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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

My one “must do” for Australia was the Great Barrier Reef, and visiting the Reef means going to Cairns. The climate reminded me of Hawai’i and I saw many plants that I see at home. The region is even a huge sugar producer like Hawai’i once was.

Cairns also happens to be the backpacker capital of Australia and is accordingly littered with the accompanying hostels, bars, clubs, etc. I stayed at the Reef Backpackers, which was a 10 minute walk from the Esplanade and cheap for Cairns ($18/night with free wifi). It wasn’t the cleanest or the nicest hostel I’ve stayed at by any means, but it was good for what it was. One small caveat: if you do stay at the Reef, don’t bother going to the “free BBQ” on Sunday evenings. The hotdog cooked on a flat top, two pieces of bread and raw onion they were serving made me question the definition of BBQ in Australia.

What draws backpackers – and most everyone – to Cairns are the surrounding attractions; the biggest being the Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Kuranda Rainforest Village, and the Table Lands.

Outside of the proximity to natural wonders, Cairns does not have much going for it as far as I’m concerned. The food scene was disappointing to say the least. There are plenty of restaurants that will give you a great contemporary Australian meal for $40+. Outside of that there are even more establishments catering to the backpacker crowd in the $8-12 range. These places serve absolute garbage. The two gastronomical highlights of my time in Cairns were Samoan food at Rusty’s Market and ramen from Ganbaranba. They were both outstanding and inexpensive. Rusty’s Market is an open-air farmers’ market that is open Friday-Sunday and a great choice for buying ingredients for making your own meals.

While I was in town, a Greek festival was being held in the nearby suburb of Redlynch. I ventured out there in hopes of having some great Greek food and was, once again, grossly disappointed. I got the sampler which included extremely dry fish, chewy octopus, nearly inedibly tough chicken souvlaki, decent lamb steak, 2 kinds of frozen fries, and salad.

Most of the action in town takes place on or around the Esplanade. In addition to being home to many restaurants, bars, hostels, and travel agencies, the Esplanade is also a great place to catch a sunset or do some grilling on the free BBQs on the waterfront. The trees by the pier are inhabited by very beautiful (and very noisy) birds. Speaking of things that fly, if you walk past the library around dusk, you can see dozens of bats in the trees.

The highlight of my trip to Cairns was spending some time with Rush, the digital manager for the regional tourism office. He is a really cool guy and let me tag along with him a couple nights. Rush knows just about everyone in Cairns and showed me a great time. We hit up several bars/lounges, checked out Cairns’ first open mic comedy night, and even attended a big 30th birthday house party just outside of town. Rush showed me that Cairns has happening, vibrant nightlife in addition to the great daytime activities in the surrounding areas.

Cairns had its highs and lows. The reef was incredible and, although I was extremely disappointed with my tour, the Daintree Rainforest is amazing. If you’re into higher end dining there are some great options, but I found nothing middle-of-the-road and restaurants that serve good, cheap food are few and far between. There is no shortage of nightlife options, but I particularly enjoyed Salt House and The Lounge. Cairns is worth visiting for easy access to the Reef and rainforest and there is certainly some fun to be had in the city, just don’t expect to find a tremendous amount of character or food culture.

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