What can you tell me about Cairns?
February 5, 2008 6:50 PM   Subscribe

The wife and I are finally going on our honeymoon, and we've finally decided on a place: Cairns, Austrailia. We'll be there in March, roughly the 10th til the 16th. What can we expect? What can you recommend?

I've done some research and have a good overview of what we can do. Some plans and questions:

1) Train ride and gondola ride to Kuranda.
2) Snorkeling at Green Island and/or the Great Barrier Reef.
*due to an ear condition (can't equalize), I can't really scuba dive, but are there any outfits that have full helmet scuba equipment? Also, what about taking a large sailboat with a group out to the Reef?
3) How are the beaches in Port Douglas? Best beaches?
4) How's the Daintree rainforest?
5) Are local/shuttle buses convenient, or am I better off renting a car?
6) I want to try some "adrenaline" activities--whitewater rafting, jetboat rides, zip lines, etc.
7) I'm pronouncing the city "CARENZ". Does this sound silly to you Aussies?

We want this to be a pretty relaxing trip, so doing everything is not on the table. We voted against going to New Zealand, because it seemed like there was too much to do there, and just chilling out in a few places would be a bit of a waste. Cairns seems like a place with plenty to do, but not overwhelmigly so and quite chill.
posted by zardoz to Travel & Transportation around Cairns, Australia (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It'll be hot. Even though it's autumn in theory, February and March can often be the hottest months in Queensland. It's definitely more the humidity though!
I've heard great things about Port Douglas and the Reef but have never been. Luckily you'll be going in a non-peak time cos it's not school holidays or winter, so you shouldn't be too crowded.

I'm sure someone can help you out way more than this though. Have fun!
posted by indienial at 7:06 PM on February 5, 2008

"Canz" (no "r")

I'd spend as much time on the reef as possible. Shame about the ear thing...I don't know about full helmet equipment, but one of my great regrets is not abandoning all my other plans and just staying on Magnetic Island and diving the reef every day. It's one of the world's most amazing amazing treasures and won't be around for much longer. And unless Cairns has changed ALOT since I was there, the town itself is no great shakes.
posted by Auden at 7:07 PM on February 5, 2008

Swimming in the sea may not be such a good idea at that particular time of year, box jellyfish may be around.

Swimming in creeks is probably best avoided

Beach combing and playing in rock pools may be worth avoiding

Bush walking might not be such a good idea

Be aware of picking up rocks on the reef

Rail trip to Kuranda is fantastic.

Townsville is a great place to visit, couple of hours drive south of Cairns, interesting history, and more of a true 'Queensland' town than Cairns which is a bit touristy IMO

I wish I was in North Queensalnd right now, it's fantastic, you'll love it.
posted by mattoxic at 7:22 PM on February 5, 2008

Pronounce it cans, as in 'tin cans'
posted by mattoxic at 7:23 PM on February 5, 2008

I used to live up there. Don't miss Mossman Gorge. Beaches are meh (say compared to the Gold Coast) because they're often surrounded by mangroves (mud & mosquitos) but Four Mile Beach is pretty nice. The beaches have a very gentle slope, so it can take you forever to walk out far enough to be able to swim, and there is NO surf, or if there is, it's because there's a cyclone nearby and you shouldn't be in the water.

I haven't been back in about 15 years, but I can't believe that the shuttle/bus system has improved enough to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, I do recall a number of deaths from tourists not used to driving on the left side of the road, more than in Brisbane, and part of that is because the cues to stay on the correct side (like other traffic) can be minimal.

I personally liked Low Isles over Green Island for snorkling. It has a light house and is a tiny atoll, with NO SHOPS on it, and fantastic coral (back then) right off the shore.

The rainforest is fantastic. Really. But you can see a good example of it at Mossman Gorge and walk through it. I loved Cape Trib(ulation) but it's a fair drive from Cairns, say an hour from Cairns to Port, another hour from Port to Daintree, and then (from memory and it's a long time ago) at least another two hours to Cape Trib.

