Mirambling Muses: Cairns, Australia

I had so much fun in Cairns that I wanted to share my favorite cheap, free, local, sustainable, inspirational and/or must-not-miss things to do there. It's incredibly tourist and backpacker friendly, boasting tons of hostels, rentals & hotels and there is free community wifi in several spots throughout the city. The main part of town is relatively compact and easy to walk to all of the locations listed below. Oh and one last tip: the locals drop the i and the r pronounce it like cans

7. Snoogie's Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant 

This gem is a bit hard to find, tucked away in the Main Street Arcade (82 Lake Street) a bit north of Gilligan's. I found out about it myself after chatting up a local shop owner after lusting after her lunch. It's pretty much the most affordable and delicious healthy food and juice bar you'll find in Cairns. I really wish I'd discovered it sooner because this was my favorite food place. And I'm not alone; it's ranked #1 out of 381 restaurants in Cairns based on its 42 glowing reviews on Trip Advisor

6. Cairns Regional Gallery

An eclectic Art Gallery with a variety of exhibitions where you can escape the sun or the rain and see lots of work from Aussie artists. Admission is only $5 per adult and they're open 7 days a week. Or just visit the shop which offers a unique collection of design, crafts and jewelry by local and national artisans. You'll find much better souvenirs and gifts than the generic, tacky tourist shops you'll find everywhere else. 

Image Source: Trip Advisor

Image Source: Trip Advisor

5. The Night Market

Located 71-75 on the Esplanade, the quirky Night Market is not to be missed! There is a self-serve food court serving up a variety of Asian favorites, hair and nail services, lots of souvenir shops and the famous $15 massages. You can find everything from locally crafted clothing & jewelry to custom airbrushed hats to postcards to kangaroo scrotum keychains. Shops are open 5-11 PM, Food Court from 10 AM - 11 PM and Massages from 12 noon - 11 PM. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

Note: I do not endorse the sale nor purchase of these. I just needed pictorial proof of their absurd existence. 

4. The Esplanade

A super fun and free place to hang out, situated along 2.5 km of the Cairns coast. The lagoon is a free, public swimming pool, there's a boardwalk for exercise and/or people watching, plenty of open grassy areas and playgrounds and free community wifi. I often saw street performers and lots of people relaxing with a book or enjoying a picnic. If there are any events or festivals going on, they'll most likely be here. There are some free Active LIving classes you can take advantage of as well. I participated in yoga on Fridays at 6:30 AM. 

The Lagoon

The Lagoon

3. Graff Alley

The largest concentration of Street Art I could find in Cairns. Located off of Grafton Street almost across from Gilligan's (the biggest and most infamous hostel in the city). Amongst all the murals, there's also a rather popular coffee shop called Caffeind and the Alleyway Paint & Skate shop. 

2. Rusty's Markets

Great place to buy local groceries or grab a bit to eat. I found all kinds of foreign fruits I can't get back home and I found the stall owners are really friendly. There's also a fresh juice bar and reflexology & thai massage as well as jewelry and clothing for sale. However, it's only open on the weekends; Friday & Saturday 5 AM - 6 PM and Sunday 5 AM - 3 PM. (Also located just past Gilligan's on Grafton Street.) 

1. The Great Barrier Reef

The harbor is packed with boats that will take you to see and snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. I can recommend Passions of Paradise ($159/adult + $10 reef tax) since that's the eco-certified boat that took me out to discover their natural treasures. But there are other sustainable options like the Reef Daytripper ($124/adult + $15 reef tax) and Ocean Free Green Island & Reef Pinnacle Tour ($190/adult includes reef tax). There's a full list of options on the Cairns Visitor Centre website


The Great Barrier Reef

This was my last big adventure in Australia, because honestly, you can't visit Cairns and not go see the Great Barrier Reef. 

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Friday, I got up early again and took the 7:15 reef shuttle from my hostel to the Reef Fleet Terminal on the south side of Cairns past the Esplanade. I was ready for a day trip of snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef that I booked with Passions of Paradise. I was really impressed with this company/crew and would totally recommend them. Our group got to exclusively dive and snorkel around Paradise reef as well as Michaelmas Cay. 

