Cairns used to be a city that visitors simply passed through on their way to iconic World Heritage sites like the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforests. Situated way up on the eastern coast of Far North Queensland, this city of about 150,000 inhabitants has always been a long way from the more urbane Australian metropolises of Melbourne, Sydney and even Brisbane – and not just geographically. It’s a place seen by many Australians as the wild, rugged north where pizzas come topped with pineapple and beer is swigged from cans. But changes are afoot as Cairns starts to emerges from a tropical lethargy to become a stylish city ready to perform on the big stage.
Physical evidence of this sea change came last month, with the opening of the Cairns Performing Arts Center (CPAC), a 941-seat venue that will host leading regional and international performances. Cairns Regional Council can take some of the credit for fast-tracking this important element of the city’s evolution, investing AU$17.7m to fund the final stages of CPAC.
“This is a very special milestone for our city,” proclaims the mayor, Bob Manning. “It’s a coming-of-age, a turning point in our vision to be recognised as the arts and cultural capital of Northern Australia.”
The project’s first stage has already made a big impression, with adjacent outdoor concert venue Munro Martin Parklands transformed from a rundown park into a vine-draped stage and grassy amphitheatre in 2016.
Next on the Council’s radar is a revamp of Florence Street. Over the next two years, a leafy walkway will connect CPAC with waterfront hotspot The Esplanade.
The Esplanade is already a focal point for the city, thanks to a year-round swimming lagoon, a free Live Music by the Lagoon programme, public artworks, as well as walking and cycling paths that weave through landscaped gardens dotted with barbecue areas and picnic tables. It’s also where many of the city’s new lifestyle spots can be found.
Raising the flavour profile
While the dining scene in Cairns has always been lively, its focus on laid-back, outdoor eateries was lacking in big-city sophistication. Lifestyle precincts like The Pier waterfront, The Esplanade and Collins Avenue in Edge Hill abound with casual restaurants, yet few, with the possible exception of the award-winning NuNu’s on the beach at Palm Cove, reach “destination dining” status.
More recently, though, a number of newly opened restaurants have big aspirations. That includes The Chambers, a three-venue dining space housed in a 1920s former bank building on Spence Street.
“We wanted to pay homage to the history of the building and bring back some life,” says The Chambers’ owner, Joan Wilson, a hands-on, straight-talking fiftysomething powerhouse. Engaging Melbourne-based interior design firm Hecker Guthrie, her brief was to reflect a fresh Queenslander style, while keeping true to the building’s heritage. The result is whitewashed panelled walls juxtaposed with raw, exposed 92-year-old brick and natural light that filters through restored arches.
The fun here starts as early as 7am with Tattle, The Chambers’ tropical-chic breakfast and lunch spot, which serves healthy bowls, salads and burgers on a timber deck and patio draped with hanging plants. Come late afternoon, cocktail bar Esters looks to celebrate the romance of the 1920s behind its scarlet doors. Black and white film clips project onto brick walls and plump leather armchairs dot the space, while patrons enjoy inventive cocktails and tapas dishes. At the elegant SoMA, bare timber beams are softened by potted greenery, wicker chairs and tables draped in linen, and the kitchen pushes out stylish European dishes such as flat iron wagyu steak and confit octopus with pickled fennel and citrus.
“Cairns is definitely evolving and becoming a little bit of a foodie hub,” Wilson says. “We are seeing more bars, cafés and restaurants popping up. It is an exciting time to be a part of the industry.”
Other notable developments in the last couple of years include the expansion to two trawlers of on-water casual seafood dining restaurant Prawn Star at the Marlin Marina, and the opening of Village Café on Collins, with its commitment to sustainable and local sources for its European-inspired menu.
Cairns is definitely evolving and becoming a foodie hub
More additions to this evolving scene are expected from the just-opened Riley Hotel, situated on The Esplanade. The first five-star hotel in Cairns in 20 years serves up a number of F&B options. It will be home to Cairns’ highest rooftop bar and restaurant Rocco and also feature Greenfields, a raw bar serving cold-pressed juices by day and with a splash of vodka come evening.
In the past, the mainstay of Cairns nightlife consisted of barn-like pubs and clubs favoured by young travellers. Notorious for everything from tabletop dancing to jelly-wrestling theme nights, these raucous venues are now making way for more intimate night spots.
Hole-in-the-wall wine bar The Conservatory, which opened in mid-2014, and 2016’s eclectic Fusion Art Bar & Tapas were the forerunners of this quiet revolution, but it was perhaps the arrival of Three Wolves in late 2016 that really redefined the local scene.
