The opinions about Cairns that I had heard prior to visiting were “VERY small” and “backwards.” I found out that yes, it is small but not necessarily in a bad way. In fact, it’s small in a way that the city feels familiar even before you’ve seen it all. There are no daunting high rises, and glitz and glam are not priorities. As one of the local bus drivers explained it, “We didn’t want to look like the Gold Coast.” There’s something to be said for not looking like the Gold Coast. Many Australians hold a special contempt for the Gold Coast’s epicenter, Surfers Paradise, which tries to be some hybrid of Miami Beach and Las Vegas and attracts the same sort of crowd. In fact, it seems that many Australians dislike the urban feel (except for New York, of course!). About Brisbane, many locals like that “it doesn’t feel like a city.” It’s funny then that Cairns is considered too small. Cairns certainly feels suburban everywhere you go except the Esplanade, a 10-block stretch of bars, restaurants, and shops along the foreshore, ending at the pier and marina. The boardwalk is nice and modern, and there is even a fancy public swimming pool. There is every sort of venue you need: simple, down-to-earth pubs, fancier cocktail and tapas lounges, seafood restaurants, and importantly, a Bavarian Beerhouse. All just a stone’s throw from the ocean (at high tide). It was enough to keep me entertained.
Cairns: Far from a one-stoplight town. (Photo from http://www.cairnsplaza.com.au)
As far as “backwards” goes, I can only say that on average people were friendlier, more open to conversation, and less hurried than in Brisbane. Going around to several houses in the area for our fieldwork, my coworker and I were welcomed warmly by nearly everyone. I also noticed that most people had kempt yards with several beautiful gardens and planters. I’m not really sure where the “backwards” perception comes from, but maybe I didn’t spend enough time there to see it. (Note: Our hotel was in Manunda, which is not as bright and beautiful as other parts of Cairns. )
The most astounding part of Cairns is that it is surrounded by natural beauty. And I mean a huge serving of natural beauty. The Great Barrier Reef is what the city is best known for, but Cairns is also set against a backdrop of hills after hills of tropical rainforest. On the Skyrail trip over the rainforest canopy, I saw the Barron River spill over jagged rocks in a shocking display of rugged beauty. This city is really a gigantic natural playground.
Needless to say, I’m dying to return.