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Vacation... All I Ever Wanted...

So, we apologize upfront if this gets long, but we went on our first real vacation since before the pandemic and we got a lot in! For those of you who are not familiar with the geography of Australia, it is rather large. The land area is about the same as the lower 48 states in the US. We created a map to show where we went and what we did to help contextualize it. Anyway, we'll get into it now...

The number one item on our list of activities was to get to the Great Barrier Reef and that is where we focused for our trip; however, there is so much more in the Northland than we knew so we did a lot more than spot coral. We started our trip in Cairns (pronounced: cans; as in "I bought way too many cans of soup during the ShopRite Can Can Sale this year!"). There are several places you can start a trip to the Reef, but Cairns is known as one of the places with other activities nearby and Allison had travelled from there on her last trip so we decided to head there. Another major draw was that Cairns has live-aboard snorkeling and dive trips where you can spend a night out at sea, which was something we were keen to do while we there. More on that later!

Map of Our Flights to Cairns

The first day we were pretty mellow and explored the city of Cairns, found some great restaurants, and made it to Hemingways brewery (so far I cannot find a connection to THE Hemingway we are all familiar with but the food and drinks were good). With the proximity to Asia there is A LOT of southeast Asian influence and almost any Thai place you wandered into was bound to have fantastic food (we had Thai twice during our trip! haha).

On the Ferry to Fitzroy Island

The following day, we planned to take a train into a historic town nearby, but, as you will see, there is a theme of the trip and the tickets were sold out. Instead, we took a ferry to Fitzroy Island, a small island about 45 minutes from Cairns. Getting these tickets was also surprisingly difficult, but eventually found a ferry scheduled that was available to us, which meant we were on the island until 7 PM, later than we planned. We figured this would be fine because there was so much to do on the island. It had a turtle recovery clinic, kayak rentals, a few short hikes, and multiple beaches. Once on the island, we found out the only tour of the turtle clinic for the day was sold out and in order to rent a kayak we needed to have "stinger suits" to prevent jellyfish stings even though we were told stinger suits weren't needed until November. We found out later that we could rent the stinger suits at a different location, but by the time we realized our hearts weren't in kayaking. (Mostly Greg's heart wasn't in kayaking: it was very hot and very humid and the thought of kayaking in a black, skin-tight onesie with the sun beating down on you was not appealing to him.) Aside: There are at least two types of jellyfish in the area that are potentially deadly to humans. The box jellyfish, which you will know right away when it stings you, as they say it feels like being branded by a hot iron, and the tiny irukandji jellyfish, which grow to only about 1-2 cm. The irukandji sting is less noticeable initially, but because they are venomous the lingering effects can cause all sorts of problems including nausea and in rare cases death (Credit for this information comes from the Cairns Museum visit!). On a lighter note, we decided to take the short trek over to Nudey Beach (no it was not a nude beach, but I have to assume it was at one point, maybe?), which was voted the best beach in Australia a few years prior. It was pristine! Beautiful coral beach, meaning the "sand" in much of the beach was actually washed up coral, with some more typical sandy patches on one end. We made camp under a tree on the sandy end, and enjoyed the ocean breeze and took in the scenery. Eventually, we made our way into the water, stinger warnings and all, and it too was lovely. Warm water, with a little bit of waves coming in. We didn't venture too far out in order not to step on any coral (yes, the coral gets that close to shore on Fitzroy Island, which is technically an island in the Great Barrier Reef system).

Fruity Drinks at the Bar on Fitzroy

After the sun crept in and took away our shade, we decided to head back to the main resort area of the island to refill our water bottles and figure out what else to do on the island. While we sat and drank some more water, remember it was very hot there - think Florida in May during a heat wave, we saw what Greg referred to as "murder lizards." He called them that because they look like Komodo dragons, which are super scary and huge, but it turned out they were mostly harmless to humans unless provoked. They are actually yellow spotted monitor lizards and are not potentially venomous like their cousins the Komodo dragons. We saw at least four of these monitor lizards throughout the island and joked that the locals treat them like stray cats; not even noticing half the time that they're around. We eventually found one of the small hiking paths, which took us about 45 minutes down and back into the rainforest, and then attempted to see if we could get an earlier ferry back to Cairns, seeing as most of our planned activities were sold out and we had an early start the next day. Turned out all of the ferries were booked, so we were stuck for a couple hours with nothing particular to do. This ended up not being too bad of a situation. We got some food, had some fruity alcoholic beverages, and watched the sunset from the bar before making our way to our 7 PM ferry back to Cairns. We might have seen a sea turtle, but it was brief and would have just been its head sticking out of the water.

