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346km (215 miles) N of Townsville; 1,807km (1,120 miles) N of Brisbane

Once a sleepy little sugar town, Cairns is blooming and booming. It's no wonder, as it's a gateway to tropical North Queensland and the only place on earth where two World Heritage-listed sites -- the Wet Tropics Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef -- are side by side. Explore the reef and offshore islands and be humbled by the lush Daintree rainforest, home to half of Australia's animal and plant species. Slip into the distinctive pace, heat and style of tropical Cairns.

Cairns Esplanade offers top-to-bottom-dollar shopping plus an array of food halls, but its sparkling jewel is the manmade lagoon on the Esplanade, where you can cool off from the heat. Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park spotlights the indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the Kuranda Scenic Railway winds up and along forested hillside tracks carved out by early settlers. Make the return trip on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway offering unbeatable ocean views as it glides above the rainforest canopy.

Cairns offers an unusually wide range of foreign cuisines for a city its size. The young (and young at heart) come to Cairns for bungee jumping and white-water rafting. However, diving, snorkeling, and sailing are definitely the big fish here.

Tourism Tropical North Queenslands Cairns & Tropical North Visitor Information Centre, 51 The Esplanade (  tel. 1800/093 300 in Australia or 07/4051 3588; www.cairnsgreatbarrierreef.org.au), has information on Cairns and the surrounding area. Its open daily from 10am to 6:30pm and 10am to 6pm on public holidays; closed Christmas Day, New Years Day, and Good Friday. The center also has a little stall of secondhand books for a couple of dollars each and claims to sell the cheapest bottled water in town!

City Layout  The focal point of the city is the Esplanade, which has a 4,000-sq.-m (43,000-sq.-ft.) man-made saltwater swimming lagoon, with a wide sandy beach, and surrounding parkland, with public artworks and picnic areas. Suspended over the mud flats and providing a platform for birding, a timber boardwalk runs 600 m (1,968 ft.) along the waterfront and is lit at night. A walkway links the Esplanade to the Reef Fleet Terminal, the departure point for Great Barrier Reef boats.

Downtown Cairns is on a grid 5 blocks deep, bounded in the east by the Esplanade and in the west by McLeod Street, where the train station and the Cairns Central shopping mall are situated.

Heading 15 minutes north from the city along the Captain Cook Highway, you come to the northern beaches: Holloways Beach, Yorkeys Knob, Trinity Beach, Kewarra Beach, Clifton Beach, Palm Cove, and Ellis Beach.

Croc Alert!

Dangerous crocodiles inhabit Cairnswaterways. Do not swim in or stand on the bank of any river or stream.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.