For many the Far North Queensland’s Port Douglas is simply nothing but a passing blur as they arrive to board the boat to head out on a Great Barrier Reef Adventure. For those that choose instead to linger a while what they are rewarded with is a gorgeous palm-fringed tropical cream-sand beach bordered by azure waters and a seaside resort infused with charm and history.
Port Douglas sprang into being as a service port for the newly discovered gold fields in the late 1800s. Today its picturesque whole retains a tropical tranquility although these days it also has a fine collection of shopping opportunities, an incredible diversity of cafes, restaurants and bars some of which offer million-dollar views and little gems such as its little church by the sea and a museum was once the scene of where the only woman ever hanged in the state was sentenced to death.
In the wider surrounds Port Douglas acts as the gateway to two sensational UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Daintree which is the oldest rainforest on Earth and the Great Barrier Reef, the planet’s largest coral reef system.
Besides these national treasures this area of the country is also steeped in cultural heritage. Home to several tribes of Aboriginal peoples whose traditions and beliefs have been passed down through the mists of time, experiences abound which allow you to take a privileged glimpse into this world. Possibilities here include heading out on a hand-spear-fishing walkabout, taking part in a smoking ceremony, heading deep into the rainforest to visit sacred places and rock art sites or dining in a candlelit forest clearing beneath the stars as you listen to ancient stories ot listen to the haunting sounds of the didgeridoo.
Whether your travels are driven by the need to explore food, wildlife, natural magnificence, culture or simply to soak up the sunshine on a tropical beach Port Douglas can deliver all of this in a plentiful supply.
A Morning in Port Douglas
Your Port Douglas morning has a little bit of everything. First you can explore a little of the town’s history in its gorgeous-setting church and excellent small museum. After a break for coffee in a range of venue which tend to come with spectacular views, you can continue your adventures with a crocodile-spotting cruise or a helicopter flight which offers bird’s eye views of both rainforest and reef. Alternatively you can head out with an indigenous guide to learn traditional methods for food gathering and even try your own head at spearing crabs.
St. Mary’s by the Sea
Heritage-listed and representing one of the town’s oldest structures, the small but enchanting timber-built church of St. Mary’s is now more than 100 years old. It replaced a former church which served the small community from its beginnings in the late 19th century which was literally flattened by the cyclone of 1911 which left much of the town in the same state.
Its setting – with the ocean as a backdrop and encircled by coconut palms – is especially picturesque and no doubt why it is such a popular wedding venue.
A visit to this tranquil little corner is a must for all those who want to get some idea of what Port Douglas would have looked like before the modern era arrived and along with it the age of sturdier and longer-lasting brick, stone, concrete and iron to construct instead of the original building material of wood.
Pocket-sized and simply-styled with its steep roof and small porch, St. Mary’s is also a typical example of the kinds of modest structures which served remote communities in the early days of settlement in Australia.
The church’s interior with its exposed beams, timber arches and wooden pews is plain but elegant and has a large window at the rear which floods the altar with sunlight which gives directly onto ocean views. Above this sits a lovely three-panelled stained glass window.
The Courthouse Museum
Another of Port Douglas’s historically significant buildings is the wood-built old courthouse which is now a museum. Although damaged by the cyclone of 1911 the courthouse fared better than the first church and other original structures and it is today the town’s oldest building. Even more impressively it is the oldest timber courthouse in the entire state.
The simply-designed courthouse was constructed in 1879, just three years after the town’s first settlement and now sits on its original site again, although for a while it was relocated elsewhere.
Not surprisingly the building is heritage-listed and, like the church, has a beautiful setting, this time in greenery-rich park-like corner which sits by the water. From the 1950s the courthouse ceased to be used in any official capacity and became a museum in 1997.
It will cost you nothing to explore this little gem which although small is packed with all kinds of interesting exhibits not only relating to the courthouse history but also pertaining to the local region in general. These include stories of sugar cultivation, the Chinese immigrants who were once a large part of the population, the history of the World War II Battle of the Coral Sea which saw the Imperial Japanese Navy pitched against US and Australian forces and the Bump Track which connected the town to the former goldfields and is still a popular hike.
