Cairns and the Barrier Reef is waiting for you to take a spring break, writes Mike Yardley.
If marinating in your own body sweat is not your idea of tropical holiday bliss, now is the perfect time to escape to Cairns and Far North Queensland. Cooler temps and low humidity define the dry season that runs all the way through to November. Some travellers who flock to Cairns can’t wait to get out of the city – the kind of city that the very term ‘gateway’ was coined for. North Queensland’s enviable tropical wonders are right on the city’s door, including the rare distinction of straddling two UNESCO World Heritage-protected treasures: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest. But you’d be robbing yourself by not savouring the spirit of Cairns. It’s joyfully compact in size, easily navigable on foot and packed with intriguing finds.
Facing out on languid Trinity Inlet, gazillions has been splashed on the Esplanade developments in the past ten years, bursting with enticing eateries and scalloped by a salivating boardwalk, abuzz with fitness fanatics. Adjacent to the Esplanade, join the locals and soak yourself silly in the superbly designed Lagoon. That’s my kind of marinating! This 4800 square metre saltwater complex is really just a super-sized outdoor swimming pool. But its locale and atmosphere lends it the feel of a of a designer tropical island waterhole. In what has been a steady evolution to the cityscape, the wider project has now extended into the Esplanade Dining Precinct, which has just been completed.
This gorgeously engaging layout features new contemporary awnings, an extended dining area, inviting vertical gardens and grassed mounds and it’s an overtly pedestrian-friendly. When it comes to liveability, Cairns has big brag-factor. A short walk from the esplanade lagoon leads you to Marlin Parade and the marina, brimming with cruising vessels and super yachts, on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef. Flanked by premium dining venues, it’s also home to Prawn Star, where you can dine aboard a restored fleet of gnarly old fishing trawlers.
It is an irresistibly unique experience, where it’s all about super-fresh seafood and ice-cold beer. The premise of Prawn Star is simple: add a communal table to each trawler, assemble a handful of fresh seafood dish selections – no accompaniments, no bread, no fanfare – and let the marina atmosphere work its magic. The bare bones menu offers a choice of platters, spanning oysters, prawns, mud crabs, Moreton Bay Bugs and salmon sashimi. Prawn Star is tropical dining perfection: clamber aboard and stuff yourself.
I also ventured to Ochre Restaurant, lauded as one of the most innovative contemporary Australian restaurants. Located on Marlin Parade and boasting supreme waterfront dining, revel in this virtual tour through the culinary delights of Australia. With a flawless dedication to celebrating local produce, Ochre crafts native ingredients into modern exciting cuisine. Now enjoying its third decade of operation, Craig Squire, renowned Australian chef, and owner of Ochre Restaurant has been quite the trail-blazer in bringing bush and native ingredients onto the contemporary dining plate. Ochre’s menus feature over 30 different native foods and the best of local produce, all sourced within a 100km radius of Cairns.
It’s all about savouring creative native Australian cuisine, from the abundance of fresh local seafood, meats, fruits and nuts. The restaurant is thoughtfully styled to reflect the outback, loaded with natural timber. My entrée? Well, I opted for two. Morganbury beef carpaccio with native peppers, green ants with rocket and pecorino. Plus I snacked Emu Wontons, on Roo Satays in a macadamia satay sauce. For my main, I gorged on Tempura Gulf bugs on lemon grass with green papaya salad and sweet chilli lemon myrtle sauce. It is celebratory inventive dining.
For something quirky and irrepressibly touristy, make a date with Outback Jacks – it’s quite the institution. If you’ve harboured the desire to devour the Australian coat of arms, namely the emu and the kangaroo, well, you’ve come to the right place. Another speciality at Outback Jacks, which I have to say was surprisingly good was their crocodile wraps. Super lean meat, packed with protein, succulent and tasty. Also in Cairns, the Flecker Botanic Gardens make for a soothing stroll, particularly the Rainforest Boardwalk, which is a great lead-in sampler of North Queensland’s ravishing tropical botany.
Just north of the Botanic Gardens is the Tank Arts Centre, which has ingeniously transformed massive ex-WWII fuel-storage tanks into a gallery of local art and performing-arts space. The main drag of Abbott St is adjoined by a clutch of historic buildings worth a nosey, including the Cairns Regional Gallery, Cairns Library and the heritage-listed department store building, Boland’s, sporting afresh lick of creamy-white paint. Top tip? As twilight unfolds, enjoy the free aerial wildlife exposition as vast flocks of flying foxes swoop over the city centre. The trees by the library absolutely swarm with them.
Port Douglas and Cairns are the dual staging posts for the beguiling watery adventures that await in the Great Barrier Reef. From Port Douglas, just 50 minutes north of Cairns, I joined leading eco-tourism operators, Sailaway, who ushered me out to the northern frontier of Great Barrier Reef. Ideally suited to conservation-minded adventure seekers, this Outer Reef experience whisks you by luxury sailing catamaran to the Mackay and Undine Cays. Situated 40km north of Port Douglas, these two coral cays are sensational, where pure white sand is surrounded by a large fringing reef system and crystal clear water. Sailaway is the only Port Douglas operator granted access to visit these cays.
