Cairns, Australia

My husband and I love traveling, however it is hard when you are a young, newly married couple trying to save money.  We have wanted to travel to Australia for years and finally decided this was our one and only summer to do it.  I fell in love with Australia when I fell in love with Steve Irwin as a young child, someone I still look up to and idolize to this day.  Nathan wanted to visit because he loves the outdoors and some of his favorite athletes are from there.


First, we looked into traveling to a few different cities and wrote down all the major things we “had” to do while we were there.  The first thing we quickly learned about Australia, it is much larger than you may imagine!!  It is almost impossible to drive from major city to city (sometimes a 24 hour drive between), and flying quickly racked up the price tag.  So this made us realize we would rather fully enjoy one city than scratch at a few cities and be worried about traveling and hotels and all that.  One of the biggest things on both of our bucket lists, especially mine, was swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, which made us narrow our travels to Cairns, Australia.  Cairns is located in the North East corner of Australia, in the state of Queensland.  Another thing we quickly learned, Cairns is not pronounced as it looks.  People in the know pronounce it “Cans” or if your Australian accent is exceptionally thick, it is acceptable to pronounce it “Cains.”  Either way, the “r” completely disappears.

Once we knew where we wanted to go, we finalized the window of travel and how long we wanted to be there.  Since this visit was to celebrate our second year wedding anniversary, we obviously wanted to go to Australia somewhere around the 22nd of July.  However, after looking at the flight costs, for some reason it was a few hundred dollars cheaper to fly the week after our anniversary, which happens to fall on my birthday.  Sold.  I then realized that our summer is their winter and I was worried it wouldn’t be a good time to travel there, but I was wrong!  After reading many blogs on the subject, they only have two seasons there, wet and dry.  Their wet season is super muggy and gross and rains every day.  Their dry season (their winter, our summer) is an average of 75 degrees and doesn’t rain as often.  Also, in the wet months you have to worry about crocodiles, mosquitoes, and deadly jellyfish, while in the dry months you don’t.  Sold again!  Since I am a teacher and didn’t have summer school, my schedule was wide open.  My husband, however, has an engineering job and could only take a week off of work, so we wanted to maximize our time.  We realized that if we took a red eye flight out there, we could leave Friday night.  We at first were planning on flying back Sunday morning, but my husband wanted an extra day to get back into the swing of things so we decided to come back Saturday.

The Flights:  Now that we knew our dates, I checked the travel websites daily for the best rates.  I read a bunch of blogs about what days were the cheapest to purchase tickets on, some said Tuesday, some said Wednesday, and many said it didn’t really matter.  I also read different stories on how far in advance to purchase your tickets, also with varying answers between 3-6 months for international flights.  I checked many different flight booking websites, Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak, Priceline, etc. and I found that Kayak was always the cheapest.  The cool thing about Kayak is they check a bunch of those sites for you and show you the cheapest ones.  You can also use their search tools like price alert (they will email you if the price drops), fare charts (which is where I found that going a week later will save me hundreds), Flex Dates (they will show you the prices 3 days before and after your dates of choice), and bundle deals (hotels, car rentals, etc).  You can also narrow down search between airlines, number of stops, times, price, the list goes on.  Finally, after months of searching, about three months before our departure date I found the perfect tickets and we jumped on them!  Including taxes and all that jazz, our total plane price was a little less than three thousand dollars (for both).

The Hotel:  The next step was to book our hotel.  We already knew what hotel we wanted to book, and ironically we found it through Kayak’s bundle service.  We ended up not using the bundle, but it did introduce us to our perfect hotel.  Since I am allergic to gluten and milk, I am always hesitant to travel and explain my condition to waiter after waiter and get the same strange looks ranging from “WTF is gluten?” to “You know studies show that Celiac Disease isn’t real, right?”  Also, we are poor and my husband is cheap, and eating out three meals a day adds up.  This is why we needed somewhere to stay that was more than a bed, we needed a kitchen too.  Enter Sunland Leisure Park.  Part cabins, part RV park, part tent city, part shanty town, Sunland Leisure Park had everything we needed.  We were able to rent a small cabin that included a queen sized bed, couch, tv, kitchen, and bathroom.  As you see in the picture below, it was small, studio sized to say the most, but it was cute and all we really needed.  They had an office open from 7-7 which had basic food and information on different tours/events/packages around Cairns, as well as some pretty awesome staff who would help us book tours, call taxis, and give us the ins and outs of how to fit in in Australia.  They also had a bunch of bbqs around the park and a large room filled with washers/dryers/computers/games/tvs/etc.  The weirdest part was in the middle of the whole thing they had a huge “resort-style” pool with a lavish boat-toy-thing with water slide, critters spitting water, and other cute things.  One of the best things, this hotel was cheaper than any other hotel I could find, even ones without kitchens!  The total price for the week: $440.

