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Captivating Cairns - A Little South Of France in TNQ

Joanna Hall

I’m sitting at a restaurant perched on the edge of a marina as a couple of sleek 30 footers glide into their moorings. The wine arrives, a 2004 Margaret River Sauvignon Blanc, and I indulge briefly in its fruity aroma which is complemented by the smell of the salt air and punctuated by the sound of sails gently slapping against masts. I enjoy a momentary flashback to a sailing trip to St. Tropez, but this isn’t the French Riviera - it’s Cairns in North Queensland. From mosquito infested mangrove swamp to world famous port destination, Cairns has evolved into a unique and attractive city with the wealthy boatie set among its many new admirers. And although it still has a bit of a reputation as a backpacker haven, it’s a sophisticated city with the hotels and restaurants to prove it. 

Cairns Transformation

Devotees compare the many charms of Cairns to the oh-so elegant South of France, but while that may be debatable it is true that the capital of the tropical north has developed a charm and distinct sense of sophistication -  something which was a laughable concept just two decades ago. The first time I visited was 20 years ago while travelling through Australia from the UK. Back then, as a jumping-off point for the reef and rainforest, Teva-shod European budget travellers walked the streets, and it seemed like every second shop front was an entrance to a hostel advertising steak and jugs-of-beer deals. But major changes have taken place in the “heartland of the north”. By day, the centrepiece of Cairns is ”the Nard”, also called The Esplanade to the uninitiated, which underwent a major a $32 million facelift some years back, transforming the CBD into one of the most aesthetically appealing cities in Australia. At the heart of the redevelopment is a 4800 sqm saltwater swimming lagoon straddling the edge of Trinity Bay, which has become the focal point of daytime activity in Cairns, with local families cooling off alongside foreign visitors in a very laid-back, safe and leafy environment.

Eating, Drinking 

Clusters of stylish boutiques boasting local and international designer labels have sprouted up over the years in between the die-hard souvenir shops flogging didgeridoos and T-shirts. And come nightfall, the local watering holes have responded to the new demographic queuing up at their doors, such the elegant Courthouse Hotel which boasts a sleek interior design embracing its history, along with a menu of some of the most wicked cocktails ever mixed or shaken. For lovers of gourmet food, no longer is a serving of chips de rigeur  with every meal. The laid-back lifestyle of Cairns has attracted some of Australia’s most accomplished chefs in recent years, sparked by local pioneer, Craig Squire, of Red Ochre Grill. New to the  dining scene is Salt House, a restaurant, bar, and pizzeria with lovely mountain and ocean views, along with cocktails, day beds, and a tapas bar menu. Another to put on your must-do list is Waterbar & Grill on Cairns Marlin Marina, for waterfront views and grain-fed and aged organic beef sourced locally from the Atherton Tablelands.

New Hotels On The Block

Perhaps the most striking transformation in Cairns has been on the accommodation front. In years gone by, the choice of accommodation in Cairns was restricted to hostels, motor lodges and a handful of four-star hotels with often tired and cliched design themes such as rainforest plants and murals. Today, it’s all quite different, with the trend towards five-star luxury sparked by the opening of the Shangri-La Hotel at The Marina back in 2004. In 2018 the waterfront hotel was treated to a second facelift, with all 184 rooms transformed as part of a $13 million refurbishment program, to be rolled out in two separate phases. Newcomers to the Cairns scene include  the boutique Il Palazzo Boutique Hotel, which brings the warmth of Tuscany to the tropical oasis of Cairns, and Crystalbrook Collection’s new Riley, which offers a nod to environmentalism, and comes in-room iPads Nespresso machines with recyclable pods. This radical shift in the hotel scene was mirrored by a slew of luxury hotels and elegant apartments springing up on the northern beaches of Cairns - a 20 km stretch of pristine reef-front which has been incorporated into the city suburbs. Trendy Palm Cove, for example, boasts a carefully-planned strip of top hotels and trendy restaurants, and is being dubbed as the emerging “spa capital” of Australia - a remarkable feat given the fact that just two decades ago it was a sleepy hamlet with only a caravan park and a corner store which doubled up as a fish and chip shop.


Way back in 2005, the Sebel Reef House and Spa took top honours in the Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Spa Awards for Australia and the South Pacific, and was voted number 10 in the world. Today it’s part of the M Gallery by Sofitel group, with other newcomer brands to Palm Cove including Peppers Beach Club & Spa, Allamanda Palm Cove by Lancemore, and Pullman Palm Cove Sea Temple Resort & Spa. In spite of this rapid evolution, Cairns has retained its charm as something of a country outpost. That, combined with its transformation into a progressive and innovative city, has rightfully earned its reputation as Australia’s latest “in place”.

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  1. Posted by on 26th Nov 2018 Verified Customer

    South of France? 4 Star Review

    Had to laugh a bit when I read the beginning of this....but in fairness Cairns has come a long way over the years, and it's a much nice town to visit now if you're not a backpacker.

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