Port Douglas in Far North Queensland has grown from a tiny one pub outpost into arguably Australia’s most fashionable beach retreat.
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.
Hemmed in by the Queensland Wet Tropics rainforest and Great Barrier Reef, ‘Port’ (as it’s known locally) also makes an ideal base for exploring the wider region. The coast hugging drive to town from Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway is just the first of many ‘wow’ moments in store for visitors.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Port Douglas.
You’ve come for the beach, and Port delivers four beautiful miles of it. Four Mile Beach is, well, four miles of picture-perfect, palm-fringed shoreline, which offers safe netted swimming conditions. Stake your claim on a patch of silken sand, and settle in for some serious R&R.
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. A host of cruises out to Low Isles and the outer reef depart from the Marina each day. Quicksilver’s day trip to Agincourt Reef is a standout.
Second, 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 guided tour that takes in Daintree highlights like Mossman Gorge and Cape Tribulation is a must-do.
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 also 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’s shows and musical events are always entertaining, and you’ll get to rub shoulders with the local arts community as part of the deal.
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.
Port has an interesting pioneering history to uncover. The discovery of gold by the Palmer River in 1873 led to the town’s establishment — first and foremost as a sea port. It finally got a permanent name (after a few false starts!), a couple of banks and a courthouse, and never looked back. Pay a visit 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 past.
There are plenty of other remnants of yesteryear to be found around town. The heritage-listed Port Douglas Wharf was built in 1904 and used to ship sugar for much of its working life. The Bally Hooley rail service once hauled sugar cane to the mill, and sacks of sugar to the wharf. Today it carries tourists on a gentle sightseeing jaunt through Port (seasonal).
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 and 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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information, visit www.visitportdouglasdaintree.com.
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
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.