48 Hours In: Cairns, Australia

The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef is a great fun resort that offers far more than just coral and brightly coloured fish, says Frank Partridge
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

Because the tourist hordes, bound for the Great Barrier Reef, generally don't. Air fares and hotels tend to be cheaper. And while the tropical weather won't improve for another month at least, remember that the rainforest looks its best in the rain.

TOUCH DOWN

With no direct flights between the UK and Cairns, the fastest options are from Heathrow: via Tokyo on Japan Airlines or out to Singapore on Qantas and connecting there for its Australian Airlines subsidiary. Emirates flies via Dubai to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Cairns Airport, being hurriedly enlarged to meet demand, is 7km north of the city centre. Australia Coach (00 61 7 4040 1000) runs a shuttle service to Lake Street, with a single fare of A$10 (£4.50). If there are a few of you, it pays to take a taxi for about A$18 (£8.50).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The focal point is the redeveloped Esplanade, which runs alongside the harbour and the Coral Sea. Shops, restaurants and cruise agents abound. The tourist office (1), which labours under the name of Tourism Tropical North Queensland's Discovery Centre, is at number 51 (00 61 7 4051 3588; www.tropicalaustralia.com.au), 8.30am-6.30pm daily. Beware of the unofficial information kiosks displaying the international "i". They're glorified travel agents trying to sell you things, having been awarded the magic symbol by doing a short tourism course.

CHECK IN

The Shangri-La (00 61 7 4031 1411; www.shangri-la.com) on The Marina (2) occupies one of Cairns' best locations. Luxurious, spacious and minimalist, it has a superb outdoor pool complex. Double rooms from A$424 (£190), excluding breakfast.

Of the numerous spa resorts in the vicinity, Cairns Colonial Club (3) at 18-26 Cannon Street (00 61 7 4053 5111; www.cairnscolonialclub.com. au) was built 20 years ago in colonial style, with ornate awnings in its cool, airy lobby. The rooms lie amid tropical landscaped gardens, with three pools and an outstanding restaurant, Jardine's. Double rooms start at A$167 (£75), excluding breakfast.

Gilligan's Backpackers (4) at 57-89 Grafton Street (00 61 7 4041 6566; www.gilligansbackpackers.com.au) boasts a "complete five-star backpacker experience", and is as good as its word, with excellent facilities at a good price. Alongside the four- and six-bed dormitories are clean, modern doubles with en suite bathrooms, air-conditioning, balcony, fridge and safe, costing A$84 (£38), excluding breakfast. Gilligan's also has a beauty salon, pool and the largest open-air TV screen in Queensland.

TAKE A HIKE

Don your trainers and stride out along the magnificent boardwalk. This runs parallel to the Esplanade, passing the enormous man-made swimming lagoon (5) with its imported beach. At low tide, the view is disappointing: an expanse of mud extending towards the sea. But between September and March, this tidal zone attracts thousands of birds, and almost as many bird-watchers, training their binoculars on feathered visitors that come from as far away as Alaska and Siberia. The best viewing point is between Florence and Minnie Streets (6).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The ever-busy Esplanade is the obvious choice for fast food, but if you have time to sit down you can choose from a host of restaurants along Shields Street (7), known as "Eat Strip". The Stumbling Goat (8) on the corner of Spence and Grafton Streets (00 61 7 4041 4788) does lunch specials for A$10 (£4.50).

WINDOW SHOPPING

The teeming Night Markets (9) take place from 5pm each day on the Esplanade, featuring jewellery, crafts, fashion and an international food court. Things start winding down by 10pm. For opals - something of a speciality in Cairns - try the branch of Evert's (10) at 85 The Esplanade (00 61 7 4041 3466; www.evertopals.com.au).

AN APERITIF

Tides, part of the Shangri-La Hotel complex at the Marina (2), is an elegant venue for cocktails, refreshingly removed from the tourist trail. Near the thick of the night-time action, The Lagoon Lounge (11), above Mangostin's Restaurant at 65 The Esplanade, has fabulous views out to sea.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

"Upmarket bush tucker" is one description of the food at Red Ochre Grill (12) at 43 Shields Street (00 61 7 4051 0100). The herbs, berries and spices that once fortified the Aborigines in the bush give the modern menu an exotic twist - anyone for chargrilled kangaroo with sweet potato fritters? The Marina boardwalk has a line of fish and Italian restaurants.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

St Monica's Cathedral (13) at 183 Abbott Street is a revelation. The redbrick exterior is unprepossessing, but inside it's delightfully laid out, and features the remarkable Creation Windows: the largest themed stained-glass windows in the world, or so the claim goes. The windows record the earth's history from the explosion of a supernova to the arrival of humans in Australia. Services are held at 6.30am and 10am.

OUT TO BRUNCH

The Boardwalk Café at the Marina (2) serves huge Aussie breakfasts (A$13.50/£6) all day. The Botanic Gardens Licensed Café (00 61 7 4053 7087) is lively and unpretentious, gloriously situated among the tropical fronds.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Tjapukai Cultural Park (00 61 7 4042 9999; www.tjapukai.com.au) is Australia's first Aboriginal tourist attraction. It moved a decade ago from the mountains to a large site at Caravonica, 15km north of Cairns; a shuttle bus picks up visitors from all the main hotels and hostels. The fare is A$21.50 (£10). The park presents a continuous performance of theatre, dance and art that vividly traces the history of the "rainforest people" (Tjapukai) from Dreamtime to the present. Allow at least two and a half hours for a visit, which costs A$30 (£13.50). It opens 9am-5pm daily.

TAKE A RIDE

Also at Caravonica, you find the Skyrail cableway, which provides one of the world's great rides, its gondolas sailing above the rainforest-covered uplands to the hill town of Kuranda. There are two stops on the 7.5km run, where you can take a guided boardwalk among the 500-year-old kauri pines, and visit an interpretation centre to fathom some of the mysteries of this World Heritage Site, which contains a third of Australia's plant species.

Either return the way you came, or take the scenic railway back to Cairns. Allow a minimum of three hours for the Skyrail trip, which costs A$52 (£23) return. Reservations: 00 61 7 4038 1555; www.skyrail.com.au. Open 8.15am-5.15pm daily.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Cairns' rapid development makes it easy to forget that it was once covered by tropical rainforest, but a pleasant reminder is at the Flecker Botanic Gardens (14) on Collins Avenue (00 61 7 4044 3398), where ferns, orchids and palms abound. Across Collins Avenue, a boardwalk leads you through the tranquil Centenary Lakes. Open 7.30am-5.30pm from Monday to Friday, opening an hour later at weekends.

TAKE A VIEW

Buy a card at the shop in the gardens and take one of the marked trails to the Mount Whitfield Conservation Park (15), where you might see a tree kangaroo, and will certainly enjoy the best view of the city and ocean.

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