CAIRNS was pegged out over the site of a sea-slug fishing camp when gold was found to the north in 1876, though it was the Atherton Tablelands’ tin and timber resources that established the town and kept it ahead of its nearby rival, Port Douglas. The harbour is the focus of the north’s fish and prawn concerns, and tourism began modestly when marlin fishing became popular after World War II. But with the “discovery” of the reef in the 1970s and the appeal of the local climate, tourism snowballed, and high-profile development has now overshadowed the unspoiled, lazy tropical atmosphere that everyone originally came to Cairns to enjoy.
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For many visitors primed by hype, this sprawling city falls far short of expectations. However, if you can accept the tourist industry’s shocking intrusiveness and the fact that you’re unlikely to escape the crowds, you’ll find Cairns a convenient base with a great deal on offer, and easy access to the surrounding area – especially the Atherton Tablelands and, naturally, the Great Barrier Reef and islands. Cairns’ strength lies in doing, not seeing: there are few monuments, natural or otherwise.
Aside from visiting the reef, or when you’ve had your fill, there’s a fair amount to see and do within a 30-minute drive of Cairns. Highlights include wallowing in the pristine waters of Crystal Cascades or kitesurfing off Cairns’ quieter northern sandy shores.
North of Cairns
Just a couple of hours’ drive north of Cairns on the Cook Highway are the Daintree and Cape Tribulation, the tamed fringes of the Cape York Peninsula. The highway initially runs to Port Douglas and Mossman, a beautiful drive past isolated beaches where hang-gliders patrol the headlands. North of Mossman is the Daintree, Australia’s largest and the world’s oldest surviving stretch of tropical rainforest.
Massive development in recent years has seen the quaint fishing village of PORT DOUGLAS, an hour north of Cairns, turned into an upmarket tourist hub, with a main street full of boutiques, shopping malls and holidaying hordes. However, the town does have the idyllic Four Mile Beach, along with plenty of distractions to keep you busy for a day or two, and it’s getting to be as good a place as Cairns to pick up a regional tour or dive trip to the reef.
The town comprises a small grid of leafy streets centred around Macrossan Street – which runs between Four Mile Beach and Anzac Park – with the marina a couple of blocks back. Between the end of Macrossan Street and the sea, Anzac Park is the scene of an increasingly busy Sunday-morning market, good for fruit, veggies and souvenirs. Near the park’s jetty is the whitewashed timber church of St Mary’s by the Sea, built after the 1911 cyclone carried off the previous structure.
Out to sea, the vegetated sand cays known as the Low Isles make a good day-trip, with fine snorkelling, a lighthouse and an interpretive centre.