They take sustainability seriously and even did a little educational presentation on the return trip about their commitment to it and the reef. For just one dollar, you could offset your carbon emissions for the day (I donated $2) and a percentage of sales from the bar is donated to anti-shark finning campaigns and shark research. Lunch was pretty good as there was plenty for veggos and all the plates and flatware got washed and reused. The catamaran itself, is Eco-certified, and they put up the sail on the way back, which they said saved over 400 liters of fuel. The crew was super fun and friendly. 

I met a pair of Aussie sisters from the south who I sat with while aboard the boat. We sat up front during the outbound trip, and got sprayed with seawater on several occasions. The whole day I had goosebumps and I had to wear two wetsuits when snorkeling because I was so cold. (It is technically Winter here.) 

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I’ve been trying to think of words to describe the GBR, but its so incredibly awesome and colorful and beautiful that I can’t find words worthy enough of its natural beauty. Even my pictures and video don’t do it justice, because the spectrum gets a little distorted underwater, and while you can still see the red wavelengths, cameras have a hard time picking it up. I felt like I was the little mermaid swimming amongst all her sea friends. I saw heaps of coral in all shapes, colors and sizes and a rainbow of fishes. I even got to see a couple sea turtles and a sting ray. Everyone should put the GBR on their bucket lists and try to see it before its destroyed by starfish or farming or dredging. (I have tons more photos and videos that I will edit later but I wanted to get a few photos up right away.) 

The only downside was that I had my hair braided and to the side to keep it out of my way. I was expecting to have lovely, mermaid waves in my hair when I removed the elastics, but it was more of a tangled rats nest which took me ages to brush it out properly. RIP and a moment of silence for all the good strands I lost that day. 


2 Girls 1 Camp

Before I arrived, I didn't even know this place existed about 70 miles into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Key West. So glad my friend Michelle invited me along on this mini-adventure. 

DAY ONE
After a couple hours on the most expensive ferry ever, ($190 roundtrip) we arrived at Fort Jefferson which also happens to be a National Park situated smack dab in the middle of nowhere on a group of islands called the Dry Tortugas. Michelle and I immediately retrieved our gear from the dock and set up our tent and umbrella as the shadiest camping spots were already taken and the sun was high and hot. We were provided a picnic table and a pole upon which to hang a trash bag (out of the rats' reach) but everything else we had to bring ourselves. Immediately upon making our first meal of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, we were invaded by a tiny arm of hungry, hungry hermit crabs. (Although technically I guess it's we that are invading their space.) 

We stripped down to our bikinis and slathered on the sunscreen before taking our plunge into the ocean. It started raining and it was the most incredible feeling to be floating in the salty sea below while simultaneously experiencing a fresh shower from above. After the ferry left, along with the hoards of tourists, we didn't hear much except the white noise of nesting birds on the adjacent island and the rustling of the wind in our tents and trees. 

The summertime mini-monsoon came right on schedule around 4 PM that afternoon and I stayed dry and happy in our tent while Michelle was off wandering and got thoroughly soaked. Luckily, it doesn't take long for anything to dry under the Florida sun. We soon decided to start exploring the unfinished pile of bricks also known as Fort Jefferson. The juxtaposition of the dilapidated old structure against the screensaver-worthy clear blue water and white sand beach is pretty jarring. As it was nearing dinner time, we decided to head back to base. I did some sunset yoga in the sand (very exfoliating but I can't say I recommend it) while Michelle chatted up our neighbors Judy & Jeff who happened to catch some Red Snapper earlier that afternoon. She gladly accepted their fishy dinner while I stuck to the vegetarian dinner that I had prepared and brought. We wanted to take the rain fly off that night so we could sleep in the light of the stars, but it continued to sprinkle well into the night. Michelle had a small air mattress, a matching pink sheet set and pillow. By contrast, all I brought was my yoga mat, blue travel neck pillow and a light tropi-colored sarong that functioned as a blanket. Don't need much since it's Florida and still about 80º even at night. 

