Cairns, along the northeastern coast of Australia, is an enigma: by all statistics and definition, it’s a city – but with a small town feel. Lying along the waterfront of the Coral Sea, it consists almost entirely of backpacker hostels, B&Bs, bungalow-style inns, pubs, cafes, and bars. The nightlife is surprisingly vibrant, with each establishment trying to outdo its neighbor on beer and food discounts; if you’re so inclined, you’ll hardly have a difficult time getting drunk on a budget.
The days bring sweltering, heavy heat and a persistent cloud cover, and those with a hangover can sweat out last night’s liquor. Grab an ice cream, stroll along the esplanade beneath fruit bat-infested trees, or swim in the manmade lagoon – but beach-lovers, beware. The marshy, deserted waterfront isn’t empty without reason: crocodiles inhabit the area, and sightings are not uncommon.
Perhaps Cairns’ claim to fame, however, is its role as the launching pad for trips to the Great Barrier Reef. A staggering number of companies run tours out to the world-famous natural wonder, with an endless variety of choices: diving, snorkeling, or fly-overs; on glass-bottomed boats, catamarans, or helicopters; with multi-activity packages, overnight trips, or day adventures. Take your pick, but shop around for the best deal, because competition is fierce.
Unfortunately, because of the sheer volume of traffic that sets sail from Cairns’ docks every day, the reef off the coast has lost much of its luster. Coral bleaching, pollution, and damage from general overuse has rendered that part of the reef less colorful, less vibrant, and less stunning than its northern or southern arms. Try Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays to the south, or Cape Tribulation to the north for your Reef trip.
And if you need the perfect place to stay, I hereby officially endorse Dreamtime Traveler’s Rest. (Because, you know, my official endorsements mean everything.) Dreamtime is a hostel with style: located right in the heart of Cairns, conveniently across from the Cairns Central Shopping Center, they somehow manage to provide a hearty social atmosphere while still remaining a quiet lodging choice.
Set against a backdrop of thick vegetation and a canopy of tropical trees, Dreamtime will make you feel as though you’re in the heart of the jungle – but with modern amenities. The rooms are clean, bunks don’t squeak, and though you have to pay $1 for 3 hours of air-conditioning, those mighty little units won’t disappoint your overheated, humidity-logged body. Split $3 among your roommates, and you’ve got a night of sweet air-conditioned bliss.
The outdoor common area is perfect for gathering in the evening to meet your fellow hostelmates – and with frequent events like all-you-can-eat-pizza, movie, and barbecue nights, the chance to socialize is never far off. Plus, the small reception bar is always well stocked with local bottled beer for $3 each (a huge draw), and it seems like every night you can get a deal for a free drink at the nearby popular bar, The Woolshed. Be sure to also ask about the free meal deal at the Green Ant Cantina next door – with your voucher, simply purchase a beverage or drink, and receive a free meal.
As in most places in Australia, you’ll likely have a list of activities and tours to book. Do it here. Chris at reception is a well-connected wizard who can get you last-minute deals and discounts, and he’s always happy to do it: whether it’s booking you on tomorrow’s 6am tour departure, or simply saving you money on a bicycle rental through the city, he’ll hook you up.
Perhaps the best highlight of this fantastic little place is the Aussie BBQ Night: every Wednesday night, join the crowd in the common area for a generous barbecue and flame dancers show. You’ll get a heaping plateful of several kinds of meat, potatoes, salad, and pasta, and get the chance to try kangaroo and crocodile. After you’ve had your fill, a team of professional fire dancers puts on a wildly impressive half hour show, choreographed to music.
And after all that, you may be lucky enough to win the raffle draw – three winners get to compete in the humiliating and hilarious didgeridoo competition, where they’ll learn how to play the native (and phallic) instrument, earn cheers and applause from the crowd, and compete in four rounds of tongue-flicking, lip-vibrating, chest-groaning fun…all for a t-shirt and a free beer.
(I won. And I made a whole bunch of new friends – mostly of the male gender. I wonder why.)
All in all, Dreamtime is a winner. The amenities are clean, the staff is comfortingly friendly and helpful, and the ambience can’t be beat. If you’re looking for a hostel in Cairns with character and style, enjoy a classier clientele, and value your sleep at night, book them now. And tell them I say hi.