The Great Aussie Road Trip Part 6: Palm Cove and Cairns

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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Cairns » Cairns City
November 9th 2015
Published: November 17th 2015
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Continued from Part 5...

Day 17:

We awake around 8:00 and it’s fairly cool, not as humid as the night before. I slept well but Nimarta barely slept. We decide we’ll take a nap when we get to our place in Palm Cove. The drive north is relaxed, but we definitely notice that we are driving through a much more built up area than anything we have seen since Adelaide. This makes sense since this area has about 150,000 people. Still a small city, but much larger than anything we have seen in a while.

We don’t pass through Cairns on our way to Palm Cove, as we avoid the city and the traffic, if there even is any. After winding through some nice neighborhoods we arrive in Palm Cove. We decide to check out the beach first before going to our airbnb accommodation. We park at the beach and immediately fall in love with the area. There are palm trees lining the beach and a windy sidewalk runs parallel to the water. There are mountains in the distance to either side and the water is a beautiful shade of blue. Along the main road there are numerous restaurants and bars, as well as resorts and apartments. They are all on the far side of the road through, leaving the coastal side of the road free for park area, picnic tables, and barbecues. It’s an amazing place. To top it off, today is the Melbourne Cup (the Kentucky Derby of the Southern hemisphere) and the bars and restaurants are packed. There is a big party at one of the restaurants and the area is really lively, even at 10:00 in the morning.

We show up at the apartment we are staying at just after 10:00 and are greeted by Jake and Alice, a young couple that just moved to Palm Cove, though Jake is originally from Cairns. The apartment is brand new and total baller status. Three bedrooms, a huge balcony, new appliances, the whole nine yards. We later learn that Jake’s parents own it but they live in Hong Kong. After a shower it’s time for a quick nap, as we haven’t slept well in a few days now.

We hit the beach around 2:00. They have just put the stinger nets up today. These are the nets that are meant to protect from box jellyfish and other dangerous jellyfish. Box jellyfish are the only ones that will kill you, but some other species have stings so painful that they say you’ll wish you were dead. We head near the netted area and lay our towels out on the beach. At this time of day most of the beach is in the shade of the palm trees. This is okay with us, though, as the tropical sun is hot and we just want to chill. If you want pure sun you have to come in the morning. The water is warm, too, very comfortable. Relaxation has been found.

We walk up and down the street for a little after laying on the beach to check out the restaurants and bars. There are some really nice looking restaurants and resorts. What we notice is that the majority of the seating area for every venue is located outdoors, and some of them don’t even have covers. I guess if it rains the place just closes! Exploring the area we also find a Greek restaurant. How come there are no Greek restaurants in New Zealand but every little place in Australia has one!? It’s just past 5:00 when we head back to the apartment, dodging drunk Melbourne Cup partiers on the way.

We decide to go to the grocery store to pick up some chicken and a six pack of beer for the beach tomorrow. We notice how everything in the stores here is so much cheaper than Melbourne and New Zealand. Beer in Australia is typically very expensive, but we find a six pack of a craft beer for $13. Back at the apartment I decide to open one and I’m surprised that it is actually the best Australian beer I have ever had. This isn’t saying much, as Aussie beer is way behind the 8 ball, but it’s still a very good beer.

We cook a dinner of chicken and noodles and chat with Jake and Alice about Cairns and snakes and crocs, and all the other dangerous creatures that can kill you. They say that at this time of year there won’t be any box jellyfish on the shores yet, but I still feel safer swimming in the netted area. We finish off a couple bottles of wine we have open and relax on the balcony eating dinner. It’s very relaxing, but I can feel myself getting bit by mosquitoes. I am starting to itch all over. Jake tells me that it’s probably actually the sand flies that are biting me. I find this surprising, as we have sand flies in New Zealand and didn’t expect them here. Either way, mosquitoes or sand flies, they are both sneaky and have very itchy bites. But thinking about the flies in the Outback, I think I’ll take being itchy and covered in bug bites over those pesky bastards.

We get to bed early and sleep comfortably with the air conditioning. It feel so good to be in a bed and not having to wipe the sweat off my brow every few minutes. Sleep comes easy.

