I first visited Port Douglas – a one-hour drive or bus ride north of Cairns – around a quarter of a century ago, when a flashy multi-millionaire called Christopher Skase put the sleepy little town on the map by building a mega-resort he called Mirage Port Douglas.
While the Mirage’s charms have faded somewhat (as did Skase’s reputation) Port Douglas has boomed and the main drag – Macrossan Street – is alive with restaurants, bars and trendy boutiques.
Today, the late Mr Skase is remembered at Skase’s Bar (below), a waterfront drinking hole at the Meridien Marina – where dozens of fast motor yachts, cruisers and dive boats take tourists out on day trips to the Great Barrier Reef.
The Reef, of course, is the major local attraction, along with the Daintree Rain Forest, Cape Tribulation and the Atherton Tablelands.
Neighbouring towns including Kuranda and Mossman, are also hugely popular day-trip destinations, but Port Douglas is so self-contained, with just about everything within walking distance, that it is easy to spend a week or more here without setting foot in a car.
Port Douglas has a permanent tropical holiday vibe – no wonder the locals appear so self-satisfied.
We stayed at the delightful Shantara resort (below), an adults-only oasis just a five-minute walk from all the action, but quiet and comfortable with all apartments and suites overlooking courtyard swimming pools.
With tropical rainforests and some of the most beautiful dive sites in the world right on your doorstep, you also have the dramatic Four Mile Beach, unspoiled by high-rise developments, just 150 metres away.
And while Tropical North Queensland is probably better known for blue seas, scuba diving, sand and sunshine than for its cuisine, the region also produces a wide range of gourmet goodies; from coffee and cheeses to tropical fruits and artisan rums.
Restaurants including Harrison’s, bel cibo and 2 Fish in Port Douglas produce top-notch dishes featuring local ingredients while the Atherton Tablelands grows a plethora of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and nuts. No wonder the local producers’ group calls itself Taste Paradise.
It was at Salsa Bar & Grill, a huge favourite with the locals, that former US President Bill Clinton was dining when he was advised of the September 11 attacks. Our meal was thankfully not so dramatic.
Harrison’s (right is the local restaurant du jour with award-winning chef Spencer Patrick, one-time holder of a Michelin star, cooking up some terrific and innovative European-influenced cuisine in a smart but relaxed atmosphere.
Other favourites include Bucci, Bazaar at the QT Resort and Seabean Cafe.
Alternatively, watch the passing parade from the deck of Zinc, a restaurant, bar and cafe that serves breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners and snacks throughout the day. Situated on the Port’s main intersection, it’s a lively, casual spot that’s an ideal meeting place.
2 Fish, as the name would indicate, specialises in seafood, while we loved Italian-accented bel cibo, where you dine on a deck overlooking the main street. The lunch specials here offer great value, while the pizzas are thin and authentic and there is a good wine list. There’s also the venerable Nautilus, which was the first restaurant in town when it opened back in 1955.
The service in these parts is generally of a laid-back style, and often from backpackers – nothing happens too quickly – and there are no traffic lights or parking meters. The Sunday Markets in Anzac Park (left), with views of the mountain ranges and the Coral Sea, are a lively affair with a great selection of foods and artisan products.
Port Douglas is a rare beast that is both indulgent and invigorating - just match your pace to that of the locals.
Virgin Blue and Qantas both fly from Sydney to Cairns. Exemplar provides coach and minibus transfers from Cairns to Port Douglas.
Shantara Port Douglas Resort and Spa: www.shantara.com.au.
For more details see: www.tpdd.com.au.