Reef, rainforest and heady tropical scents

I’ve been to Cairns before – into the airport, that is, to travel further north to Palm Cove and Port Douglas. My mistake. I’ll tell you why. And it only has a little to do with flying out of cold and windy Melbourne.

Cairns warms the soul as well as the body. That heady tropical scent massages the nerves as soon as you hit the city, which is just a 15-minute congestion-free drive from the airport.

Temperatures in late August, September and October are about 28°C maximum and 18°C overnight. Perfect in my book. Average maximums range from 25.9°C in July to 31.6 °C in January. And November to May is when you can expect the rains to add a degree of interest.

The humidity at this time of year is not a problem, though no doubt getting physical during summer may not be recommended. But then, when you’re here on holiday, that’s not necessary.

This tropical paradise is a single flight from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and a great place to set up for a week or three if you’re one of the growing legion of grey nomads circling the continent.

This delightful city – the fifth most-populous in Queensland with about 144,000 residents – is ideally situated on Trinity Inlet to explore dozens of nearby attractions: reef, rainforest, caves, tablelands, rivers, falls… the list goes on.

Magnificent curtain figs, palms and bougainvillea dot the mall, fill green spaces and add to that sense of space, peace and calm. And there seems to be an iconic Queensland pub on almost every corner in the centre of town.

You’ve heard the adage location, location, location? When choosing accommodation, I always try to stay central so that you can park the wheels (if you’re driving) and walk, walk, walk. The city offers a wide range of accommodation, from backpackers to top-shelf. And if five-star is on the agenda, you can’t go past the recently refurbished Shangri-La on The Marina. The resort occupies some of the best real estate in Cairns and is just a short walk to the delightful foreshore lagoon area, markets, the art gallery, pubs and the brewery, shops and pick-up destinations for a big range of tours.

And if you do stay at the Shangri-La, you must factor in a day at ‘home’ and perhaps join a guided tour of the expansive gardens. Or you could just laze by the pool.

The Shangri-La even has the royal seal of approval as Prince Charles stayed there in 2018. But make no mistake, Cairns has a range of accommodation to suit different budgets.

So what should you see nearby?

In a compact area are the vessels that head out to the reef or to Fitzroy and Green Islands, the iconic lagoon pool and gardens, the markets, shops and supermarkets.

Head to the Night Markets from 4.30pm for a budget-priced meal and massage and check out the locally made crafts and jewellery. If you can resist the plethora of ice-cream shops, you’re exercising more self-control than me.

The Esplanade Markets on weekends have a better range of crafts and super friendly stall-holders, but the pick for me were the undercover Rusty’s Markets. Stroll the aisles and if the fresh produce doesn’t stun you, then you’ve been super spoilt somewhere. And the clothing and jewellery here means you’re sure to find a great gift for the kids or grandkids – or something for yourself.

Cairns Art Gallery is also a must-visit – even for those with a less than well-honed appreciation of the arts. On show until early December is a selection of works by Patricia Piccinini, including some specially made for the Cairns gallery. It’s impossible not to be moved by her human-animal creations.

But back to the main game – the reef and the rainforest.

When considering the options, that word “location” is a prime consideration again when selecting a reef tour – not where the company offices are based, but their moorings on the reef. Some, such as the Down Under Cruise and Dive, have access to top snorkelling and diving sites. More on that another day, but do check the destinations when deciding on a reef trip.

But what other tours or drives should you consider?

Kuranda, on the Barron River, is 30 minutes away, and the Barron Falls another 10 minutes. The town is surrounded by the world’s oldest living tropical rainforest and must-do activities include a boat cruise and a ride on the scenic railway.

Daintree Rainforest is further north – two hours 20 minutes from Cairns. I did a short walk there last year and finished with a refreshing swim in the cool green waters. A great highlight.

If the outback is more your go, consider a trip or tour to Chillagoe Caves, about three hours away.

Remember that beach swimming is not advised unless you wear a stinger suit to protect from marine jellyfish such as the box jellyfish, Irukandji and others – no matter what time of year it is. Which makes resort pools, the lagoon and rivers wonderful places to cool off.

What are you waiting for?

Have you holidayed in Cairns? Did you visit the reef? Do you have other suggestions for day trips?

Janelle was a guest of Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns.

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