Gorging from the platter of Port Douglas, by Mike Yardley.
Driving north from Cairns to Port Douglas, the catchphrase “where the rainforest meets the reef” is a calling card that lustily lives up to its billing. As I marvelled over the jungle-clad mountains tumbling down to the gleaming azure sea, I called into another tourism honeypot, en-route to Port Douglas. Palm Cove is a heart-stealer, a little princess, a languid bolt-hole by the Coral Sea where centuries old “paperbark” Melaleuca trees flank the casual esplanade. Interspersed with waving palms, the shaded village atmos of Palm Cove is reminiscent of some of Hawaii’s far-flung coastal settlements, where inviting eateries and cafes and a lazy-day tempo command proceedings. Tootling up the Captain Cook Highway, the turn-off to swanky Port Douglas soon beckoned. To the locals, they simply call it “Port,” a fashionable destination for visitors seeking respite from cooler climes for decades – including myself! Fortunes have waxed and waned here.
Gone are the high-stakes days when dodgy Christopher Skase unveiled his flashy five-star Sheraton Mirage Resort in the head rush of the 80s’, transforming the small fishing village into a tropical playground for the rich and famous. Today, Port Douglas is like a stroppy starlet that has grown-up into a more mature and grounded luminary. She feels relaxed, upmarket and utterly comfortable in its own skin. I loved taking long walks along the divine crescent-shaped sweep of Four Mile Beach, fringed with coconut palms and decked in soft golden sands. You might get lucky and spot dolphins, turtles and dugongs on your morning walkies.
Humble holidaymakers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, famously strolled this beach back in 1996. Charles Kingsford-Smith landed his plane here in 1932, but rest assured, today it’s a sandy arc of sweet serenity, from sunrise to sunset. I hiked along the Flagstaff Hill Walking Trail which really puts this beautiful patch of north Queensland into perspective. From the not-very-high summit there are views across the Coral Sea to the Low Isles and out to the Daintree Rainforest. Opened three years ago, the 1.5-kilometre trail begins at the northern end of Four Mile Beach, where a set of stairs climbs up to Trinity Bay Lookout. The trail then meanders down to palm-fringed Rex Smeal Park on the headland. It’s a great head-clearer, to start the day.
Port Douglas is synonymous with great food and I highly recommend joining a new concept food tour, under the command of Kiwi-born Peter Davidson, who is a fully-trained chef. His small group half-day tour is a cracker, loaded with flavourful insights as it introduces you to the variety of food producers and enterprising farmers powering the neighbouring countryside. Over the course of several hours, we called into a clutch of farms, sampling and collecting produce ahead of our three-course lunch. Our first stop on the trail was Scomazzon Farm, where four generations of Scomazzons have provided locals with the best quality, locally sourced produce available. If they don’t grow it, they will try to find it within Far North Queensland. Their tasty red papaya is a signature treat. In addition to their farm shop, you’ll find their family at the local Mossman market, every Saturday under those glorious rain trees.
The Puglisis’ are another great farming family. Sugarcane has been their mainstay for over 100 years, but in more recent years they were one of the pioneers of cocoa production at their Whyanbeel Valley Estate. Peter opened our eyes to the world’s newest cocoa growing region, with a hive of cocoa plantations sprouting in North Queensland, particularly around Mossman. Many operate under the Daintree Estates label, which was established a decade ago by a group of passionate cocoa growers, bringing together skills of farming, processing, chocolate making and marketing. After several attempts to commercialise cocoa growing and Australian chocolate production, Daintree Estates was the first company to succeed. They are one of a small handful of Australian Plantation to Plate cocoa producers, meaning they have total control over every stage of processing, from bean to bar, and it shows in the final taste of the chocolate. Savour their single origin chocolate! Another boutique operator is the North Queensland Chocolate Company.
