November 20, 2012 was a very busy travel day for us.  We got up early to catch a 9AM flight from Nadi, Fiji to Sydney Australia.  We shared a cab to airport from our hostel, Bamboo Backpackers, with a college-aged girl from Canada.  She was in the middle of a multi-year trip in which she was working in different countries and traveling in between jobs.  She had come to Fiji to witness the solar eclipse (unfortunately, the eclipse was happening while we were flying from Los Angeles to Fiji, so we didn’t get to see it) and meet up with her

Our first view of the outside world in Australia

sister and her sister’s boyfriend.  Now she was heading to Australia for reason’s I couldn’t hear over the wind from the open windows and the cabbie’s music, but Her seemed to be nodding her head in understanding.

After arriving at the airport we checked into our flight and used the reliably fast US$0.05/minute internet connection in the airport to call home and let everyone know that we were OK and headed to Australia.  After struggling to understand the system of coffee drinks (long black, flat white, etc) we successfully ordered a black coffee for myself and a cappuccino for Her, along with some pastries for breakfast, and headed past security for our flight.

Interestingly, there were TWO checkpoints where they inspected our baggage for liquids.  They apparently hate liquids on flights to Australia.  Also, it seems many flights on this side of the world only allow you 7kg of carry-on baggage.  This is not much, about 15 pounds, and we have been required to check our main backpacks for each flight we’ve been on outside the US so far.  What makes it even more frustrating is that the overhead compartments on these flights are huge and empty.

The flight was operated by Euroatlantic, a Portuguese airline, because Air Pacific’s regular 747 was undergoing a scheduled maintenance.  Air Pacific still managed, somehow, to make Euroatlantic’s modern 777 interior look like the 70s era decor of their own 747s.  The Portuguese crew was very professional, but it seemed their grasp of English didn’t extend beyond “Please put your seat back in the upright position, sir,” so communication was difficult and I never got that glass of water I asked for.  Luckily, the center seats in the row ahead of us were unoccupied, and I managed to sneak over after take-off to give Her and myself some room to stretch out on the 4.5 hour flight to Sydney.

The size of Australia is deceptive.  When looking on a map, it’s so easy to point at places you’d like to see and assume they are all within driving distance, but when you consider that Australia is similar in size to the contiguous 48 US states, it becomes much more apparent just how sprawling a country it is.  Our flight to Cairns from Sydney took 3.5 hours — like flying from Miami to New York.  But the 3.5 hours on Virgin Australia was AWESOME.  After some initial confusion where they actually boarded the plane from the front and back simultaneously and people had to squeeze past each other (still not sure I understand that one), the flight was great.  They had a satellite TV on each seat with 25 or so channels playing movies, talk shows, news, and MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL.  Yes, I was able to watch the 49ers demolish the Bears live from 35,000 feet in the air over Australia.

After arriving in Cairns, we caught a taxi to our intended hostel, Castaway’s. Luckily they had the room we were hoping for, a double with shared facilities @ AU$55/night.  The room was right on the parking lot (actually, all the private rooms were right on the parking lot), but that never turned out to be a problem.  The more noisy residents were pretty good about shutting up by 10:30PM.  The room was modest but clean.  The bed, as we would soon find out, needed some work.  While laying on the bed, you could feel each spring digging into your back.  It made it difficult to sleep uninterrupted through the night, but that actually made the other room annoyance — the coin operated air conditioning — easier to deal with.

Our room at Castaway’s

The room had A/C, and to be fair it was a very cold A/C, but it took a AU$1 coin to make it work for 3 hours, and it was impossible to put 2 or more coins in for multiples of 3 hours.  It would just shut off and require another coin to keep working.  This meant that generally sometime between midnight and 2AM I would wake up in a puddle of sweat scrambling to find a dollar coin.  The process would repeat around 4AM or 5AM again.  But we didn’t know all that yet.  Instead, we dropped off our bags, went into the main office and asked what there was to do on a Tuesday evening in Cairns.

We found out that Castaway’s has a deal with a local bar called “The Woolshed” whereby hostel residents get a “free” meal with the purchase of a drink.  Also, on Tuesday nights they have trivia and the Castaway’s crew gets reserved tables at the bar.  That all sounded great, so we climbed into the free 7:30 p.m. shuttle from the hostel to downtown and headed into the bar.  It all seemed very bar-like, but the crowd was much younger than we are.  Another couple at the hostel, middle-aged, had come to the bar as well, and after some asking, the four of us found out that to get our free meal we would have to “queue up” downstairs and get the meal which we could then eat upstairs at the bar.  It sounded reasonable enough and we headed down to the meal “queue” that seemed to consist of about 8 people, not bad.  That was when the four of us had a moment that could only be likened to Ralphie’s moment in “A Christmas Story” when he realizes the extent of the line to see Santa.  Someone asked us what we thought we were doing, and after saying that we were in line for food, this individual pointed us out the door to the line of nearly 50 college-aged kids all waiting for the same free meal.  As we pushed and shoved our way out the door to get in line, it seemed to grow by another 25 people, resembling the food line at a refugee camp.  Jet-lagged and hungry, we decided to head out on an impossible journey of finding a reasonably priced meal in downtown Cairns.

The only way I could describe my initial reaction to downtown Cairns is that I thought of it as the the worst of Key West and the really touristy part of 192 in Orlando.  Every shop that wasn’t an overpriced restaurant was either a bar with mind-bogglingly loud music and beer “specials” that advertised AU$7 stubbies; a tourist information shop that offered to book trips to the reef, trips to Cape Tribulation, or skydiving trips; or a souvenir shop hawking authentic aboriginal artwork mass-produced in China and T-shirts proclaiming, “I GOT WASTED IN CAIRNS!”.  There is no escaping the fact that parts of Cairns are tourist traps.

After inspecting the menus at maybe two dozen restaurants along the Esplanade and the two streets in, we decided that main dishes in Cairns ranged from AU$17 for a plate of spaghetti at a chain restaurant to AU$50 or more for a dish at a Japanese steakhouse.  Resigned to paying up for a decent meal, we happened upon a restaurant, Wink II, that had several entrees listed in the $16-$20 range.  That seemed like what we could afford, and that’s when we walked into the second mistake of the night.  I ordered the pork belly with a raspberry glaze, Her ordered the spinach ravioli.  To top it off, I ordered a glass of Australian wine.  When the food came out we realized that in Australia an entree is an appetizer.  Her’s ravioli was a single, 3 oz piece of cheese filled pasta.  My pork belly was a 3 oz piece of bacon with a little salad consisting of, at most, 8 pieces of lettuce.  I think the waiter realized the mistake we made, and actually brought each of us a piece of soy-glazed duck as an appetizer to our appetizers, “compliments of the kitchen.”  The food was quite good, albeit small.  I believe that if we weren’t on such a budget adventure, it would have been an excellent restaurant to experience some great

Looks like Monopoly money, made of plastic, costs a lot of USD


After eating our minuscule dinners and splitting my reasonably sized glass of wine, we made the 20 minute walk back to our hotel, inserted the first of a few dollar coins into our A/C, and collapsed with the hopes of having a more successful second day in Cairns.