Tiana templeman see what’s new and new on a Cairns weekend getaway
Cairns is the Hugh Jackman of Australian cities. Refreshingly authentic and undeniably warm, with a crazy charm that is irresistible. Like Jackman, Cairns seems to improve with age.
Once considered a convenient starting point for the reef, the unofficial capital of Far North Queensland has recently grown into a landmark destination in its own right. There’s a vibrant new arts district, chic little bars, coffee roasters, award-winning restaurants, microbreweries and more to keep you entertained in and around the CBD.
Take your bearings
Cairns International Airport is a 10-minute drive from the CBD. The pedestrian-friendly town center is easy to navigate on foot, and you will find shops, bars, restaurants, bars and dozens of things to do just steps from your hotel. A car is handy for day trips, but if you’re in town for a while, not long, you probably won’t need one.
There hadn’t been a new luxury hotel built in Cairns in over 20 years until Crystalbrook Collection quickly opened three. Flynn joined the posh resort-style Riley and modern apartment hotel Bailey a few months ago and was worth the wait. Regarded as the group’s ‘social butterfly’, the contemporary 311-room hotel is located in the heart of Cairns overlooking the Coral Sea from numerous perfectly quiet rooms and several signature restaurants. All missing from the breathtaking transparent pool above the Boardwalk Social drinking and dining venue is an inflatable unicorn.
If you’re not up for baring everything in your bikini, there’s a second pool surrounded by luxury cabanas on level two with an Eleme Day Spa. Or you can join the good-natured crowd across the road at the saltwater swimming lagoon on the Esplanade (“the spikenard” for locals), which can seat 1,000 people. It is supervised by several lifeguards and open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Savor an a la carte breakfast with ocean views at Flynn’s Italian, which also serves as the hotel’s breakfast restaurant, before heading to the nearby Cairns Aquarium. It is the only aquarium in the world dedicated to the habitats and species of a single region and is home to more than 16,000 sea creatures large and small. General admission includes daily lectures and animal presentations, or you can upgrade to a small-group tour like the Marine Life Encounter which offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Cairns Aquarium and Turtle Hospital. , as well as the possibility of slipping squid in the velvety soft mouths of stingrays.
For lunch, the Candy Cafe offers some of the best coffee in town. Sauce Brewing Co. offers beer tasting palettes with a local twist and generous grazing platters. Down the street, Perrotta’s at the Gallery has a modern Mediterranean menu, and you can browse the Cairns Art Gallery and its excellent gift shop once you’ve finished eating. Drop into Caffiend for coffee and a chocolate brownie or strawberry pie. Or both.
Cairns has enough bars to suit all tastes and moods. Some of the more unusual choices include Prawn Star, a row of shrimp trawlers that have been converted to casual eating spots serving freshly caught seafood, and Flamingos Tiki Bar. This tropical basement oasis has glass windows facing the street and feels like a trip to Hawaii without the jet lag (or US dollar cocktail prices).
The Harbor Walk is lined with an impressive array of dining options. Walk-in tours are possible at many locations, but you’ll need to make reservations for the locals’ favorite Waterbar & Grill Steakhouse, which draws a crowd every night of the week. For equally good steaks and a sophisticated evening vibe, CC’s Bar & Grill’s indoor dining area offers a taste of the outback with a touch of European flair.
After an early breakfast, a half-day river tube adventure awaits. It takes around 30 minutes to reach the Mulgrave River where the guides adjust your life jacket and help you put on yellow helmets that make everyone look like a Minion. Once you’re kitted out, it’s time to grab an inflatable tube and jump into the water. This tour is suitable for ages 5 and up and is cooler than thrilling, but negotiating rapids in a red floating donut can be harder than it looks. Getting thrown is part of the fun because the water is crystal clear and barely waist-deep.
Upon your return to Cairns, ask to be dropped off at Rusty’s Markets, famous for its intoxicating mix of nationalities, international produce and delicious food. Locals have been coming here since the 1970s to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables; foreigners mainly visit for the ambiance, the food stalls and to post colorful photos on Instagram.
Top choices for an affordable and delicious lunch include locally roasted beer created by award-winning roaster Billy Haoda at Billy’s Coffee, a short walk from Thi Thi’s Cafe, and just about everything from Frenchies Patisserie which is just across from Billy’s.
A helicopter trip over the reef or rainforest is a must this afternoon if the weather (and your budget) allows. Otherwise, there are plenty of other things to keep you entertained. Go swimming in the lagoon or take a gondola ride on the Skyrail Rainforest Cable Car for a unique perspective on one of the most important rainforests on the planet. Near the entrance to the Skyrail you will find the Australian Armor & Artillery Museum, which is the largest museum of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Every Wednesday is Open House with a free 11:30 am tour led by a tank expert and the chance to peek inside rare tanks.
When night begins to fall, walk down the red brick alley 100 yards past the art gallery and into the sultry surroundings of the Three Wolves Cocktail Bar. Reserve a table on Friday or Saturday night or come early for happy hour from 4 p.m. The vibe is as warm as a night out in Cairns and cocktails wouldn’t be out of place at the coolest bars in New York City.
From there, walk up the road and take the elevator to Rocco for another drink and watch the sunset, or go straight to dinner. Downstairs in Rocco, Paper Crane has an enticing Asian / Australian fusion menu with standout dishes such as vodka flambé shrimp and sizzling chicken kaphrao. About 80% of this restaurant’s produce comes from within a three-hour drive of Cairns.
Air New Zealand’s direct Auckland-Cairns seasonal service operates from July 1 to September 30. Outside of these dates you can travel via Brisbane with Air NZ, Qantas and Jetstar.
Check the latest border restrictions in each state and territory before traveling. For more information visit australia.com