Walking down the streets of downtown Cairns, a coastal city in central Queensland, Australia, it’s hard to see anything other than a glorified reception desk for the Great Barrier Reef. Every storefront is either a tour-booking centre, a restaurant, or a souvenir shop full of stuffed koalas and knock-off boomerangs. And while the reef is absolutely worth a tour, the prices are high enough to prohibit most people from spending more than a day out on the water. The question then becomes what to do with the rest of your time in Cairns, and plenty of enterprising companies have cropped up to answer it. I chose Urban Adventures’ Cairns All Encompassed tour, one of several tours offered by husband-wife duo of Kisaeda Benioni and Quey Walker, promising a chance to stretch your legs and an insider’s view of the city. (Editor’s note: Unfortunately, this tour is no longer available, but please check out our other tours across Australia!)
This particular tour starts bright and early and goes well into the evening. It covers everything from a trek though the botanic gardens to an impromptu history lesson at a repurposed WWII oil facility, a tasty dinner of local Aussie specialties like kangaroo and alligator, and even a guided tour through the local night market. You wouldn’t think you’d need a guide for a market, but it’s a place so packed with people and merchandise that it could easily overwhelm the uninitiated. Eleven hours initially seemed a bit long for a tour, but I was hooked as soon as I saw the words “relaxing massage” in the tour description.
Despite the broad itinerary, Cairns All Encompassed doesn’t actually encompass everything in Cairns. It sticks pretty close to the city centre and skips the big tourist spots like the Daintree Rainforest and Paronella Park, both major Cairns destinations where someone could easily spend all day. What separates this particular tour from the rest is the focus on bringing guests to the small, tucked-away places in Cairns that they wouldn’t necessarily know about on their own. That emphasis, paired together with guide Quey’s relaxed attitude and impressive range of local knowledge, creates an intimate introduction to the city.
The most impressive stop on the tour was a trip to the Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome, where we came face-to-face with a saltwater crocodile named Goliath and a truly impressive array of native bird species allowed to fly free throughout the building. For an animal aficionado like myself, I absolutely found it the highlight of the tour (aside from the massage, of course). A word of caution to those scared of heights or avian critters: you might want to give this tour a pass.
Perhaps it was the post-massage good will, but at the end of the day I was strangely reluctant to say goodbye to my tour friends — a couple from Kentucky on their annual winter adventure — and our guide. Cairns may not have all the bells and whistles of a city that doesn’t rely so much on tourism, but after spending the day with Quey, I felt like I understood some of the hidden gems that make it unique. Whether you choose to spend a full day with Cairns Urban Adventures or a few hours on one of their shorter tours, you’ll leave the city knowing that it’s more than just a gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.