Sunland Leisure Park
Sunland Leisure Park

The Tours:  Then it was time for the fun part, booking our events!  We were going to be in Australia a total of five whole days, and we wanted to squeeze in as much as could.  There are a ton of different tour companies and packages, but we finally decided on Reef Experience’s Rainforest, Rafting, Reef Experience package.  The cool thing about this company is they pick you up from your hotel each day for free (as long as your hotel is in the city), and you could choose which day and which order to book your tours.  We decided to do the reef first and the rafting last, with the rainforest in the middle as a rest day.  That meant we still had two empty days to plan something to do, but we figured we would go there and kind of wing it (we had to be kind of adventurous, right?!)  They also included lunch in all three packages, breakfast in the reef package, and included all tools needed for that day’s event.  The total price of the three day package, $930 (for both of us).

The Dog Sitter:  We were going to go through our veterinary hospital (I used to work there so I really trust my doctor and most of the staff) because they have boarding there, but it was expensive, especially when all the little details started adding up (one of my dogs is on meds, additional walks, all cost more money).  We also got one of our dogs from the pound five months ago and I was worried that she would freak out being put back into a cage-type setting.  Luckily I know one of my old coworkers is a dog sitter, so I called her up.  We are so glad we chose to go through her.  Not only did I trust her, but I knew she was super knowledgeable and great with the puppies.  She also was able to feed my fish and water my plants, which was a nice bonus.  On top of it all, she was less than half the price of the hospital.  If you live in Southern Orange County and need a pet sitter, please let me know!

Last Minute Details:  Three things we did right before we left: ordered Australian money, changed my phone plan to International, and called the plane company for a gluten free meal.  We have Bank of America, and they let you order money through them in the currency you will be visiting.  Also, if you have extra when you come home they will take it back (except change).  There was also a bank over in Australia that works with BOA so if we needed to take more money out (which we did) there are no penalties.  We ordered $400 through BOA and took out an additional $300 and we used pretty much all of it.  Note: We had planned to use our credit card for bigger purchases while we were there and learned through BOA that it is a 3% fee every time we used it, which is why we went to cash.  Also, we called our BOA credit card right before we left and warned them of international travel so they did not block our cards.  Then, a few days before we left we went into Verizon and for $35 they switched my phone to international calling/texts and data.  We only took my phone for emergency purposes, and we ended up not using it at all (except as a camera) but it was nice to know we had it.  At first I figured I would survive on the plane eating whatever they gave me that I could and eating my granola bars, but after realizing we would be in the plane 14 hours, which is almost an entire day, I finally realized maybe I should call the plane company (Qantas) and ask them for a gluten free meal.  I did, and they were pretty cool about it.

Australian Currency: so pretty!  Note the see-through parts and the different lengths
Australian Currency: so pretty! Note the see-through parts and the different lengths

Day 1&2:  The Flight(s)