And Auden's right, it's Canz (or Cans if you like. I had a teacher spend about 6 months with the class, trying to get us to say C-air-ns, but we couldn't hear the difference).
posted by b33j at 7:31 PM on February 5, 2008

Okay, yeah, it's fun to talk about the dangers of coming to Australia BUT here's the thing, you're not going to swim in the creeks where the crocodiles are (muddy and unclear), when you can swim in the Mossman Gorge.

If it's jellyfish season while you're there, there will be plenty of warnings on the beaches and TV, just remember to take vinegar with you, it could save your life.

The jellyfish have troubles negotiating the reef, so you'll still be able to go snorkling. If you go diving, your body will be protected by a wetsuit, so you'll be fine. Also the dive operators have lost too many people (and had movies made about it) so they're really a lot more careful and probably won't leave you on the reef.

Don't go bushwalking without a guide, particularly in the rainforest. Apart from the snakes, there's some nasty plants that could do you a fair bit of damage. However, the boardwalks provided for tourists are perfectly safe.

Townsville is 4 hours south of Cairns, if you drive at the speed limit and pretty boring, in my opinion. But I only lived there for 4 years. Magnetic island is beautiful, but the reef/coral is better further north. I think you get a bigger experience in 6 days based in Cairns than you would in Townsville.
posted by b33j at 7:45 PM on February 5, 2008

Daintree rainforest rocks. Try to go on a tour on one of the rickety aluminium boats with a colourful local as your guide.

There are some beach areas which are netted off where you can swim - but you have to check the time of year when there aren't crocs around as well.

And um yeah - don't go swimming in any old creek that looks cool and inviting.... also fun is going to a crocodile farm [pic].
posted by gomichild at 8:17 PM on February 5, 2008

Caveat: I've never been to Cairns. But no-one else has answered this bit yet. I'm assuming you're an American.

Regarding Q5, in my experience in Australia, generally you are best off renting a car rather than relying on public transport, unless you are part of a large group on a scheduled tour, or otherwise are able to strictly plan your days. In my experience cab and public transport charges work out to at least 2/3 the hire car cost and are just not worth the extra hassle.

If you choose to drive, here's a basic primer: we drive on the left, and our speedometers and road signs are calibrated in km/hr. Speed limits in urban areas are generally 50 km/hr (~30mph) or 60 km/hr (~38mph). Outside built-up areas, the limit goes up to 80 (~50mph) and 100 (~60mph) on highways. Ask for "petrol" rather than "gas" to refill your car. Most service stations are self-service. The protocol generally is you stop at the pump, fill your car, and walk in to pay. You are legally required to carry your driver's license, and it's advisable to carry the car's documentation etc in its glove box. Traffic law here is probably more or less the same as what you're used to, but in case not: don't use a mobile phone, don't have a blood alcohol content over 0.05, do wear seatbelts, and you aren't allowed to left-turn on red lights at intersections unless a sign says you can.

If you're in the habit of driving manual gearboxes, I strongly recommend you hire an automatic, because the different driving habits you develop will help reinforce that you're driving on the LEFT side of the road here. YMMV.

General tips: Once you're in town buy a cheap umbrella and a towel to keep in the car (we're coming into the Big Wet here, and even if it's sunny, the umbrella will be nice on the beach), buy 30+ sunscreen and insect repellent and use them often, and if you do get sunburned, ask a chemist for Aloe Vera lotion to rub on it. Chemists also stock topical skin relief for insect bites; if the mozzies (mosquitos) and sandflies bother you on day one, get some, because by day three, you'll wish you had.

Foods to try: Vegemite (spread it very thinly), macadamia nuts, lychees, loquats, and if you get the chance, "miracle fruit", which is itself not very interesting, but it has an odd effect on your taste buds, such that it will suppress your sense of sour or bitter tastes and make lemon etc taste sweet to you. If you like fish, try grilled barramundi.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 8:59 PM on February 5, 2008

Rent a car, its cheap. A little Hyundai Getz can be 35$AUD per day.

Spend a day doing a tour around the tablelands...the "waterfall tour" is great. Kuranda-Mareeba-Atherton-Yungaburra-Malanda-Millaa Milla - Innisfail-Cairns.

Take the gondala up, and train down... or vice versa. Kuranda is pretty touristy, but the trip up & down are good.

Forget green island, very very touristy. Imagine being on a boat with 300 Asian tour group ist swarming the island...Now, imagine 3 boats per day. Green is the most accessable from Cairns, but the most crowded. Do one of the other islands.

Do a full day outer reef trip from port douglas. Reef Endeveours is the one locals recommend over Quiksilver. (Quicksilver way touristy)

Townsville? hmmm...better than Rockhampton or Gladstone...but not much! Actually Townsville does have a cool aquarium, but not alot of other intereting stuff.

Port Douglas is expensive, but cool. Mossman gorge, and up towards cooktown is a cool drive.

Drive between Port & Cairns is spectacular.

Cairns has a good esplande lagoon pool now.

There is rafting on the Tully river...50k (?) south of Cairns out of Innisfail. Water should be good at this time of year.

There is a AJ hackett bungy out of Cairns too.

Also...consider doing a sail trip or diving out of Airlie Beach (Whitsundays). (Look up Whitehaven beach pictures on flickr)

Happy to answer other questions...been there a few times there now business & pleasure :P
posted by dripped at 9:10 PM on February 5, 2008

It's called "Cans" when you're in Cairns, but other Australians have wide range of pronunciations.

I wasn't particularly inspired by Cairns, other than the daily bat migration. That was kind of cool.
posted by tkolar at 9:15 PM on February 5, 2008

It's possible to holiday without a hire car in cairns, for example, some reef tours will pick you up from your hotel or a central point. However like most places in australia you're life will be much easier if you have a car (public transport here is awful). Are you planning on staying in cairns itself? Or up the coast a bit? The city of cairns is not that exciting (no real beach, there is a man-made one, and the night life is a bit backpacker-ish), but some of the beaches north of cairns are nice (my wife and i got married at palm cove, ~30 minutes north of cairns).
I'd recommend Cape Tribulation, it's very pretty (you can stay there overnight, I haven't done this though). A tour on the daintree river is good, kuranda, but the reef is the thing to see.
Australians will pronounce it "cans" or "canz", but to really sound like one of us you need to practice pushing the sound out through your nose as you say it :)
posted by theothersteve at 9:20 PM on February 5, 2008

I definitely recommend going up to Cape Tribulation. It's beautiful. See if you can organise a walk through the Daintree Rainforest with a guide - it's a much better experience because they tell you all about the eco-system you're wandering through. Also they can remind you not to go in the rivers - at one point on our tour we were standing by a river and our guide (a German biologist) laconically remarked "if you tried to swim across you'd be lucky to get halfway". Which then leads you to going on a crocodile tour as well.
posted by awfurby at 9:31 PM on February 5, 2008

Oh, and just so you know, much of Queensland is flooded at the moment- it should be all good by the time you get there, but I'd definitely recommend a 4x4 rather than a normal car if you do hire a vehicle. I live little bit south of Cairns and every time it rains, the roads are almost unusable for non 4x4s.

This will mainly apply if you want to go anywhere interesting- the town itself should have decent roads, but getting down to the beach etc will be much less stress with a 4x4.
posted by indienial at 10:40 PM on February 5, 2008

For rafting, I'd recommend Raging Thunder. They'll pick you up at your hotel in Cairns in the morning, so transport isn't an issue. They do half day trips on the Barron River and full day on the Tully. I did the Tully run and it was excellent.

