Story and photos by Rene’ Kraus, explorebigsky.com contributor

On day three of our Australian adventure, my travel companion and I left Sydney and headed to Cairns (pronounced ‘cans’), a two-hour flight north. Cairns, and the nearby resort town Palm Cove, would be our base for the remainder of our Australian trip. My friend’s son, who was traveling from Singapore, met us there.

Founded in 1770 by British explorer James Cook, Cairns is now known as the official gateway to the World Heritage site, the Great Barrier Reef. A composite of over 3,000 reef systems that extend 1800 miles along the Queensland coast, this incredible organism is larger than the Great Wall of China and is the only living thing that can be seen from outer space.

A provincial, tropical city, Cairns is home to just over 150,000 residents. It is a port city, which attracts tourists for excursions to the reef, and is also a hub for a thriving sugar cane industry. Massive cane fields stretch north and south of the city, wedged between the Coral Sea coast and the foothills of the Great Dividing Range of mountains. The port also serves as a transit point for minerals and the abundant produce from the nearby Atherton tablelands, fertile farmland for growing bananas, coffee, mangos, tea and peanuts.

Cairns has many of the signs of recent urban sprawl, and its architecture is a mixture of styles that include traditional Queenslander plantation homes, as well as newer glass and steel structures such as the City Centre Mall. The huge, open-air aviary on the roof of the Reef Hotel and Casino is not to be missed. There, colorful birds of the tropics fly freely around a netted park, and rangers give daily talks and demonstrations.

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The backbone of Cairns is the Esplanade, a wide pedestrian passageway that runs for several blocks past cafes, shops and galleries, and ends at the city beach. The beach has a series of saltwater pools set among landscaped park areas, and is a gathering spot for families and tourists. Because of the high concentration of crocodiles in the water here, the pools offer a lovely and safe alternative for swimming and sunbathing.

On Thursdays and Fridays, a block-wide farmers’ market features abundant produce from the tablelands, live music, and vendors hawking strings of pearls, handmade soaps, t-shirts and cut flowers. We watched as a vendor pressed stalks of recently cut sugarcane, pouring the juice into a glass with lime. The drink was delicious and refreshing.

One late afternoon, after lunch at an open-air restaurant at the marina, we discovered the bats. Nestled in the huge palm trees lining the Esplanade and throughout the city are huge colonies of fruit bats. These are impressive animals, both in size – their wingspan can reach up to three feet – and also in their sheer numbers. During the day, they hang upside down among the fronds; some sleep but many are awake and screeching. We waited until dusk and then watched in amazement as the air became choked with hundreds and hundreds of bats taking off from the trees and flying overhead in a feeding frenzy. (Search YouTube for ‘Cairns Bats’.) Spectacular!

As Cairns stretches north, the city melds into a series of beach communities, known as the Northern Beaches. These communities are accessible from the main freeway, Captain Cook Highway (named for Capt. James Cook) and include Machans Beach, Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Park, Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach, Clifton Beach, Palm Cove and Ellis Beach. We headed to my vacation home at Palm Cove, where our adventures would continue.

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Rene’ Kraus is a communications
consultant and
freelance writer. Rene works
with individuals and organizations
to develop strategic
and effective communications.
An avid traveler, she
writes to share the beauty of
the world at large. Contact her at
Renekraus100@gmail.com.