Cairns, Australia

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Discover the Best of Cairns, Australia

The last major city at the corner of the great tropical outback, Cairns is both the northern terminus of the backpacker route and the premier gateway to snorkeling and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. The countless neon signs and booking agencies that dot the Esplanade and Central Business District (CBD) betray Cairns’s tourist identity. While tidal mudflats preclude traditional beach activities, a dizzying array of reef and island excursions coupled with throngs of raucous, fun-loving backpackers leave few would-be beachgoers complaining. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed, and outrageously touristy. A bustling city with a front-row seat to one of the ocean’s most breathtaking treasures, Cairns is an ideal destination for travelers seeking thrills or just a chance to see nature at its most majestic.

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Get to Know Cairns, Australia

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Get Oriented

Cairns is framed by forested hills to the west, a harbor to the east, and mangrove swamps to the north and south. The Esplanade runs along the waterfront. At the street’s southern end is The Pier, with a manmade lagoon and upscale shopping at the heavily commercial Pier Marketplace. Farther south, the Esplanade becomes Wharf Street and runs past Trinity Wharf and the Transit Centre. Shields Street runs perpendicular to the Esplanade, crossing Abbott Street into City Place, a pedestrian mall with open-air concert space and coffee shops galore. From this intersection, Lake Street runs parallel to the Esplanade. Continuing away from the water, Shields St. also intersects Grafton Street and Sheridan Street (called Cook Highway north of the city). The Cairns Railway Station is on McLeod Street in front of Cairns Central, the city’s largest mall.

See & Do

What to do in Cairns

Cairns owes its tourist town status in large part to its warm winters and proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. At night, travelers stay in town and drink at local pubs, but when the sun comes up, the crowd dies down. From the break of dawn until early evening, the town empties as tourists head outside the city limits to enjoy thrills, bumps, and spills for reasonable prices.

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Eat & Drink

Cairns is overflowing with dining options, from all-night stalls on the Esplanade to upscale seafood restaurants. Shields Street is known by locals as “eat street.” Some of the pricier restaurants offer discounts of up to 40% if you are seated before a certain time. Most of the hostels in town hand out meal vouchers for one of the local watering holes, though you’ll likely leave hungry unless you spring for one of the optional upgrades. Doing your own cooking is often the most economical dinner option. 

Culture

Although Australian cuisine has been traditionally dismissed as an uninspiring offshoot of English “pub food,” Oz eats have recently undergone a multicultural makeover. European and Middle Eastern immigrants spiced up the Australian menu in the post-WWII boom, and today’s Japanese, Thai, Malay, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrants are pepper the urban centers with ethnic restaurants.

On the Menu

Foreign influences aren’t the only new forces in Aussie diets. The Modern Australian cuisine—“Mod Oz” in the culinary world—has taken Indigenous fare out of the bush and into the bistro. Traditional, native ingredients are prepared with a fusion of Asian methods, producing a unique and inventive culinary style. French, German, and Italian immigrants have left their mark in Australian vineyards, which are gaining more and more international renown.

Breakfast, or “brekkie,” is usually not eaten out, and most restaurants don’t open until noon. Luckily, the ultimate Aussie breakfast can be made in a hostel kitchen. Just grab a piece of toast and slather on some Vegemite, the infamously salty yeast by-product of Oz’s breweries. Be sure to save room for “tea” in the evening; it’s the largest meal of the day. Also, beware of ordering an “entrée;” it’s an appetizer in Australia. Tipping in Australian restaurants is rare and almost never expected; however, expensive, urban restaurants expect a 5-10% gratuity for good service.

Australian Cuisine

Fruit, Meat, and Seafood

Luckily for vegetarians, Australia’s carnivorous contingent is balanced by its hippie sector: vegan and organic options abound. The Australian continent boasts a cornucopia of exotic fruits, including custard apples, lychees, passion fruit, star fruit, coconuts, quandong, and pineapples. Its meats are inexpensive and high grade—especially the veal and lamb—but the contents of the popular meat pie are usually of a more dubious quality. The doughy shell of this dish is often doused with a ketchup-like tomato sauce to disguise the taste of the meat. Seafood is a less questionable Australian favorite, with regional specialties like king prawns (shrimp), Balmain Bugs (a type of lobster), and Barramundi (freshwater fish).

Bush Tucker

Coastal Indigenous Australians have eaten crayfish, yabbies (freshwater shrimp), and tropical fish for centuries, but urban Australia has only recently discovered the merits of its exotic indigenous food. With the onset of Mod Oz, menus are increasingly inclined to incorporate wild “bush tucker” like bunya nuts, Kakadu plums, and wild rosella plums. Specialty meats like crocodile meat, Northern Territory buffalo, and the surprisingly popular kangaroo filet are also making a showing. However, the average tourist will still probably find witchetty grubs (ghost moth larvae) and wild magpie eggs a bit too daring.

