A Week In Cairns

Choosing a Destination

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The infamous cassowary road sign

We had been living in Australia for 6 months when a good friend visited from the UK around Christmas 2013.  Now this provided me with a good excuse to take a holiday to another part of Australia but it took some deciding where we should go.  Suzi was visiting Australia for 7 weeks and apart from a trip to Sydney and the Blue Mountains was spending the majority of her time in Victoria.


Australia is far too big and diverse to cover in one single trip and Suzi was sensible to not even try.  In any event she was on holiday and the last thing she wanted to do was to spend her entire vacation flying around like a lunatic trying to tick all the boxes and see all the sights.

So I set about trying to think of a destination which would show her different part of Australia and considered several possible destinations for a one week holiday Australia in January:

  • Tasmania – ruled out as we would need to hire a car and neither of us was confident enough
  • Uluru and Alice Springs – not enough to do apart from see the big red rock and probably a bit too hot
  • Kakadu – wet season so not ideal and far too many crocodiles
  • A beach somewhere on the east coast

We agreed on a beach holiday so that narrowed it down to somewhere along 4,200 km of coastline from Victoria in the south through New South Wales to the tip of Queensland in the north.   In an attempt to narrow it down we agreed the following criteria:

  • Beautiful and unspoilt beach
  • Great weather
  • Easy access the Great Barrier Reef
  • Not too busy or quiet
  • Other attractions beside the beach
  • Affordable

As the host I felt a certain amount of pressure to get it right but I had only been living in Australia for a short time so my knowledge was non-existence.  There is a colossal choice and I simply had no idea where to start.  The Wooky was no help as it was 20 years since he had been anywhere and he was only able to comment whether the fishing was any good (and bearing in mind he never catches anything I wasn’t even sure that opinion was valid).  I asked work colleagues but received conflicting views of various places.

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Warning: Crocodiles…EVERYWHERE

So I took to the internet, travel blogs and trusty old TripAdvisor.  After much deliberation I finally settled on the beaches north of Cairns and booked an apartment on the seafront at Clifton Beach which, as it turned out, was pretty ideal.

First Impressions

Cairns is a 4 hour flight from Melbourne and Clifton Beach easily accessible from the airport.  Clifton Beach is a quiet area sandwiched between Palm Cove to the north and Trinity Beach to the south, and this part of Queensland is within easy reach of both the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef.

Our one bedroom apartment was perfect with a balcony facing the sea and a small swimming pool in the pretty tropical gardens at the back.  Facilities in Clifton Beach are fairly limited and geared towards the self-contained market with a shopping centre near the main highway and a large supermarket.

Getting Around

We hired bicycles for the duration of our stay and it was convenient to cycle up to the supermarket for supplies (generally wine and pizza).  Trinity Beach and Palm Cove were only about 20 minutes ride away and both have a wider variety of shops and restaurants than Clifton.  Palm Cove is considered more upmarket and Trinity Beach more backpacker.

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MORE crocodiles…

If you were so inclined you could cycle all the way to Cairns in just over an hour but we were on holiday not in training for the Tour de France so we gave that particular challenge a miss.

Otherwise, if you booked a tour it usually included a pick up at your hotel.  Alternatively, taxis were available.

How We Spent Our Time

It was January when we visited so just before the rainy season and at times it was hot and humid but sunny and breezy on our apartment balcony.   Unfortunately it was also jellyfish stinger season so, inviting though the sea was, we decided not to risk it even where there were nets in place on various beaches.  In any event, I think we were both a bit put off by signs everywhere warning of crocodiles – on footpaths, near creeks, and even on the beach.

At the outset we agreed on a healthy mix of sightseeing and relaxing.  We decided to book 3 full day excursions which left plenty of time to explore the area on our bikes, and spend a fair amount of time relaxing and lazing around by the pool.

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Beautiful deserted Queensland coastline

We selected three trips:  a boat trip and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef, a tour taking in the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation, and a visit to Kuranda which included riding up on the Scenic Railway and down on the Skyrail Cablecar.  You can read more about those trips here.

