Day 3 – Sydney/Cairns
Before I went to bed last night, I was told to be awake at 5:30am to hop on a 7:30am flight from Sydney to Cairns, Queensland. After a fitful night of tossing and turning, the cab picked us up from Gladesville, and took Mum, Uncle Gerry, and I to the Sydney Int'l Airport. Although Gerry has lived in Australia all his life, he had never been to Queensland until a recent trip to Port Douglas, another popular tourist spot located about an hour from Cairns. Hence, vacationing in Cairns is a novel experience for him. Mum had a credit from Virgin Airlines after she and I accidentally double-booked the same reservation. Only after I sent Virgin a series of emphatic emails asking for a refund/credit, they reluctantly responded with a credit 6.5 weeks later, which we gave to Gerry to tag along.
We arrived at the airport at 6am. Mum and I shared the same itinerary on the same piece of paper. Naturally, the check-in attendant carded Mum, but curiously, I was not asked for identification, yet was allowed to board the plane. Aussies seem to trust in their intra-national travellers more than Americans.
The flight lasted almost 3 hours, and featured crying babies in surround sound. One baby crying behind me, and another one was wailing two rows in front of me. Finally, a toddler running up and down the aisle chased by her dad was incessantly whining. Although Virgin Blue is known as a discount airline, I wasn't fully aware of the lack of amenities until I read the menu that wanted to charge me $9.90 AUS to watch Baby Mama. Um, no thanks. But wait, there's more. The flight attendant asked me if I wanted something to eat or drink. Knowing I would be charged for pretty much anything, I ordered water, closed my eyes, and prayed…nope, that'll be $2.50 AUS, thank you very much. The legroom was shit, and I was thrilled to finally land after a less-than-stellar flying experience.
We landed in Cairns at just after 10am. They don't observe daylight savings in Queensland, so we gained an hour (as if I didn't have enough issues coping with jet lag!). When I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I felt a familiar humidity I hadn't experienced since I spent a weekend in New Orleans in August a few years ago – disgusting for a guy who not only grew up in the dry heat of Los Angeles, but sweats more than a tourist in a Mumbai hotel besieged by terrorists. After we got our bags from the luggage carousel, we were picked up by a shuttle and whisked off to Billabong Rent-a-Car. Mum, using her travel agent upgrade, elevated our order at no extra charge to a 4-door Hyundai Getz. Aussies drive some funky cars out here, and although suitable, most of them aren't available in the States. We found our hotel, which was actually more of a resort/timeshare called The Lakes @ Cairns. It was a pretty solid 2-bedroom unit with a full kitchen, cable TV, frigid air conditioning, multiple swimming pools within walking distance, adjacent restaurants, but no wi-fi L. I had to pay $8 AUS per hour to type emails and check up on my choking fantasy football squad in the guest lounge. I would end up dropping around $30 on internet charges during my stay here – ugh.
Given the sweltering humidity, I took the first of several showers today. After I got out and changed, we drove north with Port Douglas as our destination with a few stops along the way. When we first hit Cook Highway 44 (named after James Cook, the explorer who discovered Australia in 1770), we pulled over at a lookout and took some pictures at a deserted tropical beach. The water was soo warm, as if a million kids had peed in the ocean simultaneously! I skipped a few stones off the calm water – not much of a tide here in Queensland with the Great Barrier Reef serving as a natural breakwater. We only stayed at this picturesque beach for a few minutes, as we hadn't yet eaten after getting off the plane.
Our next stop was in Clifton Beach, where we found a shopping mall with a bakery inside. We bought some authentic Australian cuisine for lunch: meat pies, sausage rolls, and apple/blackcurrant juice. We wanted to purchase some groceries for the room to keep our costs in check, but didn't want to leave everything in the hot-ass car, so we said we'd stop here on the way back to Cairns.
When we got to Port Douglas, I could see why this place is popular amongst international travellers. It has that sleepy-yet-touristy vibe about it with a collection of souvenir shops, coffee houses, and palm trees. I purchased a few postcards and airmail stamps to send back home to the US, and some kitschy flip-flops that featured a crocodile saying "G'Day mate" on them (which would later give my feet painful blisters). Similarly to Cairns, there are ferries taking tourists to the Great Barrier Reef, which is 1000 miles long, and runs parallel to the northeast coast of Australia, also known as the "sunshine coast". Mum, Gerry and I took some scenic pics, and continued North to a small town called Mossman that Gerry had always wanted to visit, but wasn't able to the last time he was here.
Mossman is a small town rife with sugarcane fields, tin-roofed houses, and rural barefooted children playing on the side of the road. Uncle Gerry wanted to see the Mossman Gorge, which was an area enclosed within the rainforest region as you drive away from Hwy 44. When we arrived at the state park, parking was scant, and there were many people, young and old, milling about the area. An ice cream truck (more like an ice cream child-molester van) operated by a nice 40-something "sheila" had a couple of customers when I offered to buy ice cream cones for Gerry and Mum. Although the treats were delicious, we had to eat them at a prodigious pace because they were literally melting before our eyes all. We would have ample opportunity to wash off, though.
The water was perfectly cool given the sweltering conditions we were subject to here in northern Queensland. Gerry was the first to jump in the water, and I followed suit shortly thereafter. I would say there were about 30-ish people of many different ages and nationalities sharing a jolly good time together. A river flowed through the gorge, which provided a mild current that slightly concerned some mothers given the large boulders in the water. But nobody was in any significant danger as people from as far away as Germany and Russia shared a muggy afternoon together for a refreshing dip. When I got out of the water, I felt quite clean, as if I had taken a mineral bath. We would then start heading back south toward Cairns.
We stopped at Clifton Beach to grab some food for our fridge back at the Lakes. I saw a Family Pack of Fantales, my favourite "lollies", on sale for $2.50 AUS! By comparison, a smaller normal pack was $2.99…go figure. I bought a couple bags for myself, and vowed to get more before I return to the States. Since alcohol isn't sold at supermarkets in Australia, Gerry and I walked across the mall to grab a 24-pack of Carlton Draught from a popular chain called Liquorland. Booze is really pricey in Australia – now I know why Mum was so emphatic on my hitting duty free before I arrived in Australia. By the way, nobody drinks Foster's in Australia, as Gerry claimed it to be "shit beeyah".
When we finally got back to the Lakes hotel, we took showers, dressed up, and grabbed dinner at a Lago, a fine restaurant located on the Resort where they served everything ranging from fish to kangaroo (affectionately called "Skippy", named after a popular television character from the '70s). Once we finished dinner, Mum and Gerry retired back to the room while I resumed feeding the internet café $2 coins. I, too, would then retire after checking email, Facebook, and my crappy fantasy football squad's most recent rash of injuries.