Thursday, July 11, 2013

Heading North for the Winter

It's been a very long term and it's really cold at home so we decided to seek out a few days of warmth to recharge our batteries. With temperature being the motivating factor, the far north seemed to be the best destination and so off we went to tropical Cairns, to bask in a very temperate 26C, thanking our lucky stars that we had escaped the cold front that moved across Western Victoria the day we left.

We flew to Cairns via Brisbane ( 2 hrs plus stopover plus 2 hrs) with Virgin, who have definitely improved their service since we last flew with them back in 2005. The second leg in particular was quite comfortable and because of a short delay on the tarmac, Taine had time to visit the cockpit to get his travel book signed.

Captain Taine
The taxi fare from the airport to town was a very reasonable $21, (the same as it would have cost 3 of us on the shuttle) and we arrived at the Best Western Sheridan at 11pm. Knowing we'd be late arriving I went for a budget first night and so we weren't expecting anything flash from the hotel. Just as well! The place has certainly seen better days and could do with a really good scrub. Cracked tiles I can manage but I'm pretty sure the toe nail clippings in the bathroom belonged to a previous guest :-( Coming from mid winter at home, the tropical heat was quite a shock and we quickly realised most of what we'd packed would be redundant. We cranked the air con up to cool down the room and went for a quick walk to get our bearings and some water. Not much happens after dark in Cairns on a Thursday night so we were soon back & in bed.

The next morning we picked up our rental and headed to the Esplanade and downtown. The highlight there is the swimming lagoon, a beautifully landscaped, FREE swimming pool right in the heart of the city. What a fabulous idea! Taine and Geoff checked out the water while I people watched and tried to find at least 10 who looked worse than me in bathers. It's not a nice thing to do but it's good for my self esteem.
Cairns Esplanade
Then it was on to the Big 4 Coconut Holiday Resort, our home for the next 2 nights. This is a caravan park with the lot! Water park, swimming pools, mini golf, gym, jumping pillows, hire bikes, tennis court & outdoor movies. Seventh heaven for Taine who thinks it's the best place we've ever stayed! The climate in Cairns is very reminiscent of Florida and the Coconut Big 4 is like a poor cousin to a Disney Resort (but without Mickey and the endless soft drink refills!)

Waterpark at Coconut Holiday Resort

For dinner we drove back into the city to the Night Markets. These consist of the usual junk that you find at markets and if you were an international tourist you'd be able to stock up here on kitschy, aussie things to take home. For us the highlight was the Chinese, stack-your- plate seafood buffet.

On Saturday I made the mistake of trying out the exercise bike in the gym and returned my damaged back to 'cannot move without intense pain' status'. This put a bit of a dampener on my day but after a morning of park activities we pressed on regardless and went for a drive to Kuranda to check out the rainforest. Having done our fair share of both in other locations we took neither the train nor the cable car and enjoyed the scenic drive from the comfort of the rental. Kuranda is full of rainbow clothing and 'mystic' gem stones designed to empty the pockets of the tourists arriving by the afore mentioned modes of transport. We bought a bit of both and enjoyed a couple of extremely over priced, locally made 'bliss balls'. Just to make sure my back was truly wrecked, we walked down to the Barron Falls lookout and back and then I had to recline the car seat so I could lay flat all the way back to the park :-(
Kuranda Market
The Captain Cook Highway hugs the coast from Cairns to Port Douglas. In fact this grey, tourist moving ribbon is the only thing that separates the rainforest from the sea. The views are spectacular and while there are lots of named beaches along this 80km stretch, there are also literally hundreds of patches of deserted white sand for those who prefer a more secluded stroll or swim. We drove into Palm Cove for a look but couldn't get a park amongst the Sunday brunchers.

We arrived in Port Douglas in time for quick squiz at the Sunday market. Taine enjoyed squeezing and drinking some sugar cane juice and we wandered through the gazebos of 'new agers' selling environmentally& ecologically sound, organic stuff full of antioxidants & other expensive goodnesses. I actually heard someone order a blackberry & spearmint green chai latte. I think the back pain may be making me a wee bit intolerant to such nonsense and Taine was getting sunburnt so we grabbed some codeine and an ice pack from the chemist and booked (the last available) tickets on a cruise out to the reef for tomorrow. July is a very popular time in Port Douglas. The place is full of other Victorians fleeing the cold and so by the time I got around to booking accommodation for this holiday there wasn't a resort room to be found and we had to settle for the Lazy Lizard Motel! It's ok and cheap by PD prices but I'm sure I would have been in less pain if I was soaking in a warm pool with a cocktail in my hand. We paid extra at the Lizard to have breakfast included. I had nostalgic visions of a La Quinta bagel buffet but they delivered our breakfast the night before - some bread, mini boxes of cereal & some long life milk. Ha ha ha. DIY breakfast!

