Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef

By the time we made it to Cairns Monday evening, I was really suffering from a sinus infection and corresponding cough. Luckily I came prepared with prescription medications (Zithromax & an asthma inhaler) and decided to go ahead and start taking the 3-day course of antibiotics so I would feel better asap.

The weather in Cairns, while definitely tropical/humid, was not ideal the first couple of days. It was so overcast we didn’t see blue sky until Thursday, and it was rainy & windy. After consulting with the hostel staff as well as a local tour operator, we ultimately decided to book our all day reef trip for Wednesday as it was forecast to be the least windy that day. While this didn’t give me much time to recover from my head cold, I didn’t want to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We spent the day Tuesday roaming around downtown Cairns. There’s really not much to do on a rainy day besides browse the shops, restaurants & tour agencies. We eventually ended up at Blue Sky Brewery, one of the very few places in town that has free wifi. Beers, as elsewhere in Australia, aren’t cheap -- a “medium” or about ¾ pint was $5.50. But at least my True Blue Stout had flavor unlike so many of the other Australian beers we’ve tried!

We had to get up early (7am) Wednesday morning to allow enough time to get ready and walk from our hostel to the Reef Terminal where all the tour boats depart. We had chosen the Silver Swift because it was the only boat operating out of Cairns that makes three stops on the outer reef (Flynn reef in particular) which means you get to explore different parts of the reef and are not crowded in the same areas as the other tour boats. We had negotiated with the booking agent for 10% off (due primarily to my Youth Hostelling Association membership) which saved us each $16 off the $162 fare. Unfortunately the weather had not improved and we experienced rough seas on the 1.5 hour trip out to the reef causing multiple passengers to get sick. I used my Seabands & ginger tablets and, although I felt queasy towards the end of the journey, made it without incident.

We had approximately one hour at each of the three sites to snorkel. Even though the water was about 24C, Greg & I both opted to rent Lycra stinger suits (to prevent jellyfish stings) and wetsuits (for warmth). I definitely would have been cold without the wetsuit! The water was extremely choppy at the first site; combined with the overcast skies, visibility was not great. We also had to constantly be aware of our surroundings so we wouldn’t get blown into the reef or get too close to or far from the boat. Conditions improved slightly at the second site and were the best at the third site. It was never ideal by any means, but we still saw a lot of pretty coral, fish and other sea creatures.

While I can’t compare our experience on the Silver Swift to other boats in Cairns, I have been snorkeling at dozens of locations in the U.S. & Caribbean and this does compare favorably to the best of those trips. There was an adequate crew to passenger ratio; they only book the boat, which can hold 160 people, to a max of 80 (our group was about evenly split between snorkelers and divers); plenty of good food was available at the specified times (breakfast sandwiches & muffins, hot & cold lunch buffet, afternoon sweets & cheese); and the cabin & restrooms were kept clean throughout the day. I will mention, however, that if you are a first-time or nervous snorkeler then this probably wouldn’t be the trip for you, at least under the same weather conditions we encountered. Also, there was not a dedicated crew member assisting the snorkelers in & out of the water or helping them with their equipment, but there were plenty of flotation devices (pool noodles, life jackets) to make you feel more comfortable in the water.

Our last full day in Cairns, Thursday, turned out to be beautiful & sunny. We had not planned any other activities and debated whether to rent a car and drive north up the coast to Port Douglas, Daintree & Cape Tribulation or west to Kuranda for a look at the rainforest. Ultimately, the added cost of the excursion (at least $100 for the car rental, gas & food) outweighed what we thought we might get out of the trip. So we ended up spending the better part of the day strolling the full length of the waterfront Esplanade, watching the tide recede and water birds feeding, and looking for crocodiles (which are mostly seen in the summer months).

That’s about it for Cairns. My overall impression of the city is that it was built up around the tourism industry for the reef. There aren’t any particularly historic sites to visit, just natural ones. In fact, I thought Cairns had a bit of a seedy vibe, not in a bad way that made me feel unsafe, but there were generally more homeless people & local drunks hanging around (I’m guessing because of the warm climate). There was no viable way to get to/from the airport other than a taxi ($24+) or a shared bus ($10 for 1person, $15 for 2). Food, as elsewhere in Australia, was still expensive. I was starting to get tired of our pbj’s for lunch but luckily we had almost finished off the original jars from Sydney by the time we left Cairns. Still keeping to our budget, we had the following for dinner:  the first night we had Lean Cuisine frozen entrees ($4pp), one night we had Asian take away noodle bowls ($9-10pp), another night Domino’s pizza ($7 for a large ham & pineapple), and the last night I cooked thai noodles, stir fry vegetables & chicken ($8 + $7 for a bottle of white wine).

Our hostel, Dreamtime Travellers Rest, while rated one of the best in Australia, was only okay in my opinion. There was no free wifi ($4 for 1hr); the curtain rod in our double room had no finials, so if you moved the curtains the pole would fall down; the kitchen in our section of the hostel was quite outdated (toaster was melted, all markings on the oven/stove were illegible, pots & pans were in bad need of replacing); the hostel staff was generally friendly & helpful but less so when you don‘t book tours through them. The hostel was located on the far side of the train station, not in middle of town, which required an extra 5-10 minute walk to get into the CBD but did mean it was very quiet at night. Another positive is that the shared bathrooms were thoroughly cleaned every day.

One more note about our travels in Australia so far. Not once for our three Jetstar domestic flights have we ever had our identification checked. Not during check-in, where we were required to check our backpacks due to strict cabin luggage regulations; not at security, where the only thing we had to remove was our laptops (nor did they check our boarding passes); and not at the gate. Bottom line, it seems that anyone could fly within Australia under an assumed name, or someone else’s name, and never be questioned!

P.S. Sorry, but the internet connection here at the library was not sufficient to post pictures within this blog entry. Nor have I been able to upload my remaining Cairns photos since we arrived in Adelaide. Still, if you click on the title of this post, you can link to my Picasa web album which at least has our snorkeling pics in it.. I will add the others asap!

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