Our Cabin on the Boat

The next morning we got up bright and early to embarkment on our overnight SCUBA experience (no, we did not do any night dives, but yes, they were available for more experience divers, will get into that below). The trip was pretty straightforward, starting on a small boat for about two hours where we did dives before and after lunch. After the second dive we were transferred to a larger boat where we'd be able to get another dive in that night and spend the night before two more dives in the morning. Then we'd have lunch and prepare to transfer back to the smaller vessel to bring us back to Cairns. Some people staying overnight multiple nights (one group was staying five nights on the Reef) would stay on the larger ship; anyone leaving that day would prep for departure. Overall, the trip went smoothly. This was Greg's first opportunity to SCUBA dive; being that the cooler of the two of us had previously been certified and dove the Reef before; however, she had not been diving in a long time so we weren't sure if the certification held up and we booked the "Intro Dive" experience for both of us. What an Intro Dive means is that we needed to be physically in contact with our dive guide the whole time. He or she would control our buoyancy and be aware of our air tank level and depth and we didn't need to worry about any of that. All we need to do was show we were able to do three things while under water: clear water from our mask, clear a small amount of water from our regulator (the device you breath from), and recover our regulator and clear a large amount of water from it. The tasks were all fairly simple and we tested them at about a meter depth before doing any further so it was all good. We did the two morning dives with a guy named Albert. He was very relaxed and made the tests and dives feel super safe and actually very fun. The two of us basically held on to an arm each and we were taken along for the ride for about a half an hour. After the initial terror of being under water during the first dive, Greg actually found the second dive very enjoyable and probably the highlight of our trip. Allison, having some solo diving experience felt the need to be attached to the guide was a little distracting from the experience, but overall enjoyed it. Our third dive was with a guide named Biscuit; however, there was another Intro Diver on the larger boat from a previous night and so Biscuit took all three of us at once. This was less ideal. We were both put on Biscuit's right arm and our new friend was on his left arm. As it turned out, Biscuit's air tank was also not as tightly secured as it should have been so it was floating a bit off his back. While I was impressed with Biscuit's handling of this situation (controlling the depth of three people in addition to your own and making sure their air supply was good is not an easy feat!), the third dive was a bit of a drag compared to the previous dive. It was still very cool, but would have been better if they had an additional guide for Intro divers to prevent three of us going with the same person.

After the third dive session, we had dinner and hung out on the ship until the night dive session. Intro Divers, and basically anyone not fully certified (there were also a few folks getting their certs on the trip), were not allowed on the night dive. Because of this, the company does what they call "Sharks in the Dark." Sharks in the Dark is not nearly as cool as it sounds... the basic idea is the crew will put out food for the small fish and this will attract larger fish and sharks to the area at the rear of the boat. Once this happens, guests can put on their snorkels and stinger suits and lie down on the dive deck, which is lowered slightly into the water, thus allowing them to see the sharks in the dark. Now, the crew insists this is not a prank they play on guests and sit above them laughing at the ridiculous image that is a bunch of adult humans laying down and being pummeled into the dive deck over and over again as the waves come in, but I don't believe them. Yes, as we were trying to see these sharks in the dark (which Greg isn't even sure we saw any, but Al insists we did), the water was very choppy. This lead us to rise and fall with the waves, but the dive deck would break our fall most of the time which lead to us just slamming back down into it over and over again. Greg kept looking over to Allison so we could leave the trip early, but the timing never worked to get her attention and Allison was too busy laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, so while it makes for a good story, it didn't make for the best time. Luckily, we were not alone and a fellow guest got up about three quarters of the way through, which gave us an out to end early, so we did. After the Sharks in the Dark, those who were able to do the night dive started to come back in and we all had dessert. We shared some of the experiences and the night dive sounded awesome! We hit the sack early, around 9:30.

