Cairns, Australia: A Sun Lover’s Paradise

Julie Royce's picture

Cairns (pronounced Canes like assistive walking devices), with a population of approximately 150,000, is miniscule compared to Sydney; its laid-back, sun-loving, playful personality provides even sharper contrast. With a tropical climate (mean temperatures vary from 78° Fahrenheit in July to 88.5° Fahrenheit in January), and ethereal landscape it lures tourists to spectacular seaside resorts propped against picturesque mountain backdrops. As our base of operations Bob and I chose the five star Shangri La Hotel overlooking Marlin Marina and Trinity Bay. The pampering that came with our room key made us feel like lords of the realm.


What Cairns lacks in sophisticated pursuits, like world class art museums and shopping, it makes up for in breathtaking natural attractions. It is within short boating distance of the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system - so immense it can be seen from outer space. Home to thousands of species of plants and animals, the reef has been called one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It offers visitors an amazing opportunity for scuba diving, snorkeling, water sports, and birdwatching.



Great Barrier Reef

Beautiful corals in a spectacular underwater world



While the Great Barrier Reef is enough incentive to visit Cairns, the city is less than an hour’s drive to the Kuranda Skyrail Rainforest Cableway which whisks you over the World Heritage Rainforest to Kuranda, a mountain retreat with Koala Gardens, a Butterfly Sanctuary, Birdworld, and Rainforest hikes.


The Cairns Tropical Zoo, a small boutique zoo with the most diverse range of animals north of Brisbane, promised to fulfill my dream of making friends with a Koala.   


The Great Barrier Reef – An impelling reason to visit Cairns

If I felt like Cinderella when I first entered our hotel, I awoke the next morning fearing my coach and six white horses might have reverted to a pumpkin. But, I opened my eyes to continued splendor.


We had scheduled the Sun Lover's Catamaran to the Great Barrier Reef for our first full day in Cairns. I flew to Australia with two humble goals: first, cuddle a Koala, and second, visit the Great Barrier Reef. Both objectives would be met while visiting Cairns.  Everything else merely layered-on the hedonistic pleasure.   


Sun Lovers Cruises pontoon docking station

Sun Lovers Cruises pontoon docking station


Fortunately I awoke in the middle of the night before this great adventure remembering that the Transderm Scop patch had to be applied several hours before encountering turbulence. If I ignored this instruction I would find myself retching in the first motion sickness bag available after we cast off.


To sustain a high energy level for the day’s activities, we grazed through the continental breakfast. Bob delighted in the fresh fruit, salmon, orange juice and raisin toast.  He enjoyed two cups of espresso, although he's normally a Trader Joe's House Blend kind of guy. Relying on my patch I indulged in those, and then added rich croissants, pastries and a boiled egg to my gluttony. I hadn't thought to offer my husband one of my patches because motion doesn’t adversely affect him. 


Since I was playing Cinderella for a few days, I convinced myself that by the time we reached the boat my thighs and butt would have slimmed noticeably, any wrinkles would have completely disappeared and my hair would be long, thick, blond and lustrous. I would slip into a swimsuit without an ounce of self-consciousness.  Might as well dream big.


As we'd walked to the departure dock, Bob asked if I had sun screen. I snarkily told him, “I brought mine.” Before we embarked on this vacation I had put a tube of Neutrogena SPF 85 in his quart bag for airline security. He made the unilateral decision to remove it without telling me. He felt he didn't need it.  In Australia, sunscreen is expensive and anything over 30 SPF is not marked with the precise SPF – I’m a detail person and to me 85 is different than 30 (by 55 SPFs to be exact) and I’m willing to assume that means something.


As we stepped aboard the catamaran, the ship's staff offered free ginger tablets, warning the trip might involve a bit of rocking and rolling. Bob wisely swallowed a couple. A few waves into the trip he wished he'd eaten less.


Before I had time to reconsider or lose my courage, I signed up for the guided snorkeling tour. “You are responsible for my life,” I told Meg, the tour leader. “I can’t swim and I'm terrified of water.”  To myself I repeated the mantra, “I can do this.  I can do this. I’ll likely never be back for a second chance. I can do this. I can do this.”


Meg guides even terrified non-swimmers around the reef

Meg guides even terrified non-swimmers around the reef


When everyone aboard was settled, crewmate Vance began demonstrating the safety equipment. His pitch was far more entertaining than airline speeches about seat belts, oxygen masks, and flotation devices. Vance described proper use of the motion sickness bags positioned about the cabin.  “Put them over your face and read the instructions on the bottom of the bag,” he began.  The catamaran hugged the shoreline as it headed for the Great Barrier Reef. The waves were high and we kept riding the crests and plopping down. Not the best movement for a queasy stomach. 


Vance continued, “Don't put the strap of the snorkeling mask over your ears or at the end of the day you won't hear us call you back.  We'll leave you behind and the sharks will come in and eat you.”  He was on a roll, “We are your life guards.  If you are out there and you start having flashbacks from your childhood and see relatives you haven't visited in many years, your life is passing before you and you are drowning. I'm a highly trained rescue machine and if I think you are in serious trouble, I'll come and pluck you out.  Signal me by waving your hands wildly and calling the universal word for assistance, 'help'. The louder you scream the more serious we'll take you.  Don't go beyond the ropes or the sharks will come get you. And, don't call me unnecessarily. If you are just waving to a friend, send me a clue.  I don't like messing up my hair and I'd be forced to reapply sunscreen.”


