Destination of the day: Cairns

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AUS Eoghan jumps 0441_cbI arrived late and in the darkness found the Pacific Ocean whose soothing sound had beckoned me from my room in the in M Gallery Reef House ho9tel in Palm Cove.

It was beautiful. There were dark shapes of wood and mangrove debris in the water and I splashed and dived and peered at the tropical moon through the shimmering surface water.

When I re-emerged dripping through the hotel lobby the staff and guests expressed some surprise. What was I ding? Swimming, I beamed, like I had just come from the forty-foot.

I learned that someone had been walking their dog a little earlier near where I had swum and the dog was taken by a crocodile.

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Going Troppo is the phrase they use in Queensland for those who head north beyond the grassy palms of Brisbane past the Whitsundays, past Townsville, past and all the way to Cairns. Cairns and Port Douglas used to be sleepy sugar towns. The population sat around 30,000, something like Castlebar.

And then tourism arrived like a cyclone that changed the town forever.

It was the Japanese who came first, they loved the beaches and the mangroves and they took boats out to the reef to dive. To this day nothing has changed. The airport got bigger, its runway longer. Today holidaymakers pour in on domestic flights from Sydney and Melbourne. There are plans for international flights which could change the game even further.

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If Northern Queensland was a country its presence on the tourist map would be even greater than it is today. Its climate is as far removed from Sydney and Melbourne as it is from Dublin or Dubai.

The boats that bring the tourists to the reef, 15 different operators heading out each day, unwrap an unbelievable underwater world for every single one of the passengers. To dive in the Great Barrier Reef, even in an age when experiential tourism has become an overused word, is one of the great must dos.

In an era when everybody talks about a bucket list this is both the top, the brim, and the bottom of everybody’s bucket.

To walk through Cairns town you can see how tourism has changed its sleepy streets. The signs tell you of diving, sailing, of didgeridoos and coffee shops and fast food.

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Should the Crown of Thorns starfish succeed in its ambition of wiping out the coral that frames, inspires, and defines all of the tourist activity that happens on this coast, Cairns would be a much poorer place turning back to sugar to sustain itself.

There are some things much sweeter than sugar, seeing the reef is one of them.

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The tall building which accommodates the Cairns Zoom has seen money purposes in time. Fitting it out for sideshow of the Cairns zoo seemed like a splendid idea.

A large crocodile was lowered into the exhibit area by crane, his dignity descending faster than the conveyances which put him in place. You walk through a faux tropical forest and meet animals along the way and it seems odd that you do this in a city when the real thing it’s not so far away. Then they decided that looking at the animals was not enough.

You can zip line and climb through the rainforest as well. On the outside of the building you can lie back against your railing and feel like you are flying or about to part company with the safety of the harness.

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It is an uncomfortable mix watching and doing, as if they are unsure what tourists really want when they come to Cairns.

They may be right.

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Eoghan Corry flew to Australia with Emirates Airlines, who a double daily service from Dublin to Dubai and onwards to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. He was hosted by Tourism Australian, www.australia.com.

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