Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef Experience

From Sydney, we flew to Cairns to have a day out in the Great Barrier Reef. We stayed at the Caravella hostel right along the Esplanade, for 3 days: arrival day, Barrier Reef day, flight home.

Our room at Caravella was surprisingly very roomy and could sleep 3 to 4 adults who aren’t fussy. There’s also a kitchen, unlimited drinking water, and a clean bathroom. My only complaint is the very tiny shower stall. If you have been roped into going to Cairns with your friends and you do not want to go to the Reef but still want to swim, you can also just stay in Caravella’s pool. Checkout’s at 10am if you book via their website, but you can use their facilities (pool, shower room, kitchen, lockers) for free until it’s time for your flight.

We also got a free shuttle ride (costs AUD 10/pax) from the airport to Caravella, but we had to pay on the ride back to the airport. You can book the shuttle back to the airport through them, but you have to book the transfer from the airport via the shuttle’s website.

Caravella Esplanade (not to be confused with Caravella Backpackers, which is the same company but in a different location – a few back streets away from the lagoon) is about a 10-minute walk away from the night market and variety of restaurants along the Esplanade. Get closer to the lagoon and the port, accommodation prices go up. Caravella also gave us a 10% off our reef tour plus $5 off meals in PJ O’Brien’s (which we sadly didn’t enjoy).

The Esplanade has a boardwalk for easy walking or running or skateboarding.

When I say lagoon, I’m talking about the free and huge swimming pool that is open to everyone, including tourists. It’s very family friendly and filled with picnic tables surrounding it, although a lot of people were lounging on the grass instead. The water is warm, and even though the pool is full with both locals and tourists, there’s still space to do some short laps.

Lagoon in Cairns Esplanade

Across Caravella, facing the waterfront, is Muddy’s Cafe, a very family-friendly diner with affordable food, delicious coffee, and a huge playground for kids. I definitely wished my niece was there with me as she would have enjoyed it. Caravella has an Indonesian cafe right beside it, and a lot of the hostel’s guests were eating there but we didn’t get to try it.

If you have a very early call time, looking for a place that’s open to serve breakfast at 6am or 7am would be a bit of a walk from Caravella so do plan accordingly. Most cafes/restaurants in Cairns seem to open by 8am, according to my extensive Google search, but I could be wrong.

Luckily, our chosen activity provider, Reef Experience, stated in their website that they will be providing bacon and egg rolls (simply: bacon and egg in a bun) for breakfast so we didn’t have to walk far. We also had a free pick-up from Caravella around 7:30am, although the port is only about 15-20 minutes’ away on foot.

Our Reef Experience boat

When we arrived, we were given a wet suit, flippers, and snorkel equipment. You must wear a wet suit because there are plenty of stingers (jellyfish) in the reef. Thankfully, there weren’t any stingers while we were out, but better safe than sorry and it served as added protection from the sun.

The second deck is for those who booked a private area or transferring to the overnight boat. In the open deck are sunbeds for those who want to sunbathe.

We were assigned a seat with two other couples. The boat was full – the crew said all boats had been fully booked at least two weeks before, and there were people knocking on their office at 6am begging to be let on board. But they are very strict about the number of people allowed on the boat so – according to the crew – about a thousand people were not able to be accommodated for the week. Lesson: If you’re booking a Great Barrier Reef tour in December/summer, book really early (we booked on the second week of November for our January tour).

We were very lucky because it was a nice day out in the water. According to the other tourists in our table, they could barely swim the previous day (they were on their second reef tour when we talked) because of strong winds.

Sad to say, we didn’t get to take a lot of pictures while swimming because I almost dropped my camera while in the water in our first location and I wouldn’t have been able to retrieve it, so I didn’t risk it in the second location.

The first location was in Hastings Reef, where the corals were a bit shallow. Reef Experience provides floaters and life jackets for those who want one, but you may also swim without or even opt to free dive. For those who are medically cleared (we answered a medical questionnaire upon arriving), we could have free scuba diving session.

Wistfully taking a picture of these scuba divers

I tried it, but I was only up to the second rung (where they test if you could take the pressure), before I was frantically shaking my head and motioning that my ears hurt so bad. Even when I did the blowing techniques, I felt like everything had been blocked in my ears by the third rung so the instructor pushed me back up to the surface, and I was not allowed to scuba dive again. They said if I went back and tried again that time, my ear drums might pop and then I wouldn’t even be able to get on a plane. Sigh. I haven’t given up, though, because I really want to go diving. I’m going to see if I could try it again in not so frantic conditions in one of the Philippines’ scuba diving locations. Then maybe someday I could fulfil my dream of free diving!

