Shangri-La Hotel The Marina
Enviably nestled between the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, Cairns welcomes millions of adventurous sun-seekers annually and offers over 600 tours daily, as well as accommodations to suit every travel budget. International five-star hotels, cosy holiday homes, and quirky backpackers’ hostels are equally at home here, offering over 7000 rooms between them. Yet despite its popularity, Cairns remains a compact, laid-back, and pristine city: at its heart is a beautifully maintained boardwalk and swimming lagoon where all but the most hardened thrill-seekers come to simply take a breath before plunging into the many tropical adventures on offer here.
With nearly 3000 individual reefs over an area of 133,000 square miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef system, and few visitors leave Cairns without experiencing its incredible beauty. Snorkelling and scuba diving expeditions are extremely popular, though if a day’s swimming is not long enough for you, consider forsaking the many hotels in Cairns in favour of a liveaboard cruise. There are also many ways to enjoy the reef without getting wet, such as a glass-bottomed boat, semi-submersible submarine, or helicopter tour. The reef’s many underwater observatories also offer a stunning view of its tropical flora and fauna, not least among them an astounding array of fish. Anglers come from all over the world to the Cairns section of the Great Barrier Reef to try “bottom bouncing” for red coral trout, Spanish mackerel, and many other tasty species. Cairns is also famous among fishermen as the Black Marlin capital of Australia and an increasingly “hot” spot for salt water fly fishing.
Not to be outdone, the Daintree Rainforest is the world’s largest continuous area of tropical rainforest and also the oldest, at 135 million years old and counting. River cruises are one of the best ways to see its incredibly diverse wildlife: prehistoric crocodiles, tree-dwelling kangaroos, and the endangered cassowary are just a few of the creatures who make their home amid its lush, evergreen vegetation. Four-wheel drive safari tours do a brisk business here, though intrepid sightseers can also take their own vehicles as far as the sealed road will take them, or go bush walking, zip lining, kayaking, and horseback riding in the rainforest.
Travellers who simply can’t decide which of the stunning World Heritage sites to explore first can head two hours north of Cairns to Cape Tribulation, where the reef and rainforest meet to form a string of truly spectacular, unspoiled beaches. Though the Cape is renowned among free spirits for its lively collection of backpackers’ hostels, travellers will also find exceptionally luxurious accommodations here, including eco lodges and treehouses that rival the finest five-star hotel in Cairns. Cape Tribulation is also a particularly popular destination for birders: great-billed herons, lovely fairy-wrens, little kingfishers, and double-eyed fig parrots are just a few of the rarities that have been spotted in this paradise.
Though the rainforest village of Kuranda is indeed beautiful and home to a thriving artistic community, sightseers and photographers will likely enjoy the journey just as much as the destination. The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway whisks travellers over and through the World Heritage rainforest in about 90 minutes, including breath-taking stopovers at Red Peak and Barron Falls, while the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway offers a more leisurely, but equally stunning, route that winds past awe-inspiring mountains and waterfalls.
Because Cairns is surrounded by some of the most beautiful and exotic locations on the planet, it is easy to overlook the myriad, if more modest, delights of the city itself. Savvy travellers, however, know that there is much more to Cairns than its array of places to sleep, starting with its well-established coffee shop scene. A strong cup from one of the trendy cafes along Grafton or Spence Street is ideal fuel for a long walk along the city’s sparkling boardwalk, a leisurely browse amid the Saturday Esplanade markets, or an afternoon performance at the nearby Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. And no trip to Cairns would be quite complete without a refreshing dip in its sun-soaked, saltwater lagoon and a fresh pineapple from Rusty’s.