If you want to do bungy, AJ Hackett is like a 10 minute drive from the center of Cairns, as noted above. If you don't have a car, they'll pick you up too.
posted by jewishbuddha at 11:37 PM on February 5, 2008

I was in Cairns 7 or 8 years ago, so it might've changed, but I found it a little touristy. I much preferred Port Douglas. Port Douglas was calm and quiet, which is what I was looking for at the time.
posted by sharkfu at 11:38 PM on February 5, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks, all, it's hard to pick best answer, so props to you all. Keep them coming in torrents, please.
posted by zardoz at 1:18 AM on February 6, 2008

More possibly-out-of-date advice (OK... more than 10 years ago) but if you're going to the reef, shop around - at least when I went, a lot of people got onto huge catamarans where you were enclosed until you got to the reef. We happened to find an old pearl clipper - a big old sailing boat with an open deck - and had much more fun, leaping off the mast into the sea, sunbathing etc.
posted by penguin pie at 2:39 AM on February 6, 2008

I was in Cairns on holiday a couple of years ago. Some highlights:

Tandem skydiving. Can't remember the name of the company, we jumped south of Cairns, but not at Mission Beach. The landing was on a small beach surrounded by hills and forest. Superb.

Whitewater rafting. We did a grade 3 rapid, as my SO is not very sporty. It was good, but both my SO and I would recommend doing a higher grade rapid if you're feeling at all adventurous.

Snorkeling on the reef. I can't scuba either, so had to settle for snorkeling. We went to a platform out on the reef that also had some full-head gear that was used to allow you to walk down onto a balcony a few metres underwater. Hire an underwater digital camera.

Rainforest tour. We took a one day trip up into the Daintree, though not as far as Cape Trib. Well worth it.

All of these activities can be booked from any of the numerous tour operator offices around Cairns. Not all of them are available every day, so you should check them out early in the trip.

BTW, we did not have a car. Pretty much everyone will pick you up in Cairns if you're doing an organised activity.

Cairns is pretty touristy, but that can also have advantages - lots of places to eat and drink.
posted by Jakey at 2:52 AM on February 6, 2008

The waters between the mainland and the Reef can be pretty dicey (I was there one August so it may be different in March). So, if you have ear problems that might make you more susceptible to an upset stomach, I'd take precautions.

We loved the rainforest (there was a butterfly preserve somewhere around there). Yes, "Cans" (and "Melbun" if you get down that way).
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 9:58 AM on February 6, 2008

I was in Port Douglas last July. Before planning our trip, I asked everyone I knew in Sydney to make recommendations for Cairns, and the universal reply was, "don't stay in Cairns, stay in Port Douglas." So we did. We liked Port Douglas a lot and found it very relaxing and laid back. It reminded me a lot of Key West. My impression of Cairns is that it is extremely touristy, which can be fun if you like that kind of thing. There's no real beach in Cairns, although the selection of restaurants and other passtimes is far greater than Port Douglas. I guess it kind of depends on what kind of vacation you are after. Port Douglas might be more suitable for a honeymoon. Port Douglas is a long sandy beach on one end and a quiet river harbor on the other.

We did both snorkling and diving, and to be honest, I preferred the snorkling (it was my first time diving, and I found the crowded boats a bit overwhelming). There are tours that specialize in doing snorkling-only, which can take you to shallower parts of the reef. We used (and liked) a smaller company called Wavelength. We also saw some sailboats advertised for snorkling trips.

I second the recommendation to get a car. We didn't, on account of our short stay (5 days—about the length of your stay), but you might want one. We were too busy snorkling and diving and relaxing on the beach to manage any other outings, so the car really didn't seem necessary. My only regret, however, was not getting up to the Daintree/Cape Tribulation. It's supposed to be amazing, and next time I would make the effort.

