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.
Enjoy this Port Douglas travel guide.
Need to know
Base yourself: Four Mile Beach, Wharf Street, Macrossan Street
Average hotel price per room/per night: AUD $200
Best breakfasts: Macrossan Street, Reef Marina
Great coffee: Macrossan Street
Top spots for a beverage: Top end of Macrossan Street, Wharf Street
Must-dos: Outer Great Barrier Reef dive/snorkel cruise, Daintree rainforest day tour
Best times to visit Port Douglas
To beat the north’s heat and humidity, the dry season from May to October is the perfect time to visit Cairns and Port Douglas. From June to August, the days are dry and temperatures hover around the mid 20s.
The wet season slowly builds up through September, October and November. The sea is calm and in terms of visibility, this is the best time of the year for diving and snorkelling on the reef.
From December to February, temperatures push into the 30s and umbrellas bear the brunt of the bulk of the region’s annual rainfall. However, storms come and go quickly.
Always be crocodile and stinger-wise. Stinger season runs from November through to May (although box jellyfish may be present at other times of the year). Netted swimming enclosures at popular beaches are your best bet. Obey all signs and beach closures. It’s for your protection!
Top cultural experiences in Port Douglas
With such an inspirational setting, it’s not surprising that Port Douglas has a strong creative undertow.
The Ngarru Indigenous Fine Art Gallery on Macrossan Street showcases the work of Indigenous artists in a contemporary space. You can connect further with local Aboriginal culture on the popular Ngadiku Daintree Dreaming Day Tour.
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.
Port Douglas for history lovers
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.
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).
Great places to eat in Port Douglas
While their attention is fixed on the reef and rainforest, another Tropical North Queensland treasure often sneaks up on visitors — the outstanding local cuisine.
With everything from hole-in-the-wall cafes to 5-star restaurants and funky fusion cucinas, Port’s dining scene offers no end of surprises. Here are just a few of the highlights.
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.
For a casual breakfast and gourmet light lunch options, you can’t beat The Little Larder on Macrossan Street.
Where to shop in Port Douglas
Port Douglas 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 the quintessentially North Queensland retail experience, don’t miss the Port Douglas Sunday markets. 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.
Ways to relax in Port Douglas
Everything in and around Port is geared towards taking advantage of the landscape, lifestyle and laidback ambience for which the 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). It’s relaxation central, and you really don’t need to go further than that if you don’t want to. However, you probably will want to, because Port is the jumping off point for tours to the most accessible parts of the outer Great Barrier Reef.
Port is also the gateway to the ancient Daintree rainforest. A day tour taking in Mossman Gorge, Cape Tribulation and the 4WD Bloomfield Track is a must-do.
Do you have any tips to add to our Port Douglas travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image courtesy of Tourism & Events Queensland. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Julietta Henderson is a Melbourne-based travel and feature writer. 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.