A little bit Hamptons, a little bit Florida Keys but this tropical haven remains undeniably Australian. We've found the best things to do in Port Douglas this summer.
Nowhere blends a cruisy thongs-and- T-shirt lifestyle with upscale elegance quite like Port Douglas (Diju). One minute you’re wandering the Sunday markets sipping a coconut, the next it’s Margaritas and tapas on a breezy verandah as the sun sets over the marina. The Tropical North Queensland gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, this part of the country is like an Aussie wildlife picture book come to life: from the slyeyed crocodiles of the Daintree River and horn-headed cassowaries that dart around Cape Tribulation to the ever-changing underwater kaleidoscope of marine life on the reef. Here’s how to make the most of your northern escape.
By the end of 2021, Australia’s pioneers of barefoot, light-on-the-land luxury, James and Hayley Baillie of Baillie Lodges, will complete the transformation of Silky Oaks Lodge. And like all their other properties around Australia – including Longitude 131° at Uluru and Capella Lodge on Lord Howe Island – it promises to take luxury to another level. A $15-million renovation of the eco-lodge, just 25 minutes drive from Port Douglas, has resulted in 40 treehouse-style suites – some large enough for groups or families – with Mossman River and rainforest backdrops, and artwork from the Yalanji Arts Centre and digital artist Catherine Nelson. Guests will have access to exclusive Daintree and Great Barrier Reef tours with premium operators and the Treehouse Restaurant, headed by chef Mark Godbeer, is set to be a favourite with locals, too.
Places to stay
The eco-resort at Thala Beach Nature Reserve sits on its own private headland just outside of town and is ideal for those who want to be away from the action – from its Sandpiper Suite you can see distant islands in the Coral Sea. The high-end self-contained apartments at Mandalay Port Douglas are a smart alternative for families looking to mix up restaurant trips with the occasional eggs-ontoast early night in. The clincher? It’s just steps from the beach. Kick back on the sun lounges around the pool at five bedroom The Bahama House Port Douglas, which has its own secret path to the golden sands of Four Mile Beach. If photo-ready interiors are your weakness, the palm-print walls and tropical-kitsch stylings of Nomad, a one-bedroom apartment in the centre of town, should be top of your list.
Oaks Kitchen & Garden is well worth the short drive to nearby Oak Beach – more so since it follows the ocean road. Chef Ben Wallace prepares a fragrant South-East Asian feast in an open-air to enjoy elegant mod-Oz fare that heroes local seafood, while at laid-back Grant Street Kitchen lunch is sorted with coral trout and prawn pies, gourmet rolls and fresh sushi bowls.
Hi Tide By The Beach café is a colourful hideaway on the Four Mile Beach side of town. Its herb-crowned eggs benny is one of the greatest anywhere and all dishes are generously garnished with herbs or fresh fruit (grab a seat in the cool courtyard out the back). The motto at hole-in-the-wall Sparrow is “coffee on the fly” so if you’re racing to get caffeinated before a reef tour or rainforest adventure, they’ll have a cup of Allpress into your hand pronto.
Places to drink
The Crystalbrook Marina on the western side of Port Douglas has two of the premier spots to sink a sundowner. At lively Hemingway’s Brewery, a glass of the tropical Sunny Daze pale ale goes down a treat with a burger. A few doors down, Barbados sits at the end of a timber boardwalk with broad views across the Coral Sea to the Daintree. Claim a lounge under the blue-and-white umbrellas and request a cocktail with a little Hawaiian flair – the signature rum-based Weniki Tiki scattered with toasted coconut.
“You often see more wildlife on the river than you do anywhere else because anything from inside the forest that wants to warm up will head to the riverbank,” says James Boettcher from FNQ Nature Tours. Ring Boettcher and ask him to curate a bespoke tour for you. It might begin with a sunrise cruise down the Daintree River on a near-silent solar-powered electric vessel; keep watch for tree snakes, crocodiles and fruit bats. As part of a customised tour, you could also be taken on a drive to Cape Tribulation for a guided wander along the Jindalba boardwalk – a good place for spotting cassowaries – before lunch at Whet Restaurant and a cooling dip in one of the nearby creeks or waterholes (don’t worry, they’re croc-free). “Nothing gives you a sense of the rainforest like lying back in a creek on a warm day, surrounded by Ulysses butterflies, ferns and palm trees,” says Boettcher. If you’re up for more exploring, he can access parts of the wilderness where you’re unlikely to meet any other travellers. And it wouldn’t be a day in the Daintree without an ice-cream from the Daintree Ice Cream Company; try a scoop or two from the seasonal selection, which could include soursop, mango or jackfruit, depending on the day.
If you’re a seasoned scuba diver or looking to learn, Blue Dive Port Douglas offers guided dive charters to the outer reefs with exclusive access to sites like Barracuda Bommie and Turtle Bay. For a low-key but well-appointed look at the natural wonder, which suits all ages and abilities, hop aboard the reef and sunset cruise with Indigo Port Douglas. The private luxury sailing yacht departs from Port Douglas at midday and anchors for lunch at the Low Isles, a pair of uninhabited coral cays 15 kilometres from the mainland. Spend the afternoon snorkelling the lagoon and then sail back as the sun sinks.
Juan Walker, a Kuku Yalanji man and owner of Walkabout Cultural Adventures, shares personal stories of growing up on Country during his immersive rainforest tours. Trips are limited to no more than 11 people and itineraries change depending on the weather and seasons but might include walks in the bush and on the beach, mud crabbing, spearfishing and tasting native ginger and quandongs.
Queenslanders love their golf and there are plenty of courses to tee off within a nine iron’s swing of Port Douglas. The Mirage Country Club at the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort was designed by five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson and has views across the greens to the Daintree Ranges. The Palmer Sea Reef course is considered one of Australia’s best but you may have to pause play as the odd croc ambles across the fairway.