Cheap Eats

Self-catering is surprisingly easy in Australia. Most budget accommodations offer kitchen or BBQ facilities, and public BBQs are available at parks, beaches, and campsites. Your best bet for an inexpensive midday meal out is a pub counter lunch, which usually includes generous portions of “meat and two veg.” Fish and chips is another budget Aussie institution, but it’s a bit more tropical than its English cousin. Although still battered, fried, and served with thick-cut french fries, Australia’s version is made from “flake,” slang for shark meat. Australian-style bakeries offer a similar mix of familiar and foreign. They sell breads baked with cheese, onion, or other savory additions; sandwich-ready rolls (like hamburger buns); and blue treats like the lamington (coconut-covered chunk of pound cake dipped in chocolate) or pavlova (giant meringue).

Beverages

Coffee and Tea

Ordering “just coffee” is nearly impossible in Australia, particularly in the cappuccino culture of the major cities. Tea, often affectionately referred to as a “cuppa,” is also very popular. Sweet-toothed cafe fans may opt instead for iced chocolate, a frothy, creamy concoction of ice cream, cream, and chocolate syrup.

Beer

Australia produces some delicious brews, and Australians consume them readily. The best place to share a “coldie” with your mates is at one of the omnipresent Aussie pubs. Traditional payment etiquette is the shout, in which drinking mates alternate rounds. If the beach is more your style, throw a “slab” (24-pack) in the “Esky” (ice chest) and head to the shore. Although Foster’s was marketed worldwide with the slogan, “Foster’s: Australian for Beer,” other locals brews are gaining popularity and are definitely worth a try. 

Wine

Australian wines are now among the best in the world. Overseas export started soon after the first vineyards began to produce wine in the early 1800s, and the industry gained renown after a post-WWII influx of European oenophilic talent. The Hunter Valley, the Barossa and Clare Valleys, the Swan and Margaret River’s, and the Derwent and Tamar Valleys possess some of the best Aussie vineyards. Many cafes and restaurants advertise that they are BYOB, or “bring your own,” meaning patrons should bring their own bottle of wine.

Arts & Culture

Literature

The Dreaming

Indigenous Australians have developed their own brand of literature through 50,000 years of oral tradition. Their stories revolve around the Dreaming, their creation legend, which is set in a mythological time where the landscape is endowed with mythic and symbolic status. Narratives of the Dreaming speak to a complex network of beliefs, practices, and customs that define Indigenous Australians’ spiritual beliefs and connection to the land.

Bush Ballads

Perhaps the first Western literary genre to emerge from Australia was the bush ballad, a form of poetry that celebrated the working man and the superiority of bush life to dreary urban existence. The most famous of these ballads is AB Banjo Paterson’s “Waltzing Matilda,” often considered the unofficial Australian national anthem. Henry Lawson celebrated bush life in both poems and short stories, with works like “The Drover’s Wife” providing a popular mythology for this heavily urbanized society.

Early Novelists

Early colonial novels tend to focus on the convict experience, as exhibited by both convicted forger Henry Savory’s autobiography Quintus Servinton, the first Australian novel, as well as perhaps the first real Australian classic, Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life. In the early 20th century, two female writers highlighted the changing face of the newly independent nation. Early feminist Miles Franklin My Brilliant Career is a portrait of an independent and strong-willed woman seeking emancipation, while another female writer, Henry Handel Richardson, documented an immigrant family’s history in The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.

Contemporary Literature

Since WWII, Australian literature has adopted a more outward-looking, cosmopolitan voice. Voss, by Nobel Prize winner Patrick White, uses the bleak emptiness of Australia’s center to illuminate the universality of individual isolation. Thomas Keneally writes with a strong social conscience: his The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith takes on the issue of turn-of-the-century race relations, and his Holocaust epic Schindler’s Ark was later made into the film Schindler’s List. Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey is known for Oscar and Lucinda and, more recently, The True History of the Kelly Gang, an imaginative account of outlaw and Australian folk hero Ned Kelly. David Malouf’s work explores the relation between cultural centers and peripheries in the immigrant experience, and his background as a poet surfaces in novels like Remembering Babylon. Australia’s unofficial poet laureate, Les Murray, celebrates the irreverent with his “larrikin” characters and brought much-deserved attention to Australian poetry from every era, while the late Judith Wright occupies a special niche with her uniquely feminine poetic voice.

Music

Indigenous Music

Australia’s rich musical tradition stretches back centuries to a time when indigenous people sang “karma” songs that celebrated their ancestry. Different regions produced different styles and instruments, but the didjeridu is perhaps the most famous musical contribution of Indigenous Australians. Invented by northern people some 2,000 years ago, the prototypes of these droning wind instruments were created using tree branches.

The Rise of Rock

While classical music and precursors of jazz dominated the modest Australian music scene throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the country came into its own with the discovery of rock and roll. Shortly after the sound of Bill Haley & His Comets swept through Australia, the country produced its own rock star. Hard-rocking, hard-living Johnny O’Keefe was a perennial presence on the Australian charts throughout the late 50s, and his fitting nickname, “The Wild One,” was also the name of his first hit. The British Invasion of the 60s also had a major impact on Australia: the Easybeats hit the international scene with their infectious tune, “Friday on My Mind.” The wholesome acoustic sounds of the Seekers led the folk bandwagon, and contributions from sibling supergroup the Bee Gees helped Australian pop stay alive through the 60s and 70s.

