Port Douglas is a gateway to both rainforest and reef on Queensland’s Far North Coast – making it, as Jo McKay discovers, an irresistible tropical getaway.
Since its establishment in the late 1870s, Port Douglas has had many incarnations: gold-rush port, sugar-export hub, quiet fishing village. It was in the late 1970s that tourism developers began to realise the significant potential of this long strip of beach, lush green mountains and expanse of blue ocean. Yes, Mother Nature has been kind to this region, placing two natural wonders on its doorstep: the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree rainforest. When both gained World Heritage status in the ’80s, Port’s status as a must-visit destination was confirmed. Today, this seaside town is a hive of cool eateries and revamped resorts, with myriad excursions running daily – and that stunning backdrop. Here are 13 ways to get the most out of your visit.
Discover an underwater wonderland
“Paradise” might seem an overstatement but the ecosystem of coral, plant and marine life on the Great Barrier Reef is unsurpassed anywhere on earth – and it is beautiful. Quicksilver Cruises – which has been running reef exploration tours for more than 35 years – offers excellent daylong excursions to the outer reef, near the edge of the continental shelf, about 70 kilometres north-east of the Port Douglas township. After the 90-minute cruise to the mooring pontoon, you can explore the reef at leisure. Expect to see countless species of fish, abundant staghorn and boulder coral, crustaceans, starfish, sea turtles and more – basically, the entire cast of Finding Nemo (thankfully, minus the big sharks). For confident swimmers, marine-biologist-guided snorkelling tours are an interactive way to learn about the reef’s biodiversity. Stingers (jellyfish) are rare – they’re most common near the coastline – but it’s worth hiring the Lycra suit, just in case. If swimming isn’t your strong point, try a semi-submersible tour or “ocean walking” (with an air-filled helmet). The cruise includes fish-feeding demonstrations, a postbox (so postcards arrive postmarked from the reef) and a smorgasbord lunch.
The Reef Marina, 22 Wharf Street, Port Douglas
Experience Indigenous culture
Combining regionally inspired food with Indigenous storytelling, Flames of the Forest’s Aboriginal Cultural Experience is a unique evening out. The arrival is pure theatre: there’s a wall of fire as you disembark from the shuttle (you can’t drive to Flames; they collect you from your hotel) and a candle- and fairy-light-illuminated pathway though bushland. Apéritifs and canapés precede a convivial banquet-style dinner; throughout, two local Kuku Yalanji brothers chat about Aboriginal heritage, charm with didgeridoo demos, dispel myths about their culture and, at the end of the night, share a Dreamtime story. Highly recommended.
See the reef from above
The Great Barrier Reef is not a single mass but rather some 2900 individual reefs extending 2300 kilometres. It’s difficult to grasp the sheer size of it while on (or in) the water. A thrilling 10-minute helicopter joyride from the Quicksilver Cruises pontoon takes care of that. Soaring above the reef, you’ll not only better understand the magnitude of this natural wonder, you’ll also have the chance to see reef sharks, dolphins, sea turtles and, possibly, whales.
Immerse yourself in ancient rainforest
World Heritage listed since 1988, the Daintree rainforest is thought to be between 110 and 180 million years old (that’s at least 50 million years older than the Amazon). Some plant species here even coexisted with dinosaurs. One of the most unusual and exhilarating ways to experience its biodiversity is with Jungle Surfing, on a 357-metre zip-line through the forest, led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides. While up in the canopy (the highest point is 19.5 metres off the ground), they’ll tell you about milky pines, Bennett’s tree kangaroos, spurwood mahogany, Hope’s Cycads, cassowaries, primitive flowering plants, umbrella palms and more – in between whooshing from tree to tree.
The perfect antidote to all the hectic reef and rainforest exploration? A sunset sail, naturally. Simply board the 62-foot catamaran Aquarius then recline on the upper deck for 90 minutes of bliss. Sample canapés, sip a glass of something chilled (you can bring your own alcohol), listen to the ocean lap against the hull and take in the coastline views in the waning light of day. For bookings and enquiries go to tropicaljourneys.com
Shop 44, The Reef Marina, 44 Wharf Street, Port Douglas
Mix with the locals at the marina
After an arduous twilight sail, kick back at the marina, where two new hotspots are making waves. Barbados is a stylish cocktail bar, complete with driftwood tables, day beds and chic blue-and-white striped umbrellas. The sashimi platter is perfect for sharing; the signature Caribbean mojito you should keep for yourself. Nearby, Hemingway’s Brewery is a fun place to settle in for the night. Opening last June, this hip, well-run brewery/eatery has an easygoing vibe. The menu tempts with moreish fare such as wood-fired pizza, juicy burgers and slow-cooked brisket and ribs. The beers are sensational, too.