DAY TWO
I rose with the sun after a lucid and rather stiff night's sleep. Michelle is not a morning person so I left the tent with my yoga mat curled up under my arm to do a sunrise practice on the dock. There weren't many people around so I was largely uninterrupted, except for one Captain Obvious who asked "Yoga?" "Yep" I replied. Like trying to balance in sand, balancing in a rather strong sea breeze is also an added challenge. But, I was still able to complete a few harder poses like crow and headstand. Chavasanah at the end was particularly enjoyable as I listened to the waves lapping against the shore. I returned to camp to find Michelle eating breakfast s'mores with our other neighbors to the east. I opted for the pumpkin breakfast bars I baked earlier in the week and brought, as well as an apple and a banana. 

After satiating ourselves, we grabbed our snorkel gear and headed for the coal shoals - some forgotten wooden structures just off the shore that looked decrepit and unsuitable for any use above the surface (except as perches for seabirds) but were teeming with coral and fish below. We both had issues with leaky masks so I traded in my ill-fitting and bulky snorkel for my trusty triathlon swim goggles and Michelle smeared some toothpaste in her mask to keep it from fogging up. Round two was smoother and much more successful. We got out of the water just as the daily ferry was arriving and wolfed down a lunch of PB&J, popcorn, dried mango and water. We met our newest neighbors - a father-son duo named Mark and Dylan - as they were setting up for their first day of camp. I took a digestive nap in the shade of our umbrella while Michelle soaked up some sun on the beach. 

Later three of us went on a quest to find the elusive coral head, rumored to be just off the west side of the island. We swam out way to far past an anchored catamaran and into a current too swift for our liking, so we started to swim back to shore when we serendipitously stumbled upon the coral treasure we had set out for. It was definitely worth the trip. Our second adventure of the day involved taking kayaks out from the south side of the island seeking a fabled shipwreck with Jeff & Judy  with directions from a park ranger named Tree. I saw a few dark spots scattered across the ocean floor but couldn't tell exactly what it was from the surface so I submerged my gopro a few times and will review the footage later. I'm pretty sure our effort was in vain. (And it was.) 

That night, we all enjoyed dinner in the best camping spot on the island, which I called The Shire, as it was tucked underneath a small grove of trees. Everyone enjoyed various meals but we all indulged in s'mores for dessert, which happen pair very well with pinot grigio, by the way. By the time we were finished, the sky was completely illuminated with stars so we took a stroll around the moat to admire them. We discovered some bioluminescent creatures floating and flashing throughout the moat like a tiny, buoyant paparazzi. The sky was clear so the view was incredible. It's a little sad that this is what the sky is supposed to look like at night but we so often sacrifice it in the name of modern convenience. After a 360º view of the fort and the night sky, we dusted off our sandy feet and crawled into our tents to spend the night. I slept much better despite the wind trying it's hardest to blow us and our tent off the island. 

DAY THREE
Again I woke up at dawn and again I did some yoga on the dock. I have no concept of time with no watch, phone or phone signal so I'd guess I did close to an hour and a half. I brought one of the big, black offroading wheelbarrows with me back to the campsite in preparation for breaking everything down and taking it to the dock where it would be loaded back onto the ferry later that morning. It was a bit sad to break down the tent, but we planned to still make the most of every minute of that day. And every minute also happened to bring us closer to a proper shower back on the mainland so that was our light at the end of the tunnel. Michelle and I explored the top tier of the fort by ourselves before taking a guided tour. We learned more about the brief and completely pointless history of the structure. 

It really was a waste of effort and energy as the only thing that ever attacked the place was a bout of yellow fever (transmitted via mosquitos.) And it's called the dry tortugas because there is no natural source of fresh water on the island, so I don't know who thought it was a good idea to build a fort there and stock it with thousands of soldiers and Civil War prisoners. So many fails, except of course for modern capitalism/tourism. 

After the tour, Michelle and I enjoyed a DIY sandwich buffet, pasta salad, chips, fruit and overly processed chocolate chip cookies on board the boat. She was anxious to get back in the water one more time but I was done being cold and soggy so I scoped out some seats for us and on board the boat for the last hour or so before the scheduled departure time. We both passed out, using our backpacks as pillows during the return voyage. When I woke up, I noticed everyone around me fixated on their smartphones since we were close enough to Key West to pick up a cell signal. 

We packed a lot into three days on a semi-deserted island and I would highly recommend the experience for novice campers. Island life suited me well and I liked not having to worry about status updates, phone calls, appointments or even what time it was. I even set a personal record for going 24 hours without wearing pants in public. LoL