Day 18:

Today is for relaxing. We sleep in past 10:00 and then have some breakfast outside on the balcony. It feels hot today, hotter than yesterday. The typical temperature this time of year here is high 80s, low 90s, and very humid. I mean, we are in the tropics. We head down to the beach at about noon and lay out for an hour or so. We have no plans today other than to relax on the beach and take some dips in the water. It’s sunny today at the beach, but as normal the mountains are cloudy. It seems to always be like this. I guess that’s why they call it the rain forest.

We get some lunch just after 1:00 at a little takeaway shop then head further north up the beach than we walked yesterday. We end up finding a place that offers a $5 with a drink purchase. Damn. We were thinking of having a drink anyways. I order a beer and some nachos and we sit outside and enjoy the views of the beach and the flora. It’s a lot more relaxed today without the Melbourne Cup parties. But it is still popular and most of the bars and restaurants are plenty busy on a random Wednesday afternoon. Afterwards we head back to the beach closer to the stinger net and I end up falling asleep reading on the beach. Relaxation: achieved.

We head back to the apartment after 5:00 and relax for a bit in the cool room. I have a beer and chat with Jake for a while on the balcony. I ask him how he finds living here and he says he loves it. He goes to the beach every day, as he lives just two blocks away and is usually home from work around 3:30. He is living in a tropical paradise. I tell him that we will move to Palm Cove one day! We can totally see ourselves living here.

We finish off our chicken and noodles and another bottle of wine (we have just one left now). We have loved Palm Cove and are excited to check out the “city” tomorrow (Cairns). The city is about 20-30 minutes south of here. It’s not that far, but there are no major highways so it can take a while to drive. Wouldn’t be the worst commute in the world!

Day 19:

We are out of the apartment just before noon. We tell Jake and Alice that we loved the place. We were actually their first airbnb and guests and we advise them that we think they will be very successful in their airbnb venture. We decide to check out Trinity Beach before heading to the city. This was the beach that came in second when we were deciding where to go before Cairns city. We park and walk around for a bit. It’s quite nice, a little less posh, more budget-friendly. We are still glad we chose Palm Cove though.

Now it’s time to head to our hotel. We are staying at the Cairns Plaza Hotel, on the Esplanade on the water. It was one of the cheaper hotels in the city, but it is still in a really good location where we will easily be able to walk everywhere. We arrive at the hotel just after 1:00 and luckily our room is ready early. It’s a decent hotel. Nothing fancy, but it’s got a pool and the room is spacious enough. We have a partial ocean view form our balcony, and a good view of the park at the Esplanade (more info on the Esplanade later).

We want to explore, but first things first: we have to return our beloved campervan. We have had this thing for three weeks now. We actually have it rented till tomorrow but as we have a Great Barrier Reef tour planned for tomorrow we need to return it today. And there is no reason to have it here as we will be walking everywhere. The van has been good to us. With nearly 400,000 km on it, it still ran very well and we had no problems at all. Sleeping may have been tough, but that was because of the heat and not the van. The van was everything we could have asked for and more. Thank you to Spaceships Australia for a reliable vehicle for our adventure!

It’s nearly 4:00 by the time we get the car cleaned and dropped off at the Spaceships depot. The depot is only about 3 km from downtown so we decide to walk back through the industrial area of Cairns. It looks like any other industrial area of a city, except there are green mountains in the distance. We pass the Cairns Port and then we find ourselves at the Reef Casino. We go inside because I want to check it out, and I’m impressed with how they set it up just like a Vegas casino. The only difference is that the actually gambling area is separate and has guards checking IDs. It’s the same way in all Australian and New Zealand casinos.

We walk along the waterfront to explore as we make our way back towards the hotel. There are some fancy restaurants along the water here. The marina is right here too. This is where we have to go tomorrow to catch our day cruise. There are a lot of operators that dock here and we see plenty of tours getting back from a day on the reef. This makes us excited for our day tomorrow. At sort of the tip of the marina we decide to stop and have a beer at a nice looking place called the Salt House. It’s got a beautiful setup and its location can’t be beat. We sit on the couches and enjoy a beer as we watch the boats return from their reef trips.

