I'm a product designer in Melbourne, who takes every chance I get to go exploring.
Published October 8th 2012
Have a Fantastic Holiday in Cairns on a budget.
Perfect for students and backpackers!
Cairns is often regarded as a fantastic place to holiday; with pristine beaches, reef and rainforest, why wouldn't it be? However a lot of these attractions can come with a hefty budget that can be intimidating for a travelling student or backpacker. As a long-time, reasonably broke resident of Cairns, I'm here to provide an insiders guide on how to get a perfect Cairns experience on the cheap.
First, before you're about to head North, be prepared. Cairns weather can often be difficult, and if you don't have everything you need you could be forking out a lot of extra money. For starters, Cairns is always hot, even in winter. You won't need a jumper. Use that packing space instead to bring an umbrella, lots of SPF 30 sunscreen and a water bottle. Cairns tap water is safe to drink and actually tastes decent, and you can save yourself some money by just refilling your own bottle.
Once you're here, despite what the council may convey, the bus service is terrible. If you attempt to rely on it for transport, chances are you'll end up paying for a taxi half the time anyway. A lot of tourists choose to rent bicycles or small mopeds, which is definitely a cost efficient way to get around. Everything is in reasonable walking distance too, however the heat makes travel by foot a challenge.
The best way to stay in Cairns on the cheap is definitely check out backpacker accommodation. Accommodation starts from $25/night for an 8 bed dorm, or around $130/night for a hotel room. There's often specials for the hotel rooms if you book online. Gilligan's is great because it's right in the heart of the city, houses an amazing nightclub and local fruit and vegetable markets are right outside more on this later.
Cairns has several fantastic things to do in the city. If you find yourself here on a Friday or the weekend, the local fruit and vegetable markets "Rusty's Markets" are a must see. Everything is cheap, smells amazing, and there's enough fruit samples to easily provide a free breakfast. There are also buskers everywhere for some casual entertainment, as well as a myriad of local boutique stores nearby.
Considering boutique stores, there are a couple of hidden ones that are definitely a must see for any keen shopper. Oceana Walk, Grafton Street (ask someone to direct you; it's right in the city centre) houses Kaotica, a small vintage and secondhand clothing store. You'll find everything here, from immense amounts of beautiful vintage jewellery, to amazing fashion buys, to some of the most ridiculous hats that have ever been created.
Also on Grafton Street is another small alley, easily recognisable as it is decorated with large amounts of beautiful legal graffiti. This alley hosts a small café Caffiend with some of the most delicious tea and a really chilled out environment. There is also an expansive second-hand bookstore which is great for browsing and some much needed air-conditioning.
Other stores worth visiting include Tea Lily and Tastey, for clothes especially. Tea Lily is more on the expensive side with clothing generally more suited to mature women, however there's still something in there for everyone. Tastey is definitely aimed a teenagers, male and female, with a great selection of fashion as well as records for sale.
Other than this, the only real attraction in the city is the Cairns Wildlife Dome. This is an impressive indoor zoo, situated on the top floor of the casino (near the waterfront; again, ask a local for directions). $22 will give you entry to all shows and presentations, general zoo admission, and is valid for 5 days. While this isn't regarded by locals as the best wildlife experience, it's definitely well priced and in a perfect city position. Also, Cairns Tropical Zoo, 20 minutes from the city by car, definitely has a larger range of animals and presentations. It's $33 for basic all-day entry, however you can pay a bit more and get transport from the city if needed.
If you're happy to travel a little out of the city, Sugarworld is definitely another fun option. For $15 a day, you get unlimited access to pools, parks and 3 massive water slides on an old cane farm. There are live peacocks throughout the whole park as well, which is really an impressive and beautiful sight.
Of course, any brochure you pick up will cover the beauty of the reef, however this can be very pricey. If you can afford it, Great Adventures does a fantastic one-day trip, stopping at Green Island for the morning, and the outer reef for the afternoon. Green Island is a fantastic place to lounge on the beach, check out the crocodile enclosure (complete with the world's largest crocodile in captivity) or take a snorkel. There's also a lovely pool and poolside cocktail bar. As you continue on the to outer reef, you'll find yourself on a floating pontoon above one of the most beautiful reefs ever. If you've got the money, this is the perfect place to dive. Otherwise, snorkeling and the underwater submarine are both free and an excellent way to experience the reef.
