Port Douglas will amaze, inspire and leave you longing for more. Rainforest, reef, beach and seafood to die for are among the many charms to discover
Port Douglas is a hidden jewel at the top end of Australia. Nestled between the exotic rainforest and the coral sea, it has an understated charm and a good selection of accommodation to suit all budgets. Add to this an enviable climate - it gets up to an average of 87 degrees in January - and 'Port Dougie', as it's affectionately known, is a perfect place to unwind.
It has changed dramatically since it was founded in 1877 after the discovery of gold in a nearby river. A period of decline in the last century - after a cyclone occurred - was reversed in the 1980s, when luxury resorts such as the Sheraton Mirage were built. The architect of this redevelopment was property tycoon Christopher Skase, whose legacy can still be witnessed by the amount of palm trees in the town. Apparently, some 1500 were imported at the cost of AUS $1500 each.
Getting around is easy and revolves around a few major roads. The heart of the town focuses on Macrossan Street. A typical walking tour will start at the Courthouse Hotel, Port Douglas's oldest pub, and then on to art galleries, restaurants/bars, ice cream parlours and boutique-style shops, where celebrities like Bill Clinton have been known to be spotted. Double back on yourself and find Wharf Street, then climb up the hill to gawp at the expensive Port Douglas addresses and finally reach the Lookout Point. This has perhaps the best views of Port Douglas with the mountains in the far distance.
If you're around on Sunday, try the market in Anzac Park selling all kinds of original items - all handmade by the stallholders. Be there early and when the shopping's over, sit back and relax with an ice cold mango juice, whilst listening to the buskers playing old blues songs. An added option if you don't fancy walking is to consider hiring a bike. Port Douglas Bike Hire (www.portdouglasbikehire.com.au) do a good selection of adult and family bikes from AUS$19 a day. A great bike ride is along Four Mile Beach - the hard sand is surprisingly easy to ride on.
Most people stay in Port Douglas for about five days which is a good chance to enjoy some spectacular day tours. The Great Barrier Reef needs little introduction. Big boys such as Quicksilver operate from here as well as several smaller enterprises. We booked our cruise with Calypso, which has two catamarans, for AUS$185 an adult, which includes diving at three locations, a tropical buffet lunch and snorkelling equipment. It was recommended because the boats are small enough to have a personal diving experience and get to know the experienced crew. For another 50 bucks you can even take an introductory scuba dive with an instructor. If you've never dived before and don't fancy doing a PADI course this is well worth it. However, the water is so clear it's just as easy to snorkel. Either way, wonderful sights await like the brightly coloured 'clown' fish - the coral simply teams with life. To make a reservation, either book online (for a 10% discount) at www.calypsoreefcruises.com, or visit their shop at the Marina Mirage. Although with so many companies competing for your money it's worth shopping around to check out the local deals.
Likewise most travellers will want to take in a trip of the rainforest or even further afield. You can either hire a car from companies like Avis (www.avis.com.au/car-rental/html/Landing/cairns-rental.html) or let someone else do the driving and take a guided tour. We booked ours with Tony's Tropical Tours (www.tropicaltours.com.au), taking in the Mossman Gorge, the Daintree rainforest and Cape Tribulation with a stop for a barbecue lunch.
With only six of us in a luxury landcruiser, it felt small enough to be comfortable. Travelling past the fields of sugar cane it was a sobering thought that in the 'wet season' many of these roads would be impassable. A dip into crystal-clear waters of the gorge proved to a little icy for our liking, but the real highlight was the Daintree River Cruise and an opportunity for crocodile spotting. A foray into the depths of the rainforest uncovered lurking predators, although our resident Ray Mears imparted the kind of tips which dinner parties are made of.
If you don't fancy taking a tour to see the rainforest, there is always the short cut or the Rainforest habitat (www.rainforesthabitat.com.au) on the outside of town. It's set over eight acres and has three different zones: wetlands, rainforest and the grasslands. It's a favourite with the children where they can take part in activities such as feeding wallabies and holding a koala. Make sure you get there for 'breakfast with the birds', where you can enjoy a sumptuous array of exotic fruit and hot/cold buffets then marvel as the exotic birds come close to the table.
If your exhausted from all your day trips and shopping, Four Mile Beach is the perfect tonic. Now an idyllic beach it was formerly surrounded by mangrove swamps where crocodiles roamed. A short walk from town, it's easy to lose yourself walking barefoot along the sea edge. Cut through using one of the paths at the southern end, which tends to be quieter, and take a long walk (its actually two and a half miles) towards the far end where it is possible to hire windsurfers, kayaks etc from Port Douglas Watersports (www.tourismportdouglas.com.au/Port-Douglas-Watersports.710.0.html).
Even though the sea feels like a warm bath, remember how strong the sun can be here. Thirty minutes of 'not quite believing I am here' can give way to agonising sunburn. Incidentally, if you are planning to go swimming in the sea the best time to visit is from May - October - as outside this time the beach has specially designated nets to swim in - due to the box jellyfish.
Where to eat
You're spoilt for choice in places to eat. There should be something in Macrossan Street - firm favourites are places like the Iron Bar - home of 'cane toad racing', Mango Jam or Java Blue Cafe. Wharf Street has the Salsa Bar - offering consistently good mid range meals. Try the garlic yabbies with flakes of parmesan - delicious! A little bit more exclusive is the Inlet restaurant at the Marina Mirage (www.portdouglasseafood.com/home.8.0.html). One of several elegant restaurants, it's a lovely setting for a romantic dinner to watch the boats glide in as the sun sets on the mountains. They even have a retractable canopy to dine under the stars! We went there twice - ordering the gourmet seafood platter featuring mud crabs, yabbies, baby octopus and mussels. The quality is reflected in the prices - but with a location such as this it's hard to argue.
Where to stay
There is a huge range of accommodation on offer ranging from the luxury 5-star hotels down to the budget offerings. There are also a number of private homes available for rent all year round. We stayed in Port Douglas Coral Apartments - which worked at around AUS$117 a night. Quite good value and the location was second to none, being a short walk to the beach. The rooms were spacious and well equipped to have everything to hand. The pool was nicely landscaped with decking. A barbecue area was also provided - which was useful as we used to take a trip to Seamarkets (corner of Grant Street and Warner Street) and buy prawns fresh from the trawler. It's still worth marvelling at the opulence of hotels like the Sheraton Mirage. It boasts a fabulous swimming pool and golf course to match. Beware though when going to sleep at night to close the windows and doors and put the air conditioning on. If you don't the lovable gecko will become your new best friend!