Our plane took off at 11:50pm on Friday, which meant Nathan could go to work that day.  It was also a 14 hour flight, so it was nice to have it overnight which meant we slept for a large portion of it.  The gluten free food wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t amazing either (what plane food is?).  They also gave me some fresh fruit to snack on, which I put in my backpack.  Now, I need to preface that this was both of our first times out of the country, (except for Mexico but that doesn’t count) so maybe we just don’t know the international travel rules like “everyone else” does.  As we were exiting the plane, we filled out this form asking us many questions like if we had any “agriculture products” on us or if we had been to a “forest or agriculture field in the past 30 days.”  I only checked yes to the forest question, because Nathan and I go hiking and mountain biking weekly.  Now, maybe it’s because I have a bachelors in agriculture or maybe it is because Nathan and I are slower than the average bear, but to me, “agriculture products” are seeds, stem cuttings, flowers, etc. and nowhere in my mind did “banana” fall under that category.  Welp, let me tell you my friends, I was wrong, way wrong.  When we got off the plane they checked that form I filled out, and since we checked “yes” on the forest question (first mistake) we got to go to another line.  Everyone in our group lined up and a Bio-Control sniffing dog came around and sniffed each of our bags.  When the dog comes to me, he (she/it?) stopped at my bag and sat (the cue to his handlers he found what he is supposed to be looking for).  Well F.  Immediately they pulled me aside and asked me a million questions including my favorite, “Do you know that if you lied on your form you could be subject to a fine or imprisonment?  Would you like to change any of your answers before we search your bag?”  “Umm…no?” was the only answer I could squeak out.  They took everything out of my bag and found my banana they gave me on the plane I forgot to eat.  The lady then said, “Did  you not mark ‘no’ on your agriculture products question?  Don’t you know a banana is an agriculture product?  Did you know Australia is an island?  We pride ourselves on our superior quality produce and don’t want to bring in any foreign intruders.” Then they put it all back in my bag and called over all the other Bio-Control dogs to let them sniff it and do their command.  And she continued to lecture me…for 30 minutes.  I mean, I get it.  I really do.  But 30 minutes was excessive.  Making a scene in front of the entire airport was excessive.  Then she threatened me and said she should fine me three-hundred-something dollars on the spot, but eventually after she thought I was officially scared she let me off with a formal written warning.

Left: our plane Right: the super threatening letter
Left: our international plane Right: the super threatening letter

We landed in Brisbane and had another two hour flight north to Cairns.  Once we arrived in Cairns, it was halfway through the day.  We checked into our hotel, unpacked a bit, and then walked over to the local grocery store and got all the food we would need that week.  One thing we noticed, they are super proud of buying local (which they should be).  Under all produce it would say “Grown in Australia.”  I only saw one other sign under the kiwi and it said, “Grown in New Zealand.”  That was it, the produce came from nowhere else.  Even the canned, frozen, and refrigerated food all boasted, “Grown in Australia.”  I thought that was pretty awesome.  By that time the day was pretty much over, so we made some amazing lamb and eggplant (all locally grown) and then went to bed at like 7pm.

Day 3: Exploring Cairns

The first full day in Cairns we decided we wanted to kind of relax and check out the cute little beach town.  We took a bus to downtown Cairns and walked all over the boardwalk and pier.  They had this beautiful place called The Lagoon, which was essentially a really big swimming/wading pool literally right next to the beach.  At first I thought this was so weird because in Southern California we would never put a pool next to the beach because we just swim in the ocean.  But then we saw a warning sign saying not to swim in the ocean or go on the beach due to crocodiles.  Click.  We then continued to walk down the boardwalk and saw different playgrounds and war memorials.  We noticed how people in Australia incorporate fitness into their everyday life more than we do in the US.  They had a bunch of free (I know right?!) fitness classes held in the park every day.  They also had a rock climbing wall and skate park open to the public with no real rules or restrictions or fences.

Top: the rock climbing wall Bottom: free zumba class in the park, there were sooo many people
Top: the rock climbing wall Bottom: free Zumba class in the park, there were sooo many people

We then headed back to the hotel and checked out all the tour packages they had in the front office.  We decided to book The Green Island tour (and paid for it with cash) for our last day.  We then headed to our hotel’s pool and played around on the water slide for a while.  It was fairly cold, but it was a salt water pool so that felt nice.  Then we went back to the hotel, cleaned up, and went back downtown to eat dinner.  They had a Night Market, which is kind of like a swapmeet/minimall thing with little local vendors selling jewelery, art, clothes, and other cute stuff.  Nathan got a tshirt that says Australia on it.  I got two little bangle bracelets that were snake skin in resin.  The skin is from local Sea Snakes that are caught in fisherman’s nets and drown before they are found.  They are highly venomous, but not aggressive.  When I saw the bracelets I thought they were totally cool, but once I learned the back story I fell in love with them even more!  Then we found this cute little burger joint called Grill’d and OMG it was the best burger and fries I’ve ever eaten.  I could also order a gluten free bun, which was the best GF bread product ever.  We noticed they don’t have any soda fountains…at all…like we couldn’t find one the entire trip.  If you want anything to drink, even water, you have to buy a $4 bottle.

