CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA — Australians appear to be of two minds on the subject of how their country — a remote island continent — always seems ignored by the world at large.
Scant international attention paid to last month's intriguing national election is a classic example. Yet this relative isolation, even in a hyper-connected world, has its advantages. More or less, Australia is left alone to do its own thing. And do it well.
But if Sydney and Melbourne, by far the biggest cities of Oz, sometimes carp that most of the globe overlooks their doings, and the nation's capital of Canberra is seldom mentioned even by Australians, what of poor “little” Cairns in the state of Queensland?
Fifty years ago, Cairns had the status of outpost, 1,100 miles from the state capital of Brisbane up a rough jungle road. It was a sleepy seaside resort catering to deep-sea fishermen until a tourist boom struck in the 1980s. Today the population is more than 150,000 and fully awake, with the usual accompaniment of gleaming high-rise hotels, tony restaurants and artistic aspirations. But it also offers the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, which tells the stories of indigenous Aboriginal (the oldest continuous culture on Earth) and Torres Strait Islander people.
Queensland is the centerpiece of the tropical north, a land of dense rain forests, rocky headlands and a bewildering array of flora and fauna. Now well-known as gateway to the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef, and among Australia's most popular destinations, Cairns is a prime launching pad for backpackers and adventure seekers of every stripe.
They flock here not only for diving and snorkeling excursions to the Reef, but to go hang-gliding, white-water rafting and skydiving. Using Cairns as the hub, one can venture out to the Atherton Tablelands, where gold and tin strikes first lured settlers from the south, to the renowned Kuranda Skyrail, to trendy Port Douglas, or further north to the waterfall-festooned Mossman Gorge, Daintree National Park and mist-shrouded Cape Tribulation National Park.
Those with a taste for real isolation can take a four-wheel drive vehicle “to the Tip” — the Cape York Peninsula — for northernmost Australia's wildest environment, with ecologically important eucalyptus savannas and rain forests.
Closer to Cairns, picturesque, unspoiled beaches with a mountain backdrop are the rule at such idyllic surfside communities as Clifton Beach and neighboring Palm Cove, whose vibe is decidedly relaxed. They have all the advantages of contemporary ocean towns with few of the disadvantages, like crowds. Even the area's 5-star resorts reside with surprising unobtrusiveness along the beautiful Captain Cook Highway toward Port Douglas. Just stay out of the water from October to May, when the box jellyfish come calling.
Then there's the Reef. Stretching 1,300 miles — longer than the entire west coast of the U.S. — the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on Earth. It is composed of 300 species of hard reef coral polyps and, at last count, is home to 1,500 species of tropical fish, 4,000 species of shellfish and 400 species of sponge, not to exclude whales, giant clams, tortoises, dugongs and, of course, the great white shark. It is an incalculably important habitat. But unusually warm water temperatures and other factors have seen many parts of the reef become bleached or otherwise damaged in recent years, so finding an unaffected section to snorkel or dive is more of challenge than it once was, and restraint on the part of visitors is vital.
Australian seasons run opposite to those in North America, and the climate changes significantly as you head north to Cairns. This region lies within the monsoon belt and has just two seasons. Hot and humid conditions prevail from October to March. Arid weather kicks in during the high season from late April through August, when the weather is optimal along the Reef.
Australia is said to have at least 25,000 species of plants to go with its impressive menagerie of uniquely Australian animals. Many of them seem to live (and flower) in Queensland. As do some of the country's less appealing creatures, like spiders, snakes and saltwater crocs. Australia has an outsized, overstated reputation for harboring such nasties, but you're seldom likely to see one, and even if you do, show them the proper respect and there should be no problem.