Situated down a red-brick alley between Abbott Street and The Esplanade, Three Wolves was the brainchild of Darren Barber, Sam Kennis and Grant Buckham. Originally hailing from Sydney, the three friends were looking to bring some big-city funk to Cairns’ small-bar scene.
“When I moved to Cairns about four years ago, there were no small or laneway bars,” says Barber. “We saw these worked well in Sydney and Melbourne, and assumed they would be equally popular in Cairns.”
The result was a cosy bar tucked into a city laneway. Step through the simple black door affixed with an image of a wolf howling at the moon and you’ll be greeted with subdued lighting, industrial fittings and walls adorned with illustrations by Cairns artist Caroline Mudge. Pop in after dark and you’ll likely find one of the three “wolves” behind the glossy black-tiled bar – as the owners take turns to helm the lively spot.
The menu has a particular emphasis on classic whiskey cocktails with a North Queensland twist, tapping into the region’s sugar cane industry with drinks like Smoke on the Water, which pairs rye whiskey with house-made cinnamon sugar syrup. The trio has since gone on to open a breezy tropical gin bar, Gin Social, at Cairns Hilton in 2017, and most recently has converted a concrete bunker on The Esplanade into Tiki Flamingo Bar. Opened late last year, it’s unapologetically kitsch: an entire wall papered with ’50s-style bathing beauties, low-slung ceilings adorned with woven pandanus mat and rum-fuelled drinks served in clam shell-style glasses.
“Drinking trends are changing from more serious kinds of cocktail bars to something a bit more fun,” Barber explains. “This will be the only proper tiki bar north of Brisbane.”
Brewing up a storm
Cocktail revolution aside, these days nothing shows a city has arrived more than craft beer, and Cairns now boasts seven independent breweries, the majority of which have popped up in the last couple of years.
Located close to the water, Hemingway’s Brewery is the newest, setting up shop in June 2018 in one of the original 1910 wood-and-tin sheds that make up the Cairns Wharf Complex. Already, the outdoor benches overlooking the Trinity Inlet are packed with customers, here to sample the choice of seven beers, all brewed on site.
Head north on Highway 1 and you’ll find MacAlister Brewing Co, a charming spot overlooking a field of rustling sugar cane and the nearby MacAlister Ranges. Head brewer and former industrial chemist Rob Callin and his wife, Rachel, started the business in 2017.
“People want flavour in their beer; they were bored with average lagers,” explains Callin, lifting a schooner of their blonde ale Latitude 17 to his lips. It’s their biggest seller and one of six beers they now have on tap. He’s clearly doing something right, having picked up numerous state and national awards since he started brewing beer.
Cairns feels far removed from the sleepy country town I grew up in
Situated a short drive from the airport, Barrier Reef Brewing is another boutique brewery that’s gained a foothold in the city in recent years. Former veterinary professionals and wildlife conservationists Cameron McPherson and Caroline Passingham started the business in early 2016 and now supply beer to approximately 50 venues around Cairns. They also opened in-house Two Turtles Tap Room, which welcomes visitors two days a week to try their selection of hand-crafted beer, each linked in some way to the region. Their flagship is the Two Turtles Pale Ale, named after the nearby Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, to which the brewery donates a portion of its sales.
McPherson, who grew up in Cairns, spent 14 years working in the UK before returning home with the aim of developing high-quality craft beer. He recognised how Cairns was changing and saw the growing demand for something beyond mass-produced beer.
“It feels far removed from the sleepy country town I grew up in,” says the fresh-faced McPherson. “Given the number of good quality craft breweries in the region, I can certainly see people coming to Far North Queensland just for the beer.”
While its ascent as a modern, tropical metropolis is undeniable, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the city, wedged between reef and rainforest, has still retained the beguiling charm that sets it apart from the rest of Australia.
A Cairns institution with an enviable marina-front location, this largely alfresco restaurant offers a contemporary menu influenced by the sea, and two bars with laid-back vibes. Always good for sundowners.
Perrotta’s at the Gallery
Dine alfresco on the deck adjacent to the Cairns Regional Gallery and enjoy Mediterranean-style casual dining with sharp service. A great spot for breakfast or brunch.
Not only is it one of the best fresh produce markets in North Queensland, Rusty’s has a wide variety of stallholders specialising in bread, coffee and fresh squeezed juices.
This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine.