We have been to Australian several times in the past. Although we have visited the largest cities, toured several wine regions and scuba/snorkeled the great barrier reef on previous trips, this time we set aside two-months to visit–including about three weeks and New Year’s Eve in Sydney. And on this trip, we plan to get a more comprehensive view of the Eastern half of the continent/country and to more fully explore some of our favorite areas.
Our first destination was the Great Barrier Reef region in northeast Australia. To get there, we first made a stop in Cairns (pronounced Cans). This 120,000-person coastal city is not much of a destination. It was founded and grew modestly to service inland gold and tin-mining activities. But its real growth came as a tourist center—not to visit the city itself, but to explore the inland forests and tablelands, the gorges and the rainforests of the north shore and, to take advantage of the region’s endless string of gorgeous beaches and, especially, for its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef.
As our last trip to Cairns, it was primarily a jumping off point to revisit the site of what was probably the single most memorable day of our forty-seven years together—a visit to the casually luxurious resort on Lizard Island. But more on Lizard Island later. Since we were going to be in Cairns anyway, we decided to stay a few days to explore some of northern Queensland’s terrestrial wonders.
Cairns—Capital of Northeast Australia
Cairns is essentially a beach, an airport and a tourist staging area whose harbor is home to mid-rise hotels and wall-to-wall open-air restaurants, bars and tour agents. Its atmosphere comes primarily from a combination of its waterfront, its parks and its prolific vegetation—palm trees, fig trees and ferns that flourish in the tropical climate. The primary tourist areas are along the waterfront; especially the
- Esplanade, with many of the larger hotels and restaurants;
- Boardwalk, a scenic, 6 km walkway between the harbor and a park that parallels the Esplanade and whose city-center portion has boat docks and a number of restaurants and bars;
- Park, between the Boardwalk and the Esplanade, which has plenty of open space and one of the largest public swimming pools we have ever seen; and the
- Cruise terminal, whose ships’ passengers fuel much of the city’s economy.
Our continual ins and outs from the city, provided chances to sample a number of the better–albeit always casual—restaurants. We had generally light dishes at:
- Dundee’s, where we began with two grilled oyster preparations (one with mornay sauce and shredded parmesan and one with bacon and house-made Worchester sauce), tempura-fried softshell crab with seaweed and toasted sesame and honey sauce, and an order of onion rings. This with a bottle of a crisp, Rockbare chardonnay from the Mornington Peninsula. The food, the wine, the service and the harbor-side view were all very good.
- Ochre, where we had a one very good dish (Tasmanian salmon mi-cuit with ginger-lime sauce and cucumbers) and another that was less to our taste (char-grilled kangaroo sirloin with chili glaze, sweet potato fritters and bok choy). We had similarly mixed results with the wine (a nice Adelaide Hills Petaluma White Label Chardonnay and a barely drinkable Innocent Bystander Pinot from the Yarra Valley) and the service.
- Tamarind. We began with a plate of three appetizers: Yuzu lemongrass cured salmon with honey-maple béchamel tobiko and lemongrass oil; citrus-infused tuna with wasabi mayonnaise, ponzu pearls, citrus curd and salmon roe; and slow-braised beef cheeks with smoked mash, saffron, tumeric and jus. Main course was a whole, roasted baby Barramundi with tamarind, chili and garlic sauce. The appetizers (especially the salmon and beef cheeks) were very good. The Barramundi was beautifully done, although a bit mushy, presumably from being slightly overcooked. Wine was a rather disappointing 2013 Mornington Penninsula Pinot from Stonier.
- Salt House is a popular restaurant and bar with a great atmosphere, located in the middle of the city’s yacht basin. Our meal consisted of two dishes, both of which we enjoyed: Fried coconut coral trout with tarter sauce, Moroccan-seasoned steak fries and cole slaw; and spinach salad with chilled king prawns. Each, as part of a very reasonably-priced $20 lunch special, came with a choice of drinks (we chose a decent Morgan Bay chardonnay and a Cooper IPA).
- Tha Fish, like most of our previous restaurants, is located on the boardwalk. We began with a starter of deep-fried white bait (baby fish) with lime aioli. This was followed by two pretty good entrees: Char-grilled Moreton bugs with basil risotto, pea puree and saffron oil, and pan-seared Red Emperor fish with thai-spiced pumpkin puree, peanuts, water chestnuts and bok choy stir-fry with coconut rice. This was accompanied by a nice 2012 Eden Valley chardonnay from Hill Smith. Nor could we pass up a very interesting (and very good) dessert of peach tart tartine with fig caramel sauce, Drambuie and fig ice cream.
Our Cairns Hotel was the Pullman Reef Hotel (an Accord hotel which also had a casino in it). The location was excellent…right by the wharf and boardwalk. The layout of the building is a little strange. For example, to access the hotel’s restaurant, you have to go outside to a different entrance. Right now, the only bar is in the casino (we understand they are undergoing a reservation which will include a more accessible bar). The rooms are clean, nicely sized and comfortable. A multi-country plug is provided in the room, along with a hot pot for tea/coffee. Shampoo/conditioner are in room but you have to ask for lotion or shower caps. Our room has a small balcony but no water view. The staff tried to be very helpful but gave conflicting answers to some of our questions..such as, which entrance is the one called the wharf casino entrance (we got several conflicting answers). Oh well, they do try hard. Dinner reservations were made properly and taxis came as scheduled. But all-in-all, it was a very pleasant and comfortable stay.