Australia

Cairns and Great Barrier Reef: Our Great Australian Adventure, Part 1

Rex Lookout Cairns

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In our next few posts, we will embark on our great Australian adventure, beginning with Cairns, Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef in northeastern Australia.


Summer is rapidly approaching, and the days (and Chris’ hair, thanks to COVID-19) are getting longer.

Last summer we went to Australia. By summer, we mean November, during the southern hemisphere’s summer.

Wow, was it amazing! This was easily one of our favorite trips–if not THE favorite trip–we’ve taken to date.

Logistics

Visa

U.S. citizens need to obtain an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) visa to visit Australia. It’s a quick, painless process. Apply online (each person needs to apply separately) and pay a service charge of 20 AUD/person. We received the acceptance emails with our visas immediately. The ETA will allow you to stay up to three months. For citizens of other countries, check the list of eligible passports under the Eligibility tab to determine whether you qualify for the ETA.

Another option for citizens of certain countries (but NOT citizens of the U.S.) is the eVisitor visa. The eVisitor visa is free and allows a stay of up to three months. Check the list of eligible passports to determine whether you are eligible to apply for this visa type; if not, you may have to apply for the ETA. The list of eligible passports does not include the U.S., so U.S. citizens must apply for the ETA.

If you plan to stay longer than three months (lucky you!), check the Australian Department of Home Affairs Visa List to find a visa that fits your needs.

Length of time

We flew from Los Angeles, CA to Cairns, Queensland, with a layover in Brisbane. We spent about 3.5 days in and around the Cairns area.

During our time there, we snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef, visited two rainforests, cuddled a koala, fed a wallaby, drove on the wrong side of the road, ate crazy exotic meats, and watched bats fly over our heads.

Whew!

Then we flew from Cairns to Sydney, New South Wales, and spent another 3.5 days in the Sydney area, including Coogee Beach, where we hiked 7 miles along the coast. You can read about our time in Sydney here.

Overall, we spent 7 days on the ground in Australia. We could’ve stayed longer, much longer, and probably should have given the length of the flight, but we saw everything we had planned to see in that amount of time.

Flight to Cairns

We hopped on a Virgin Australia flight from Los Angeles to Cairns, stopping for a few hours in Brisbane. While we would’ve loved to fly first class, or business, or ANYTHING but coach, we are cheap accountants and booked economy.

We lucked out on our seats. The Boeing 777’s economy section was divided into a 3-3-3 seating arrangement. However, each side of the plane had two rows of seats at the verrrry back, near the lavatories and kitchen, with only two seats per row. 

Lavatory sounds/smells be damned; we reserved one of those rows with two seats and didn’t have to deal with a third seat-mate on our 14-hour flight. Best. Decision. Ever.

Our overhead reading lights weren’t functional, but otherwise we were as comfy as we could possibly be in economy. The only hiccup was the passenger behind Christina pounding on the touchscreen on the back of her seat while she tried to sleep. Finally, she turned around and somewhat-kindly schooled him on the use of the attached remote control. 

Don’t be that guy. If the touchscreen has a remote, please, for the love of God, use it.

14 hours in the air is very long. Our body clocks were out of whack for a day or so, but it wasn’t as bad as we’d anticipated. Well worth it.

We did not go hungry on our flights. Traveling in each direction, we had two full meals and a hot snack. Most of the food was decent, but one of the hot snacks was a vegetarian hot dog in a soggy bun, and it was so awful neither of us could stomach more than a bite. Additionally, the crew stocked bags of chips, fruit, juice, and water in a galley for passengers to grab.

Lodging in Cairns

Being a mid-sized city at the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns has numerous lodging options. We booked a condo timeshare near the Cairns Esplanade within walking distance to shops and restaurants. The place had a nice pool but otherwise few amenities. No daily housekeeping, which was fine for the amount of time we spent there.

Driving

Depending on what you plan to do, you can get by without renting a car in Cairns. For the Great Barrier Reef tour, we walked from our condo to the wharf to catch our boat, but we could’ve taken an Uber.

Cairns weather

November was a fairly good time to be in Cairns, though hot on sunny days. Cairns is surrounded by rainforest, and as such, it was extremely humid, especially when we ventured into the rainforest. The climate felt similar to Hawaii. A couple locals mentioned November is a slower time for tourism, partly due to the heat and partly due to marine stinger season (more about that below). This was fine for us, as most tourist attractions were not overcrowded.