Crush your own sugar cane
No trip to FNQ would be complete without visiting the Great Barrier Reef but that's nearly what happened to us. Having not factored in that every second person from Victoria would be holidaying in Port Douglas during the school holidays, we left our cruise booking until we got here. We had ummed and ahhed about which boat to take for ages but in the end the decision was made for us because we got the last 3 seats on any cruise available for our 3 days here! The Wavedancer took us to the Lower Isles for a day of snorkeling and sunshine. Apparently they start thinking about canceling the cruises when the wind gets to 25 knots so the 35 knots that it was today would account for the giant swell we encountered on the way out. Luckily we were armed with travelcalm and while I'm terrified of heights, big waves don't bother me at all so the roller coaster boat ride was fun so long as you avoided all the poor people throwing up into their paper bags. It was our first snorkeling experience and Taine and I had lots of fun frolicking in the shallows while Geoff managed to get right across to the other island where the water was clearer and he could chase the fish with his hired, underwater camera. The weightlessness of the water was a welcome relief for my back and I was sorry when we had to get back on the boat for the wild ride home. We went to the Yacht Club for a dinner and had a lovely, old fashioned, counter meal in their outdoor dining room.

Snorkeling on the reef

The Low Isles 
Our last full day in FNQ was spent exploring the rainforest north of Port Douglas. We stopped at the Mossman Gorge and took the shuttle ($6). The walkway there is very reminiscent of the Otway Fly (but free!). The Gorge Centre is very well run and an informative place to stop and learn about the local aboriginal culture. The staff are very helpful and friendly. This stretch of highway also provides a great glimpse of the sugar cane fields. The cane trains are fascinating and I'm motivated to find out more about the industry when we get home. I'm really surprised their isn't a tourist market for farm tours etc.

Mossman Gorge

Cane train

From Mossman we headed up to the Daintree Village, a completely non event town devoted to taking money from tourists for one of the many boat cruises down the river. At least Kuranda had interesting wares at it's market. The Daintree Village market was actually someone's second hand junk shop! Unwilling to be ripped off further we drove a few more kms to have a look at the ferry that crosses the river for travelers going on to Cooktown & beyond. The queue was very long and we were glad we'd already decided to turn back at that point. On the way back we made a visit to the fruit winery. These guys make wine out of tropical fruit because it's too hot for grapes up here. I tasted my way through the list from lychee to mango. I'm not sure whether I liked the wine much but the owners were lovely and my back felt heaps better by the time I got back in the car ;-)

Taine was very anxious to check out the cane toad races so we went to the Ironbar Pub for dinner. The food was very disappointing. I ordered the barramundi and it was the size of a large fish finger. Taine's pizza was more plentiful but so long in arriving that we had to leave half of it in order to see the cane toads. We each paid $5 for a ticket top watch the toads. Of course to actually get to race one you had to bid for them in an auction and there were enough people there with far more money than our brains so Taine had to settle for a ring side seat. As the poor toads were pulled out of the bucket there were lots of racial and homophobic and sexist jokes centred around the names of the toads (Gay Freddo, Camel Toad etc) and considering it was the early show of predominantly families with kids I found the whole racing spiel a bit offensive. I got to be the 'assistant', writing the winners on the whiteboard (teachers always get the whiteboard jobs!) and the reward for that was a free stubby. Mind you, the toad man wasn't too sure about giving the beer to me. Not sure if it was because I'm old or female but he said I could give it to my 'old man'.

Cane toad assistant
Next morning we savoured the pretty coastal drive again on our way back to Cairns before our long travel day home. Geoff dropped the car off at the rental depot in pristine condition. Unfortunately the poor boy who then jumped in the driver's seat to take us to the airport wasn't quite as adept at reversing and ran straight into the front of the building !

All in all, it was a lovely, warm break from the winter of home and we left enough sights unseen to ensure that we have to go back again some time.