For many the most fascinating exhibits relate to the story of Ellen Thompson, the only female ever hanged in the state through the judiciary system, charged with the murder of her husband in 1886. While visiting the museum you will be standing in the very spot where she was tried and sentenced to death.
Morning Coffee in Port Douglas
In Port Douglas, like pretty much everywhere in this country which has had a coffee culture for more than half a century, quality brews are not hard to find. Beautiful views are just as easily come by too and together these two factors make for a heavenly combo for your morning pause.
The main drag – Macrossan St – is where most of the cafe options are clustered but the most scenic spots offer either ocean, marina or countryside views and some of these are especially lovely.
For ocean lovers there is the Lighthouse Cafe which sits amid a leafy corner surrounded by greenery and trees and with the beach just across the street. This charming little venue offers alfresco tables, good quality coffee served by a skilled barista and of course the kind of views which add the word special to the phrase coffee break.
Just across the street is one of the other two beach-view options – the Surf Club – with its cute deck and sofas for lounging. Port Douglas’s Marina is something of a town hub with constant comings and goings as visitors head off on tours to the Great Barrier Reef. Originally envisioned as a place to which the rich and famous would flock, the marina never quite achieved such a goal but it is still a beautiful part of town and a great spot to grab a coffee and take a morning pause.
One of the choices here is Lure, located right on the boardwalk and although the food here tends to get mixed reviews the million-dollar view of marina and boats backed by rainforest is unbeatable and the coffee decent.
Yet another exceptional setting is the St. Crispin’s branch of Choo Choos which is 4km from the town’s marina at the south end of Port Douglas. Choo Choos St. Crispins is one of the two stations which connect a short 20 minute steam train ride so if you are in town on certain days of the week you can take the train from the marina to here or alrenatively hop on a boat. Choo Choos St. Crispin’s Cafe which sits in a little oasis of trees is loveliness personified. The cafe pontoon deck sits over a lagoon, surrounded by the rolling green of a golf course and with the breathtakingly beautiful Mossman Gorge and the Daintree Mountains off in the distance.
If you prefer to stay central Choo Choos Marina Cafe is also charming which comes with a helpig of those lovely yacht- and watercraft-filled water views.
For those to whom the coffee quality matters more than anything else Origin has to be one of the top contenders in town. Bright and cheerful on the inside with a choice of alfresco tables out front, Origin sits in a quiet back street and is home to a skilled barista who serves up coffee from Origin’s own Four Mile Roaster set-up which only uses sustainably sourced beans. A range of pastries and some quality doughnuts are the coffee accompaniments here.
As each of the coffee break cafes mentioned here have something quite special going for them you might choose to linger a while to soak up the views or the atmosphere. If you can bear to tear yourself away from such spots Port Douglas has plenty more to offer on the things to see and do front until lunchtime arrives.
Dickson’s Inlet Cruising and Crocodiles
The inlet cruises which depart from the marina at 10.30 daily are timed perfectly to fit in after your coffee break and as they return at 12 noon also won’t interfere with your lunch schedule.
The Lady Douglas is a purpose-built river boat, designed for comfort, which will take you deep into the fascinating and unspoiled mangrove forests which lie up river from Port Douglas’s waterfront.
First skirting marina and coast complete with their gorgeous ocean views and mountain backdrop covered in tropical rainforest, you will head inland to explore a natural wonderland teeming with wildlife.
Although the waterway from its beginning at the coast is relatively wide, the mangrove channels get ever and ever narrower as you head deeper into the wilderness. With differing levels of salt and freswater content, these mangrove habitats support a huge diversity of animal species which include mud skippers, crabs, spiders and even turtles. The bird species are especially numerous and include such majestic fliers as ospreys, white-bellied eagles and brahmany kites. Birdlife of the highly colorful and tropical kind is found in species such as rainbow bee-eaters, sunbirds and the irridescent kingfishers. Much of these you will see during your tranquil journey along with mangrove flora but the main wildlife focus on these trips is crocodile spotting.
