This beautiful stem of orchids attracted the butterfly and the ant (can you find it?) in Cairns Botanic garden in Queensland
This beautiful stem of orchids attracted the butterfly and the ant (can you find it?) in Cairns Botanic garden in Queensland Whitehavengirl

There's more to the tropical north than meets the eye

Cairns is Australia's gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, but what do you do when you're back on land? There is plenty on offer before or after a reef excursion, as I found during a weekend.

Until then Cairns had always been that place I flew into to get on a boat for a scuba diving holiday or to drive further north to Port Douglas or the Daintree.

But a day or two in Cairns is filled with good food, wine, art and the outdoors.

The Cairns Botanic Gardens is a great place to start.

Surrounded by luscious green foliage comprised of more than 4000 plant species, a 1.5km, 4km or 10km walk is an invigorating start to the day.

There is also an information centre and the Tank Arts Centre, which is a complex built around three concrete fuel tanks where there is always a free art exhibition on display.

Cairns, Australia - April 22, 2016: People ride the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a 7.5 kilometre scenic cableway running above the Barron Gorge National Park a World Heritage in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia.
Cairns, Australia - April 22, 2016: People ride the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a 7.5 kilometre scenic cableway running above the Barron Gorge National Park a World Heritage in the Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia. chameleonseye

A short drive or Skyrail ride will take visitors to Kuranda, the 'village in the rainforest'.

At 330m above sea level, Kuranda is the ideal spot to escape the midday humidity.

Grab lunch or a coffee and tour the shops and art galleries.

There is a plethora of original Aboriginal art. If not in the market for artworks take a design home on a scarf, tea towel or tea pot.

No trip to Kuranda is complete without a taste of the locally made mango wine.

Golden Drop Winery has a shop featuring sparkling and white mango wines as well as a range of 'cellos'.

They are all made from the mangoes grown and harvested by the Nastasi family in the nearby Atherton Tablelands. Each bottle of wine is made from kilos of mangos, which give a subtle finish to sweet and dry whites.

For a more intense flavour there is the mango cello, a fortified liqueur wine. The dragonfruit cello is a pleasant surprise.

The tasteless fruits are condensed to make a Turkish delight-like liqueur for use in cocktails and desserts.

The newly opened Cairns Aquarium is another way to take in the wonders of the reef without donning a mask, snorkel, fins and stinger suit.

The only aquarium in the world dedicated exclusively to the habitats and species of tropical North Queensland, it is home to more than 15,000 animals.

It is a rare chance to see creatures like the sawfish, box jellyfish, ribboned pipefish and sea snakes in safety. The school of scalloped hammerhead sharks in the 1.8million-litre Oceanarium exhibit is an awe-inspiring sight.

Walking around the aquarium should also help build up an appetite for dinner.

The Prawn Star restaurant in Cairns.
The Prawn Star restaurant in Cairns. Seanna Cronin

Lovers of seafood should dine at the Prawn Star.

The eat-in trawler permanently moored at the Marlin Marina at the end of Pier Point Rd is popular with tourists.

It is first come first served, and busy, so make it an early dinner.

If waiting for a table then grab a beer or wine from the bar and relax on a makeshift seat (usually an empty beer keg or an esky).

The Prawn Star is all about seafood and that is all they serve - platters of prawns, oysters, bugs, salmon sashimi or crayfish.

There is no side dish in sight, but when the food is this fresh why bother with anything other than fresh lime and seafood sauce? My friend and I do smuggle in our own condiment: locally made Fang's Chilli Sauce.

Using chillis grown in the Atherton Tablelands, chef Clinton Fang Yuen has created an exceptional hot sauce that starts with a sweet tang and then lights up the tongue without leaving a burning aftertaste.

We use it on our oysters and prawns. Mixed with mayonnaise it also makes a great dipping sauce for fish and chips.

Many of the Cairns restaurants and cafes serve or stock Fang's Chilli Sauce, or you can buy it at the airport.

I have time for one last breakfast before my flight, and I cannot go past the boutique roasted coffee at Bang and Grind. My cappuccino is so good I order a second.

The portion sizes are generous, as I found out when my huevos rancheros arrived.

There is certainly more to Cairns than first meets the eye.



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