Port Douglas is a bit pricer for accommodation, but we got a good deal on a room at an eco-resort on the southern edge of the town called Thala Beach Resort, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Kind of off the beaten track and really felt like paradise. You should be aware of the differences between the hotels and resorts. The resorts (and there are many in PD) are more isolated and self-contained and they can get pricey if you're stuck eating all your meals there. We were able to pick up some staples in town for some meals to store in the room fridge, and that worked out well for us, kind of giving us the best of both worlds.
posted by amusebuche at 2:35 PM on February 6, 2008

When we were last there we hired a convertible Saab and drove to Mosman Gorge and Port Douglas. It was a lot of fun and there was no need for 4WD.
I would suggest for a honeymoon staying on one of the islands (or the Whitsudays?) might be nice, as you are out on the reef with beach stuff at the door, plus most will take care of food and entertainment in the price.
Very relaxing, even if it is only for 3 or 4 days.
posted by bystander at 8:15 PM on February 6, 2008

Stayed 10 days in Cairns in 2006.

1. Cans, like cans of soup
2. Kuranda was pretty cool. do the train up and the skyrail down. make sure you have time to shop while youre up there.
3. the reef is all blue. colors only show up in photos because they bring special light
4. the beaches in cairns are horrible! the reef breaks all the waves, no waves. no sand, just mud full of dead plants. extremely disappointing.
5. we took a taxi into town and walked around, pretty cheap.
6. there's not much to do IN cairns, have to go out and about
7. take in some culture while youre there. the aborigines are interesting, but not nearly as cool as the maori of new zealand
8. there is a helmet dive offered on the see-the-reef tour we took, you still have to equalize your ears, but if you're ok flying, you should be ok. the wife has problems with her ears and she was ok. its very expensive, and you dont get to go down more than about 25ft.
posted by phritosan at 8:55 AM on February 7, 2008

nthing staying in port douglas instead.
posted by phritosan at 8:56 AM on February 7, 2008

Just got back from our honeymoon in PD in November- you'd be crazy to stay in Cains if you can afford to go to PD (and for your honeymoon you should splurge, IMHO). We stayed right downtown and had a great time. There are lots of great restaurants, not too noisy, very clean. We ate a different place every night, never needed a car, had lots of nice walks on the beach and great tours that all picked us up at our hotel. I would stay at a small hotel or vacation home in town as opposed to a resort, as the town is small and has a lot of variety.

I think that the stinger season ends in March. If they're in when you're there, then you will have to wear jellyfish suits (not too annoying , YMMV) at all times in the water, and you won't be able to safely walk into the water from the beach except in the 200 foot netted off section (of a 4 mile long beach).

Quicksilver has the diving-bell dives. They also have a HUGE diving platform (with helicopter) at the outer reef and the biggest boats around. This is your only "diving" choice if you can't equalize, but expect to have crowds on the boat & platform (We went out with a smaller boat for Scuba & snorkeling). I'll post the name of the boat that we went out with when I think of it.

Unless you're really into the idea of diving I bet that snorkeling (from a smaller boat) will be more fun (and romantic), as diving on the reef (or anywhere, really) is only great if the weather is perfect, since you lose light quickly when you get to the bottom. My wife snorkeled while I dove, and when I joined her snorkeling the next day I wondered why I was bothering with all the gear when all the life & light was on the surface.

Beware that the Kuranda rain forest tour is a tourist trap on rails. I'd recommend taking the train up and the gondola back (or vice-versa), but don't get a package as they'll coral you into going to things that you might not want to do and not give you enough time for the things that you do want to. The butterfly sanctuary at the town there is really really great.

We also went up to the Daintree rainforest and enjoyed ourselves. The guided tours there were very small and enjoyable.
posted by Four Flavors at 3:34 PM on February 7, 2008

I go to Cairns pretty regularly for work. Trinity Beach is nice. The esplanade is nice, but the restaurants there are way overpriced. I almost always stay at the Palm Royale (not the Palm Royal villas) - you can get some great rates at Wotif. There's a nice beer garden just up the road.

Otherwise, Cairns is like a seedier, dirtier version of Townsville. Mangroves, mudflats and mozzies. Like Townsville, the good stuff is outside the city - in particular, the reef and the rainforest. Cairns itself? Meh.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:51 AM on February 8, 2008

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