The second location we went to was deeper, and I had a lot more fun there because the snorkel area was bigger. I even saw a giant clam! While in the first location I used a floater because I was testing the water conditions, I was confident enough to swim on my own in the second.

Aside from the free scuba diving lesson, we also had a free glass bottom boat tour – perfect for those who didn’t want to or couldn’t swim. There was also a paid guided snorkel tour if you want to know the names of the corals and fish you’re seeing.

While we were swimming and snorkeling, in my head I was screaming, “oh my God, I’m in the Great Barrier Reef!!!” This was a fanciful wish I made years ago but didn’t think it was remotely possible because it seemed so expensive. It is expensive but not impossible, so a lot of determination, budgeting and saving up was needed. I also needed to cajole ate Koku, who has developed an aversion to going out on boats (which she only admitted when I was asking her to spend about P30,000 to accompany me to Cairns). But in the end, she relented, because it’s the Great Barrier Reef!

Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed because the places we went to did not look anything like the photos I see online. But after talking to those from our table, I found out that other reef locations looked better (you can swim with turtles), especially with the tours where you’re shelling out upwards AUD 250. They also said the reef looks better up in Port Douglas, which was a tour I considered but ultimately proved to be too expensive for us to take). Still, I had a lot of fun seeing such a lot of corals and really big fish in sizes I only saw in aquariums.

It was only when we were on our way back to the port that our group in the table got to talking beyond pleasantries. When they found out we were from the Philippines, they were shocked and kept saying, “Aren’t there a lot of beautiful beaches in the Philippines? Why would you even want to come here?”

I replied: Because it’s the Great Barrier Reef! I want to see it for myself.

When I was younger, I didn’t even think ordinary people like myself could swim out to the reef. I thought only scientists swam to these places. But there I was, ten years later, ticking another thing off my bucket list. Hooray!

 Tips for a great day out in the reef:

1) Listen to the crew. A good crew will tell you a lot of safety tips before they even dock in one of the reefs.

2) Wear a wet suit. Better safe than sorry! And wear the flippers – the water in the Reef is strong, you’ll need them to even have a chance of moving.

3) If you’re prone to even the tiniest bit of motion sickness, take a pill before the boat leaves the port. The reef’s water is very choppy and being sea sick could ruin your whole day.

4) Look for the best Great Barrier Reef deal read up on their inclusions and reviews. Check with your hotel/hostel if they have any discounts if you book the tour through them.

As with Sydney, there are water stations along the esplanade and bathrooms/shower rooms near the lagoon, and it was pretty safe to walk even at night.

There are plenty of things you can do in Cairns aside from swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, but we didn’t have enough time. The next day we just spent the morning resting, had brunch, and went out to buy souvenirs. We were regretting we didn’t have the chance to go to Kuranda or go up on a hot air balloon, but I’ll leave those activities for the next time I get to go back to Australia.

4 days’ cost (in AUD):

From Sydney:
Uber to airport $30.14 / 2 pax: $15.07
Snack: $12.60
Lunch: $11.50

Cairns (from arrival until checkout):
Hostel: $90
Key deposit (refunded upon checkout): $20
Food: $72.90
Seasickness medicine $3 / 2 pax: $1.50
Reef Experience: $175.50
Shuttle to airport: $10
Cab: $6

Singapore (13-hour layover to Manila):
Dinner: $13
Breakfast: $14.75

Total: $442.82

Aside from the shuttle to the airport, we had to take a cab back from the stores in the esplanade because it was raining too hard and it was almost time for us to go to the airport. Other than that, we just walked everywhere. Lunch, coffee/tea and water were provided by Reef Experience but we paid extra for a soft drink. I brought medicine for seasickness but I left it in the hostel so we had to buy on the boat, as ate Koku got very sick.

For Caravella and the tour, we only needed to pay a deposit upon booking. Even though we had $5 off for PJ on our second night, we opted to eat elsewhere.

During our layover, we found out that AUD and SGD were almost $1=$1 and they accepted AUD (but gave change in SGD) so we didn’t convert our money to SGD anymore.

Read my Sydney series!

3 Replies to “Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef Experience”

  1. I recommend exploring the Philippine seas next time 🙂

  2. […] Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef Experience […]

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