You don’t have to take the week off work to have an action-packed adventure holiday, just spend a weekend in Cairns.
5.00am I’m at Terminal Two at Sydney Airport, checking in to a Jetstar flight. I don’t know how I got here. It’s dark and I’m pretty sure I’m still asleep.
6.00am My flight to Cairns takes off. I fall asleep.
9.30am We land in Cairns, grab a coffee, hire a car, and head to the Pullman Reef Casino Hotel to check in. I dump my bags and listen to my stomach rumble.
10.20am Breakfast at Tamarind Restaurant, on the ground floor of the Pullman. We dose up on coffee and scoff lots of courses. I eat pastries, poached eggs, yoghurt and fresh fruit.
11.10am We’re on our way to the AJ Hackett bungy jumping centre (for you word nerds out there, AJ spells bungy with a “y” not an “ee”). I feel sick from a combination of nerves, too much coffee and over-eating at breakfast. I wonder if I’m going to bungy jump. I don’t think I will, but I could surprise myself. I want to turn the car around and head in the other direction, but I am not driving. I wish I didn’t eat those danishes.
11.25am I am standing in a tranquil patch of tropical forest, looking into a small, cool, pool. Someone lets out a blood-curdling scream and a split-second later the poor soul is bouncing around and dangling in front of me like a teabag, upside down above the water, with eyes like they’ve seen the Devil. There’s no way I’m bungy jumping today, and I can safely say I won’t bungy jump in the future. Instead, I choose what I think is the soft option of experiences on offer here, the Minjin Jungle Swing, which sounds like a lovely, gentle glide through the tree canopy.
11.50am Apparently it is not a lovely, gentle glide through the tree canopy. I am securely strapped into a harness alongside two other people, in what would be standard Superman flight formation if Superman were strapped to two other superheroes.
We’re winched backwards up a hill, hundreds, if not thousands of millions of metres above the treetops, higher even than the platform from where the bungy jumpers jump (or are gently coaxed to jump until they do). The idea is that when we get to the top, we will stop, then one of us will pull a rope that will release us into a giant pendulous swing.
It doesn’t quite work out that way. When we get to the top we rock sickeningly back and forth. I feel much more vulnerable than, in reality, I am. It’s a long way to the ground. The person assigned to pull the cord chooses to count us down. “One,” she says, and we again rock sickeningly back and forth. “Two,” she says, and we rock. “Three,” she says and pulls.
We don’t go anywhere, but we do stop rocking. All is quiet and still. “It didn’t work,” one of us says. Horrifyingly, she chooses to count us down again. “One,” she says. “Just do it!” my mind screams, but I am struck dumb. “Two!” she says. “Expletive!” I think. “Three!” she screams and suddenly we drop straight down about six feet. My stomach stays where it was.
Before it has time to catch up, we’re swooping towards the treetops, dive bombing AJ Hackett’s bungy centre like it’s a control tower and we’re in that fly-by scene from Top Gun. What fun! This is magic! We dive bomb the centre forwards, then backwards, then forwards again, all the while losing height until we’re safely back on our own two feet. What a blast.
1pm In a post-exhilaration bubble of tranquillity, I’m sitting on a lovely open patio at Reef House Resort & Spa in Palm Cove with a mocktail in one hand and a garlic king prawn in the other. This is one of the most elite stretches of beach in Australia, with a beautiful palm-fringed promenade. Reef House is a Hamptons-style white-painted timber structure complete with plantation shutters and a pitched roof. We sit in the shade of 300-year-old melaleucas and relax. It’s a lovely place to catch our breath before heading off on yet another adventure that’s way out of my comfort zone.
2.15pm I’m sitting on the bouncy edge of a bright orange blow-up raft as it is being pushed into the rapidly flowing Barren River, which is fuller and faster than it’s ever been thanks to recent Queensland floods. I have an oar in my hand and fear in my heart. I’ve just been told what I should do if the raft capsizes. The last words I say as we’re pushed into the watery tumult are: “I don’t want to capsize.” But capsize we do. Funnily enough, I’m the only one of my eight raft-mates who actually gets stuck under the craft as we lurch and roil in the frothy morass that is the aptly named Cheese Churn. I am eventually spat out and a raft full of concerned faces silently stares at me as I’m pulled to safety and released from the now-crushing confines my lifejacket so I can cough up half the Barren River.