We walk along the water on our way back to the hotel. The Cairns waterfront is dominated by what is known at the Cairns Esplanade. It’s a large park stretching almost 3 km from the Salt House to a native bush forest to the north. Along the Esplanade there are park areas, a salt water swimming pool called The Lagoon, tons or barbecue and picnic area, workout machines, a huge playground, a skate park, tennis courts, and a beach volleyball area. There is a nice boardwalk on the water and a separate bike bath that runs parallel to the boardwalk, as bikes are not allowed on the boardwalk. The focus point of the Esplanade is The Lagoon. It’s a huge pool that is very popular with locals and tourists alike. The whole area is beautiful. They have designed it so that no resorts of properties can be on the beach or on the water. It’s all public access area. I’ve never seen something like this before and I immediately love the idea. It’s so nice seeing this huge park on the water and not private resorts that most people can never afford to stay at. The Esplanade is great for all ages. There are families and children playing, people playing guitar and other instruments, people working out, etc. There are tons of people running on the boardwalk.

About 30-35 meters off the boardwalk is the street. The street is lined with attractive restaurants and bars, all on the far side of the street as the near side is part of the park. It’s a great setup and it makes the city more attractive in our minds. We take a walk along the main road and look at the restaurant menus. We decide that on Saturday we will do my belated birthday dinner at a place called The Raw Prawn, that has an Australian sampler dish where I can try crocodile. We make a reservation and walk the rest of the street back to the hotel. It’s official: we love Cairns.

After a cold shower we head off to get a cheap dinner at a little Thai Place. It’s not on the main road by the park, but it’s not far off on a side street. We get a table outside and then decide we should do BYO. So I race across the street to the BWS and find a $5 bottle of Sav. $5 bottles of domestic wine – we love Cairns even more! You will never find a local wine for $5 in New Zealand. We figure it will be terrible, but it’s actually quite good. Another pleasant surprise. Nimarta loves the food at the Thai place and gobbles up her meal like a starving Ethiopian.

After dinner we walk the main street in the opposite direction of our hotel. The restaurants are busy and everyone is sitting outside. The weather here allows for outdoor dining all year round. Even in the wet season (January – March) all the outdoor areas are covered so people can still sit outside and watch the rain pour down. There is a really lively vibe in the air and we love it. Everyone is friendly and looks like they are having a good time. As we wander down the street we see the lights of the Esplanade. There are colored lights everywhere. They light the trees red, green, and blue. A simple thing like this just makes the place so attractive.

Eventually we find the Cairns Night Market. This has a food court with cheap meals and tons of little shops with very affordable prices. Our first though is: what is this, Southeast Asia? This reminds me so much of Asian markets. And that’s probably what they were going for. Cairns is known as being the safest tropical city in the world. And when you think about it, other than Honolulu, it’s the only tropical city in a non-third-world country. But it feels nice that they added this little night market to give it an Asian charm. We wander around the night market and even buy a few things. It’s just so damn cheap!

Before we know it we are getting tired. We have loved wandering around Cairns and night and decide to walk back along the Esplanade. It is still vibrant here at night and people are still taking jogs on the boardwalk. We wonder why we never thought of coming to Cairns before. In one day it has become our favorite city in Australia and even though it’s just been three days we have already decided it will be our new favorite area in Australia. Maybe they just don’t advertise much in NZ and the US? They clearly advertise a lot in Asia as there are lots of Japanese and Chinese here. They have nonstop flights to Tokyo, Hong Kong, Ghangzou, and Singapore. They have clearly focused on that market. Now it’s just time to get more Americans and Kiwis! This is like no place I’ve ever been before!

Day 20:

Today is the day we will explore the Great Barrier Reef. We wake up early, as we have to be at the pier by 7:30 to check in. We will be exploring the reef with a local company called Seastar. We ended up choosing them because they had the best reviews on Trip Advisor and they have a relatively small boat. When we arrive at the dock just after 7:30 the first thing I notice is a guy in a Virginia Tech hat. I’m wearing my VT hat and he the exact same hat on. What are the chances, a million miles from Blacksburg, Virginia, or finding another Hokie!? He and his wife are Hokies from Virginia Beach on a vacation in Cairns. Small world, huh?