The fringing reef is colossal, like a giant nautical candy store when exploring the shallow coral gardens. You will see a mesmerising assortment of giant clams, scattered all over the reef top, up to 80 years old. Despite all of the catastrophising political rhetoric about coral bleaching, the reef colours are gob-stopping in these crisp, clear waters. Many “in the know” locals remarked to me that the vibrant variety of colours in the coral gardens are currently among the best they’ve personally experienced. Much has been made of the major bleaching event five years ago, but evidence abounds that the reef is substantially rebounding. Enormous endeavours have been deployed to give nature a helping hand.
Coral cultivation and out-planting is blossoming under the likes of John Edmondson’s Coral Nurture Programme, which Sailaway is intimately involved in. Snorkelling in this wondrous iridescence, you’ll marvel over a tremendous variety of reef fish, like parrot fish, angel fish, sharks, butterfly fish, coral trout, and anemone fish, dancing before your eyes. Green turtles guarantee a frisson of added joy. The coral gardens are alive with plate corals, staghorn corals, boulder corals, soft sponges and anemones. Snorkelling is conducted off the back of the vessel and you find yourself right on top of the coral gardens.
Being shallow and protected, you can’t stand on the coral gardens so a good swimming ability is necessary to admire the beautiful corals, and fish life up-close. Sailaway has a strong focus on sharing their passion for the marine environment through reef interpretation with expert guiding. Their team of qualified marine biologists are a font of knowledge, only too happy to share their insights on this living natural wonder and the marine life you encounter. It’s a magical day out that will be seared into your memory. https://sailawayportdouglas.com/
From Cairns, you’ve also got a spoil of reef encounter options. I took a day-trip to the family-favourite destination of Fitzroy Island. Just 45 minutes from Cairns on the Fitzroy Flyer, this barefoot island getaway serves up a flavourful introductory encounter with the Great Barrier Reef. The family-owned and managed Fitzroy Island Resort operates the island facilities. The island is designated a National Park, in deference to its spectacular walking trails, rainforest, beaches and abundant marine life, in the calm sheltered waters. It’s jaw-dropping to think the island was previously connected to the mainland before the last Ice Age. The island is at the forefront of the Reef Restoration Foundation’s sterling work, establishing a series of offshore coral nurseries, starting at Fitzroy Island.
The process mimics nature and allows damaged reefs to re-open faster and increase resilience to future bleaching events. Since its launch nearly 4 years ago with coral growing trees, Fitzroy Island has out-planted over 300 trees back into the reef. How does it work? The team collect small amounts of healthy corals that have survived the last two years of high temperatures, making them more resilient to higher water temperatures and coral bleaching. The corals are collected and grown in an off-shore coral nursery on Fitzroy Island. After 6-12 months, cuttings are taken from each of the growing corals and planted to the reef to grow and regenerate damaged sections. The original corals remain in the nurseries to re-grow and the process becomes a continuous cycle, creating thousands of new corals.
I took a snorkel around the island’s coral gardens, where the techni-coloured blaze of pinks, purples and apricots was irresistibly reassuring about this subterranean wonderland. I also took the short walk to Nudey Beach, which was crowned Australia’s most beautiful beach three years ago. It’s a sweet little princess of a beach. I loved the walk’s sharp contrasting beauty, from the lush vivid greens of the rainforest to the giant granite boulders and the sparkling azure waters beyond. The resort itself is instantly seductive, well-appointed and stylishly designed with a spoil of comforts. You could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve clicked your heels and spirited yourself to a swanky island resort in the South Pacific. Accommodations cater to all budgets because the owners are determined to ensure families can afford the treat of a tropical island holiday.
There’s a variety of tours and activities, but a must-do is to pay a visit to the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre on Fitzroy Island, which is dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick and injured turtles – many who fall victim to boat strikes and marine debris ingestion. The Great Barrier Reef is home to six of the world’s seven species of marine turtles, including Green and Hawksbill turtles, and with 20 tanks, this is Queensland’s largest volunteer-run rehab facility, caring for creatures from as far as Cape York. Fun fact: turtles can stay underwater for 7 hours. You could never tire of seeing these graceful creatures in the water. www.fitzroyisland.com
The hotel scene in Cairns is constantly being refreshed and a new comer that is turning heads, right above the Esplanade Dining Precinct, is Crystalbrook Flynn. Ultra-contemporary, art-filled and very calming, staff are highly attentive and accommodations are indulgent. From glass swimming pools and zen-filled wellness and meditation spaces to dynamic dining experiences where there’s always a DJ ready to play and a martini ready to be shaken.
Each room and suite has an iPad control centre, STAYCAST by Google for video streaming, access to hundreds of complimentary movies and Nespresso machines (with recyclable pods). The shimmering pool is a godsend for a cooldown, while you also have an Eléme Day Spa and a 24-hour gym at the ready. www.crystalbrookcollection.com/flynn
Escape the everyday, escape to Tropical North Queensland, where the rainforest meets the reef. A one million year old garden and the world’s largest pool. For timely tips and trip inspiration, start your exploration on the Sunshine State’s official visitor website. www.queensland.com
I travelled to Australia with Cover-More Travel Insurance, which has embraced the Covid age with added benefits and protections, over and above the typical travel cover, for the likes of medical treatment. Their single-trip policy covers you if get COVID-19 or you’re placed into quarantine due to contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you cannot travel. You are covered for $250 per night if the person you were planning on staying with gets COVID-19 or they are placed into quarantine. You are also covered for cancellation or new accommodation expenses if your pre-paid accommodation is shut down for cleaning and for cancellation costs if your prepaid holiday activities are closed down. When you’re booking a trip to Australia, lock in travel insurance you can trust. https://www.covermore.co.nz