Advertising professional. Newbie travel writer. Attracts novel experiences on her travels, mostly due to shoddy planning. Loves zombie movies, south Indian coffee, and ancient martial arts.
If you thought Cairns was your gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforests and all things green and gorgeous, you’re wrong. That’s because Cairns, snuggled between looming mountains and valleys and known for its distinct tropical vibe, is so much more than a mere stopover.
I suggest spending at least one day here, and that’s only if you’re time-poor. But if anything, you’ve got to experience one sultry night in Cairns. That’s what I did. I signed up for Urban Adventures’ Cairns by Night tour, a four-hour discovery of Cairns, from a local’s perspective. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, this tour is no longer available, but please check out our other tours across Australia!)
The friendly guide to Cairns
When my guide, Quey, graciously accepted my tour request on a holiday, I was relieved, but also felt a little guilty for cutting short his Sunday evening. Over the next few hours, however, a lot of that guilt dissipated when I discovered how much he loved showing off his city.
Quey, I found, wasn’t just a tour guide; in him, I’d found a passionate, intelligent friend, whose funny bone made for a rather entertaining evening.
The first stop on our adventure was the Wildlife Dome, where I got to scale the outside of a glass building tied to a harness, all the while getting a pretty unorthodox 360-degree view of the city.
As I literally hung out in Cairns, Tom Cruise-style, I also got a crash course in the city’s history from Quey. From spotting the Trinity inlet and learning about the US nuclear submarines lodged in its depths, to squinting my eyes trying to locate Louis Vuitton’s crocodile farm in the distance, it was quite an overview of the city.
As we made our way down to Earth and into the wildlife section of the Dome, Quey introduced me to a few of his local friends — among them a kookaburra that screamed bloody murder if he dared to say goodbye and a blue-tongued lizard that I could swear was teasing me.
I was handed a three-day pass to the Wildlife Dome so I could come back and watch Goliath, the 4-metre-long saltwater crocodile being fed, or maybe spend a few dreamy moments cuddling Nellie the koala.
Into an urban rainforest
As we headed towards the city centre, I spotted trees that looked like they belonged right in the thickets of a wet rainforest. Quey explained that the council wanted Cairns to be an ‘Urban Forest’ and has been reintroducing native trees back in the streets. That explains the strange symphony of exotic birdcalls amid revving cars all around.
Being in the heart of the tropics, surrounded by an ocean full of crocs and stingers, doesn’t mean you can’t have a good swim. We walked by the Cairns Lagoon, a safe swimming spot, year-round — complete with saltwater from the Trinity Inlet and a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.
The sun goes down
Next up was a stroll into the Night Markets at Cairns, teeming with Chinese food stalls and little Aussie knick-knacks like boomerangs, kangaroo hats and whatnot. After chomping down on all the veggie food in sight, Quey took me to his favourite massage parlour in town for a glorious 25-minute session.
And then, without warning, the clouds gave way and rain came crashing down. We hopped over puddles, ducked into stores and finally reached our last stop for the night: a breezy Marina-facing lounge bar.
As I quietly sipped my Summer Bright lager and watched the rainforest-clad mountains being pelted with raindrops, I felt like my night in Cairns was a pretty good indicator of life in Cairns.
I smiled at Quey, trying rather unsuccessfully to hide my envy.