Day 4: Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Today was the big day, crossing one of the biggest things off my bucket list: snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef!  We were excited!  The bus picked us up from our hotel at about 6:30am and drove us to the port.  We got on the Reef Experience boat and were handed our wet suit, snorkel, mask, and fins, and then sat down at one of the tables inside the boat.  Once everyone was inside, they started the hour and a half boat ride to the reef.  We sat through safety instructions and a briefing of what we were going to do that day.  Then they served us breakfast, which was bacon and egg sandwiches and fruit.  They even had a GF bun for me!  About an hour into the boat ride the water started getting super rough and the boat was bouncing around like crazy.  I started feeling sicker and sicker…until finally I threw up.  They took us to the first snorkeling point and we got to see a ton of beautiful fish and even a small White Tipped Shark.  Then we got back on the boat (yay…) where they fed us lunch and we went to the second snorkel spot.  The second place had choppier water, but the sea life was much better and even more diverse.  The crew were all super awesome and funny and took good care of me when I was….re-seeing my breakfast…  Even though I felt sick all day and only consumed two granola bars, it was such a memorable experience that we will never forget.

Snorkeling in The Great Barrier Reef
Snorkeling in The Great Barrier Reef

Day 5: Daintree Rainforest Tour

I really wanted to go to a zoo while we were here, and we both really wanted to explore the rainforests, so when we found this tour package it was perfect and wrapped everything we wanted all in one.  Even though it was a package with Reef Experience, the tour was with Jungle Tours.  First, they picked us up from our hotel and we drove through Trinity Beach and Port Douglass.  On the way it was really cool seeing so many different agriculture fields.  The most abundant crop we saw was sugar cane, but we also saw coconuts, bananas, and tea.  I thought it was really cool to learn that around the sugar cane fields there is a small railroad track (see picture) that leads to the sugar cane plant that all the farms use for transport.

Top: sugar cane Bottom: bananas
Top: sugar cane Bottom: bananas

Our first stop was The Wildlife Habitat.  Let me tell you, zoos in Australia (at least this one) are NOTHING like zoos in the US.  There were no cages, no fences, just three large “areas” and a walking path throughout each.  Animals literally were just running around everywhere and came as close to you as they wanted.  You could pet kangaroos, hold koalas, dine with birds, get a little too close to 4m long crocodiles, and other amazing things.  This was my favorite part of the day by far!

The Wildlife Habit
The Wildlife Habitat

Then we entered the Daintree Rainforest and crossed the Daintree River Ferry Crossing (which was pretty cool to see).  We had lunch (that was included in the tour) at a cute little hotel deep in the forest.  Then we went to Cape Tribulation where we got to go look out on the ocean.  It was sooo pretty there!

Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation

We then went on a guided Rainforest walk where we got to learn all sorts of really neat stuff about the rainforest and the native people who used to live in it.  This was Nathan’s favorite part of the day.

Cape Tribulation
Rainforest Walk

Then we went to Alexandra Lookout where the Daintree River meets the Coral Sea.  Even though it wasn’t too sunny outside, the views were still really beautiful.

Alexandra Lookout
Alexandra Lookout

The last thing we did was go on a Daintree River Cruise searching for crocodiles.  The weather wasn’t ideal for crocs, so we only saw an itty bitty little guy, but the cruise was still really beautiful.

Daintree River Cruise
Daintree River Cruise

Overall, this was probably the most exhausting day, but it was a lot of fun.  Our guide was super knowledgeable and was pretty funny.  We definitely learned the most about Cairns and Australia this day.

