If you go to explore the Great Barrier Reef or Queensland's rain forests, chances are you'll wind up in Cairns, a tropical city on Australia's far northeastern coast 1,220 mi/1,965 km north of Sydney and 863 mi/1,390 km north of the state capital, Brisbane.

Once a sleepy fishing village, Cairns seems intent on establishing its own identity and offering visitors a reason to stay around, even though its shoreline is mostly mangrove mudflats.

Cairns (pronounced cans) has a pleasant downtown with palm trees lining the grassy promenade along the waterfront. Every other shop seems to be a tour operator touting reef excursions, but there's also a good range of accommodations, innovative restaurants and plenty of stores, from duty-free boutiques to fine-art galleries. And the nightlife goes on until the sun comes up.

Cairns and its surroundings are worth at least a three-night stay.

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