Colyn Huber

Fantastic festival by any name

THE best time to visit Cairns is, undoubtedly, during the winter months - with its sublime weather and a freshness to the tropical air.

But it's not just the weather that draws more than 100,000 people every year - it's the Cairns Festival, this year being held from August 17 to September 2.

Never having travelled to Cairns before, landing in the middle of last year's 50th anniversary festivities was an absolute cultural treat.

Last year, Cyclone Yasi was still fresh in the minds of the people of Cairns and surrounding areas.

It had been just a few months since the massive category 5 super-cyclone hit the region, and already it had become the stuff of folklore, weaving its way into daily conversations and on to canvas through the artwork of talented locals.

The physical scars had gone - cleaned up by a flurry of dedicated locals and volunteers rebuilding this beautiful region - but the emotional scars were put on display for the whole world to see during the Cairns Festival.

The festival permeates virtually every element of the city - from the streets to the eateries and the galleries - and you can't help but be immersed in the continual cultural happenings.

From the parade participants to the international musicians and visiting artists in residence, Cairns comes alive with colour, creativity and excitement.

Established in 1962 as the Cairns Tourist Festival, the gathering was renamed Fun in the Sun the following year and soon began drawing families, creative people, and tourists to celebrate our Far North sense of place.

As the decades rolled on, it grew into the community's most significant annual celebration.

As the annual event matured, it gained a following far and wide as Far North Queensland's annual celebration of identity. Over the years, the festival developed platforms for music, dance, theatre, film, literary arts, and new collaborations.

By the early Nineties, the event was renamed the Reef Festival, and in 2002 was rebranded as Festival Cairns. What started as a small town community gathering was renamed Cairns Festival and, after 50 years, is one of Australia's recognised creative programs, offering around 100 unique events over 17 days, with a vibrant mix of performing, visual, Indigenous, hometown and international artistry.

"No matter what you call it, the festival is about community identity, shared experiences, and creative expression," Cairns Regional Council Creative Cairns manager Leslie Sparkes said.

"Over 100,000 people experienced last year's program, and they came from all over the world - as well as our own back- yard."

Today, the festival is funded and managed by Cairns Regional Council, and is a highly-productive part of its Creative Cairns branch.

Thanks to dozens of local businesses, the festival season is also supported by the Far North's corporate citizens.

Run by a small professional team, helmed by Ms Sparkes and the festival administration and marketing team, Cairns Festival has built partnerships with hometown cultural stalwarts such as Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Tanks Arts Centre, Civic Theatre, JUTE Theatre Company, Centre of Contemporary Arts, Umi Arts, and Cairns Regional Gallery.

"There are dozens of annual festivals all over Australia, and many of them depend on the same formula," Ms Sparkes said.

"Present a range of performers, invite audiences to experience them, sell tickets, and hope there is applause at the end."

But Ms Sparkes and her team are after something more: "There's nothing wrong with the tried and true event-based approach, which we, too, proceed from. But Cairns Festival wants to do more for our creative identity, and have set out to build a different kind of arts festival. We truly want to give something meaningful back to the community with outreach and cultural connections."

Last year's 50th season program included 106 unique productions, events, exhibitions, and creative projects by more than 1000 artists and creative people from the region and beyond.

Amazing spectacles such as the Grand Parade, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, Gordonvale Pyramid Race, Cairns Amateurs, International Student Welcome, Tropical Pride Festival, Circus Oz season, free concerts, free film nights, and Carnival on Collins entertained an audience of more than 110,000.

What does this year promise?

You'll have to make the trip north and experience Cairns Festival for yourself. It's a sensory treat.

>> Read more travel stories.

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