It's no beauty but extremely popular. Ewan McDonald discovers the waterfront, aquarium and the markets that attract visitors to Cairns.

Cans. As in the things that beer comes in and the city in the south of France that hosts the film festival. On my first visit to the capital of Tropical North Queensland I'll have to respect the local culture and overcome several years of elocution lessons that Mum insisted on. I'll try not to say "Cairns".

According to Tourism Australia, this remote region is the fourth most popular destination for international tourists after Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, because it's close to two World Heritage areas, the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics, better known as the rainforest, and their adventure playgrounds.

Direct flights from Shanghai and Guangzhou have fuelled the boom: more than 20,000 holidaymakers arrive on chartered flights at Chinese New Year.

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Even its most one-eyed supporter would struggle to say Cairns is, in and of itself, one of the seven beauties of the world. But for a town that started life as a mangrove swamp, it has more than made the most of what it has.

Leaving the hotel on the foreshore and walking into the city centre, about five minutes away, I realise that one of these things is heat. It's not quite summer and it'd be 35 in the shade, if there was any.

First port of call is the Esplanade, a park created around the delta that was filled in to become the original downtown Cairns. Focal point is the swimming lagoon, a series of pools, shaded picnic and barbecue spots, skateboard ramps, bike trails, exercise gear, jogging tracks, kids' playgrounds and just general public chill-out zones.

The pools, with their sandy shores and timber decking, are patrolled by lifeguards and can accommodate 1000 or so swimmers at any one time, and water depths range from just under 1m to 1.6m.

The view isn't bad, either: giant banyan trees; harbour, ocean and mountain views. The Esplanade is the template for the sort of park and playground that any city with those natural surroundings, and with a forward-thinking council, might build for its citizens and visitors to enjoy on its waterfront.

Cairns' newest attraction is its aquarium, a private venture in the city centre that aims to connect visitors with the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, the Wet Tropics and the Gulf Savannah and Cape York regions further north.

They've got plenty of raw talent to work with: Tropical North Queensland is home to some of the world's most fascinating, elusive and deadly creatures, and the aquarium claims to house 15,000 animals from 10 different ecosystems and 71 habitats.

The critters are sensitively and thoughtfully housed, their place and value in the world clearly explained, and it's well worth a couple of hours to understand the rich variety of this part of the continent's animals and plants, many of which are rare or threatened. It also has an excellent cafe-restaurant and aircon.

As the day cools, Cairns' Night Markets heat up. Open every night from 4.30 to 11pm, they're a popular shopping and dining experience, with more than 70 stalls. Created as a way for local traders to promote North Queensland souvenirs, they've expanded into an attraction in their own right. The Esplanade also heaves with craft and food stalls on the weekend.

A couple of streets back from the beach, Rusty's Markets have been running for more than 30 years, starting life with six fruit and vege stalls; it's now one of the largest and most successful markets in Australia.

From Friday morning to Sunday afternoon, 180 operators sell flowers, deli food, local fruit and vegetables as well as jewellery, clothing, gems, organic products, leatherwear, medicinal herbs and spices. On Sundays, there's a concentration on bric-a-brac, arts and crafts.

Like so many fly-in, fly-out tourists, I'm leaving town after an afternoon and a night for a road trip along the Queensland coast. Cairns has given me the one thing I needed to make it perfect: a $2 CD from Rusty's Markets. Greatest Aussie Hits: INXS, Midnight Oil, Jimmy Barnes and more. Not so much Mad Max in his tooled-up Falcon, though. More Mild Mac in a rented Camry.

WHERE I'D STAY

The 255-room Shangri-La resort is set on Cairns' modern floating marina, claiming "a cool, modern tropical vibe and plenty of luxe touches".

There's a big, and welcome, outdoor pool surrounded by a deck, loungers and (also welcome) bar. Didn't try the on-site dining options, apart from the far-better-than-average breakfast, because it's an easy walk to myriad restaurants and bars. Free Wi-Fi, which is not always the case in Australia, where internet speeds can approximate a lethargic koala.

WHERE I'D EAT

The house salad begins with mixed leaves, Mungalli Creek feta and spiced macadamia nuts. Then add smoked crocodile … Craig Squire, the owner and chef who founded Ochre 22 years ago, incorporates native ingredients such as seafood, game, bush plants, herbs and spices, into delicious dishes with flair. Adventurous diners will leave it to Squire and order his four-course Tastes of Australia platter, where his imagination runs free.

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