Dining

Cairns offers numerous restaurant options with a variety of cuisines, and many are located along the waterfront with outdoor seating. If you want to get crazy, you can try all sorts of exotic meats and seafood, like we did.

One night we dined on a sampler platter of various sea creatures, including “mud bugs,” which looked like small lobsters but with a less-than-appetizing name. The platter also had oysters, scallops on the half shell, a crab cake, fried calamari, crab, prawns, and barramundi.

Seafood platter for dinner

Another night we tried kangaroo, emu, and crocodile, none of which we need to order again, but they were fun to try.

Plug adapter

Australia uses a Type I plug adapter. We purchased these plug adapters from Amazon before our trip, and they worked well for us.

Great Barrier Reef

Most people come to Cairns because it’s a jumping-off point to the Great Barrier Reef. We booked a full-day boat tour through Seastar Cruises to Michaelmas Cay and Hastings Reef. We chose Seastar because they were highly rated and had the best price and features for what we wanted.

Our boat left right away in the morning from the wharf in Cairns. The whole operation of checking in and getting our gear was smooth and well-run. The crew provided muffins, tea, and much-appreciated coffee while checking everyone in. Then it was off to our first stop, Michaelmas Cay.

The crew offered the option to add scuba diving lessons and equipment when we checked in, even though we hadn’t booked the scuba diving package with the tour. We had zero interest in scuba diving. No way, no how, thank you. We saw plenty of creatures snorkeling.

Seastar’s website claimed they are the first to arrive at the reef, and that turned out to be true; no other boats were present when we arrived at Michaelmas Cay.

Michaelmas Cay is a nesting site for over 20 species of birds. Hundreds, if not thousands, of birds flew around or stationed themselves on the Cay.

Birds at Michaelmas Cay, Great Barrier Reef
Birds at Michaelmas Cay, Great Barrier Reef

Crew members led us on a snorkel tour and pointed out various creatures and reef formations along the way. We saw all sorts of colorful fish, giant clams, coral, and even a sea turtle. After the tour, we snorkeled a while longer on our own until we got tired and returned to the boat.

The tour package included a glass bottom boat ride, so we did that, as well. We didn’t see as many fish on the glass bottom boat, and overall we are glad we didn’t pay extra for it, but it was a welcome break from snorkeling.

After the glass bottom boat ride, the crew served a tasty buffet lunch. Then it was off to our second stop, Hastings Reef, where we again followed a crew member as she pointed out bright coral and fish. Afterward, we went off on our own to snorkel.

This Great Barrier Reef tour was a full, exhausting day of activities and a great experience.

Activities in and around Cairns

Cairns Esplanade

The Cairns Esplanade is a seaside park with a public swimming pool, barbecue grills, a lagoon where pelicans and other birds flock, and a walking path along the shore. Walking along the path our first afternoon was a great way to ward off jet lag. Christina was dying to sleep, but we both agreed it would be best to stay awake until a normal bedtime, if possible.

Pelicans at Muddy's Playground, Cairns Esplanade
Pelicans at the lagoon near Cairns Esplanade

The Esplanade also features many restaurants with outdoor patios. As we strolled along the walking path, we perused restaurant menus to decide what to eat for dinner. We paused at a brewery along the way, which may have been a mistake because the cider made Christina even sleepier.

Night Markets

The aptly-named Night Markets open in the evening and are comprised of food vendors (mostly Asian cuisine), merchant stalls, and beauty services (think tiny fish nibbling on your dead foot skin). We purchased most of our souvenirs at the Night Markets at decent prices. While we did not eat dinner there, many of the food stalls were tempting.

Watch for bats!

While waiting in the hotel lobby to check in, we heard loud screeching outside. Christina expected to see a tree full of birds. Instead, she saw multiple trees full of bats.

You read correctly: BATS.

Bats in a tree in Cairns
Bats in a tree in Cairns

Large bats with fluffy tan heads. We later learned two types of bats live in Cairns: spectacled flying-foxes and little red flying-foxes.

AWESOME.

As if that wasn’t surprising enough, we later discovered that right around sunset the bats leave the trees and fly over the city in chaotic circles looking for food. They are LOUD. The sidewalks were littered with their droppings, referred to as guano (Christina credits Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls for that vocabulary word. See, Dad? You CAN learn something from a man who talks out of his butt.). We decided it was best to watch them from beneath an awning or on our covered balcony. We tried to capture them in this video.