Al Before Her Snorkel Session

The next day was another early morning. Before the ship is allowed to leave its current location the crew needs to confirm everyone is on board, so they do bed checks at 7 AM with breakfast at 7:30. The first dive was scheduled for 8:30 AM. Allison woke up a bit sea sick and was having some issues with her ear's popping so she opted to snorkel for the morning session, and Greg, being not quite a morning person, decided it was better not to go under water before he really woke up so he skipped it altogether and hung out on deck. He too got a little sea sick in the morning while on board. The morning session turned out NOT to be the session to skip. When fellow divers got back, they reported seeing sharks, turtles, eels and all sorts of awesome creatures, and even the snorkelers said it was one of the clearest sessions they'd seen in the water with tons of fish, even a stingray and some barracuda. For the final session, we both decided to snorkel. The foursome the day before kind of turned us off to the intro dive so we figured we'd actually be able to enjoy the snorkeling with a little more freedom of movement. It was a good session, but not as good as the morning. We did, however, see the biggest giant clam we'd ever seen. Had to be bigger than two meters! After the second session, we checked out of our rooms and transferred back to the smaller boat. Once we got back to Cairns we found some dinner and just hung out at the hostel for the night researching some activities for the next couple days now that we had access to the internet again.

Road Trip Route & Dive Sites/Fitzroy Island Map

On our fifth day, we picked up our rental car and make our way up to the Daintree Rainforest. The Daintree Rainforest is part of the Wet Tropic Rainforest, which is the oldest continually surviving tropical rainforest in the world. North of Cairns is also where the saltwater crocodile population has surged to the point of making beaches dangerous to swim in (this is what Greg decided to research with our internet access, when Allison was planning the rest of the trip and he was then terrified of salties, as the locals refer to them, the rest of the trip and wouldn't go near any water unless he had to). Unfortunately for Greg, the first experience we booked was a sunset cruise on the Daintree River, where seeing crocs was a major selling point when we booked it at his request! The river cruise ended up being great, but first we had to drive up the coast, which was gorgeous! The scenery is similar to Hawai'i with beautiful ocean right up next to lush tropical mountain ranges. So anyway, the river cruise... the boat held about 12 people and we were about one meter from the water when sitting in our seats. This terrified Greg to the point where he asked Allison not to lean on the rail, because "that's how they get you" if you're leaning over the water's edge. Mind you, she was not actually leaning over the water, but only with an elbow on the rail and the guide seemed not to be worried, so not sure why Greg was so worried, nonetheless, she obliged. The cruise itself was great! Our guide was very knowledgeable and he pointed out over 20 species of birds, a dozen or so different trees, and even spotted a salty about 50 meters ahead of us, which allowed us to slow the boat down and get to about 15 meters away before it swam on. Very cool!

Saltwater Crocodile Warning Sign

After the cruise we had dinner at the local bar near where we docked, mostly because everything closed at like 7 PM and the next closest restaurant was about an hour away. We got pizza and it was actually surprisingly good. We drove up to our B&B north of the river, where we did not realize when booking, but does not have an electric grid. So, our B&B was completely off-grid; mainly powered by solar, but also had a generator when needed. Our host, Matt, said he rarely if ever uses the generator though. Water was all filtered rain water, which fortunately is abundant in the rainforest. The one issue was that there was no air conditioning... remember how we said Cairns is like Florida in May and was experiencing a heat wave at the time? Yeah, that was still true and made for a rough first night sleep, but the temperature did fall to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit overnight and with the overhead fan, we made it through the night just fine. While initially Greg wanted to book another place for our second night, we stuck it out and the second night was actually quite comfortable. We either grew accustom to the weather or it just cooled down enough, but Al needed an extra blanket night two.

