Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Whether you’re a local or a traveler on vacation, cosmopolitan Cairns, on Australia’s northeast coast, opens the door to adventure with some of the southern hemisphere’s most unique natural wonders of both land and sea.

An emerald cover of dense rain forest runs along the coast of Far North Queensland, Australia, where it is met by the crystalline waters of the Coral Sea. This pristine wilderness is where one UNESCO World Heritage site, the Daintree Rain forest, meets another, the Great Barrier Reef. The gateway to this tropical paradise is Cairns, a city that offers even more than the allure of reef and rain forest. Throw in cosmopolitan dining, a shoreline with activities for all ages and a wealth of other fun-filled adventures and attractions nearby, and it is clear why Cairns has evolved into an ever-popular international destination. With about 157,000 residents, city life is at a slower pace here — short-sleeved shirts and shorts are business attire, and nobody is in much of a hurry.

Many of Cairns’ attractions are based around its meandering shoreline, known as The Esplanade, and shops, restaurants and art galleries can be found within walking distance. Stop by the beautiful Cairns Art Gallery, which is housed in a 1930s landmark heritage building and features a sizable collection of local works. Take a stroll along Shields Street to Cairns Central, a large shopping center with everything from supermarkets to department stores and food courts. Nearby, Lake Street has several interesting souvenir shops.

Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Explore a Marine Wonderland

If you love the water, the main attraction is the Great Barrier Reef and its dive and snorkel sites. Seen from outer space, it’s the world’s largest reef system. With roughly 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands, it stretches along the Queensland coast for more than 1,600 miles. The Outer Barrier Reef is the best bet for advanced swimmers and scuba divers. Boats anchor at large floating pontoons, as there is no beach on which to relax. Your first step in is into deep water, where you can spot turtles, blacktip reef sharks and giant grouper. Those who prefer a more traditional beach can visit the sun-bleached Green and Fitzroy islands nearby. Many tour companies offer introductory diving and snorkeling lessons, as well as advanced courses, glass-bottom boat trips and a host of other water-based activities.

Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Walk Where Dinosaurs Once Roamed

Considered to be the world’s oldest living tropical rain forest, the Daintree is 135 million years old. It’s Australia’s largest rain forest area and the second largest in the world, covering more than 460 square miles. Not only does it have more species of primitive flowering plants than any other ecosystem in Australia, it is also the habitat of the rare southern cassowary, a large flightless bird that literally looks part dinosaur. Entry to this primeval world is via car ferry across the Daintree River — which is home to some of the largest saltwater crocodiles you’ll ever see. Wildlife-spotting tours are available up and down the river, and a visit to the Daintree Discovery Centre, with its elevated walkway through the rain forest canopy, is a must.

Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Spend Leisure Time in a Lagoon

The refreshing saltwater-filled lagoon at the end of The Esplanade is open day and night year-round, and is the perfect place to go for an evening swim. Bring your own prawns, and barbecue dinner on one of the free-to-use gas grills. As you head north along The Esplanade, look out for myriad birds as well as fiddler crabs and mudskippers on the mudflats. The kids will adore Muddy’s Playground — a giant mix of water fountains, climbing frames and flying foxes (zip lines). Just next door is a wonderful skate park complete with both large and small bowls, and plenty of places for rippers of all ages to slide and grind the afternoon away.

Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Enjoy a Slice of Serenity

Head inland to the nearby Atherton Tablelands if you want to avoid the crowds. While Cairns can get hot and humid during the summer months, the Tablelands are pleasantly cooler. Amidst the southern Tablelands is the well-known spectacular waterfall circuit with Millaa Millaa, Zillie and Ellinjaa Falls, the volcanic crater lakes of Barrine and Eacham, and the picturesque town of Yungaburra, with its monthly market. The northern Tablelands boast the Mareeba Wetlands — a birder’s paradise — and the popular tourist town of Kuranda.

Stay in Shape

Cairns residents like to be outdoors, and The Esplanade is the hub of all that is free and fun in the way of exercise. The local council puts on everything from water aerobics and yoga to Zumba, Mumbalates classes (that would be Pilates for new moms) and rock climbing. The Esplanade is also home to live music concerts every weekend, as well as its regular Saturday market, where local artists gather to sell their handmade products and demonstrate their craft.

Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Visit a Holloways Hideaway

No visit to Queensland would be complete without tasting the local cuisine. Offering one of the most spectacular views in town, Holloways Beach is the perfect place to enjoy breakfast or lunch. Strait on the Beach restaurant is a local favorite, with its handcrafted wooden tables and chairs set underneath palm trees, in front of a stunning expanse of shoreline — look for the chairs shaped like giant hands. Take a stroll along the beach to the nearby Barr Creek and you may spot a crocodile or two sunning themselves on the riverbank.

Gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Seafood, Sushi and Songs

Cairns is known around the world for its fresh seafood. One of its most popular eateries is the Raw Prawn on The Esplanade. Try Aussie favorites barramundi (Asian sea bass) and mud crab, or if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe a bit of grilled kangaroo, crocodile or emu paired with a local Australian wine. And long beloved by visitors from Japan and beyond, Cairns is a great place to indulge in sushi. Try Kanpai — “cheers” in Japanese — which has great food and karaoke.

Where to Stay:
Marriott Vacation Club® at Surfers Paradise, Australia