Their dark chocolate (no dairy, no soy) is incredible. You’ll find it on sale at the Port Douglas Market. We also called into the Daintree Saltwater Barramundi Farm where we collected our fish, the star ingredient of our tropical lunch, and enjoyed a tour of the farm. They sustainably grow the prized fish from their network of ponds, supplying restaurants and merchants all over Australia. The farm sources the finest salt water from the Daintree River to fill their large earthen ponds, replicating the natural conditions favoured by the Barramundi. Letting the fish mature naturally over a 12–18 month period, you can absolutely taste the quality.
We then travelled to the Shannonvale Winery for a tropical fruit wine tasting, as Peter prepared our lunch with the ingredients collected during the tour. Tony and Trudy Woodall own the winery where they’ve been creating award-winning tropical fruit wine as a retirement project for the past 18 years. We sipped and swilled our way through a plethora of flavours, including Mango, Kaffir Lime, Jaboticaba, Passion Fruit, Lychee and Black Sapote. They are an acquired taste – although the dry mango wine is not dissimilar to a Chardonnay. Lunch soon arrived, with our entrée of Barramundi Numus – super fresh raw Barramundi marinated in coconut, lime and chilli. Numus is an Australian term, thought to have originated from a similar Japanese dish called namasu – a pickled fish dish which makes the perfect appetiser. Our main was Barbecued Barramundi with Garden Salad, a classic Queensland dish. Dessert was a delight, Wattle Seed gelato in a lake of chocolate fortified wine, from the Shannonvale Winery. How’s that for Port on a Plate!
As an aside, the gelato was magnificent, sourced from the Daintree Ice Cream Company, which is well worth a stop on Cape Tribulation Road, if you’re heading further north. Peter shared a plethora of tips and recommendations with us, throughout the tour, including other great fish to try, like Mangrove Jack and Red Emperor. He’s lived in North Queensland for 25 years, with fishing remaining an abiding passion. Prior to establishing the food tour, Peter was running ocean kayak tours close to Cape Tribulation, but the saltwater crocodiles essentially destroyed his business, hounding him out of “their” waters, becoming increasingly aggressive. You could not wish for a more insightful, convivial guide to introduce you to the bounty of goodies, wrapped around Port Douglas, guaranteed to please all bellies. www.portonaplate.com.au
As recommended by Peter, I checked out Grant Street Kitchen in the heart of Port Douglas. This fiendishly popular bakery is fawned over for its delicious selection of house baked bread, pastries and handmade pies. The must-try is the Prawn and Coral Trout pie, floating in a pastry pond of white sauce, fresh herbs, peas and dill. Boom! For foodies, all roads lead to Macrossan Street, an epicurean artery of great temptations. I checked out Nautilus, a paradise within a paradise, gracefully nestled within an open-air rainforest oasis and artfully lit. As you enter along a hidden pathway from Macrossan Street, I felt like I was stepping into a secret tropical garden. Established for 65 years, this is a stirring location to indulge in the flavours of the tropics, where the splendid ambience is matched by highly attentive service and elegant dining. Beneath the swaying palms, the restaurant’s guest list is impressive.
The likes of Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Bill and Hillary Clinton, David Bowie, Gough Whitlam and Paul Hogan have all dined here, revving up Nautilus’ iconic status. Nautilus spills with historic stories, but when the Clintons’ dined here unannounced, the secret service disconnected the restaurant’s telephone, sealed off the venue and the First Couple dined alongside the diners who had arrived earlier in the evening – including a wedding party. Bill signed their wedding certificate while the bride gave her bouquet to Hillary, as it was their wedding anniversary. The restaurant specialises in Modern Australian Cuisine with Asian and European influences, whether you wish to surrender to the degustation experience or order off the a la carte menu. In deference to its time-honoured credentials, I ordered up a retro colada, a gorgeous fusion of coconut and cinnamon, while for my main, I plumped for the signature dish, Nautilus Whole Coral Trout, dusted and crispy fried with green paw paw, Thai caramel and chilli jam. Sublime.