Although crocodiles are not high in number here the boat crew are highly familiar with the viewing hot-spots and where these creatures – with a lineage so ancient it stretches back to the time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth – like to hang out and as a result crocodiles are see on more than nine out of ten trips.
All cruises come with a live commentary which serves as both entertainment and a way to learn a vast amount about not just the crocodiles themselves but also the mangrove ecosystem in general, the area’s history and otherwise a mountain of local knowledge, anecdotes and stories which no guide book could ever deliver.
If you prefer to do things under your own steam it is also possible to rent your own little boat from the marina and go exploring on your own and entirely to your own schedule. The easy to handle simple rental craft are specially fitted out with croc-proof rails and several include comprehensive fishing equipment in the rental price so you can try your luck at catching lunch.
Scenic Helicopter Flights
For views of an entirely different kind consider a scenic joyride aboard a helicopter – something you can do directly out of Port Douglas. Flights range from 30 minutes upwards and in an area of the world so rich in natural magnificence offer the experience of a lifetime. Swooping over tropical beaches, rainforest and islands a helicopter ride is a spectacular way to see the outer edges of the Great Barrier Reef from above. With vibrantly-hued coral reef gardens clearly visible and sometimes even sightings of sharks, whales and crocodiles, you will get an appreciation of the vastness and scale of the largest reef system on the planet in a way that just isn’t possible from the ground.
An Alternative Morning in Port Douglas
Less than 20km north of Port Douglas can be found Cooya Beach – an area which encompasses reef, beach and mangroves, each giving rise to distinctly separate eco-systems. As the tides rise and fall these areas inter-link with mudflats and lagoons and are home to all kinds of wildlife.
For many thousands of years the local indigenous Kuku YalanjI people have sustained themselves from the natural bounty provided by this environment and today you can learn just how, led by your very own tribal guide.
This fascinating and absorbing opportunity of privilege will see you armed with spear and learning how to fish in the traditional way (a practice still alive today) along with other gathering techniques used to collect mud-crabs, fish and mussels which the Kuku Yalanji have honed to a fine art. During you time here you will also learn which of the locally growing plants are good for eating and which have been used for thousands of years as medicines.
Lunch in Port Douglas
Relatively small it may be but Port Douglas has still managed to earn something of a name for itself as a dining destination. As a coastal town seafood is plentiful and fresh but there is another reason why Port Douglas is overflowing with high quality food. Not far away can be found a region known as the Atherton Tablelands which otherwise goes by the title of the ‘Food Bowl of the Tropics’. Fertile in the extreme, this area grows and produces organic meats, fruit, nuts, coffee, cheese and an otherwise plentiful supply of ultra-fresh produce which gives the town’s chefs true quality before they even begin working their own magic to create exceptional dishes.
For you all of this means something of a food-lovers paradise with everything on offer from beach living-themed casual affairs to some fine dining options. Cuisine types, as tends to be the norm in Australia, are widely diverse and include Japanese, seafood, Italian, Mexican, classical Australian, Asian fusion, Thai and Spanish-style tapas. Just as with the cafes the main density of the town’s restaurants can be found on Macrossan but there are also some true gems a little more tucked away.
Betty’s Bohemian Beach Cafe
One charming choice which falls into the laid-back and relaxed category ideal for those who are looking for a lighter and healthy lunch is the lovely Betty’s Bohemian Beach Cafe. Here indeed you will find bohemian at its most enchanting with cushion strewn sofas, eclectic but totally harmoizing fabrics, wooden furniture, elegant cane chairs and dream-catchers adorning the walls. Alfresco fans can head to the tables outside to enjoy lunching from an all-day brunch menu which includes salads, ciabatta creations, wraps and some wonderful pancake choices for dessert.
Watergate Port Douglas
At the other end of the scale for those who have a more sophisticated lunch venue in mind there is the Watergate Port Douglas where spotless linen-clad tables and sparking glassware is the norm. With a choice of lunching either inside in the atmospheric lounge or alfresco amid greenery, Watergate delivers an extensive menu of contemporary Australian dishes carfted with innovative flair made up of seafood, steak and other meat choices with a great wine list of Australian and New Zealand labels. The presentation of the food here is stunning, the portions generous and the service of the impeccable and smiling variety.
