Cairns has been on my must-visit list for as long as I can remember, for its exhilarating activities, for the surrounding rainforests and hinterland, and most of all – the number one attraction in Australia of course, the Great Barrier Reef.
Then we arrived in Australia and we kept hearing the same thing. Cairns is where you go to party. Cairns is the place to get drunk.
Now I’m all up for partying, but as we soon realised, Australia isn’t really the country you can do it on the cheap, nor is it a primary reason that I travel anyway. As time went on, Cairns actually became less and less attractive to me as a destination, because it seemed that perhaps there wasn’t actually all that much else to even do there. (Welcome to the backpacker scene, where all some people care about is getting f***ed up.)
I’m not going to lie. I didn’t love Cairns. But I far from hated it, and when we decided to leave a little sooner than expected to give ourselves more time in the surrounding areas, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave yet.
However, we didn’t get the greatest first impression when we arrived, and for the first time in Australia, really struggled to find free parking. Or anywhere to camp. We already knew that we wouldn’t be able to camp for free, and we were happy to actually splash out on a night at a nice camp site at the edge of town. That nice camp site, however (and yes, there was only one within reasonable distance of town), charged a whopping $40 a night. And that would be on top of getting in and out of the centre, plus the extortionate parking. So yes, for the first hour or so, I did hate Cairns.
We stayed in a hostel instead, paying $18 each which included free parking for our camper and a free shuttle to and from the centre. This was after a fairly lengthy search into hostels that even provide parking at all, but at least we got something, and it was a nice hostel too.
It also meant that we had somewhere to park the car for our snorkelling tour, AND the hostel even provided a free morning shuttle to the marina.
Strangely, snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t as high up on our radar as it should have been. Reactions from people we’ve met since sum up our concerns. “Is there even much to see? Isn’t it all dying?”
While I’m sure chunks of the reef have disappeared thanks to the millions of tourists who visit each year, thousands of whom carelessly kick the coral and kill it, there is still definitely plenty to see. Maybe the boats are having to go further out to find it (I’m not sure, I didn’t ask), but it’s still very much alive and kicking.
I am SO glad we decided to do it!
We went out to the reef with Falla, a small pearling boat that looks like a pirate ship. The all-day tour costs $130 which is a bargain compared to the huge catamarans that charge upwards of $200 for you to explore the reef with 100 other people. On top of this, we booked it on my beloved bookme.com.au for just $99!
Falla takes around 20 people, and it was a perfect size because no one was bumping into each other. There was also a good mix of people – unlike the previous tours we had done in Australia, this wasn’t exclusively a backpacker tour. In fact, the younger people that we did meet were either on holiday or studying in Australia rather than living and working. We also befriended a middle-aged British expat living in Sydney who had brought an older friend along, and there were families amongst our group too.
We made two stops for snorkelling, and got plenty of time at both, but I could have stayed out there all day! I even had two huge butterfly fish follow me back to the boat – I could have touched them if I had tried! AND we saw two turtles!
The only downside? I’d lost my underwater camera in the van so I didn’t manage to get any underwater pictures!
But let me tell you: I saw so many shades of orange that I didn’t even know existed. I saw a fish with bright green and pink stripes. I saw a massive pink, blue and orange fish and followed it around for a while. We found Nemo!! Twice! We saw absolutely tons of things, and it was the most amazing snorkelling experience I’ve had. I couldn’t get over how clear the water was.
I would have done another tour the next day in a heartbeat!
Instead, we needed to explore Cairns a bit more. The city centre is tiny so this didn’t take long.
We did, however, find a couple of trees full of flying foxes.
One of my favourite things to see in Cairns is actually the nightly flight of the thousands of bats into the night. We stood outside the night market two nights in a row at 6pm and watched them all take to the skies as they flew overhead – it’s noisy as hell but such a spectacle!
We also took a walk along the esplanade, explored the night markets (not actually very cheap, in my opinion) and, well, that was about it. I suppose this is probably why we decided to leave a day early.
I think my biggest issue with Cairns was the lack of atmosphere. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know. Don’t leave it off your itinerary, because it’s worth a visit and is the main hub for the GBR. And definitely don’t write it off, because a lot of people really love it! But it just wasn’t really for me.
And that was even after a night where I managed to have about 10 drinks for $16! Maybe not such a rip off after all.
Isn’t it funny how places on your bucket list can be a bit of a let down, and others you had never really considered end up becoming your favourite places on earth? (I’m looking at you, Hanoi)
Anyway, it was off to see the outlying areas around Cairns, to see if tropical north Queensland could really sweep us off our feet.