Vance relaxing after his “safety” speech

Vance relaxing after his “safety” speech


By this point in his safety speech two people were already sick.  I was holding up nicely.  “Sun is your biggest enemy,” Vance warned. I relented and handed Bob my Neutrogena. A bit further along, I turned a mint green.  In my stomach the salmon was disgustedly sloshing with the pineapple which was screaming at the egg.  I gave up the scenery to lie flat on my back and close my eyes.  I was in much better condition than most of my ship mates, many of whom were a deep forest green, a fact I knew only because I had observed their necks (their faces were buried in white bags) before I closed my eyes.  One poor woman moaned, “I think I’m going to die.” 


Even Bob wasn't his normal flesh tone, varying somewhere between pea green and slime.  I was sure if we rode one more steep wave I'd lose it, but mercifully we were there and the tossing stopped as soon as the boat did. The announcement, ‘be patient, it will take a few minutes to prepare for disembarkation to the pontoon boat,’ got no objection from me. I was lying there figuring how much money Sun Lovers saved because none of the passengers handing the staff white bags (and that was nearly everyone) would eat the buffet. I didn't ask what the staff did with all those sick bags. I didn't want to know. I was happy I had no sense of smell.


We were there and I was ready to face death in the water. I overcame my modesty of wearing a bathing suit when a man at least ten years older than me strolled by wearing a Speedo. Not a good look. The attention of any young hottie who might smirk at my thighs would be diverted by the subterfuge this gentleman created. I also reminded myself that young people possess screening vision that automatically eliminates images of anyone older than thirty-five.


I had by this point morphed from Cinderella to the Littlest Mermaid (figuratively speaking, of course).  I, Julie Royce, who fears death by drowning more than anything else, was ready to take my guided tour OUTSIDE the safe zone where Vance warned the sharks would get me. Of course I wore a flotation device and clung to a tube, but it still took all of my courage.


The incredible journey I took (with Meg encouraging me every stroke of the way) will hopefully remain indelibly imprinted in my memory.  I had the strange sensation of being a fish - I was underwater and breathing. For the first fifteen minutes my legs were as stiff as a butler trying to score points. If you saw me and didn’t know better you’d have sworn I was dead and rigor mortis had set in. Eventually I mellowed-out, decided I was going to live, and gently kicked and floated around, staring-down the fish that dared intrude in my body space.


Fish, Great Barrier Reef

Coral so dense and numerous they create a reef that can be seen from outer space


Describing the snorkeling experience is difficult, but I’ll give it my pathetic try: There are more than 400 different corals making up the Great Barrier and the environment they create is a vast kingdom of blues and lavenders, neon greens and yellows, oranges, pinks and fushias. Some corals are shaped like giant boulders, others like leafless trees, brains or upside down mushrooms.  A few undulate gently like Michigan wheat in a pre-harvest breeze. While no single coral looks particularly enchanting, put them all together and sprinkle liberally with giant clams, clownfish, spangled empress, and other fish of all sizes and markings, and you have an undersea world of exquisite beauty. I did not see a single shark or turtle, but wasn’t too disappointed by their absence. The reef is a living structure that stretches for 1200 miles. Floating over it I understood why it could be seen from outer space. It is 18,000,000 years old and I got to snorkel it!



Fish, Great Barrier Reef

Fish swimming around the coral


Fish, Great Barrier Reef



After we returned, Meg (who is a naturalist and does mini-seminars during the cruise) told us that cone shells shoot a toxin that will kill you within thirty minutes and that is one of the reasons she warns you not to touch anything.  It might be wise for her to reverse the order of things.  I should have known that before going into the water!  Her description of the jellyfish gave me a chill, contemplating the death I had escaped.


The experience was other-worldly and not to be missed. Back on the pontoon I headed for the gift shop. I wanted a t-shirt that said, “I Snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef and Survived.” Apparently not many people think the survival part is a big deal. There was no such t-shirt.    


The Sun Lovers’ ship drops us back in Cairns after our fabulous journey

The Sun Lovers’ ship drops us back in Cairns after our fabulous journey



Later in the afternoon we cruised on the glass bottom boat, but after snorkeling it seemed anticlimactic. No danger and much lesser views.


That was our day. Basically it went:  Board. Get sick. Revel in the adventure. Marvel at the beauty. Eat a huge lunch (all of those sick people regained their appetites). Hang out. Relax. Head back. Get sick again.  Dock.


I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. 


Tomorrow it's Breakfast at the Cairns Zoo and a bit of Koala cuddling.  And they better not try to cheat me out of my Koala.


To read other parts of Julie's Cairns adventures, please see: 

The Cairns Tropical Zoo: Meeting Buster, Demon, and their friends

Cairns: Tropical Rainforest



Julie Albrecht Royce, Travel Adventures Editor, is the author of Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast and Traveling Michigan's Thumb, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a monthly column for Wandering Educators.



Notes: we were guests of Sun Lovers Cruises

All photos courtesy and copyright of Bob and Julie Royce