On The Inlet
For seafood fans and those who appreciate gorgeous settings On The Inlet offers both of the highest category. Although this Port Douglas icon had to relocate a few years ago from its inlet setting when the marina was built it simply swapped one lovely location for another and today offers Coral Sea panoramas instead.
This multi-award winning seafood restaurant, whose specialties include oysters, mussels and mud crabs, offer a menu which brings some creative contemporary spins on Australian classics and are known for great service.
An Afternoon in Port Douglas and Its Surrounds
While Port Douglas itself is a wonderful little slice of tropical heaven what lies in its near surrounds are sensational on a global scale. An hour to the north is Daintree National Park – the oldest existing rainforest anywhere on Earth – while off its coast lies the wonderland known as the Great Barrier Reef – the largest coral reef in existence. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Plenty of reef experiences operate directly out of Port Douglas but the main gateway is Cairns. So, as Port Douglas offers other once-in-a-lifetime experiences you might like to save your Great Barrier Reef adventure for any time spent in Cairns; something no doubt you will do while you are in the vicinity.
Daintree National Park and Mossman Gorge
Located an hour north of Port Douglas, World Heritage-listed Daintree is the oldest existing rainforest anywhere on Earth believed to be about 180 million years old. An impressive system of walking trails criss-cross this lush rainforest while within its bounds are also areas of swamp, mangrove and lovely beaches. It is home to thousands of plant species, more than a hundred mammal species including rare creatures such as the tree kangaroo and a long list of other wildlife which includes butterflies and other insects, reptiles and crocodiles, frogs, bats and birds in their tens of thousands. One of these is the reclusive and rare cassowary which grows to 2m in height.
Quite how you spend your time in this spectacular place which is at once raw, wild and primeval is up to you and there is an incredible menu of possible choice besides simply just soaking in its jaw-dropping natural beauty.
Aboriginal Cultural Experiences
Some of the most enriching and popular types of experiences in this area are those which offer a window onto the world of Australia’s ancient Aboriginal people to whom Daintree has had sacred and spiritual significance for 50,000 years. While indigenous cultural experiences can be had all over Australia nowhere are these as rich and plentiful as in the Far North Queensland and particularly right here in Daintree where these peoples connection to the land is deeply rooted.
The majority of these kind of tours involve Aboriginal guide-led walkabouts through the ancient forest trails with sometimes kayaking included too. Many come under the heading of Dreamtime experiences – a term used to describe the very essence of the Aboriginal people’s spiritual belief systems. As you explore this stunningly beautiful land you will learn about Dreamtime legends while also perhaps having the opportunity – depending on which tour you choose – to visit rock art sites, try your hand at traditional hunting methods, learn the medicinal uses of a multitude of rainforest plants and otherwise get a privileged glimpse into the ways of a culture which is the oldest on Earth.
Within Daintree’s boundaries can be found the exquisitely beautiful Mossman Gorge around which many of the Aboriginal guide-led tours focus. While the rainforest areas overall are home to 18 tribes it is the Kuku Yalanji who are the traditional owners and who will typically lead your adventures. Some of these include a traditional smoking ceremony to begin and then head out to visit sacred ceremonial sites hidden deep beneath the rainforest canopy. Easier trails follow a boardwalk with viewing platforms where a swim in the crystal-clear waters of the gorge are often all part of the experience. As sunlight filters through the forest crowding in from both sides the waters are turned into a range of magical shades which include emerald and lime and give the entire scene an almost fairytale-like perfection.
Other Daintree Experiences
While understandably the Aboriginal culture-focused experiences are those most sought after they are far from being the only things you can see and do amid all this natural magnificence.
Animal and bird lovers will quickly discover that Daintree is paradise, teeming as it is with wildlife of every kind. Some tours are specifically geared to spotting wildlife, some of them purely aimed at seeing as much as possible of the forest’s animals, insects, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Others are more specific such as the tranquil river cruises which head out to spot crocodiles while others revolve around birds for instance.
