Back to nature in Cairns, Australia

Cairns, North Queensland, doesn’t have to be a blur of alcohol and muddy beaches, you just have to look a little further afield.

When my plane landed in Cairns, the sun was shining, the palm trees were gently swaying and the air smelled fresh. I hopped on the transfer bus and got ready for a week of sun, sea and sand.

Grim reality of Cairns
What greeted me instead was a hostel full of hostile people, an industrial-estate-esque town and mud instead of a beach (see the pic below if you don’t believe me). Not to mention the rows of casinos, bar and backpacker shops. It may suit some, but to me it was tourist hell.

Fortunately, I had a trip to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree booked for the next day, so I simply endured the evening, had an early night and dreamed of escaping this nightmare tourist town.

Getting off the beaten path
The Daintree rainforest was spectacular, Cape Tribulation was amazing. I saw all manner of curious creepy crawlies, tried fruit that took away bitter tastes (I ate a lemon whole) and swung through the jungle. But lovely as they are, all of these things are on the tourist trail, and I wanted to get off. On my return to Cairns, as luck would have it, I befriended a local. This turned out to be the key to uncovering Cairns. The town that I thought had less class than Jordan and more concrete than Croydon turns out to have a surprising amount of natural beauty. Here are my favourite of-the-beaten-track discoveries:

HIDDEN GEM Crystal Cascades
A popular swimming hole where locals spend the hot, sunny days jumping off high rocks into the cool mountain water at the bottom of a fantastic waterfall. The only way you’d know about this gem is by speaking to the locals – it’s not advertised to tourists.

How to get there
Inaccessible by public transport, drive to Redlynch and follow the signs another six miles to Crystal Cascades.

HIDDEN GEM Kewarra Beach
Hire a car in Cairns and head north along the coast, stopping at the quiet, postcard perfect, low-key Kewarra Beach. Tourists usually sweep past this beach on their way to the la-de-da resort of Palm Cove, just next door. If only they knew…

How to get there
There are several buses that run from Cairns town centre to Kewarra.

HIDDEN GEM Behana Gorge
You’ll barely see another person here, let alone another backpack-wielding foreigner. After a tiring walk up a relentless hill, you reach an impressive waterfall with a seemingly bottomless pool. Make your way back down the hill stopping for a splash about in all the smaller pools and a climb on the rocky inlets.

How to get there
From Cairns, head south on the Bruce Highway. After about half an hour, turn off at Behana Gorge Road, drive up until you can’t go any further, and follow the water pipes all the way up to the top of the hill.

HIDDEN GEM Red/Blue Arrow
A popular running track for locals up Mount Whitfield. The Red Arrow circuit is 1.3km, but the Blue Arrow is a very steep 5.4km climb. Steps have been cut into the forested mountain above a botanical garden (where the tourist trail stops), which locals run up and down for exercise and rewarding views of Trinity Inlet, the Coral Sea and Cairns city.

How to get there
Head for the botanical garden, right next to the airport, and follow the joggers up the hill.

Cairns, Australia

Extra tip
Hire a car. The area is so huge and public transport isn’t great – and you can go way off the beaten path with your own car – you often won’t see another car for hours if you head into the outback!