We load the boat and find out that there are 36 of us plus 5 crew on the boat. So not too big, but a bit bigger than we are used to. Once we all are loaded on the boat and they have done the safety briefing we are off. It’s well over an hour to the first place we will be snorkeling at. We get the choice to do an introductory dive for an extra $75 each but decide against it. The first stop is an area of the reef near a small island that is a bird sanctuary. The birds are small black birds. I have no idea what they are but they are loud and annoying. I didn’t come here to see birds!

We drop anchor and I get a view of the underwater playground I am about to explore. But first we have to go through another safety briefing. I think this tour caters to a lot of people that don’t know how to swim and aren’t really familiar with the water. It’s a lot different than Hawaii where thy give you a snorkel and a mask and tell you to knock yourself out. Here they are pretty strict about where you can and cannot go and what signals to give if you are having trouble and need to be rescued. We have snorkeled many times before so we are not too worried about needing help. We hop in the water as soon as we can to explore the Great Barrier Reef!

The ocean is very clear today. It is not windy at all and we have great visibility in the water. As expected, we see thousands of fish of all sizes and shapes. We also see what appears to be a stingray drifting about. We swim around for about an hour observing the fish and the coral and the large clam shells. It’s funny to think that all of these coral are actually living creatures. They really look like rocks or plants. Seastar tells us that coral is actually clear and that the beautiful colors come from algea and plants that attach to it. Whatever the reason is that these things exist they look pretty cool. We snorkel around in the water for about an hour before heading back to the boat.

After a lunch of chicken wings and pasta salad we move to our second snorkeling spot. This spot is about 15 minutes away and is a true ocean reef – as in there is no land nearby. Once we hop in the water we realize that this spot is way better than the first spot. The reef here is crazy. It’s huge and full of colorful coral and fish. Some parts are so thick that they almost reach the ocean surface, making it tough to swim by. Then all of a sudden the reef will stop and we will be in clear blue water looking for the next reef.

We are in the water for just over an hour, thinking about heading back to the boat, when Nimarta spots a turtle! We swim to catch it but don’t get too close – we don’t want to startle him. But this turtle does not seem prone to startling. He is eating away and doesn’t seem to care about us at all. He’s quite big, probably because he eats a lot. We look around for his friends, but he is all alone today. He swims around eating and coming to the surface for air and we follow him around for about a half hour. After we say goodbye to the turtle we head back to the boat. We have snorkeled nearly three hours today and we are quite tired. Back on the boat it’s time to head back to the city after a successful day on the Great Barrier Reef.

As I get off the boat I realize just how bad my sunburn is. It’s mainly on my back, the only part of my body that was exposed while I was in the water, and it’s bad. It hurts quite bad. Nimarta makes fun of me for being white and brags that she doesn’t get burned. Damn brown people. Little does she know tomorrow she will find that she is a bit red too!

We talk about going to the food court at the Night Market for dinner but end up stopping at a place on the way to split a large pizza. It ends up being enough food and we decide to wander past the night market today and see what else is on the street. Just after the Night Market we discover the Rattle and Hum, a huge bar that takes up a lot of real estate on the street. We see tons of people outside drinking jugs of beer so we decide this must be a cool place. Turns out jugs are only $14 so we say why not and get a jug to sit down outside with. The inside of the bar is enormous, but it’s such a nice night we have to sit outside. The next think I notice about this bar is that all the servers and bartenders are young, very attractive, women. It’s like Hooters without the gimmicks. There’s a live band playing and we decide we like the place enough to stay for another jug. See, sometimes we go out and do cool things.

We walk around a bit after leaving the bar but we are pretty exhausted. On top of that, my sunburn is starting to hurt like hell. This will be a rough few days. Another good night in Cairns ends as we head back to the hotel. Only one day left of our road trip!

