Almost everyone has a childhood memory of Cairns, a city of beige-rendered seaside motels and oversized laminated menus and, in ordinary times, throngs of backpackers. As I drive in from the airport it’s clear that things haven’t pivoted entirely – the motels have not magically un-rendered themselves since the 1990s – but there are also some clear clues that Cairns has begun polishing its jewels, straightening itself up and repositioning itself as the tiara of the tropics again.
We start our stay at Flynn, the newest of the city’s three Crystalbrook hotels that are helping lead the charge to tilt Cairns upscale. Directly across from the marina, with a glass-bottomed pool centrepiece audaciously positioned across the dining precinct so everyone can judge the precision of your tumble-turns, this 311-room hotel bills itself as the “wild child” of the group. The décor is cool, the signage is full of witty bon mots and the atmosphere leans “party”. It’s fun but a few days later we trade up to a second Crystalbrook property, the low-key Bailey, which is set away from the waterfront and a five-minute walk from Flynn. Our elegant one-bedroom residence has views across the Cairns skyline and includes a kitchen, laundry and good sized living space. It strikes the right balance between cool, modern spaciousness and a nostalgic, sand-on-the-floor seaside apartment that you know will end up scented with sunscreen and hot chips for the length of your stay.
On day one we want to explore the city itself. Rusty’s Markets is hemmed by stalls selling faux-Balinese tat, but we weave through until we reach the fast-paced fresh food market filled with sprawling stalls overflowing with the heavily fragranced, oversized tropical produce that Queensland does better than anywhere else in the country. There are the prerequisite pineapples, bananas and mangoes along with pretty much every fruit and vegetable that grows naturally between here and the Tropic of Cancer; from turmeric, kangkong and tiny Thai eggplants to several varieties of mangosteen. I buy a cheap knife from one of the stallholders and a sackful of fruits to snack on through the day.
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