Bats flying over Cairns at dusk. Turn on the volume to hear how loud they are!

If you don’t like bats, stay indoors from sunset until…possibly the next morning. We don’t actually know when they stop flying because we are rarely awake past 9:00 PM, even on vacation.

Kuranda Scenic Railway

One of our favorite activities was riding the Kuranda Scenic Railway to the town of Kuranda, where we had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hold a koala. In fact, there was so much to do, and we had such a great time, that we wrote a separate post about it!

With a car and extra time on our hands…

We found ourselves with an extra day, so we rented a car to explore destinations beyond the city of Cairns. In Australia, vehicles travel on the left side of the road, and the driver sits on the right side of the vehicle. We half-expected to end up like Clark and Helen Griswold in London in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. Clark drove on the right side of the road instead of the left, collided with a bicyclist, and got stuck for hours in a traffic circle near Big Ben and Parliament.

None of that happened. We were totally fine. Chris drove the car on the correct side of the road like a boss, and we live to tell the tale.

Sadly, the only kangaroo we saw on this drive was a dead one that had been hit by a vehicle.

Daintree National Park: Mossman Gorge

We drove to Mossman Gorge, part of Daintree National Park, a scenic 1 hr 15 minute drive north of Cairns along the coast. We parked at the visitor center and took a shuttle to the hiking trailheads.

The hiking trails are varied in length and difficulty. Part of the trail was easy and flat on a wood boardwalk along the Mossman River, with several river viewpoints. A longer dirt loop trail wound through the rainforest.

Port Douglas

Port Douglas, a beach town north of Cairns, is home to 4-Mile Beach (a strange name, given kilometers is used for distance there). Port Douglas mainly served as a lunch spot after our hiking at Daintree, but we were also interested in seeing 4-Mile Beach.

As you might expect from the name, 4-Mile Beach offered a long, wide stretch of sand, perfect for sunbathing, beach volleyball, and other fun beach activities–had anyone been there. The entire beach was practically empty, and we soon discovered why.

October through May in northern Queensland is stinger season, when marine stingers (venomous box jellyfish) come out to play. We were there in November, prime time for marine stingers. On our snorkel trip at the Great Barrier Reef, we wore stinger suits to cover our entire bodies, including our hands, head, and neck all the way up to our chin. As such, water access at 4-Mile Beach was closed save for an area enclosed by a net for swimmers.

4-Mile Beach in Port Douglas
4-Mile Beach in Port Douglas

Cairns Botanic Garden

The Cairns Botanic Garden is not far from downtown Cairns (a 7-minute drive or a 45-minute walk), and we could’ve taken an Uber. Since we already had the rental car for the day, we stopped at the Botanic Garden on the way back from Daintree and Port Douglas.

We were hoping to see lots of crazy plant life, being in Australia and all, but sadly the Botanic Garden was a bit of a disappointment. Most of what we saw were plants from other parts of the world, not local plants. Go figure. Plus, since we were there in the summer, we may have missed flower blooms. There were also a lot of ferns. If you like ferns, this is heaven. We don’t much like ferns.

If we’d had yet more time to kill

Given more time in the Cairns area, we would have considered the following activities:

  • Cairns Aquarium
  • The other main section of Daintree National Park, Cape Tribulation, which requires crossing a river on a car ferry.
  • Other national parks in the area. Australia is teeming with national parks!

So, how much did this trip cost?

Since we documented Our Great Australian Adventure over a series of three posts, we summarized the costs for the entire trip in a separate post. Be sure to read our other posts about Kuranda and Sydney first before reading the trip cost summary!

Have you been? Would you go?

Have you been to the Cairns area? Snorkeled or scuba dived at the Great Barrier Reef? Tell us about it in the comments!

If you haven’t been there, would you go? Anything more you want to know? Let us know in the comments or contact us!


Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, has much to offer!

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Traveling Accountants

We are accountants who love to travel.

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4 thoughts on “Cairns and Great Barrier Reef: Our Great Australian Adventure, Part 1

  1. Such a complete review of the country. I always wanted to visit it and will use your article to help me plan my trip! Love your blog and will be coming back for more.

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