Day 21:

Sleeping in is nice. We enjoy this luxury and don’t get out bed till about noon. We don’t really have any plans today other than going to the Lagoon and taking a run before dinner at the Raw Prawn. We head to the food court for lunch and share an extra large plate at one of the Chinese places. They have a dish of baby octopus and it is delicious. I try to get Nimarta to try some but she is having none of it. Her loss!

We hit the Lagoon just after 1:00. It’s pretty sunny now and my terrible sunburn means we have to find a place in the shade. Luckily there are plenty of trees in the park and we find a place with some shade easily not too far from the pool. The park is packed today, as it is a Saturday. There is a live band playing and an arts and crafts market going on. It’s a very lively place. I decide to go in the water to get the cool water on my burns. It feels pretty good. I notice that the Lagoon is full of people of all ages. There are tons of families with children, but also young adults hanging out and older folks alike. It’s really a great atmosphere.

Back lying in the shade I fall asleep reading. Nimarta has gone back to the room but I decide to stay and lay around a bit more. It’s a nice way to wind down a long road trip. After the Lagoon I take a run on the boardwalk in the opposite direction, towards the airport. I haven’t been down this way yet and I’m immediately glad I decided to check it out. The playground in front of our hotel seems to stretch forever, always full of excited children. After the playground there is a little café in the park, followed by some green fields, a skate park, and a sand volleyball area. They really made this park to cater to everyone. After over two kilometers I reach the end of the waterfront path. The path continues, but it goes out towards the street now. It’s been quite a nice run, but I am out of shape from not running in three weeks so the run back is tough. Luckily it’s not too hot.

We have dinner reservations at 6:00. A bunch of places on the main road have early bird specials: seated by 6:30 and you get $15 off your bill. Don’t need to tell me twice. It’s really not that early of a dinner as we don’t get our food till around 6:30. I have ordered the Australian sampler – kangaroo, emu, crocodile, and barramundi – while Nimarta has opted for the swordfish. Both dishes are excellent, though crocodile, as you may assume, is not really that good. It’s tasty but tough. I had no expectations for it to be tender. I probably wouldn’t order it again but I am glad I tried it. I don’t know why exactly, but alligator is a lot better.

After dinner we walk around a bit. It’s another gorgeous night in Cairns. People are out on the Esplanade and even a few people are in the Lagoon. We love this city and its tropical vibe mixed in with the cosmopolitan modern atmosphere. We end up back at the Salt House and explore the bar a bit more. It’s enormous and crowded at 8:00 on a Saturday night. We notice that all the girls are very well dressed, looking like they are ready to go clubbing, and most of the guys, including me, are in flip flops and shorts. I could get used to this. We manage to find a daybed (at least that’s what we call them in Vegas) and lay out with a beer. It’s our last night in Cairns on this vacation but we vow to not let it be our last night in Cairns forever. We definitely want to return, and we will!


This road trip has been amazing. We have seen and done so many cool things that it’s hard to pick our favorite. But if we had to pick we’d go with Cairns and the greater Cairns region. There is something about the city and the northern beaches that makes it unlike anywhere we have ever been before. It’s beautiful, but overly inflated prices don’t exist (yet). It’s got charm, a relaxed vibe, and amazing views. Yes, it does have deadly jellyfish and crocs, but no one is making you go in the water. We recommend a tri to Cairns to everyone visiting Australia.

After Cairns we recommend the Red Centre and Uluru (as to be expected). If you can handle the flies it’s an amazing place. It’s powerful to be in the presence of the mountains and the rocks. There are a lot of things to do in the area. We suggest visiting in the winter though, as other months are hot and they close many of the hiking trails. You won’t regret a trip here. There’s a nonstop flight from Cairns to Alice Springs so you can do both in one trip!

Australia is a large, diverse country. It is covered mostly by desert but the desert can be a wonderful place to explore. A campervan is a great way to explore the country, but you don’t need one. There are motels and roadhouses anywhere. If you’re looking for luxury, it may not be the ideal trip, but there are tons of places to go in Australia to feed luxurious desires. You won’t regret a trip here. Feel free to ask me anything about Australia and enjoy your trip!


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