CAIRNS at first sight looks like a giant has scattered jewels of turquoise across the sand, and it's not hard to fall in love with it.
I'm not even off the plane yet and I am transfixed.
This is my first visit to the tropical north. I have envisaged a place littered with souvenir shops ready to capitalise on the tourist dollar, with the reef the only appeal. Instead, what I find is a bustling, almost metropolitan, region with a vibrant arts scene.
The place is filled with an air of creativity. You can almost feel it as you wander through the streets.
The city is home to the Cairns Festival, a 17-day celebration from August 17 spanning arts, entertainment, music, dance and collaborations.
Now in its 52nd year, the 2012 program boasts an impressive and varied list of artists, performers and musicians. Like a cultural box of Favourites, there is something for everyone. Here is just a snapshot:
Glen Mack adds the finishing touch to his masterpiece and then steps back to take it all in.
Stretching 30 metres, the hand-painted mural he has just completed is the largest in Cairns.
Decorated with dugongs, it took just five weeks to finish.
A genuinely humble and shy guy, Mack seems bemused by our surprise and admiration as we stare at the intricate paintings on the wall.
Behind the dugongs is a detailed swirl and tribal-like pattern, which Mack says he didn't plan out prior to putting brush to wall. It just comes to him as he paints. That is the case for each of his paintings.
He will stand in front of a blank canvas or wall and not have any idea what will transpire from his brush.
"Once I see the canvas, then I just know what I'll do," he says.
Hailing from Yam Island, Mack is one of the many renowned Cairns artists. His paintings and lino prints reflect his Torres Strait Islander background.
Mack is just one of the region's incredible artists who will exhibit at the Cairn's Festival Indigenous Art Fair which encompasses not just visual arts but also dance and music.
This year, the festival will also include Inkfest, which showcases the diverse art form of printmaking by both indigenous and non-indigenous artists.
They take to the stage dressed in hooded floor-length robes. Their faces are shrouded in dark shadows and they look ready to engage in some sort of spiritual ritual.
And in a sense they do, as while watching the Shaolin Afronauts perform, you are transported to another world. Founded in 2009 out of a fascination with African jazz and soul, the group of nine university music students play a beautiful and transcendental blend of avant-garde jazz, soul combined with African and Cuban percussive rhythms.
Playing at the Tanks Arts Centre, which is one of the key venues for the events and performances that make up the Cairns Festival, these mystical musicians have found a perfect fit.
Situated in the Cairns Botanical Gardens precinct, the venue is creatively housed in three converted Second World War naval oil storage tanks. The path between the tanks is decked out in fairylights, and is truly something to behold.
A trip to Cairns without a visit to the reef would be akin to a puzzle with a missing piece - incomplete.
Snorkelling at the Barrier Reef has long been atop my bucket list and even with the highest expectations, it did not disappoint.
We head out to Green Island, an hour-or-so boat trip from Cairns, for a dose of snorkelling and a trip on the glass bottom and submarine to ensure we complete the reef experience.
I feel like I am in a scene from The Little Mermaid as I frolic with the fish, get up close and personal with a neon starfish and marvel at the true beauty of nature.
Strikingly beautiful jewel-coloured fish dart in and out of the coral. They appear almost out of nowhere and are gone just as quickly. A sly turtle swims by, unfazed that he is being trailed by three mermaid wannabes.
There is no doubt why this Great Barrier Reef is one of the great natural wonders of the world.
August 17 to September 2. For more information, visit cairnsfest.com.au.
Highlights of the festival:
Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), August 17-19 at Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal, is the opening highlight of this year's Cairns Festival. CIAF celebrates the best of Queensland's Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander art.
The Village on Esplanade, August 17 - September 2 is a newcomer to this year's Cairns Festival program.
A quirky, vaudevillian, retro-futuristic, sideshow romp, think a gilded, steam-powered carnival of delights with its toes cooling in the lagoon under a palm tree.
Overflow FNQ Grand Parade & Fireworks, Saturday, August 18.
This year the parade will celebrate 51 years and is followed immediately by a range of local entertainers, including the Cairns Pan Stars, and then a fireworks display over the Esplanade foreshore.
Music Botanica featuring Sarah Blasko, Botanic Gardens Sunday, August 19 - an afternoon of live musical entertainment set in the green surrounds of the Cairns Botanical Gardens. Aussie singer, songwriter Sarah Blasko headlines this event, supported by several local and national artists including Holly Throsby.
Reggaetown World Music Festival, Saturday September 1 will provide a finale weekend highlight to this year's festival program.
Featuring over a dozen bands playing Roots, Reggae, Dub, Ska and related rhythms along with a great selection of Reggae DJs who will have all dreadlocks, families, islanders, locals, tourists and switched on humans skankin' the day away.
The Big Laugh Comedy Gala, Cairns Civic Theatre - Wednesday, August 22, Some of the best comedy acts from Australia as they come together for one show only, exclusively for Cairns Festival.
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