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Tropic Wonder

Tropic Wonder

Cairns may be the gateway to some of Australia’s most memorable wilderness experiences, but there are plenty of reasons to linger in this blissful Tropical North Queensland city. 

TrueBlue Magazine - Aug/Sept 2019

Words: Natasha Dragun


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There are not many places in the world where I’d feel comfortable walking along the street at night sans shoes. But on a steamy summer evening in Cairns, ditching my heels and strolling barefoot along the Esplanade after dinner seems like the natural thing to do. This city in Tropical North Queensland (TNQ) may be Australia’s fourth most popular destination for international tourists, but it’s a world away from the bustle of Sydney, Melbourne and even Brisbane, around 1,700 kilometres to the south. The vibe here is sleepy at its quietest, and laid back at its busiest – and it does get pretty busy, if statistics and tourism developments are anything to go by. 

Recent figures show there was a 15 per cent increase in domestic visitors to TNQ for the year ending September 2018, with many in the industry predicting numbers will reach all-time highs in 2019 and beyond, thanks to a boom in new infrastructure, not least the just-opened Riley hotel. 

Luxe lodgings

The first new five-star lodgings to welcome guests to Cairns in two decades, Riley joins the fast-growing portfolio of homegrown hospitality group Crystalbrook Collection. The property is a snappy redux of the tired Tradewinds motel, which had enjoyed a prime Esplanade position overlooking the Coral Sea for decades. The once-drab building has been transformed into a light-filled, nature-loving cocoon of white and wood, with the 311 rooms and suites split across the original space as well as a new, Olympic torch-shaped tower, its 12 storeys top-and-tailed by dining establishments and a spa. The entire complex envelops the central pool, which has direct access to the lobby, waterfront and an all-day-dining restaurant. And this time next year, Riley will have two new Crystalbrook sisters in town: Bailey and Flynn, both within (barefoot) walking distance along the Esplanade, and all three with distinct design ’personalities’. 

Since the trio of Cairns lodgings was announced, the city’s other accommodation offerings have been forced to take note, with a number – including the Shangri-La, Pullman and Novotel – undergoing renovations to keep up with Crystalbrook’s brisk pace of expansion. 

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But above and beyond the shiny new hotel rooms, the real reason to come to this part of Queensland is to get outside. All perfectly positioned for expansive views across the magnificent Coral Sea, Cairns has a 4,800 square metre saltwater lagoon pool with sandy edges. It’s part of the enormous Esplanade waterside precinct, which also comes with a skate park, volleyball courts, weekend markets and numerous cafés and restaurants. 

I have dinner booked slightly further along the marina at Hemingway’s Brewery, a breezy new restaurant and bar in the shadow of hulking cruise ships that port just metres away. House brews here range from a tropical lager to an XPA – and whatever you order, it’s best enjoyed outside in the garden, with sticky chicken wings or salt-and-pepper squid on the side.

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World Heritage assets

Experiencing close to 250 days of sunshine a year, Cairns is the gateway to two World Heritage sites: the Wet Tropics of the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. My first day here is spent exploring the latter – from the sky, from the sea, and from the ocean’s depths. My GBR Helicopters chopper departs Cairns heliport and flies low over water so crystal clear it’s as though someone has taken the glasses off my nose and cleaned them for the first time. We zip across opalesque lagoons toward Green Island – home to Cassius, the world’s largest croc in captivity at 5.5 metres long – and then touch down on a long stretch of Fitzroy Island sand, where a picnic lunch awaits. 

In this part of the archipelago you can stroll along the sea floor off Green Island with Seawalker, or take a mini yellow submarine ride around Fitzroy, experiencing TNQ’s marine bounty without getting your hair wet. But I have an underwater date further east on Moore Reef, where my chopper lands atop a pontoon with horizon views for days. 

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It’s here that I join freshly minted cruise expedition Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel for a tour of the world’s largest coral reef system through Indigenous eyes. The company’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers tell us 60,000-year-old Dreamtime stories about the reef’s creation, before we slip into the warm water to snorkel and scuba } among some of the 1,500 species of fish that call the Coral Sea home. Drifting between bommies and coral fans, I spot cardinalfish, moray eels, clownfish and turtles – the boat’s marine biologist tells me the reef is home to six out of seven of the world’s turtle species. 

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Back on dry land, the Indigenous songlines surrounding Cairns are just as strong. West of the city, rainforest-draped mountains are home to the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail Rainforest Cableway – I go over the Great Dividing Range on the former, and come back to the coast on the latter. Constructed in the late 1800s, the railway is still considered one of Australia’s greatest engineering feats, and on my journey I glimpse orchids, palms and strangler figs, not to mention the incredible fauna – I’m told to keep watch for the country’s second-largest bird, the southern cassowary, which is thought to number only around 2,000 in the wild. On the return journey waterfalls cut beneath me through a dense matting of the world’s oldest rainforest, casting a prehistoric shadow over the countryside. 

When I jump off the Skyrail I make a beeline for Tjapukai, a cultural centre celebrating the region’s traditional landowners. Visitors can learn to play the didgeridoo, taste bush tucker, watch Indigenous dancers and storytellers, and join a corroboree in the evening. By day or by night, this is a magical introduction to Tropical North Queensland – a bit like Cairns in a vivid snapshot.

 
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FAST FACTS

• The Yirrganydji and Gimuy Yidinji people are the traditional landowners of Cairns, with many more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities having a connection to the Great Barrier Reef. 

• With Riley hotel up and running, sister Bailey is due to open in late 2019, while Flynn will join the portfolio in early 2020. Crystalbrook is also planning two new properties at the Port Douglas Superyacht Marina, around 70km north-west of Cairns. 


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