trip from Cairns to the rainforest village of Kuranda. Built by hand in the late 1880s, the railway track is today a monument to the 1500 men who toiled to link the two towns. Return in a gondola aboard Skyrail for unbeatable views of the city and sea.
For stylish but affordable accommodation, stay at the plantation-style Hotel Cairns, where all guests have free first-come, first-served access to five Mercedes Smart Cars – or one Cabriolet Smart Car – to get around town in.
After a big day out on one of the sleek reef cruise boats, retire to a balcony overlooking Trinity Inlet at the elegant Pullman Reef Hotel Casino, just a block from the water. The Cairns Wildlife Dome and Reef Casino are all under the same roof, and the Tamarind Restaurant does a great breakfast. For more exclusive dining, head north to Palm Cove and savour Queensland mud crab at Nu Nu Restaurant, where you may also indulge in a six-course tasting menu and perhaps be excused for ignoring the sea views in favour of what’s on your table.