CAIRNS was pegged out over the site of a sea-slug fishing camp when gold was found to the north in 1876, though it was the Atherton Tablelands' tin and timber resources that established the town and kept it ahead of its nearby rival, Port Douglas. The harbour is the focus of the north's fish and prawn concerns, and tourism began modestly when marlin fishing became popular after World War II. But with the "discovery" of the reef in the 1970s and the appeal of the local climate, tourism snowballed, and high-profile development has now replaced the unspoiled, lazy tropical atmosphere that everyone originally came to Cairns to enjoy.
Cairns' strength is in doing, not seeing: there are few monuments, natural or otherwise. This is partly because the Cape York goldfields were too far away and profits were channelled through Cooktown, and partly because Cairns was remote, lacking a rail link with Townsville until 1924; people came here to exploit resources, not to settle.
For many visitors primed by hype, the city falls far short of expectations. However, if you can accept the tourist industry's shocking intrusiveness and the fact that you're unlikely to escape the crowds, you'll find Cairns a convenient base with a great deal on offer, and easy access to the surrounding area – especially the Atherton Tablelands and, naturally, the Great Barrier Reef and islands.