Barbados, The Reef Marina, 44 Wharf Street, Port Douglas
Hemingway’s Brewery, The Reef Marina, 44 Wharf Street, Port Douglas
Get closer to the animals
Crocodiles, cassowaries, pademelons, myriad bird species… This region is teeming with wildlife. But many of these creatures are either notoriously shy or, frankly, a bit frightening face to face in the wild. Enter Wildlife Habitat. Here, you can handfeed wallabies and kangaroos, cuddle koalas and stroke an infant crocodile’s skin (surprisingly soft), as well as observe crocodile- and cassowary-feeding demonstrations. The sanctuary operates breeding programs for threatened species (it has the only captive breeding pair of black-necked stork, or jabiru, in the world) and also rehabilitates animals that have been hurt in the wild. In case you don’t see it all in one visit, free re-entry is included in the ticket.
Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas
Croc-spot in the wild
No-one wants (or should try) to encounter a crocodile up close (at Wildlife Habitat – see No. 7 – they tape the baby croc’s jaw before you stroke its skin) but it’s another thing to observe them from the safety of a boat. On the Daintree River, Crocodile Express runs surprisingly relaxing croc-spotting cruises. As the vessel motors gently upstream, you can expect to see at least one youngish reptile (about 30 centimetres long) and one bigger, older croc. If you’re lucky, that’ll be 4.5-metre Scarface, the dominant male in the region. Another laid-back wildlife-spotting opportunity comes courtesy of On the Inlet, an attractive place for a late lunch, thanks to delightful views over Dickson Inlet. Come 5pm, it’s time to meet George, the 250-kilogram, two-metre groper who has been coming to Port for a daily feed for almost 20 years. Stake out your viewing spot at the bar early – George is very popular.
Crocodile Express, 5 Stewart Street, Daintree
On the Inlet, 3 Inlet Street, Port Douglas
Dine al fresco
No resort town is complete without great restaurants and Port Douglas has plenty to offer. Upscale establishments include one-hatted Bistro H by Harrisons, where the whole market fish for two is a must-have (though the Wagyu rump and blade are also exceptionally good). Other notables include 2 Fish, with tasty barramundi and bug dishes, plus a surprising standout starter of tiger prawn bruschetta; and Sassi Cucina e Bar, a smart Italian eatery with a mouth-watering menu that includes an impressive zuppa di pesce (fish soup) and a pleasing wine list. All offer outdoor dining; after all, this is an alfresco town.
Bistro H by Harrisons, 22 Wharf Street, Port Douglas
2 Fish, Shop 11, Coconut Grove Complex, 56 Macrossan Street, Port Douglas
Sassi Cucina e Bar, Corner of Macrossan and Wharf streets, Port Douglas
Image: Sassi Cucina e Bar
Walk at sunrise
There’s nothing as invigorating as watching the sun come up over an aquamarine ocean. Postcard-perfect and easily accessible, Four Mile Beach curves from the township of Port Douglas. Active types might consider jogging like the locals for whom this beach is a running track. Expect to greet and be greeted; the residents are a friendly lot, even before dawn. A nod of hello or a murmured “good morning” is the perfect way to blend in.
Explore Mossman Gorge
Part of the Daintree National Park, Mossman Gorge is renowned for its clean river, peaceful swimming holes and lush rainforest. But before you hike its trails, learn a little about the landscape. From the Mossman Gorge Centre, the Kuku Yalanji people, whose history dates back some 50,000 years, run Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks, covering their longstanding connection with the rainforest. Each guide shares something different, from medicine and healing to bush food and stories of cultural significance – and it’s a privilege to hear first hand from the traditional owners of this land.
212r Mossman Gorge Road, Mossman
Admire the views
The Great Barrier Reef Drive is a spectacular 140-kilometre stretch of road extending from Cairns to Cape Tribulation. Rising on one side are mountains, dense with greenery, while on the other, the Coral Sea beckons. This is the main route to Port from Cairns so leave time for a pit stop at Rex Lookout, about 24 kilometres south on Captain Cook Highway, to gaze over the shimmering waters of Trinity Bay.
Hit the green
This area is a golfing utopia. Mirage Country Club (part of the Sheraton complex) is manicured and inviting, while Palmer Sea Reef has the rare distinction of being a tropical links course – perhaps the only one of its kind in the world. It’s rightly lauded as the best course in the region. Both Mirage and Sea Reef offer unexpected croc-watching opportunities while playing – but note the warning on the card: do not approach the reptiles.
Mirage Country Club, Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas
Palmer Sea Reef, Old Port Road, Port Douglas