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Australia // THE FLORIDA DOWN UNDER

Ask an Australian about the United States and he'll mention McDonald's, such "terrible soapies" as Melrose Place, and "Bill" _ as in our president.

They're casual blokes, these Aussies. And they're at their most laid-back here in Queensland, the Florida of Australia. Even its nickname is the same: "The Sunshine State."

Cairns, the capital of Far North Queensland, is the Destin/Fort Walton Beach of Australia. Packed with goofy T-shirt shops and pedestrian malls, it has restaurants with such names as Barnacle Bill's and the Reef and Beef Inn. Buffets are big. So are souvenir shops that sell made-in-China stuffed koalas (eight to a package for $1).

Except for the mango margaritas, it feels the same.

As touristy as it can be, however, Cairns has an international airport and is a place to stay while exploring the Great Barrier Reef, the rain forest, nearby islands and the crocs on the Daintree River.

Stay here, eat here, then spend the rest of your time deciding on day trips that will get you out.

Kick back in Cairns

Don't come to this coastal town expecting to snorkel on out to the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is a boat trip away.

Don't even expect nice beaches. At low tide, the Cairns coast becomes a long, ugly strip of mud. In fact, the nearest beaches are a few miles north; swimming there outside of protective enclosures can mean sharing the water with saltwater crocodiles or the deadly box jellyfish that invade the area from November to April.

Even so, the onetime mangrove swamp and gold-field port can hardly keep pace with the planeloads of tourists descending daily. A row of luxury hotels already lines the Esplanade in the center of town. A new convention center is under construction, and the $120-million (U.S.) Reef Casino Complex is scheduled to open this year.

Just outside town, where golf courses meet sugar-cane fields, workers are finishing the new Sky Rail cable car, which will carry visitors over estuaries and tree-fringed beaches to rain-forested mountains.

Popular pastimes in Cairns (pronounced here CANS) are people-watching and shopping. Explore the Trinity Wharf area and browse the boutiques at the Pier marketplace. After dinner, cruise the street performers along the Esplanade. Then order a cappuccino from a Japanese waitress and listen to Jamaican tunes outside a "100-percent Aborigine-owned" gallery.

The best time to visit Cairns is during Australia's winter (our summer), when the temperature is about 82 degrees. During "The Wet" (January to March), it's "bucketing with rain" and temperatures can be in the 100s.

Drive the Captain Cook Highway

The coastal drive from Cairns to Port Douglas, a resort town that has attracted Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, is one of Australia's most scenic. It's a 44-mile trip with emerald-green water to your right and rain-forest-green mountains to your left. Ahead in the distance is Thornton Peak, Australia's third-highest mountain at 4,538 feet. Locals get excited when they can sneak a peek at the peak, usually obscured by clouds.

What's more, Aborigines believe the mountain was once populated by tall, sex-craving, men-eating Aboriginal women. Even today, you can't get an Aboriginal man to venture anywhere near the place.

If you're a birdwatcher, keep an eye on the electric lines, where kingfishers like to hang out. Some more Cook Highway highlights:

The Japanese-owned Paradise Palms Golf Course in Clifton Beach is rated one of the top 10 courses in Australia.

Wild World, about 14 miles from Cairns, offers plenty of koala cuddling, even though the marsupial is not native to the area. Also popular are toad races and crocodile, snake and cockatoo shows.

Watch Charlie the croc in the "Crocodile Attack Show" at Hartleys Creek Crocodile Farm. At about 62 years, he's an aging star who has always lived at Hartleys. Says a guide: "It's better than becoming a shoe."

Reefer madness

The Pacific may be the largest ocean, but snorkelers bump into each other on this reef excursion.

Two Star Wars-style catamarans carry 400 passengers each on a day cruise to the 1,200-mile Great Barrier Reef. The vessels, including the new luxury $6-million Quicksilver VIII, dock at two platforms permanently moored at Agincourt Reef.