I am also pleased to report that Suzi finally saw a proper mob of kangaroos.  Chatting to people around the pool we heard rumours of a huge herd of 150-200 kangaroos just off the main road south towards Trinity Beach and beyond.  So one late afternoon we set off in search of them.  We cycled for about 40 minutes and we were about to give up when in the twilight we came across about 150 kangaroos in a field.  Obviously, they were all huddled up along the furthest part of the field and the light was fading so they were hard to photograph but it was good to see them.  Nothing says you’re in Australia more than a kangaroo.

Clifton Beach only has one or two restaurants and although we were mainly self-catering we decided to go out one evening (Suzi’s treat – thanks Suzi!) and we even dressed up for the occasion.

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The Great Barrier Reef view from above

Otherwise we would head over to Palm Cove in the late afternoon, have a bite to eat and a couple of beers before quickly heading back to base before night fell and we came a cropper trying to cycle home in the dark along the narrow paths through the trees which are a short cut from Palm Cove to Clifton.

A Word on Indigenous Culture

I do have one observation which is appropriate to mention here although it is relevant to Australia as a whole.

Having lived in Melbourne since our arrival in June 2013 I could be forgiven for thinking that Aboriginal culture was an abstract concept.  As far as I could tell half the population of Victoria was descended from early British settlers and convict deportees, and the other half seem to have their origins in southern European (Melbourne is famous for its Greek and Italian culture) with a sprinkling of Vietnamese refugees and other recent migrants from Asia.

In Melbourne there is scarcely any evidence of the indigenous culture, beyond a few signs stating “We Acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this Land” strategically placed in parks and other public spaces.  (By the way, I’m still not sure what that’s actually supposed to mean but that’s another ponder for another day.)

Queensland was a refreshing change and for the first time I kind of felt I was actually in Australia.  There was much more of a mixture of European descent as well as indigenous people and the first Australians clearly made up a larger proportion of the overall population than other places I had been in South Australia and Victoria.

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Dressed for a night out

Indigenous peoples all over Australia continue to experience significant inequality and suffer endemic prejudice entrenched across all of Australian society.  I decided I felt more uncomfortable when this party of Australian’s heritage was invisible.  I have unpleasant sense that the issue is being, if not ignored in a city like Melbourne, then maybe brushed aside as it is not something that really affects that part of the country so it’s swept under the carpet and hidden from view.

I have no doubt my views are naïve and simplistic but I am an ordinary newcomer to this country with a fairly limited knowledge or understanding of this issue and I suspect my reaction would be fairly typical and therefore relevant for that reason alone.

Final Words

North Queensland is a great place to visit and apparently it’s even better in the Australian winter when it’s warm and sunny and not quite so humid.

The Great Barrier Reef is obviously the big draw but with its close proximity to the Daintree Rainforest and the wild northern tip of Queensland Cairns is an attractive destination where you are unlikely to get bored.  There were plenty of trips and activities to choose from and had we had more time and money we would have taken more advantage of the variety on offer.

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Beautiful turtle

The more adventurous can enjoy bungee jumping, white water rafting, hot air ballooning and more.  As mentioned earlier we opted for the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Skyrail, a snorkelling trip to the reef, and a full day tour with Billy Tea Tours taking in a river cruise, Cape Tribulation and the Daintree and although a week is not a long time we felt we saw plenty but also had plenty of time to relax.

Queensland definitely felt more Australian to me than the southern states or South Australia or Victoria but I sometimes forget that Australia is the size of western Europe and is not only an enormous country but has a huge range of climate and landscape from one end to the other.

And the pace of life in Queensland, being tropical, is slower and more laid back which in my book is reason enough to jump on a plane.  Just take care to avoid the cyclone season as things can get a bit hairy.  Oh and keep an eye out for crocodiles.  And sharks.  And jellyfish.

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