Epiphyte B&B

Because we got in so late, it was very dark on the property and we did not get to take in the scene until the morning. The house and property were phenomenal! The property had not only the B&B with four rooms, but two other private cabins for rent as well as an orchard and a lookout tower down by the creek. The main house was super cool, too. Matt had bought it on a whim (long story but you'll have to ask him about it on your own trip) and only had enough to build the roof and floor at first. He lived there for years with just that and some tarps as walls, while they saved up for the final renovation. The final product was awesome! It was open concept to the point of missing a fourth exterior wall that opened out to a porch in the front where you could see the mountains. You'd think this meant critters would get in but it was surprisingly free of all those. At night, the lights would attract some bugs, which then did attract some bug-hunting geckos on the ceiling, but they stayed out of the bedrooms somehow. On our final morning, we did see a small skink (lizard) on the porch but they are harmless and Matt shooed it away without a problem. If you ever find yourself north of the Daintree River, we highly recommend the Epiphyte B&B (aptly named but again longer story so you can learn that on your trip. haha).

At the Top of the Canopy at the Discovery Center

Anyway, got ahead of our ourselves on that one. We spent a full day in the Rainforest after our first night at the B&B. We went to the Daintree Discovery Center, where we learned about the Rainforest and the Cassowary (large emu-like birds native to the area), but never saw any. The Discovery Center had a section where you could walk up to the top of the canopy and get a view of the trees from up there. It was super cool! After that, we did some walking on boardwalks, where Greg was again terrified of crocs every time he saw a puddle of water (it's the water you can't see to the bottom they are lurking in!). Eventually, we drove up to Cape Tribulation, which is essentially the furthest north you can get on paved roadways on the East Coast of Australia. The Cape Tribulation look out was gorgeous but the area was even less developed than we thought. There was only one place open for lunch, which ended up being fantastic, lucky for us. We made our way back down and stopped at a few beaches and lookouts. We cannot emphasize enough how beautiful the landscape is in this area! Finally, we went to Daintree Tea, which is a tea farm/plantation in the area that sells its tea in a little steal box off the side of the road on the honor system, something we wouldn't have known without Matt's insight. And then we ended up at Daintree Ice Cream Company right as some heavy rain came in. Perfect timing! The ice cream was great and they too had a small orchard on the grounds so once the rain subsided we toured the grounds before making our way back to the B&B to plan for dinner. We had dinner close by at one of two options open that night and then just hung out at the B&B until bedtime. Like we mentioned before the second night was much more confortable considering this was the hottest day of the trip so far reaching up to about 100 degrees F. The rain had cooled the air down a good amount by bedtime.

On our trip back to Cairns, we made a couple stops before returning the car. The most important of which was back to Daintree Ice Cream for breakfast dessert at 9:30 AM. Worth it! Another stop was Mossman Gorge, which seemed to be a local swimming hole and not too much else. Otherwise, we took in the great scenery again and stopped in Port Douglass for lunch, which is more like a resort town than Cairns. Once we were back, we checked into the hotel and met up with some friends from the SCUBA trip who were on the boat for five nights. (Still can't believe they were on the boat for five nights...) We had dinner and went out to a tiki bar called Flamingos. We stayed out later than our old person bodies should have but it was a good time and we were in bed before midnight, with another long day ahead of us!

Boarding the Daintree Scenic Railway Train

Our final day in Cairns was spent on that train trip we had originally attempted to book for before the dive trip. The Kuranda Scenic Railway, was developed in the early 1900s when there was a gold rush in the region (and really the reason Cairns even became a port city, again thank you Cairns Museum). It was an engineering phenomenon at the time and still very impressive. The railway connects Cairns to a small town of Kuranda (and beyond). Kuranda is the main draw and hosts a small zoo, as well as several shopping centers and a bazaar that used to be mostly only visited by the hippies who lived there in the 60s and 70s. You can get there by the Scenic Railway or by the Skyrail, which is like a ski gondola. Our day started around 9:30 AM with a pickup from the hotel that brought us to the Kuranda Skyrail for our first leg of the adventure. On our way up the mountain there were two stops you can take with boardwalks and lookouts to take in the scenery. We stopped at both because we were taking the Scenic Railway back down. While the vistas were great, unfortunately, the Skyrail was the best part of this trip. Kuranda, while very cool, was really just a shopping center at this point and the Scenic Railway was underwhelming. We stopped at the zoo and saw some wildlife we had not seen yet in our adventures: koalas, kangaroos, wallaby, and some snakes. We also went to the Fossil & Gemstone Museum, which was nice but very small. Kuranda was not exactly what we expected, but we made the best of it and were excited about the Scenic Railway return trip. It also was not what we expected. It was very slow moving so that everyone on board could see the sites (which were themselves not really that great). There was no air conditioning and very little wind flow, so it was a long and hot trip, with lackluster scenery (especially compared to the views from the Skyrail).