Day 6: Tully River Rafting

White river rafting is something Nathan and I have always wanted to do.  When we saw this was something that could happen in Cairns (through RnR White Water Rafting), we were all over it.  They picked us up at 6:30am and it was a two hour drive to Tully River.  While in Australia we heard a ton of different accents, so when I heard the person behind me on the bus say, “Ohmygod it was like totally so funny.  And then I was like…” I KNEW they had to be from America.  We started talking with them and we found out they were a group of five college students all from different states in the US who were in Australia through a study abroad program.  We all hit it off immediately and they were great fun.  When the main rafting instructor started putting people in groups (ironically groups of 7), he called us “Team America” and put the seven of us together.  He gave us the instructor Matty (pronounced “Madday” in Australian) who was the most amazing instructor on the planet.  He was funny, witty, and knew so much about rafting.  Long story short, we had such a great time going down the Tully River.  We were the most coordinated boat out there (there were about a dozen), so we had a lot of extra time to mess around and have extra fun.  We sang Disney songs, we quoted movies, we made jokes, we jumped off cliffs, we jumped (and got pushed/pulled) into the water, we had splashing wars with other boats, Matty asked us questions about being American, it was overall the most fun day we had in Australia even though it was chilly and sprinkled on and off. (And I just have to share, Nathan was the oldest person in the boat, made us feel SUPER old!!)

Tully River Rafting
Tully River Rafting

Day 7: Green Island

On our last full day we decided to go to Green Island through Big Cat tours.  To be honest, if I would have known how sick I got on the first boat I am not sure I would have signed up for this, but we were committed and I really wanted to go anyway.  This tour we had to find our own transportation, but luckily we were experts on the city buses by then so we had no problem.  Once again, I threw up on the way to the Island.  This time the crew didn’t really care (or notice) and weren’t really friendly.  We had a choice of picking between a glass bottom boat tour or snorkel equipment, and we chose the snorkel equipment.  As we pulled up to the island it started to pour rain (great, right?) and we had to run off the very long pier into shelter.  After about 10 minutes the rains stopped and we explored the beach a little and finally sat down to enjoy some sun.  Soon…another rainstorm came and we had to run for cover again.  Another 10 minutes later, we were back on the beach.  Third rainstorm came, and finally it was blue skies from there.  We ended up not snorkeling, but we did wade in the water and were able to see some fish.  It was really pretty there, but there were a TON of tourists.

Green Island
Green Island

Day 8: Flight Home

Our flight took off bright and early.  Nothing exciting happened, except for I did get sick again right as we were touching down.  We finally got home and we crashed on the couch for hours and I waited until the house stopped moving.

Last Thoughts:

First, I learned I am old.  I can no longer go to 6 Flags all day and go on all the wild roller coasters all day long.  I got motion sick (and threw up)…3 times!!  Because of it, I was nauseous most of my vacation (and no, it’s not because of other reasons).  Urg.   Also, we realized we are no longer “cool college students.”  We just aren’t.  They are 19, Nathan is 28.  Now it is just weird and we need to learn to move on and embrace being the oldest person in the boat.

From what we saw, Australians are either super over the top nice or they are snobby a-hole jerks (but I have to admit, the jerks were mostly limited to people who worked at the airports or on a bus).  Otherwise, scary looking people on the street would always say, “Good day!  How are ya?” People on the bus would help old guys pay their fair when they forgot their wallet and then help carry their bags.  Like Gandhi nice.

Australian’s don’t care about making their own television shows.  70% of all shows on all stations we saw were American, 35% were British shows, and 5% were Australian news.  Not sure why…but it is true.

Even though they speak English, they have some funny saying that we do not say in the US.  Here are some of the funny things I saw:

Funny Signs
Funny Signs

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, their bacon is not our kind of bacon.  It was more like Canadian bacon and was a total let down.  Boo!

Final Verdict:  If we had to flee the country and move somewhere else, we would definitely think about living in Australia.  We had an amazing time!!




2 thoughts on “Cairns, Australia

  1. I LOOOVE reading about your Cairns experience! I just back from Australia too, and you just reminded me of some tiny things I’ve already forgotten — like the bacon! And I too am still struggling to say “Cairns” without sounding like a fool. 😛
    Happy travels!

    1. Thank you for the feedback! I love comparing stories with other travelers because sometimes that really stood out to me might not have stood out to others, and the opposite. Happy travels to you too!

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