The Pub Scene

In the late 70s, AC/DC scored big with their brand of blues-influenced heavy metal. Other groups, such as the Skyhooks, Cold Chisel, and Australian Crawl, grew up out of the pub scene and gained local fame with Aussie-themed hits that refused to emulate sounds from across the seas. In the 80s, politically aware pub-rock bands like Midnight Oil became famous for their energetic live shows. Men at Work broke into the American music scene and paved the way for super bands like INXS in the late 80s and thereafter.

From Indigenous to Indie

After the dance-rock success of Arnhem Land group Yothu Yindi in the 90s, Indigenous music became commercially viable. Examples of politicized Aboriginal “bush rock” artists include the Coloured Stones, the Warumpi Band, and Archie Roach. Indigenous pop artists in the charts recently include Shakaya and Christine Anu. At the same time, indie rock was popularized by such artists as Silverchair, Severed Heads, and Savage Garden.

Visual Art

Aboriginal art

The rock paintings of Indigenous Australians have covered much of the Outback for millennia, and many of their carvings, sculptures, and stone arrangements still exist. Today, many artists carry on the Indigenous traditions. Australia’s most well-known Indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira, is famous for his Western-style depictions of Outback landscapes. His work made him a pioneer in the Aboriginal community, and he received full Australian citizenship in 1957. More recently, the frequently abstract and colorful paintings of Emily Kngwarreye have soared in value; in 2007, her Earth’s Creation sold for over a million dollars at auction.

The Heidelberg School

Led by artists including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, and Frederick McCubbin, the Heidelberg School of Australian painting that emerged in the late 19th century is considered to be the root of western art in Oz. Named for the rural area near Melbourne where its painters worked, the style focused on landscapes and depictions of everyday Australian life. Roberts found inspiration in the red land of the cattle station, and McCubbin drew on the thin forests of smoky green gum trees.

Contemporary Artists

Possibly the most famous Australian work is Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, which tells the story of the folk hero’s exploits, final capture, and execution through a series of vibrantly colored paintings. Other artists in the last half-century who have developed distinctively Australian styles include the acclaimed, controversial Brett Whiteley, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Boyd, and abstract artist John Colburn. First awarded in 1921, the Archibald Prize represents the pinnacle of Australian art and is awarded for special achievement in portraiture.

Film

Silent Era

Australians love a good yarn, so it’s little wonder that the Land Down Under also boasts one of the world’s most prolific, innovative film industries. The world’s first feature film was an Australian production; written and directed by Charles Tait, The Story of the Kelly Gang lasted 70min. The Limelight Department, which was run by the Salvation Army in Melbourne, was among the world’s first production companies and made several hundred short films around the turn of the century.

Post war and new wave

Despite auspicious beginnings, Aussie films suffered budget woes until foreign financing picked up during the post-WWII economic boom. Films like Leslie Norman’s The Shiralee, a joint British-Australian production about a fancy-free wanderer forced to assume responsibility for his child, relied on foreign funding. The Australian film infrastructure didn’t really solidify until the 70s, when generous government support ushered in the Australian New Wave, characterized by films like Peter Weir’s eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock and Bruce Beresford’s war epic, Breaker Morant.

Box-office blitz

After the critical successes of the 70s, the 80s brought Australian films into commercial favor at the box office, both at home and abroad. Hits like Mad Max and Crocodile Dundee were wildly popular the world over. Films of the 90s were personal, Australia-specific, and often quirky—especially in intriguing character studies like Muriel’s Wedding and Shine. Recent productions, such as New South Wales-native Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! and Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, demonstrate the multiplicity of themes and styles present in contemporary Australian film. The Land Down Under has sent an astonishing number of its stars abroad; these include Geoffrey Rush (Shine), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), the New Zealand-born but Aussie-raised Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Guy Pearce (Memento), Hugh Jackman (the X-Men series), Toni Collette (About a Boy), and Mel Gibson (the Lethal Weapon series).

Customs & Etiquette

Known for their friendly informality, Australians are quick to adopt a first-name basis with new acquaintances and difficult to offend. However, it’s still best to avoid public pronouncements on sensitive topics like race relations or refugees, and you shouldn’t joke about Australia’s convict origins. “Aborigine” has also become somewhat politically incorrect; use “Indigenous Australian” to be safe. Smokers beware: Australia’s states and territories have recently implemented stringent bans on public smoking. Public buildings are tobacco-free throughout the continent, and smokers in licensed establishments—including bars, pubs, and hotels—can only light up in the Northern Territory. Littering in Australia is not taken lightly by its environmentally-conscious populace.

For women, almost any clothing is acceptable if it steers clear of indecency. Tube tops, halters, and tank tops are all common. For men, pants or shorts are the norm. Cossies, swimmers, and togs (affectionate terms for Australia’s favorite garment, the swimsuit) are usually appropriate only at the beach.

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