Graham Reid finds plenty to do in Cairns, if you like your action laid-back and tropical.

"Nah," she said emphatically as our flight descended into Cairns.

"I'm in the Atherton Tablelands now. Used to live here. Fifteen years. Got sick of the rat race."

Maybe Cairns - 26C on a cloudless June day when bitterly cold Auckland was being drenched - is hectic in tourist season, but a "rat race"?

Traffic moves at an easy pace along wide streets, most people walk slow and take time to give directions (I felt embarrassed waking the guy in the map shop who'd nodded off after lunch), and this place with the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park (both World Heritage sites) on its doorstep has a shorts and summer frock feel.


Tropical Cairns has a familiar list of things for tourists to explore, most of which take a tidy half-day and appeal to kids.

Cairns Tropical Zoo makes for a fascinating morning stroll. You'll see the planet's ugliest bird (the aptly named Papuan frogmouth) as well as crocs, kangaroos, the exotic cassowary and other locals.

Hartley's Crocodile Adventures up the highway has kids squealing in fear-filled delight when a massive creature leaps out of the water to grab chicken or fish from the keeper's hands.

Of course there is the Great Barrier Reef for dive tours, helicopter flights and hot air balloon rides over the Atherton Tablelands (an early-morning call, but worth it).

For a day trip take the 34km train ride to the former hippie haven of Kuranda where there are interesting shops, a bird park and the Venom Zoo (only in Australia - a zoo-full of locals who can kill you). Get the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway back, which carries you by cable car across the top of the forest canopy. At the bottom, visit the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park for art, theatre and cultural performances.

But all these involve leaving leisurely Cairns, when the city itself offers engaging Aboriginal and contemporary art.

The Centre for Contemporary Arts (aka KickArts) has changing exhibitions of art, craft and design, and the Cairns Regional Gallery exhibits historic, contemporary and Aboriginal artists. You'll be surprised at how provocative some pieces are.

One of the biggest and best Aboriginal art galleries is Canopy on Grafton. A large warehouse space converted into an exhibition area and workshops, Canopy boasts internationally recognised names such as Heather Koowootha and Alick Tipoti.

As with many other galleries and the Cairns Museum, it is an easy walk in the central city.

So, easy-going Cairns is interesting in itself, and not just as the entry point to the Far North, Daintree, the Great Barrier Reef or that holiday break at Port Douglas, Palm Cove or the other nearby hotel and resort retreats.

If you do want something more fast-paced, get up early in the morning and go to the Esplanade - kind of like South Beach Miami without the art deco - where you can see the local power walkers and joggers.

That "rat race", perhaps?

Graham Reid traveled to Cairns courtesy of Tourism Australia and Tourism and Events Queensland.