Before and after lunch for 400, novice snorkelers dart around in the water under the protective watch of "snorkeling safety officers."

It's an incredible hourlong trip out to the ribbon reef in air-conditioned splendor. The catamaran's high-tech, torpedo-shaped hulls ensure a smooth ride, and you can watch educational videos about the reef and monitor the boat's progress on TV screens linked to a navigation system.

Or simply kick back, contemplate the captain's musical taste (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald), and savor a ginger tablet or Dramamine treat.

Once you arrive, you have about 90 minutes to yourself. Use it to swim and snorkel or opt for a 45-minute guided snorkeling tour away from the crowd ($19). Marine biologists tell you about the reef, which covers an area half the size of Texas, and the creatures who live here.

For those who want to revel in the reef's wonder without ruining the hairdo, there are two semisubmersible subs that leave the platform every 15 minutes.

Reef Biosearch, a team of marine biologists who lead educational activities and snorkeling tours, also conducts research on the reef, including one on the environmental impact of permanently moored pontoons.

Quicksilver's Outer Barrier Reef Cruises depart daily from Cairns, Palm Cove and Port Douglas. Fares are $88 to $96. Children ages 4 to 14, half fare; under 4, free. Quicksilver's Wavedancer makes daily trips to Low Isles, a coral cay about 8 miles northeast of Port Douglas.

To book in Cairns, go to the Pier Marketplace, Esplanade; bookings in Port Douglas are at the Marina Mirage.

Sampling the live stuff

A good croc tale is almost as appealing as an old-fashioned shark story. And a guided cruise down the Daintree River is slithering with details of "salties," the dangerous saltwater crocodile.

More aggressive than a "freshie," salties are so crafty they can live in freshwater. They inhabit rivers, swamps and lagoons throughout Cape York Peninsula. The riverboat guide says the longest one ever recorded here was 28{ feet. Warning signs greet you at every waterway. "Estuarine Crocodiles Inhabit This River," reads the one across from the Big Croc Cafe ("A great place for a bite").

This is not the place for a refreshing swim or even a bird bath at river's edge. That's how the last human victim was attacked on the Daintree in 1985. They found her remains inside a 14-foot croc.

While more people are killed by bee stings in Australia than are "taken by crocs," it happens. As the Disneyesque "River Train" scoots by, you pass a third saltie, practically grinning as the group rushes to one side of the boat.

Numerous companies offer trips on the Daintree from points between the ferry and Daintree village, for $10 or so. River cruises also are included in many Cairns-to-Cape-Tribulation package tours.

You're on a botanical walk in the rain forest, calmly assuming the boarded path keeps you safe from the source of all that rustling going on out there, when it happens.

Pointing at a spot behind you, the guide is saying something about a python wrapped around a tree. You turn and are the only one who gasps and grabs the railing.

You see a python. Others see a serpentine vine.

The rain forest is like that.

There was the affectionate "wait a while" palm tree, whose thorned tendrils wrap around you so that you have to wait awhile before leaving.

But you're especially wary of the cassowaries. The flightless birds are big here at "place of many cassowaries," the Aboriginal name for Cape Tribulation.

They're so big they can swallow softball-sized seeds whole _ and expel them whole, too. Cassowaries "will look you in the eye," says the guide.

Cassowary attacks are more common here than dog attacks. The birds, who have been fed in the past, associate humans with food. When they see a camera-holding human, they think the camera is food and come calling.

The big cassowary toes can disembowel a person.

Actually, as is the case everywhere, the biggest danger in this habitat is man. The land stretching from Townsville to Cooktown has only recently been made a Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

"Australians are only now understanding what they have here," says Barbara Dodge of Ferntree Rainforest Resort. "They're just realizing how special it is to have a rain forest."

Numerous companies offer tours from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. The cape (78 miles north of Cairns) is one of the few places in Australia where rain forest meets the reef.

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