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On the Scene: Exploring Cairns, Australia, the Gateway to the Great Barrier Reef

Feeding kangaroos in Cairns, Australia

After spending a few days in South Australia’s cosmopolitan coastal capital Adelaide, the host city of Business Events Australia’s Dreamtime 2023 incentive showcase, myself and other U.S.-based buyers and media traveled to tropical Far North Queensland to experience the beautiful beachy city of Cairns, widely considered the gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. 

Known as the only city in the world “where the rainforest meets the reef,” Cairns greeted those sitting on the lefthand side of the plane with views of coral clusters stretching along the coast as we landed, while myself and others sitting on the right took in the lush, dense rainforest leading to the ocean.  

The Cairns & Great Barrier Reef tropical region, which includes boutique-like yet meetings-friendly destinations like Palm Cove and Port Douglas, is lined with five-star hotels and resorts along its waterfront and is home to the award-winning Cairns Convention Centre, which recently underwent a AUD176 million expansion (approximately $118 million) that brought an additional 113,000 square feet of meeting, banquet and exhibition space. The upgraded convention center will host Business Event's Australia's rebranded incentive showcase Australia Next in September. 

While our time in the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef was short, Tourism Tropical North Queensland put together an itinerary that guaranteed opportunities to take advantage of all Cairns had to offer and gave a sneak peek of what to expect at Australia Next later this year.  

[Related: Tourism Australia’s Signature Incentive Showcase Returns to Adelaide]

Group Photo at The Reef Hotel Casino
Group Photo at The Reef Hotel Casino

Day One: Weather and Walkability 

Following an early flight and check-in at the five-star luxury Crystalbrook Riley hotel, with meeting space for up to 400 people, some free time and sunshine in the morning allowed for exploration of downtown Cairns and the city’s walkable streets lined with cafes, boutiques, restaurants, galleries and bustling markets. In under an hour, I had time to get my coffee fix at VT Espresso, a local coffee shop on Abbott Street, grab some allergy medicine from the pharmacy, shop for a pair of flip-flops from one store and peruse another for a new swimsuit, all while taking in sights around the city (including a funny little yellow-faced bird called the masked lapwing!).  

The Pool at Tower at Crystalbrook Riley
The Pool at Tower at Crystalbrook Riley

From the 311-room Crystalbrook Riley, the group made its way to The Reef Hotel Casino, a second five-star hotel nestled by the Trinity Inlet, which serves as the port for Cairns and offers city, rainforest and ocean views. The 127-room hotel is home to the only casino in Cairns and offers multiple meeting venues including The Reef Room, ideal for smaller luncheons, dinners and cocktail receptions with natural light, a built-in bar and restrooms; and The Pullman Pool Deck, available for prefunction gatherings and receptions overlooking the Trinity Inlet, Mount Yarrabah and Nisbet Range.  

The Reef Hotel Casino features a variety of award-winning restaurants including the acclaimed Tamarind Restaurant, where we sat down for a bite for lunch. The restaurant has a coveted Chef Hat award and is a recipient of the World Luxury Restaurant Awards for Fusion Cuisine in Australia and Oceania.  

Our afternoon was full of educational opportunities, starting with a tour of the Cairns Aquarium, where we traveled as “water droplets” from freshwater ecosystems in the region, through rivers, the rainforest and mangroves until we made our way to the Great Barrier Reef and finally, “the abyss” of the deep sea. Our tour included a visit to the Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, where we learned about threats to Australia’s six species of sea turtles and got to meet a few ourselves.  

Following our aquatic adventure, the group walked to Wolf Lane Distillery for a cocktail-making class. Co-founders Darren Barber and Sam Kennis established the distillery in 2019 with the goal “to create spellbinding spirits with the distinctive flavors of their beloved place in paradise,” and every sip was sweeter than the last.  

The day wrapped with an outdoor dinner at Crystalbrook Riley’s Paper Crane, offering a modern Asian fusion experience and a menu highlighting flavors from Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. For dessert, the group gathered at the hotel’s rooftop bar and restaurant, Rocco, the city’s highest rooftop bar with 270-degree views of Cairns and the Coral Sea.  

Day Two: At Sea 

Group photo on board Reef Magic Pontoon
Group photo on board Reef Magic Pontoon

Sporting sunglasses, swimsuits and sandals, we made our way to the marina and set sail for the Reef Magic Pontoon, which operates cruise day trips direct from Cairns to the outer Great Barrier Reef. The 90-minute boat ride took us to an exclusive pontoon where we squeezed into wetsuits, flopped around the deck in snorkel fins and adjusted our masks before jumping into over 70-degree water.  

For the first part of our Great Barrier Reef experience, we floated on the surface of the water with our snorkels sticking out, taking in the colors of the coral below. The reef was so close, we had to avoid straightening our legs beneath the water so as to not kick any of the coral. There was so much to look at, it almost felt fake, like I had become part of a picture-perfect aquarium display. Seeing the reef for the first time was the definition of a “pinch me” moment. 

The Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef

We then made our way to deeper waters, where we had the opportunity to swim along the coral wall. To my right, all I could see was the deep blue foreverness of the Pacific Ocean, but to my left was a wall of coral so deep my eyes couldn’t follow it to the bottom, and swimming in between all the colors and shapes were some of the most magnificent fish I’ve ever seen: some with iridescent scales that reflected the sunlight, others with bright pink and green stripes, a puffer fish with googly eyeballs and even a Whitetip Reef Shark.  

As a city girl from the Midwest with a crippling fear of open water, I boarded Reef Magic shaking with nerves, but I made my way back to Cairns hoping my adventures would one day take me back to the Great Barrier Reef again. The experience was nothing short of life-changing, and Cairns’ proximity to one of the seven natural wonders of the world makes it a top-tier incentive destination. 

To put an end to a magical day, the group gathered at The Sugar Shed at Yorkey’s Knob Cane Field for a dinner beneath the stars and twinkling string lights catered by Ochre Restaurant & Catering, the most highly awarded restaurant and catering company in Cairns. The restaurant is dedicated to sourcing local produce and “crafting native foraged ingredients into modern exciting cuisine,” and I wanted to savor every last bite.    

[Related: Business Events Australia to Host Signature Incentive Showcase Under New Event Name]

Group Photo in Daintree Rainforest
Group photo in Daintree Rainforest

Day Three: Palm Cove and Port Douglas 

On our final full day in Cairns, the group traveled outside the city center to Palm Cove for breakfast among the coconut palms at Nu Nu Restaurant, serving up a menu featuring fresh produce from the rainforest, reef and outback cattle stations at the luxury boutique resort, Alamanda Palm Cove by Lancemore. Our table was set on the sand and beneath the sun between two rows of towering palm trees overlooking the rolling ocean waves. On that morning, I don’t think anyone was in a rush to get to our next stop. 

Breakfast at Nu Nu Restaurant
Breakfast at Nu Nu Restaurant

Full of pineapple and cinnamon donuts with passionfruit curd (think warm apple cider donuts, but with all the flavors of summertime), we drove the winding streets from Palm Cove to our next destination: the rainforest. 

Situated along the edge of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest, Cairns and the surrounding region is home to the world’s oldest tropical lowland rainforest, Daintree Rainforest, which is at least 135 million years old. 

We arrived at Mossman Gorge Cultural Centre, an award-winning ecotourism facility located at the entrance to the World Heritage listed Daintree Rainforest. The team offers guided Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks providing deeper understanding of the Kuku Yalanji land and culture that are led by the local Indigenous community. 

During our Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk through the rainforest, we were greeted with a traditional “smoking” ceremony to cleanse and ward off bad spirits before learning about traditional plant use, seeing how boomerangs were made and listening to narratives about the rainforest and the Indigenous community’s relationship with the environment.  

The Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas
The Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas

We then enjoyed lunch at Silky Oaks Lodge, a dreamlike hideaway offering forty luxury treehouses with contemporary furnishings along the Mossman River in the Daintree Rainforest. Walking around the resort felt like exploring a mythical land you’d read about in fantasy novels, with winding pathways and bridges leading from treehouse to treehouse, the faint sound of rippling water in the background.  

Our adventure then took us to Port Douglas, down the one street leading into and out of the city lined with palm trees and to the main entrance of the iconic Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Port Douglas, positioned directly on the area’s famous Four Mile Beach. The 294-room property offers 18 flexible indoor and outdoor meeting spaces, with the largest able to accommodate up to 1,000 guests.  

Following refreshments, a tequila tasting and scoops of coconut ice cream near the beach, we made our way back to Cairns for one last dinner with Tourism Tropical North Queensland at Salt House, a chic seafront restaurant with a modern Australian menu. Our dinner took place in the restaurant’s private dining room, with space for up to 20 surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and shelves lined with some of the world’s best wines and champagnes.  

Boarding my flight home the next morning was one bittersweet goodbye, but if there’s one thing that proves just how special an incentive destination can truly be, it’s the overwhelming feeling of wishing you never had to leave.  


Tourism Tropical North Queensland 

Read this next: Business Events Australia Research Indicates Confidence in International Events and Incentives

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About the author
Taylor Smith | Content Developer, Destinations and Features

Taylor Smith joined Stamats in May 2022 as a content developer, destinations and features for Meetings Today. Smith has experience covering everything from travel to breaking news and graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in news and magazine journalism. Previously, she’s written for St. Louis Magazine and worked as an editorial assistant and apprentice for Aubree Nichols, who has been published in premier publications such as The New York TimesELLE and The Los Angeles Times.