A destination in its own right, discover a different side of the Great Barrier Reef gateway.
Dusk is a deafening time of day in North Queensland. In between the high-pitched creak of crickets, the croaking of fat frogs, and the Jurassic fracas caused by the flying foxes wheeling all around, there’s the ubiquitous sound of children squealing as they splash around in the city’s sprawling man-made lagoon.
It’s easy to appreciate this nightly symphony while watching the colour seep out of the sky from atop the city’s Rocco by Crystalbrook rooftop bar, overlooking the Cairns Esplanade.
The city best known for its reef and rainforest is ready to take flight again thanks in no small part to Crystalbrook Collection’s renovation of the city skyline with its swanky new accommodation offerings, all of which have been designed with distinct personalities and sustainable luxury in mind: there’s the Riley, a ‘live in the moment’ resort; the Flynn, ‘a social butterfly’; and Bailey, ‘a thoughtful and arty’ option.
It’s easy to see clearly where Cairns is at from atop the Riley, where you overlook the streets that remain laid out in a grid since the city was officially founded in 1876 following the discovery of gold in the area.
Although the dream of finding precious metals has long since faded in Tropical North Queensland, the former gold rush town still attracts fortune seekers such as Syrian billionaire and Crystalbrook Collection owner Ghassan Aboud.
Thanks to investors such as Aboud, there’s now a frisson of excitement about the city as it has come to be considered a destination in its own right. There’s also a confidence that can be felt everywhere from the bohemian stretch of Grafton Street, where colourful hippies converge for lattes at Caffiend, to the green fringes of the city where Tanks Arts Centre utilises former Royal Australian Navy fuel tanks as performance spaces.
The best art in Cairns
Long-time local Kim Nelson, chair of the newly rebranded NorthSite Contemporary Arts Centre (formerly KickArts), says while visitors to Cairns will always be drawn to the Great Barrier Reef and the world’s oldest rainforest, theming a new hotel to honour the arts has put the city’s creative side in the spotlight.
Nelson says the NorthSite Contemporary Arts Centre is housed within the new Bulmba-ja building, which is a hub for Indigenous arts and includes a dance incubator, JUTE theatre, yarning circle and garden area for Indigenous smoking ceremonies. “Arts Queensland has spent $5.3 million on the refurbishment of the former KickArts building, which opened early 2020.
There is also a dedicated arts precinct being built to cater to the fact we have a disproportionately high percentage of professional artists living and working in Cairns,” says Nelson. “Those interested in buying or viewing Indigenous art should consider visiting Cairns as it’s the first main centre from the north of Australia, where a lot of Indigenous artists live,” she says.
In addition to Bulmba-ja, which will feature a digital facade of Indigenous art for all of 2020, Nelson says creative types should visit the Munro Martin Parklands, which hosts operas and productions in an outdoor performance space reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
On any given day in Cairns you can expect to encounter everyone from characters in stilts, to Indigenous dance troupes and legendary local blues musicians busking on the streets. “Cairns is a vibrant town with wonderful facilities for artists. There is a dynamic arts community here with many contemporary artists calling Cairns and the surrounding areas home,” she says.
Exploring the reef and rainforest
Stepping lightly on the environment is also a recurrent theme in Tropical North Queensland, where eco-friendly experiences tend to find a firm foothold. One of the best to have while visiting Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef is to snorkel over the underwater coral gardens planted by Passions of Paradise.
CEO Scotty Garden says sustainability has informed the business practices driving the operator’s 30-metre-long catamaran since it began sailing off the coast of Cairns more than three decades ago. “Being a single-operation sailing vessel, we reduce our footprint from the get-go.
As well as inviting our guests to experience the Great Barrier Reef we want them to take home our messages of conservation and appreciation of the natural environment,” says Garden, who relocated to Cairns from Ballarat in 1987.
“We have helped outplant 1200 pieces of coral on Hastings Reef, planted 1200 trees in the Daintree Rainforest, we support scientific research on sharks and stingrays, and donate a portion of every dive certification to Project Aware, one of the largest marine conservation organisations in the world,” he says.
“I’m really proud of Passions of Paradise. I grew up chopping wood on a farm in Victoria and watching Flipper on TV thinking, ‘I want a job where I get to drive around on a boat.’ I am living that dream taking people out to the reef every day,” says Garden.
Adventurous activities in Cairns
Skyrail Rainforest Cableway also offers visitors a different perspective on Cairns, from the rainforest fringes of Mt Yarrabah out to the Coral Sea where you can spot tour boats returning from a day out on the reef.
Take a ride in a glass-bottomed gondola and say, “Can I get off now please?” at the platform overlooking Barron Gorge where Indigenous guides paint a picture of the Dreamtime story of Buda-dji, the carpet snake that carved out the Barron River and creeks it crashes into.
Dining in Cairns & surrounds
From Smithfield Skyrail station, it’s a short drive to Palm Cove on the city’s northern beaches. Here, award-winning restaurant Nu Nu, with its white timber walls, and sprawling deck overlooking an avenue of palm trees, also provides visitors with a real sense of place.
The restaurant excels at seafood and tropical ingredients and is emblematic of the charm of the tight-knit Tropical North Queensland community. It’s the sort of place that invites visitors to sit back and see how they fit into a place and what they can take away.
Time your visit to coincide with dusk so you can drink in the sounds of another unscheduled performance by the Tropical North Queensland orchestra as it rises to a crescendo.
Direct flights arrive in Cairns from most Australian capital cities. Alternatively, turn your visit into a road trip by taking one of the four main routes that lead into the region: the Great Inland Way, Pacific Coast Way, Matilda Way and Savannah Way.
Staying and playing there
The five-star luxury Riley resort provides the perfect escape.
Bounce between the Riley, Flynn and Bailey, where you don’t have to go far to find some of the city’s best bars and eateries. Dive into Asian eats at Paper Crane, give pasta a twirl at Flynn’s Italian, and head to Pachamama at Bailey for authentic Latin share plates.
For more information visit tropicalnorthqueensland.org.au
Take a self-drive tour of the Atherton Tablelands where you can source the freshest organic ingredients for a cup of tea from Nerada Tea Plantation and Mungalli Creek Biodynamic Dairy. You can also visit Mt Uncle Distillery, set on a banana plantation, and Charley’s Chocolate Factory for single-o handmade chocolate bars.