Favourite holiday destination Cairns might be known as the gateway for the Great Barrier Reef but in this Tropical North Queensland town, there has been a burst of new restaurants, breweries and bars that beckon water babies from the crystal-clear sea.
An evening arrival
5pm: It’s five o’clock somewhere… I’ve arrived in Cairns at just the right time to check out Hemingway’s Brewery Cairns Wharf. The views to Trinity Bay and the 19-metre-long bar are pretty impressive, but not as impressive as the locally brewed beers. I have a beer paddle – a set of five 100ml glasses of Hemingway’s beers delivered to my table with tasting notes. I like Pitchfork Betty’s Pale Ale and the 7th Heaven Tropical Ale but fall in love with the limited-release Bump Track Dark Lager and its characteristics of chocolate and caramel.
7.30pm: The Oak & Vine is Cairns’ newest rooftop restaurant and bar. It is an open-air dining experience perched on the fourth floor of the Oaks Hotel right in the heart of town on the Esplanade. The food is fabulous – a mix of fresh local produce and Peruvian-inspired dishes delivered with splashes of Japanese cooking techniques. Try the seafood ceviche of prawns, octopus and snapper. Very Peruvian. Don’t worry if your favourite drink is not on the cocktail menu, just order it anyway and the bar staff will do their best to oblige.
Day two: on land and at sea
8.30am to 5pm: The Indigenous crew on the Dreamtime Dive and Snorkel tour is handing out bacon-and-egg rolls as we board the boat for the two-hour journey to Milln Reef, about 50 kilometres from Cairns. The ride out is bumpy, bumpy, bumpy. Slightly sunburnt faces change in colour from pink to lily white, to emerald green as we rock and roll our way out to sea. Once on the reef though, everyone hits the water. Some don diving gear, others snorkels and flippers. Multicoloured flippers paddle in all directions as the 57 guests feverishly search the ocean for coral and colourful reef fish. Even though no-one ever ventures more than 50 metres from the boat, Laz – a 20-year-old Indigenous ranger from the Cape – constantly keeps watch, counting swimmers. After lunch we head to a second reef – Flynn, about another 10 kilometres out – for a repeat dose before heading back to Cairns. The afternoon waters are much calmer and I sit on the back deck, beer in hand, listening to Jimmy Buffett – not a worry in the world.
7pm: Ross Stevens has done an amazing job to make stopping for a drink at the Conservatory Bar in central Cairns feel like a visit to your favourite uncle’s house. Everything is comfortable, from the slouchy sofas to his warm and genuine welcome – everything just works. The wine list is long and full of surprises, his grazing boards are scrumptious, and his old-fashioned cocktail, the best I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot!
Day three: island dreams and gin
6.30am: The Oak & Vine restaurant is without doubt the best place to watch the sun rise over Cairns. It’s not all about the view though, the oversized “big breakfast” is the perfect start to the day.
11am: Back on the water again, I board the Fitzroy Island Flyer at Marlin Wharf for the 45-minute sail across to the island. Even though Fitzroy Island is a fully functioning family resort, daytrippers can still come and go to discover the wildlife, explore the walking trails and visit Nudey Beach – ranked among Australia’s most beautiful beaches. My afternoon is a deep dive into all things turtle. Firstly, I take a tour on a glass-bottomed boat out to the reef and spot a few green sea turtles before visiting the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre and meeting Leilah, a turtle who had to be rescued after ingesting microplastics which caused an intestinal blockage. She’s been in the centre since 2017, but fortunately is well enough to now be released.
7pm: When I walk into Wolf Lane Distillery, You Am I’s new chart-topping single “The Waterboy” is pumping out of the sound system. Clusters of trendy tattooed and elegantly dressed folk sit about, sipping gin, deep in serious conversation. Wolf Lane gins are brewed on site using local ingredients like Davidson plum. It is hard not to like the Navy Strength Gin which was voted world’s best at the 2020 Gin Guide Awards in London.
A last hurrah
11am: No visit to Cairns is complete without spending some time at the Cairns Aquarium. The aquarium showcases the biodiversity of Far North Queensland’s rainforest and marine life. The highlight for me was the display that followed a drop of rain on its journey through the Wet Tropics, Cape York, the Gulf Savannah, the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea.