Port Douglas in Far North Queensland has grown from a tiny one pub town into one of Australia’s most renowned beach retreats.
The resort town punches well above its weight in terms of world-class restaurants, luxury accommodation and ritzy retail. However, it’s all done with a complete lack of pretension and an endearingly cheeky charm.
‘Port’ (as it’s known to the locals) is a microcosm of culture, recreation and extraordinary natural beauty. Hemmed in by two of the world’s most incredible natural landscapes — the Queensland Wet Tropics rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef — Port Douglas is the perfect base to explore everything the region has to offer. The spectacular drive to town from Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway is just the beginning.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Port Douglas.
1. Soak up the beauty of Four Mile Beach
Everything in and around Port is geared towards taking advantage of the coastal landscape, lifestyle and laidback ambience for which this destination is so rightly famous. Four Mile Beach is, well, four miles of picture-perfect, palm-fringed shoreline, that offers safe swimming conditions (stinger nets in season). Stake your claim on a patch of silken sand, and settle in for some serious R&R.
2. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
Two of Australia’s most famous natural landscapes, both UNESCO World Heritage listed, sit side by side on the town’s doorstep. Firstly, Port is the departure point for cruises to the most accessible parts of the outer Great Barrier Reef. There are a host of cruises out to Low Isles and the outer reef, which leave from the Marina several times a day. Quicksilver’s day trip out to Agincourt Reef is a standout.
3. Explore the Daintree Rainforest
Secondly, a visit to Port is an opportunity to lose yourself (figuratively speaking) in the sublime beauty of the Daintree National Park — part of the Queensland Wet Tropics, which stretch all the way from Townsville up to Cooktown and encompass rugged mountains and lush rainforest. A day tour to the Daintree that takes in Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation and the 4WD Bloomfield Track is a must-do.
4. Get arty
With such an inspirational setting, it’s not surprising that Port Douglas has a strong creative undertow. Pay a visit to the Perrin Clark Gallery in Macrossan Street to admire the stunning fine art photography on display. The gallery features exquisite images of the local landscape and beyond, and offers photography tours and lessons.
The Clink Theatre has been part of Port’s cultural scene for many years, and while it might look like Grandma’s cottage on the outside, it makes magic inside. The theatre offers an extensive programme of music and theatre productions.
If you are visiting Port Douglas between May and December, book tickets to a production at the Karnak Playhouse — an innovative performance space and cafe/bar tucked away in the Daintree National Park.
5. Immerse yourself in Indigenous culture
With landscapes as ancient and rich in natural resources as the rainforest and reef, it makes sense that North Queensland should have a particularly vibrant Indigenous heritage. The Ngarru Indigenous Fine Art Gallery on Macrossan Street showcases the work of Aboriginal artists in a contemporary space. You can connect further with local culture on the popular Ngadiku Daintree Dreaming Day Tour.
6. Step back in time at the Court House Museum
If you care to do a little figurative digging, you’ll uncover plenty of interesting stories about Port’s past. The discovery of gold at the Palmer River in 1873 led to its establishment as a sea port, and once the town finally got a permanent name (after a few false starts!), a couple of banks and a courthouse, it never looked back. Take a stroll down to that original courthouse, which is now the excellent Court House Museum. It’s operated by the Douglas Shire Historical Society, and features wonderful exhibitions detailing the region’s evolution.
7. Ride the rails on the Bally Hooley Railway
There are plenty of other remnants of history to be found around town. The heritage-listed Port Douglas Wharf was built in 1904. For much of its working life it was used to ship sugar. The Bally Hooley rail service once hauled sugar cane to the mill and sugar to the wharf. Today it carries tourists on a gentle sightseeing jaunt through Port (seasonal).
8. Eat out…a lot!
Port has an outstanding dining scene, encompassing everything from relaxed cafes to 5-star restaurants and funky fusion cucinas. Here are just a few of the highlights to tick off.
While the menu is good, honest pub grub, the Court House Hotel steps it up a notch by using the best local produce and ingredients. Choose from a host of familiar favourites, fat steaks off the grill and fabulous seafood specials. Lots of resident North Queensland characters prop up the bar, which adds even more flavour to the proceedings!
Sassi Cucina e Bar on Wharf Street is a Port institution, with even Cairns locals making the journey just for lunch or dinner. Owner Tony Abruzzo is the real Italian deal, and his innovative menu lives up to its ‘sassi’ reputation.
Many might claim it, but Salsa Bar & Grill really is the taste of the tropics on a plate. A true icon of the Port Douglas dining landscape, this restaurant serves up fresh and flavoursome seafood dishes (including their signature crayfish linguine) alongside house-made cheeses, locally sourced exotic fruits and Asian-inspired meat dishes.
Multi award-winning On the Inlet is true to its name too, and offers fabulous ocean views as a pre-cursor to outstanding alfresco dining — and seafood dishes to die for. Just don’t try to order George (the resident 250kg groper) if he pops in for a visit!
Harrisons — by acclaimed British chef Spencer Patrick — is ranked amongst Australia’s top restaurants. The menu is beautifully uncontrived and fuses seasonal local ingredients and produce with a sophisticated European influence. Harrisons is located at the Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort and is Port’s only hatted eatery.
9. Shop ’til you drop on Macrossan Street
Port has a few mainstream chain stores and a host of glitzy luxury boutiques at the Marina. However, the town’s true retail charm lies in the eclectic fashion, homewares and gift stores that line Macrossan Street. For timeless fashion with an edge, local designer Di Perry’s Tzusk is a little taste of cool Melbourne style in the tropics. Twig and sister store Pebble (opposite St Mary’s by the Sea on Wharf Street), are full of too-beautiful-not-to-buy beach inspired homewares. There’s an emphasis on locally made products.
10. Mix and mingle at the markets
For a quintessentially North Queensland retail experience, don’t miss the Port Douglas Market. Held every Sunday, around 150 local vendors of food, fashion and bric-a-brac converge on the town to ply their wares against the stunning backdrop of the Coral Sea. The vibe is friendly and relaxed, and you’ll find plenty of locals up for a chat.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Port Douglas? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel writer and author. Originally planning to visit London for six months, she ended up staying for ten years and now divides her time between her home in Australia and several months of the year in the UK, Italy and France. Julietta has travelled extensively through Europe, North America, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and Russia, and believes the keys to a great travel experience are an open heart, an open mind and an open-ended ticket. Her first novel — The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman — is now available in bookstores.