The first morning I’m in Port Douglas, it’s cloudy and wet – not exactly what I expected for my sunny Queensland getaway. But it’s still decadently warm so, despite the drizzle, I pull on sneakers and head for the beach. The sun’s not quite up and I’m interested to see the ocean and environs in the bleary early morning light. Strolling along a stretch of Four Mile Beach, I’m passed by joggers, dog-walkers and fellow amblers, all immune to the overcast skies and showers. In turn, each person smiles warmly and offers up a greeting: a “Good morning!” or “Hello!”. A few minutes later the clouds part, the drizzle ceases and the sun, now just above the horizon, lights up the sea. The scene is magical and majestic; a glorious cliché.
If I were a person looking for metaphors, I’d say this tableau might represent an accurate analogy for Port Douglas itself. After all, this is a town used to the vagaries of fortune, and whatever the highs and lows, the attitude remains upbeat and positive; there always seems to be sunlight on the horizon.
Founded in the late 1870s, Port, as the locals call it, was first a gold rush town, then an export hub for sugar cane – both booms were followed by busts and for much of the middle of last century, it wasn’t more than a fishing village. That all changed in the 1980s when tourism arrived – and one particularly notable investor, Christopher Skase, opened an iconic hotel. The Sheraton Mirage was celebrated locally and internationally, but Skase’s demise brought more tough times, as did the recent GFC. Now, in 2017, the tide of fortune has changed again: tourism operators are noting record bookings, locals are buoyant, there’s an influx of new investment and, overall, a palpable sense of excitement.
Before arriving, I’d heard the town described as mix between Byron Bay and Noosa. It’s close to the mark: there’s a subtle bohemian air here as well as the cosmopolitan feel of Noosa’s Hastings Street. But Port Douglas definitely has a charm all its own. From the pretty main street (Macrossan) to the newly bustling marina, from the thriving dining scene to the ever-friendly locals, the shining sun is on the horizon once more. To boot, Port Douglas has the happy luck of having two World Heritage-listed drawcards right on its doorstep: the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest. No visit to this area is complete without experiencing both.
The Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas
A recent multi-million-dollar revamp has restored The Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas to former glory. The décor has a contemporary coastal elegance; the 295 rooms feature plantation-style shutters, crisp white walls, dark wood accents, sleek neutral furnishings and black-and-white photography. The exterior, once a candy-ish pink, is now an elegant pale-shell hue. In the vast lobby, tongue-in-chic tropical print cushions sit on Deco-inspired chairs while slick tech features – smartphone charging ports and keyless entry – give the place a distinctly modern edge. There are eight pools; the largest, in the heart of the property, has a requisite ’80s swim-up bar, redone millennial-style, of course. Just as in its last heyday, the highlight of the Sheraton remains: two hectares of saltwater swimming lagoons encircling the accommodation.
Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas; (07) 4099 5888
Coconut Grove Port Douglas
Right on the buzzy shopping strip of Macrossan Street – a skip from Betty’s Bohemian Beach Cafe and the well-curated Whileaway Bookshop & Café and just a 140-metre wander down to Four Mile Beach – is Coconut Grove. This is a discreet and coolly designed cluster of 33 three-bedroom apartments (although you might only pass a handful on the way to yours). There are terraces and balconies with their own barbeque areas and a 20-metre lap pool to escape the north’s sometimes oppressive heat. The penthouse apartment sits on two levels with a plunge pool, spa and dining pavilion and access to a rooftop entertainment area with views over the palm trees and mountains beyond.
56 Macrossan Street, Port Douglas; (07) 4099 0600
Betty’s Bohemian Beach Café
At Betty’s Bohemian Beach Café on Macrossan Street, the tables are dotted with wildflower posies, shell-filled jam jars and pristine white doilies; the aquamarine walls are festooned with dream catchers. This is shabby-chic, tropical style. As for the menu, hipster juices, strong coffees, green breakfast bowls and harissa baked beans make it a brekkie hotspot worth visiting.
56-64 Macrossan Street Shop 2; (07) 4099 6995
As the newest eatery in town, Hemingway’s Brewery is getting all the buzz – and deservedly so. Feast on tasty burgers, slow-cooked brisket and ribs and wood-fired pizzas with inventive toppings. Plus the marina location makes this an ideal place to while away a few hours, watching boats come and go.
The Reef Marina, 44 Wharf Street; (07) 4099 6663
Sassi Cucina e Bar
Sassi Cucina e Bar is slick, chic and inviting. This smart Italian offers mouth-watering staples and handmade pastas alongside daily specials featuring local produce. The flavours are clean and simple, just as Italian should be, and the wine list is a savvy blend of Australia and Europe.
Corner Wharf and Macrossan Street; (07) 4099 6744
Take a reef tour
Jump on board the Reef Sprinter for a zippy two-and-a-quarter hour boat excursion to The Low Isles to snorkel with myriad fish species, view coral formations and possibly see local sea turtles.
Take a walk in the Dreamtime
Explore Indigenous heritage at Mossman Gorge (part of the southern Daintree) on a Nagdiku Dreamtime Walk, guided by a member of the local Kuku Yalanji tribe. Leave time afterwards for a dip in the river.
Mossman Gorge Centre; 212r Mossman Gorge Road
Meet the locals
Get up close with native fauna like wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, cassowaries, and crocs at impressive animal sanctuary, Wildlife Habitat.
Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas; (07) 4099 3235
Head to market
Browse local arts and crafts at the Sunday morning markets on Wharf Street before strolling up nearby Flagstaff Hill to enjoy the views down Four Mile Beach.