Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cairns and the Daintree Rainforest

We arrived in Cairns in Northern Queensland just in time for lunch on July 25, 2011. I was a bit apprehensive because after making all our reservations, I had heard that in choosing between Cairns (for the closest airport) and Port Douglas (a resort town 1 hour north), almost everyone opted for Port Douglas. A colleague at work even went so far as saying that Cairns was a "bit of a dive". I couldn't change our reservations as our two day cruise to the Great Barrier Reef was leaving from Cairns.

Appalling weather during a Cairns winter day
Our stay started on the right foot when Eurocar gave us a free upgrade to an Audi A6. Score! After checking into our hotel, the Getaway on Grafton, we headed into town to grab lunch at Perrotta's at The Gallery. We all had a guilty smile on our faces as we sat back and enjoyed the delicious sandwiches and warm weather in the middle of Australian winter.

Cairns' Esplanade boardwalk
I think the reason Cairns has a bad reputation is that in a region known for its spectacular beaches, Cairns simply doesn't have one. In its place is a lagoon and at low tide, there is about a 100 yard stretch of mud flats between the Esplanade boardwalk and the ocean's edge. It's not as bad as it sounds. The city has done a great job of making the waterfront attractive. The Esplanade stretches for a few kilometers north of the port and is a big draw for strolling tourists and athletic locals alike. Muddy's Playground is a great (and free) activity center for hot kids and tired parents. There must be over a dozen different paddling pools and sprinklers that kept a legion of kids entertained while their parents relaxed at the cafe.

Ten minutes down the Esplanade is the Cairns Lagoon, a freely accessible 4800 sq meter salt water swimming pool surrounded in part by an artificial beach. It's quite spectacular with fountains and monuments integrated into the pool to add visual appeal. Our kids couldn't resist the water but ultimately preferred the 30C air to the 15C water.

Cairns Lagoon
We capped off our tour of the CBD with a bit of shopping and while Trish and the girls succumbed to the allure of the local mall, I yielded to our couch and a bottle of Sauvigon Blanc. Our first day in Cairns concluded with a dinner at Bushfire Flame Grill, a Brazilian-style Churrasco restaurant where the waiters continuously circulate with skewers of roasted pork, beef, lamb, chicken, sausage and pineapple.

Breakfast with the Birds at Port Douglas' Wildlife Habitat
On Tuesday, July 26, we set out early to drive one hour north along the ocean to the resort town of Port Douglas at the foot of the Daintree Rainforest. Our first stop was Wildlife Habitat, an animal park ideal for kids: lots of opportunities to feed, touch and learn about many of Australia's indigenous creatures. We got there in time for their "Breakfast with the Birds" where various species of birds, loosely kept in an open aviary, compete with you for that last morsel of toast on your plate. For the most part, we easily kept the birds away from our breakfasts, although one goose felt that Cassandra's measly bum was worth not one but three pecks.

Learning about snakes
We spent the morning wandering around the covered walkways and attending the rangers' information sessions. There were plenty of opportunities for pictures with snakes, koalas and baby crocodiles.

No animal park in Queensland would be worth its salt without a crocodile exhibit. This one went one step further in having three different types of crocs in separate pens. The slumbering giant reptiles held the kids attention a few seconds before they noticed that the kangaroo and emu petting zoo was in direct continuity with the crocodile pen. (Oh, yes - I did crack a smile thinking about the havoc that would ensue should a wily croc manage to wiggle free from their enclosure) The crocodiles didn't shed any tears as our three kids tore away from the croc exhibit to lavish affection and pre-purchased snacks on the bloated kangaroos and their joeys.

One more check on the To Do list: See a Kangaroo
In the afternoon, we headed north to Daintree Village to take a crocodile cruise along the Daintree River. I'd gone on one of these once before in Kakadu National Park a few years ago and it was pretty much the same thing: a few sleepy crocs sunning themselves on muddy river banks, but it was good for the kids to appreciate how huge these animals can be and the tour guide kept us entertained for the one hour cruise. We were fortunate to see three or four big males along the way, but no crocs in the water (not sure we would really want to see these).

I had originally considered heading further north to Cape Tribulation, but it was already late afternoon, and the masses (Trish and the kids) easily outvoted me and we were soon on our way back to Cairns.

Nameless deserted Queensland beach
After a quick dinner at the Sushi Train, we all turned in early because we had an early start the next morning to board our expedition to the Great Barrier Reef.

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