Ringed by lush rainforest and a world-famous reef, Cairns in Tropical North Queensland is blessed with abundant natural beauty. But spend some time in the city itself and you’ll also discover a tight-knit community that’s full of surprises. Feast in a Balinese-style seafood palace, visit the city’s hottest dining precinct or escape the crowds on a private island: whether you want to eat, drink or explore, these insider tips from in-the-know locals will help you get the most out of your next trip to this tropical paradise.
Start here: Mama Coco
Mama Coco had its genesis when owner Davy O’Rourke and his mother began selling cakes at vibrant Rusty’s Markets in Cairns 13 years ago. “Her name’s not Coco,” he laughs, “but it has a good tropical ring to it so she became known as Mama Coco.”
As the business grew in popularity, O’Rourke moved and expanded it into a full café but he still makes regular trips to the market (held Fridays to Sundays in downtown Cairns) for seasonal produce that shapes his “modern eclectic” menu. Generous servings of fresh, plant-forward food and colourful juices emerge from a kitchen that takes its cues from O’Rourke’s Papua New Guinean heritage, along with South-East Asian influences and some entirely local innovations. Think: granola topped with rainforest honey, grilled banana, passionfruit and lime or cumin-spiced roast pumpkin served with crisp roti, dal, eggs, green chilli and mint.
The menu changes several times a year but a few items are too popular to remove. Chief among them is the Hey Handsome Bowl laden with grilled halloumi, roasted pumpkin, sprouts, pickled zucchini, mint-and-pea smash, brown rice, quinoa and housemade tamarind-and-date chutney. If you’re after something sweet, breakfast is supplemented with baked treats that are made in-house daily and might include lemon-curd muffins or a spiced honey-and-apricot cheesecake topped with almonds and cardamom syrup. And while “Mama Coco” pops in from time to time, “she doesn’t make the cakes anymore – now she just gets to enjoy them”, says O’Rourke.
Mama Coco >>> NOA
When he gets the chance to duck out of the kitchen, O’Rourke can often be found at NOA in leafy Edge Hill. “It’s the place you can find something perfect all day long,” he says. “They do good breakfasts that roll into lunch; there’s an afternoon happy hour; and then, in the evening, it changes again into a smart dining experience with nice cocktails and an interesting wine list.”
With NOA’s motto of “eat, drink, share”, it’s no surprise that share plates and bold flavours are the order of the day here, including lime-cured reef fish ceviche with coconut, avocado and chilli served with hand-pressed blue corn chips, and crisp snapper with slow-cooked pork belly and a green apple salad dressed with tangy nam jim. But there’s one dish O’Rourke prefers to keep all to himself: a seeded baguette packed with rich coconut-braised beef massaman curry and topped with confit shallot, pickled radish, chilli and coriander.
The best place to enjoy it is on the outdoor deck overlooking the burgeoning Collins Avenue dining hub, where you can also find some of the best Mexican, Japanese and Thai food. “Edge Hill is unique to Cairns,” says NOA owner Sam Byrd. “I love it. You can stroll through the botanic gardens along a series of walking trails and you have this fantastic dining precinct only five minutes away. There’s a great community feeling and we work with nearby businesses like Edge Hill Butchery, which is just down the road – they supply all our proteins.”
That sense of community extends to the restaurant itself, where the hospitality is just as important as the food. “Our vision was always for NOA to be an extension of somebody's lounge room so it’s very relaxed and welcoming,” he says. “Everything we do is dictated by the guests walking through the door.”
NOA >>> Pacific Watersports
When even Edge Hill starts to feel too much like the big smoke, Byrd hits the road and heads to Palm Cove. “It’s half an hour north of the city centre, which is just the right distance to feel like you’re getting away,” he says. “I love to get out on a kayak when the water’s flat and head around Double Island – there’s a private beach out the back that’s absolutely beautiful. We’re fortunate to live in a stunning part of the world and on a good day, it’s just magical.”
Few people know this stretch of coast as well as Pacific Watersports co-owner Andrew Bamford, who’s been leading groups of paddlers on the tranquil Coral Sea for the past nine years. “We go out just about every day of the year so I know the area backwards but there are always surprises because every day is a little bit different.”
After launching from Palm Cove, his Kayak Turtle Tour heads towards Double Island’s fringing reef to look for the green and hawksbill turtles that feed there. Then the group might paddle inside a large limestone cave festooned with stalactites, crack open blacklip oysters that grow on the surrounding rocks, visit a giant clam garden or swim at a secluded beach of powdery white sand before making its way back to the mainland.
Pacific Watersports >>> Salt House
Bamford loves to be surrounded by nature so it’s not surprising his dinner pick makes the most of the region’s great weather and natural beauty.
“Salt House is a super-chilled spot that has a great atmosphere, especially when there’s live music on weekends,” he says. “Because the building has a Balinese influence with high ceilings and a nice flow between the rooms, it feels really open. Plus, it’s right by the marina so you have a full view of the Kuranda Range.”
Turn your gaze inside and you’ll notice several fountains and features that bring the water right into the restaurant. In the open kitchen, where proteins are seared on an enormous woodfired Argentinian grill, it’s fire that rules. Thick steaks are a specialty, along with seafood platters piled high with grilled local reef fish, squid, Moreton Bay bugs, soft-shelled crab, prawns, oysters and more.
“We have all the things that make Cairns special,” says functions manager Joanne Turner. “Using fresh local seafood makes sense because the restaurant is built on pylons that go right out into the water. And that means you can see the boats come in from reef trips in the afternoon then watch the sun set over the mountains behind us at dusk.”