As one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef is a sight that everyone should see at some point in their lives, and where better to visit it than from Cairns?

So, you’ll need somewhere to stay in Cairns, and the Shangri-La Hotel makes a stand-out choice for any discerning traveller, with its luxury service, central location and beautiful views of the marina, ocean and the city itself.

The triangular shape of Cairns Shangri-La, wide rather than tall, distinguishes it from most other hotels, affording guests panoramic views. It’s been a feature of the building since long before Shangri-La acquired it, but on the inside, the hotel feels no obligation to bow to tradition.

Shangri-La has just finished a complete renovation of 184 of its 255 guest rooms, a A$13 million project carried out by design firm Stack Studios.

Hand-painted nautical designs were introduced to rooms (one is a stylised fishing net, running along the length of one wall). The rework maintains a focus on simplicity and modernity throughout, every room filled with natural light.

Carpeted floors were removed to introduce cleaner wooden flooring. For a hotel surrounded by sand and sea, it’s a smart move, and brings a sense of tropical holiday that much closer.

The transformation also included renovation of the bathrooms – new contemporary tiling, with either baths or spacious walk-in showers.

Each of the basic rooms are 32.5 square metres with a balcony, while Horizon Club rooms and luxury suites offer even more expansive spaces. Most offer serene water views of the marina or the bay, with other rooms allowing guests a sweeping city outlook.

As well as stylish, modernised accommodation, guests can also be assured that Cairns Shangri-La is capable of catering to whatever the cultural background.

Given Cairns’ location, Shangri-La sees almost as many Asian guests as Australian. The hotel was able to accommodate one large group of guests from India, providing a menu that was tailored to their palates, while the breakfast buffet was instituted for the benefit of Chinese guests who expected it.

The management describes it as one of Cairns Shangri-La’s unique quirks. There’s a synthesis of Asian and Australian influences in not just the cuisine, but also the design and services are offered. Across Asia, the chain’s hotels are different from those in Australia, so Cairns Shangri-La has noted a need to accommodate diverse expectations, especially from international travellers.

The world beyond your hotel room

Tempting though it is to stay in the hotel, with its courtyard garden, fitness centre and stylish rooms, you can’t spend your whole time inside. Your first stop (not quite out of the hotel) should be The Backyard, a cafe/bar/restaurant by the marina, adjoining Shangri-La’s lobby.

It’s intended to be its own entity, and part of Cairns’ local community as much as a place for tourists to dine and enjoy live music.

With four separate sections – The Deck, an à la carte dining area; The Public Bar, with bar service and menu; The Kiosk, for coffee and specialty tea; and the Garden & Grill, featuring an outdoor lawn, container bar and a new barbecue – dining options are abundant, though good food is assured regardless of where you dine.

During The CEO Magazine’s visit, numerous tales were told of Executive Chef Aaron Habgood’s experimental dessert involving frozen grapes, butterscotch schnapps, dark chocolate, and melted brie and camembert in an onion.

Although said dessert is sadly unavailable on a menu, its legend is testament to the quality of cuisine on offer. The baked cauliflower served with tandoori butter, yoghurt and lentils was perfectly spiced, while the pappardelle pasta with macadamia pesto was creamy yet light.

From a brief chat, it’s clear the Chef believes in complete meals – not the minute portions served in many Michelin-starred restaurants, but well-crafted, filling meals that leave diners satisfied.

A recent addition to The Backyard – an impressively sized barbecue – was evidently a source of pride for Aaron, as well as a source of top-notch barbecue food for guests during a live music night.

In the city itself, there are countless markets to visit, such as the year-round Night Markets, as well as a Saturday morning farmer’s market. These are a great way to find locally-produced food, fashion and more.

The Cairns Art Gallery showcases some of the region’s best artists, making a great post-breakfast stop, while the afternoon can be filled with a stroll along the Esplanade, and a dip in the Lagoon, a seaside public pool.

In the evening, Cairns bustles with countless restaurants offering diverse cuisines just a moment’s walk from Shangri-La. If you’re after a drink, Hemingway’s provides atmosphere as well as expertly brewed beer.

Outside the city, there is, of course, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.

Since Shangri-La sits beside the marina, you’ll need only to head out the front door to be ready to set sail on countless reef cruises.

Great Barrier Reef coral
Staying in Cairns makes it easy for travellers to get close to the Reef's dazzling sealife. Image credit: Toby Hudson

Diving and snorkelling are the best ways to experience this natural World Wonder, by getting up close and personal with the coral reef and its vibrant sea life. Down Under Dive offers guided diving experiences, and a gold-class service that includes a private lounge with snacks, beverages and a wine and cheese platter on your return.

Of course, the other way to experience the reef is high above in a helicopter. A bird’s-eye view of the reef shows off the magnificent blues and greens, the tropical coastline and tiny sandbank islands upon which you might spot picnic-goers.

Great Barrier Reef coastline

And with the Daintree Rainforest – another World Heritage-listed site – in the other direction, you’re guaranteed days of exploring Far North Queensland’s natural environment.

Business or pleasure – why choose?

Like most Shangri-La hotels, Cairns Shangri-La excels as a destination for corporate retreats and conferences, but its location still makes it a superb resort for a tropical holiday.

The blending of these two functions makes the hotel unique even within the Shangri-La family, but this doesn’t limit its capabilities at all.

It’s fully equipped to host corporate retreats or conferences – oil giant ExxonMobil recently chose the hotel for a huge conference – and is perfect for business travel. Indeed, Cairns Shangri-La boasts that many of those who travel there for business inevitably return as holiday-goers.

It’s well-equipped with space for functions. There are 18 rooms, each modern and airy, with a proliferation of natural light, a unique feature among function spaces.

These function rooms are totally customisable depending on the needs of the client, not just in terms of decor but also technology – think digital connectivity and audiovisual.

Cairns Shangri-La Horizon Club meeting room
Corporate meeting rooms, available exclusively to Horizon Club guests

As an example of Shangri-La’s capacity for customisation, the event centre lobby was repurposed into a working space when ExxonMobil held their conference. The event centre itself (the only dedicated one of its kind in Cairns) is spacious and sophisticated.

The Horizon Club, an exclusive service within Shangri-La, provides even more for discerning guests, and especially those travelling for business. As well as more spacious rooms (56 square metres and larger), Horizon Club guests enjoy access to genuine luxury, in the form of the private Horizon Club Lounge daily breakfast, drinks and canapes.

Horizon Club guests can also access a selection of meeting rooms for corporate clients, free of additional charge – and these meetings rooms are just as modern and artistic as the redesigned rooms.