That night we went to the second of the Thai restaurants with a group of people from the SCUBA experience on a recommendation from one of the local guides from the trip. The food was amazing, but the restaurant had an issue with their credit card system when we went to pay. Now, some of you may have heard the pains Greg went through to get an Australian bank account when we first arrived (briefly mentioned in our first Blog) so he has an Australian debit card just in case anything goes wrong or weird with our US based bank cards... keep that in mind for this one. The night prior, our friends treated to dinner so we planned to return the favor this time. Greg went to pay (after graciously telling the group not to worry about it... you know how that goes sometimes... feels like a big deal when it's really not... anyway) and the card reader declined his credit card. Now, this happened a bunch when we first got here but hasn't happened in months... so they asked him to try again. Declined again. So, he tries the debit card... declined again. At this point, Greg told them it's gotta be their card reader and they should restart it, but they didn't want to restart it and lose the data from the day. Fair. So they try Allison's credit card. Declined. Then Al tried her debit card. Declined. Finally, as I'm trying to explain my card is an Australian bank and should have no issues and they are insisting it's because our cards are foreign banks cards, they try to swipe a card of one of our dinner-mates who is from Australia. Declined. And now they agree it must be the card reader. None of us have Australian cash enough to cover the meal (Australia is actually way ahead of the US in going cashless since Covid hit, which usually is awesome, but not here). So, the woman who owns the restaurant offers to have her son drive us to an ATM, which we accept because there is no other way to get the money at this point and Greg goes with him down the street to get cash to pay the tab. It was a ridiculous end to a fantastic time in Cairns, when most things seemed not to go as planned but we had a great time anyway!

After dinner we headed back to the hotel and finished packing up before bed. We had a 9:10 AM flight so we were up and out fairly early. With a short layover in Brisbane, both flights were smooth sailing and we were home by dinner on Sunday. Hope you enjoyed the recap. Be well!

Greg Almost Awake on the Train to the Airport

Boarding Our First Flight

Al Made it to Cairns!

Greg Made it to Cairns!

The Cairns Museum

Murder... I mean Monitor Lizard on Fitzroy

Nudey Beach

Skink on a Rock on Fitzroy

Greg's Fruity Drink

Al Watching the Sunset on Fitzroy

Lounging on the Dive Boat

Our Hostel the Night after the Dive Cruise

The Hostel Grounds from the Balcony Near Our Room

Cairns at Night

Al on the River Cruise

Sunset on the River

Only Wild Croc Sighting on the River

Private Balcony at the B&B

Al with the Cassowary Sign

Greg with the Cassowary Sign

Al Reading About the Rainforest

End of the Road!

Daintree Ice Cream

Daintree Tea

Stinger Warning Sign & Vinegar

View from Front Porch at the B&B

Breakfast Dessert: Ice Cream Sampler

Scenic Lookout on the Drive Back to Cairns

Ride to Kuranda on the Skyrail

Greg Getting Caught Taking a Photo

The Bazaar in Kuranda

The Fossil & Gemstone Museum

Al Being Hugged by a Giant Koala

Two Wallaby Hugging at the Zoo

Greg Not Sure How He Feels About Crocodile Sausage

Kuranda Scenic Railway Station

On the Scenic Railway Back to Cairns

Out the Window of the Train

Thanks for Making it to the End: See you Later!

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