Another magnificent Macrossan Street institution is Zinc, headed up by two Kiwis, Chris Bower and Adam Hail. Open all day, this versatile venue operates as a welcoming restaurant, cafe and lounge bar, whether you’re after coffee and cake or a culinary feast. Locally sourced seafood and meat is their trademark, although Neptune lured me to plunge into the ocean, opting for the Seafood Linguine. This beautifully executed dish comprised local tiger prawns, baby squid, reef fish, cherry tomatoes, garlic and chili. Spoil yourself at Zinc.
If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, the Port Douglas Markets are well worth a mosey. You can buy juicy tropical fruit, handcrafted wooden flutes from a man with a king parrot on his shoulder, and gorgeous locally made jewellery. While there be sure to take a peek inside St Mary’s By the Sea, a photogenic white timber church built in 1911. Across the way, the Court House Hotel balcony is a terrific spot for sundowners. I also called into Wildlife Habitat, a tranquil, interactive sanctuary in Port Douglas. Fancy hand-feeding wallabies, kangaroos or a Southern Cassowary? How about watching a crocodile feeding presentation or having your photo taken with a Koala? This award-winning and advanced eco-certified wildlife sanctuary allow guests to engage with its wondrous residents in their recreated natural environments. Laid out in five spacious environments, there’s the Wetlands, Rainforest, Savannah, Nocturnal and Woodlands.
The Rainforest section is magnificently created, where you can reach the top of the canopy for a bird’s eye view across the sanctuary. In what is destined to be a traffic-stopper, I got a sneak peek at Wildlife Habitat’s next big attraction. Dive into the aquatic territory of the mighty Estuarine Crocodile at the CrocArena. Set to open in August, this off-the-scale experience is the only one of its kind in Queensland and allows guests to swim eye-to-teeth with these monstrous apex predators and live to tell the tale!
From the unique underwater view of the croc pit, you’ll have the opportunity to watch feeding time. The Swim with The Salties experience will get you right up-close with sheer power and size of these giant reptiles, where all that separates you from these beasts is a see-through Perspex screen. As swimmers come eye level with the croc’s sharp teeth, their survival instincts and adrenaline are sure to kick in! www.wildlifehabitat.com.au
Where to stay? You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a tropical island resort at Peppers Beach Club. This lush and leafy resort combines swish accommodation, luxury facilities, outstanding service and easy access to the region’s highlights. Set amongst calming water features and lush gardens brimming with tropical flowers and palms, the resort features beautifully appointed spa suites, some complete with private swim-up pool decks, creating a relaxed and inviting atmosphere. The centrepiece is the salivating lagoon pool and beach, exquisitely designed and super-sized.
Located just a short walk from Four Mile Beach, fuel up and wind down at the hotel’s on-site Koko Poolside Kitchen & Bar. There is daily breakfast on offer, while all day dining is served either poolside on the beach, on the cafe terrace or in the restaurant. Celebrating local and seasonal produce, the menu gives familiar favourites a bright twist with flavours and spices inspired by Southeast Asia. Their signature cocktails are superbly thirst-quenching. www.peppers.com.au
Port Douglas is proudly cradled by two World Heritage Listed sites; the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. A one million year old garden and the world’s largest pool. Escape the everyday. Escape to Tropical North Queensland. For timely tips and trip inspiration, start your exploration on the Sunshine State’s official visitor website. www.queensland.com
I travelled to Australia with Cover-More Travel Insurance, which has embraced the Covid age with added benefits and protections, over and above the typical travel cover, for the likes of medical treatment. Their single-trip policy covers you if get COVID-19 or you’re placed into quarantine due to contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you cannot travel. You are covered for $250 per night if the person you were planning on staying with gets COVID-19 or they are placed into quarantine. You are also covered for cancellation or new accommodation expenses if your pre-paid accommodation is shut down for cleaning and for cancellation costs if your prepaid holiday activities are closed down. When you’re booking a trip to Australia, lock in travel insurance you can trust. https://www.covermore.co.nz