As I splutter in the sunlight I reassure myself that white-water rafting is yet another extreme sport that needn’t feature in my future. Although I do enjoy the bits where, in the calmer stretches between rapids, we’re allowed to get out of the raft and float serenely on our backs down river, looking up into the peaceful blue sky above Barren Gorge. During those moments, I wish I could sneakily drift over to the river’s edge, climb up the bank and run away.
4.30pm I’m out of the river! I’m alive!
7.00pm Now this is what I’m good at – eating. I am on a dinner cruise on a luxury catamaran, filling plate after plate with roast meats and seafood while a heavily accented Scandinavian in a Hawaiian shirt plays guitar and sings retro party-starters. We cruise the calm waters of Trinity Inlet under the light of the moon. It’s really rather lovely, especially out on deck.
10.00pm Back at the Pullman and out like a light.
8.00am I’m standing on the deck of yet another massive catamaran as it pulls away from the marina. This time, I’m off on a full-day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef with tour operator Passions of Paradise, along with many backpackers and a couple of friends. Our first stop is Michaelmas Cay, a thriving bird rookery on the reef.
It’s not exactly the kind of island you’d want to stretch out a towel on for long because of all the squawking, swooping and pooping going on, but it is a beautiful place to snorkel, and bird-watchers would love it. It’s one of the most important nesting colonies for seabirds on the Great Barrier Reef, and home to common noddies, frigate birds, silver gulls, sooty terns, great crested terns, lesser crested terns and, um, insert brown boobie gag here.
On the way back we stop, seemingly in the middle of the ocean, at Paradise Reef, where we get some deep-water snorkelling in. Passions of Paradise has a great introductory scuba-dive offer where you get the first 10 minutes free. You are taken down to one metre to get a feel for it and learn basic dive skills such as cleaning your mask and clearing regulators. If you don’t enjoy it, you come back up, if you do, you can stay in and pay for the full dive when you get out.
We speedily cruise back under full sail, stretch out on the deck and soak up the sunshine. We arrive back at Marlin Marina at 5pm.
7.00pm Cairns has an unfair reputation for being a bit ho-hum when it comes to dining out, but it’s not all steak houses and pizza parlours. Salt House is a real stand-out. It’s part restaurant, part bar, half indoor, half out, right on the waterfront at Cairns Pier. It’s beautifully decorated in dark timber and cream and red upholstery. Water features create partitions between spaces and romantic lighting includes lanterns hung from trees and candles on tables.
It’s a balmy evening, and my friends and I sit in an outdoor booth and tuck into massive antipasto plates and cocktails. What a brilliant end to the weekend.
10.25am My flight departs Cairns and arrives in Sydney at 1.20pm. I can’t get back to the office in time for a half-day, but I feel like spending the rest of the day catching up on sleep anyway. It’s been a productive weekend. I’ve found out what sports I don’t like in one of the prettiest places in Australia, and I lived to tell the tale. But now I think about it, I wouldn’t mind another go on the Minjin Swing. That was fantastic!
AJ Hackett Bungy jumps from $139 per person. The Minjin Jungle Swing costs from $99 per person. McGregor Rd, Smithfield, Qld. 1800 622 888;www.ajhackett.com/cairns
Ocean Spirit Cruises Dinner cruise: $89 per adult, $40 per child (4-14yrs). Level 1, Shangri-La, Pier Point Rd, Cairns. 1800 644 227; oceanspirit.com.au
Passions of Paradise A full-day cruise to Michaelmas Cay and Paradise Reef costs $149 per adult; $449 for a family pass (two adults and two kids aged 4-14yrs). Spence St, Cairns. 1800 111 346;passions.com.au
Pullman Reef Casino Hotel Rates start from $199 per night for a superior room. 35-41 Wharf St, Cairns. 1800 808 883; pullmanhotels.com
Reef House Resort & Spa Romantic Getaway packages include three nights accommodation for two with return limousine transfers, daily breakfast and one three-course dinner including wines, from $654 per person. 99 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove. (07) 4055 3633; reefhouse.com.au
RnR The half-day grade three Barren River whitewater rafting tour costs $130 per person, including transfers. (07) 4041 9444; raft.com.au
Salt House Open midday to midnight Mon-Thurs; 7am to 2am Fri-Sat; 7am to midnight Sun. Marina Point, Pierpoint Rd, Cairns. (07) 4041 7733; salthouse.com.au