If you don't get a chance to visit the reef, don't fret. It's lovely, but you can get the whole experience minus the fish and coral anyway. On the esplanade is the Cairns lagoon, which is a beautiful place to swim or relax on the sand. There's usually buskers nearby, plenty of places to grab a drink and on some Sundays, markets. Alternately you can drive up to one of the local beaches. The beaches do not have crystal clear water however as they're fairly close to mangroves, but it's still fine to swim in. If you do visit the beaches, take some sausages and have an evening barbecue. It's no where near as hot in the late afternoon and the beaches can be beautiful at night.
One thing to remember, if you're swimming anywhere but the lagoon, is that there are jellyfish. At the beach, you'll be fine if you swim in the nets (they keep out most jellyfish and are under lifesaver supervision during the day). If you're out at the reef however, I'd definitely recommend wearing a full-body lycra suit, usually referred to as a stinger suit. Most companies will have them for hire at a very cheap price; Great Adventures definitely do. These aren't the most attractive, but neither is a horrible jellyfish sting, which can be more common and dangerous on the reef.
If you want to check out the other side of Cairns and the beautiful rainforest, there are a few excellent options. Near the Botanical Gardens is the entry to the Red Arrow, a small walk ask a local for directions. The Red Arrow takes about 30 minutes return at a moderate pace, and will take you through gorgeous rainforest to a spectacular lookout at the top. Be warned, there are lots of stairs, however. For the more adventurous, near the top of the walk there is a path named the Blue Arrow, which will take much longer and go much higher. This isn't really necessary and the Red Arrow will give you fantastic views regardless, but if you're after something a little more exercise oriented go for it.
Alternately, a locals secret is Crystal Cascades. The only way to get here is by taxi or car, but it's free and definitely worth it if you have the time. Drive to the suburb of Redlynch and follow the signs. It's a secluded freshwater swimming hole, hidden in a tropical rainforest. A series of small waterfalls flow into large pools surrounded by boulders. Despite Cairns being hot all the time, Crystal Cascades is usually cold all the time. If you intend to swim, definitely bring a few towels.
Back in the city, eating is definitely a large part of Cairns. The pier shopping centre is a great place to go for some reasonably priced seafood. Outside the shopping centre, facing the marina, are a selection of fantastic restaurants. One in particular, the Waterbar and Grill Steakhouse, it considered one of Cairns' nicest restaurants, complete with amazing food, service and atmosphere.
If you're craving Asian food its everywhere, though it can be difficult to find some that's actually good. The Night Markets (facing the esplanade) have a fantastic selection of cheap takeaway food. If you continue to walk through the Night Markets, however, there's a small cafeteria on the other side with amazing authentic Japanese food it's delicious. Also definitely try the plum wine here. Otherwise, further towards the casino is the Noodle Coliseum, with the most delicious ramen known to man.
Generally, eating out is the sort of thing to ask a local. Don't be intimidated; they're more than happy to help. Within the city any food you want is sure to be within walking distance.
After eating, the Cairns nightlife is definitely another experience, with the "big nights" being Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. As previously mentioned, Gilligan's club "The G Spot" is definitely the place to be. Even if you don't start the night here, end up here. Drinks are reasonably priced and there's an outdoor and indoor area, with sport on massive TVs, live music and a fantastic DJ on the main dancefloor. If you head upstairs from inside Gilligan's, also accessible from the main road, you'll find the Attic. The Attic has a Burlesque feel, but is often reasonably packed. Entry is charged to both Gilligan's and the Attic rarely, but will give you unlimited access to both areas.
If you're after something a little quieter, with a bit more class, try Lilo bar. Lilo has a fantastic selection at the bar, comfortable lounges inside and outdoors, pool tables, a small dance floor and an excellent view. Lilo is often used for work functions, so you can expect the crowd here to be a little tamer. Access is via the Rydges hotel lobby.
If you want something that's similar to the party vibe of Gilligan's, but with a little more emphasis on music and a few less fresh 18 year olds, try out Velvet Underground. Velvet is access via the ground floor of the casino. It has two levels, fantastic DJs and plenty of comfortable seating as well as an expansive dance floor. This can get a little quiet at times, however.
Drinks in Cairns are usually very reasonably priced; $5 to $7 each. If you have an idea of where you'd like to go, call ahead and enquire about drink offers. There'll usually be some sort of deal available.
If you're interested in any other activities, always remember to ask a local. We really are a generally friendly bunch, more than happy to share the secrets of this fantastic city.