Another form of transport for rainforest tours are 4WD vehicles while the adventurous can get high into the canopy with a zip-line tour. Whizzing your way between a series of platforms, this is a unique way to experience the ancient rainforest where at times your lofty vantage point will give you views of the Coral Sea as an extra bonus.
Further north but still within the boundaries of the Daintree National Park is the remote headland known as Cape Tribulation where ancient rainforest means the stunning coast. Here you can follow boardwalks or a ridge trail, go bird watching or snorkel in turquoise waters to see a multitude of marine wildlife.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Port Douglas
Tropical sunset cocktails with a view of the Coral Sea and a close proximity to an area so rich in produce it is known as the ‘Food Bowl of the Tropics, Port Douglas has some special treats in store when the hour arrives to start thinking about drinking and dining.
While obviously the choice of what sundowner drink to order is entirely yours it has to be said that colorful cocktails in this tropical corner of the world are especially apt. The drinking establishments in town are well aware of this fact too and there is more than one venue where you can relax with top-notch cocktails while taking in some million-dollar view.
One cocktail choice is the Tin Shed which with such a name probably doesn’t conjure up images of elegance. However, this exceptionally gorgeous spot is neither a shed nor is it made of tin. Instead what you get is a deck perched on stilts extending out over the water at the mouth of the inlet with views of harbor, river and the mountains forming a backdrop. Indeed it probably gets no better than this anywhere.
Interestingly, the Tin Shed is actually sophisticated enough to impose a dress code after 5.30 and while the website says ‘shorts, thongs and T-shirts are accepted’ you need to be aware that in Australia thongs refers to flip flops and not underwear!
Understandably at sundowner time the deck is where almost all the customers gather but the Tin Shed also has an air-conditioned lounge. Choose your spot and pick from a cocktail menu which features both the classic daiquiri and mojito kind as well as some ‘Tinny’ concoctions which are the establishments very own.
For high quality cocktails – many would argue the best in town – and a refined venue to match try Watergate. The interior cocktail lounge is atmospheric and sophisticated with a choice of sofas or stools at the granite-topped bar. Most however find themselves a seat under the outdoor canopy
where surrounded by lush plants and lanterns you can sip on expertly mixed concoctions such as the burnt pineapple, lime, cardomom bitters Pineapple Boussa with its spiced rum ans cinnamon schnapps base.
To put a Caribbean spin on your tropical Australian evening try Barbados where a dash of luxury meets a generous helping of the naturally stunning. Welcoming and warm but full of style, this lovely marina boardwalk-located spot at the mouth of the Dickson Inlet means views come loaded with the lovely. Here you can gaze upon the inlet itself, the ocean twinkling through palm trees and the beautiful Daintree National Park backing it all. The cocktails are inventive and decadent and just to complete that movie-star moment you have a multitude of vast daybed-like sofas to recline on to enjoy both panoramas and your choice of tiki-themed sundowner.
All of the pre-dinner drinking spots mentioned here offer dining too if you can’t bear to tear yourself away once you decide it is time for the main event. The Tin Shed offers a varied menu which includes seafood sharing feasts, salads, pasta and steak; Watergate is a fine dining establishment serving Australian cuisine while Barbados has an extensive menu with some fantastic sharing boards featuring seafood, meats or antipasto.
If you want to push out the boat a little during your time in Port Douglas the gorgeous Nautilus is an ideal choice. First established in the 1950s by a man recently retired from Her Majesty’s Secret Service and his wife who just happened to be a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, Nautilus claims the title of the town’s oldest restaurant. Although the establishment has changed hands a few times over the decades it has always retained a reputation as the finest Port Douglas can offer.
Nautilus is a true alfresco restaurant – there is no interior space – and what an alfresco experience this is. The magic begins as you weave your way along and up a hidden pathway which begins on Macrossan and takes you up Island Point Hill. What you emerge into is a dazzlingly beautiful oasis amid tropical vegetation, where on a wooden deck are scattered dining stations draped in linen under the suffused light of globe lanterns and stars.
Everything about this Port Douglas icon is 5-star, from the setting to the service and the fabulous Australian food to the fine wines. Choose whatever most takes your fancy from an a la carte menu or if decisions prove too difficult go with the degustation tasting menu which gives you an all-encompassing tasting experience. Not surprisingly given its extra-special something, the Nautilus has played hosts to some famous names over the years including Sir Lawrence Olivier, David Bowie and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Another exceptionally special dining option which combines the most romantic of candle and fairylight-lit dining with a cultural immersion experience is Flames of the Forest. You do have to make a little effort for this one as it is located an hour outside of Port Douglas. Your reward however will be a never-to-be-forgotten evening as you banquet on gourmet food served in a series of couses in the ancient Daintree rainforest with the indigenous Kuku Yalanji people acting as yourt hosts.
A several million-year-old rainforest in the dark of night with a marquee dining area lit by lanterns is already mystical and atmospheric to the highest degree. However, once you add into the mix didgeridoo music, ceremonies, singing and storytelling delivered by members of the oldest culture in existence on Earth you have nothing short of ultimate magic.
For those who simply want to enjoy the ambience and have a rather more intimate romantic dinner in mind there are also tables set aside which are away from the main entertainment but sometimes offer a single guitarist serenading the diners.
To make life incredibly easy to arrive at your rainforest dining venue transfers to and from town are included in the package prices.
An Evening in Port Douglas
As the sun sinks over the mountains in this little tropical corner Port Douglas and its surrounds offer some truly lovely ways to spend your evening which include nocturnal wildlife spotting amid an ancient rainforest and gazing at stars from a boat.
Sunset and Stargazing Cruises
If you are happy to dine very early or a little later in the evening you can take advantage of a cruise up the lovely Dickson Inlet or lazily adrift on the ocean in time for sunset. Being so close to the equator, sunset times vary little throughout the year so this will never be a late evening experience.
Your choice of craft for your sunset ride range from the charmingly rustic to the luxury yacht type although all tend to include drinks of the bubbling kind.
If this doesn’t fit in with your dining schedule there is also the option of heading out on a cruise specifically aimed at stargazing. On the ocean and away from the light-pollution of the towns the tropical skies here are almost impossibly filled with stars.
Northern Hemisphere dwellers find these Mother Nature spectaculars especially fascinating as all kinds of things are visible in the sky which they will never have seen. One of these is the Southern Cross which makes up part of the Australian national flag while any constellations they do recognise will be upside down.
Daintree After Dark
Even if you have already visited the natural magnificence known as Daintree in the day you might like to consider returning once the sun has set. After dark this ancient rainforest becomes a whole different and exceptionally magical world as all kinds of fascinating creatures start to stir which have stayed sleeping and hidden during the day. Night tours depart from Port Douglas and head deep into the forest for an evening of what is essentially hide-and-seek with a natural sound track that at times is a true cacophony of calls.
While any wildlife spotting adventure is in part down to luck, expert guides know where to head for the highest chances of seeing the wildlife of the rainforest which together represent half of all the species found anywhere in Australia. Possible animals you will see include, snakes, spiders, frogs, water dragons, bats, bandicoots and if you’re lucky marsupials such as as tree kangaroos and quolls or even echidnas. These small spiny creatures are one of only two mammals in the entire world which lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young.
In former times this building served as a police lock-up but today is a lovely little theater which plays host to musicals, dance, film screenings, cabaret, comedy evenings and more. Although it could hardly be described as large, the interior is also somewhat bigger than its outside appearance would suggest and has room for 120 theater-goers.
If you enjoy live music you will always be able to find something happening in Port Douglas in the evening with Hemingways, Paddy’s Irish Bar and the Courthouse Hotel all hosting regular events while one-offs might pop up anywhere in town. The genre choice is eclectic ranging from one-man-and-his-guitar type offerings to Motown bands and just about anything in between.
Ready to have the experience of your life in Port Douglas? Get in touch with one of our vacation planners today and find the right cruise to Port Douglas for you!