Our last stop in Australia was Cairns – where we would relax by the sea and spend the New Year’s Eve.
The tropical north, Cairns is a laid back city in Queensland. It is a popular tourist destination because of its access to one of the seven natural wonders of the world – Great Barrier Reef. From Cairns, you can also visit the Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation and Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat.
There is a growing interest in Cairns from the Chinese leisure market and you can actually see the effect of Chinese people and culture all around the city. As the tourism plays the major part of Cairns economy, we felt like people use this opportunity to charge money for everything. It is hard to plan a budget travel in Cairns if you want to see the sights and attractions.
The airport is very close to the city center. You can watch planes landing and departing from the coastal boardwalk called Esplanade Boardwalk. Unfortunately it is prohibited to swim in the sea as there are seasonal stingers which are deadly jelly fish, and saltwater crocodiles. Instead, you can flock to Esplanade’s spectacular lagoon which is a 4800 square meter salt water swimming pool packed by backpackers, children and families. Swimming is allowed between 6:00am and 10:00pm daily so you can even enjoy the moonlight while you are in the pool at the evenings when the weather cools down. The lagoon is surrounded by free electronic BBQ facilities where families and friends gather around. Having picnic in parks seems like a very common activity in Queensland, however people are not allowed to consume alcohol in public areas.
Restrictions and prohibitions such as walking dogs, smoking, consuming alcohol, bringing glass in some designated public areas are valid in Queensland just like New South Wales. So be careful about signs and behave accordingly.
Where to Stay:
You have a few options in terms of accommodation areas in Cairns. If you are looking for luxurious resorts, you may want to prefer Palm Cove or Port Douglas. Port Douglas is around 40 minutes away from the city center while Palm Cove is a bit further on the north. There are designated areas in the sea where people can swim, as stinger nets are designed to protect swimmers from stingers.
Another option to stay at is Fitztroy Island. It is located 29 kilometers south-east of Cairns, with transfers taking only 45 minutes by ferry (75 AUD). You can stay at the beautiful Fitztroy Island Resort or go for Camping. The sea is amazing, and there is no stinger nets in the sea. There may be less of a danger but you should still be careful.
Having stayed in the center – Cairns Plaza Hotel – I would definitely choose to stay in Fitztroy Island next time. Cairns Plaza Hotel was an old city hotel with a few amenities. The pool is very small and no one really uses it. The breakfast was also below average and there are no safe boxes in rooms. If you want to keep your personal valuables in the safe at the reception, you need to pay 7 AUD/day. Plus, the receptionist told us to call our tour company to confirm our pick up place from our room and we were charged another 7 AUD for 2 minutes of local call while checking out. We would at least expect to be informed about the charges of phone calls – or the help of reception for a simple tour pick up confirmation.
The last hotel we stayed in Cairns was Rydges Esplanade Cairns Resort, and it was much better than the Cairns Plaza Hotel which was just next door. It was January 1st, and the hotel restaurant/bar was charging extra 15% on all bills even though you have to go to the bar and order your food yourself.
Cape Tribulation and Daintree Wilderness Tour:
We booked this tour via Qatar Airways Holidays website. We really enjoyed the tour as we finally got to touch koalas during our visit to Port Douglas Wildlife Habitat. Not only holding cute koalas, but also feeding kangaroos were amazing!
After having our pictures taken with koalas, we headed to Daintree National Park and the Daintree River. After a tropical lunch at the Daintree Rainforest, we took a walk along the beach where rainforest meets the sea (Don’t ever think about swimming there as there are crocs). After having a bit more walk in the Rainforest by seeing mangroves, spiders and even ants with green butts (the tour guide said they are tasty!) we took a river cruise to spot crocodiles. Crocs we’ve seen were not really big as we expected but it was a nice tour overall.
Great Barrier Reef
As we like to dive, we thought spending the New Year’s Eve on a boat in the middle of The Great Barrier Reef would be a good idea. So we booked a 2 days/1 night live aboard tour with Cairns Dive Centre, paying 500 AUD.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be a backpacker tour rather than a once in a lifetime experience.
First of all, the tour was too expensive for what we got. The rooms were dirty, old and stinky, the boat wasn’t well maintained, dives were chaotic and most importantly, dive masters/guides are not included in the price of a diving tour.
We felt like they constantly cared about making more money on us rather than providing a good service. They charge extra for Go Pro hire, pictures taken under the water (20 AUD/picture), dive guides (15 AUD per person even if you dive with 8 people with a single guide) and courses if you want to get an advanced license during your trip. The instructors didn’t seem to care too much, which didn’t give us the feeling of truly being welcomed there. It was like a commercial boat causing hectic for boat residents as new divers arrived/left every morning.
The food was good and plenty. You would have to pay extra for soft drinks and alcohol.
Once we arrived the boat by a smaller one, we were a bit disappointed by the fact that we were stuck in that boat on The New Year’s Eve. Well, we went to sleep on our plastic covered beds at 10:00 AM anyway, but you’d expect a bit of quality after paying such an amount of money for such a tour to one of the seven natural wonders of the world right?
Still, sitting under billions of Southern stars with no phone distraction on the last evening of 2016 was still enjoyable and special. At the end of the day, it is not where you are but who you are with!
When it comes to the reef itself, we were also a little bit disappointed with what we saw. It might have been the case because either we were not on the outer reef, or we were too spoiled by having dived in other countries such as Maldives and Indonesia (Gili Islands). We saw some sharks, turtles, coral gardens but not as plentiful as expected. The visibility was also not great but that can of course change with seasonality.
On our return back to Cairns, they couldn’t organise the drop off shuttle, so we had to wait for the second bus, sitting on the pavement at the harbour. It proved one more time that the 4 stars level payment was for only a tour with backpacker standards.
If you are not into backpacking style travel, we don’t suggest a live aboard tour to Great Barrier Reef with Cairns Dive Centre. Instead, you may consider taking other options as below:
1- Taking a helicopter tour for a good view from top of the reef (300-350 AUD from Cairns)
2- Taking a daily diving/snorkelling tour (100-150 AUD)
We flew back home the next day, leaving Australia with crazy memories – and the curiosity to see more of it.