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Gateway To Paradise: Your Ultimate Guide To Port Douglas And The Daintree

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If you’re yet to visit the Port Douglas Daintree region, it’d be easy to assume it’s nothing more than a gateway you have to pass through to reach two World Heritage sites. But the charming coastal town of Port Douglas is a destination in its own right, and an absolute must for any Aussie bucket list.

The journey begins as soon as you jump in your shuttle or car from Cairns Airport and head for the spectacular Great Barrier Reef drive. You’ll wind your way along the coastline, sandwiched between unspoiled tropical beaches and ancient rainforest-covered mountain ranges. 

Cruising into Port Douglas along a palm-fringed boulevard, you’ll feel yourself shift down a few gears and slide right into holiday mode.

This is a place where birds sing happily in the swaying trees, friendly locals are always up for a chat, the town pub is in a gorgeous old Queenslander, there are art galleries and boutiques galore, the craft brewery has water views and both the coffee and food will surpass your expectations. 

Add to the mix the stunning backdrop and one-of-a-kind activities you can get up to – from Daintree Rainforest tours to swimming in the largest living reef system on the planet – and you’ll quickly realise this gorgeous part of the world deserves a solid few days of your holiday time.

This is a special region, not just because it’s the only place where the rainforest meets the reef, but because the Port Douglas Daintree area is the first place on Earth to achieve Ecotourism Australia’s ECO Destination certification. It’s earned itself the reputation as Australia’s most sustainable destination.

Here is your ultimate guide to Port Douglas, filled with local recommendations and enough experiences to keep you happy for a week.

When To Go

Up in the Wet Tropics, there’s simply wet season and dry season. May through October is dry season, which affords a nice mix of warm temperatures and low humidity with lower rainfall. November through April is wet season, which is humid and wet – but it’s when the rainforest really comes alive.

Dry season is peak season, with Aussies wanting a balmy break during winter. Locals say September is the sweet spot, when temperatures are starting to warm but there’s still a good water flow everywhere.

Where To Stay

retro port douglas

My apartment (#309) on the top floor at Retro Port Douglas. Image: Sonia Taylor

Affordable boutique apartments

If you’re anything like me, you want to be close enough to the action while still able to escape back to your quiet sanctuary. Retro Port Douglas Apartments offers that perfect blend of proximity and privacy. 

The tropical-themed boutique apartments serve up bold wallpapers and retro decor, with super comfortable beds and luxury amenities like Smeg appliances and your very own barista coffee machine. They provide a full kitchen for those nights you want to stay in and cook up the goodies you purchased at the markets, but it’s also easy to jump on the town shuttle or stroll the 15 minutes into the heart of Macrossan Street. 

The outside town splurge

Thala Beach Nature Reserve is an eco-resort offering barefoot luxury just 10 to 15 minutes south of Port Douglas. It’s situated on 145 acres of private headland surrounded by water on three sides. Staying in the timber bungalows here is like experiencing your own private nature immersion, but with easy access to Port Douglas – this is the last pick up and first drop off for shuttles and tours. Read our review here.

Where The Locals Like To Eat And Drink

I had no expectations for the food scene in Port Douglas, thinking that a remote Queensland holiday town would probably be an average experience. Boy was I wrong – this is a bonafide foodie town. The produce from this tropical climate is bursting with flavour and the seafood is as fresh as it gets.

Coffee, breakfast and baked goods

Grab a coffee at local favourite hole-in-the-wall Sparrow and then head across the street for a fresh juice and smoothie bowl at Nectar (try the Queenslander, topped with macadamias and tropical fruit). 

For a proper sit-down cafe situation, check out the very cute The Little Larder on the busy main drag (also known for their sambos) or grab The Full Irish at Cafe Fresq. Hip Origin Espresso, tucked away down a side street, is also worth your time, especially for those who like their brews strong. If you’re hankering for a bite after a walk along Four Mile Beach, look no further than delicious Hi Tide, with gorgeous views.

If you’re a baked-good fiend, then bakery-cafe Grant Street Kitchen should be on your list. They also have a small menu of brekkie and brunch items and some outside seating. Duke’s Doughnuts, with their artisan handmade goodies are also a hit.

For something a little different, head outside town to St Crispins, located along the iconic Bally Hooley railway system. There’s an all-day menu you can enjoy but their breakfasts are especially lovely. You’ll be dining in serene surrounds here – try and spot resident crocodile Crispin in the lagoon, while enjoying views over the Daintree Ranges and the sprawling greenery of the Mirage Country Club golf course. 

Lunch, dinner and drinks

An easy pick for vibey lunches on the water is local brewpub, Hemingways, at the Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina. Grab a craft beer and try their excellent pizzas, although anything you order will be tasty. 

Get thee to Salsa Bar & Grill, which is absolutely loved by locals. A popular dish is the linguine peperoncino with tableland red claw, garlic, chilli and shaved parmesan, with the impressive chocolate souffle to finish. 

Italian eatery Sassi La Cucina + Bar is another beloved local haunt serving up impressive eats. Try the mussels and squid ink tagliatelle. If you want to go all out, their seafood platter will knock your socks off, including reef fish, tiger prawns, bugs, calamari, mussels and clams.

Over at Spanish Tapas Bar, Seabean, it’s a party in your mouth with bangers like paella, cauliflower truffle and macaroni cheese croquetas, and perfectly soft-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-the-outside beef cheek roulade. Everything I ate here was delicious but the absolute must is on the dessert menu: crema Catalana served in a half coconut. It’s basically a tropical crème brûlée and you will not regret it.

Watergate Restaurant and lounge Bar is another local institution. Head down a flame-lit path from Macrossan Street to be treated to some seriously good modern Australian cuisine – think crocodile karaage, their fabulous duck pancakes and blue swimmer crab lasagne.

Recently opened in April 2020, chef’s hatted Melaleuca is helmed by award-winning head chef Adam Ion and his wife Namhee. They serve up a menu of contemporary Aussie dishes with a dash of Korean flavour in a nod to Namhee’s heritage. This is the spot to try yourself some Daintree Barramundi, in a courtyard under a canopy of mango trees no less.

 

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Zinc is another long-standing Port Douglas restaurant serving up excellent contemporary Australian eats with Asian flare. We recommend the Huon Tasmanian Salmon, either as the carpaccio starter or the fillet for main. They also do excellent fish and chips, which you can grab takeaway.

You can’t forget Port Douglas’s oldest pub, the Court House Hotel. Set inside a gorgeous heritage Queenslander with a wide verandah, you’ll find a modern bistro menu with everything from vegan bowls to fish tacos, alongside your classic pub fare like a chicken parmy and steak. There’s live music on weekends, too.

When you’re up for a tipple, head back to the marina to trendy cocktail bar Barbados. The highlight here is the rum selection and delicious cocktails (think Caribbean Mojito with ginger beer and spiced pineapple syrup), but there’s also tasty food. With chic decor, moody lighting and a banging water view, the vibe here is on point – especially for sunset drinks.

Local intel confirms that the salt and pepper calamari at The Tin Shed, inside the unassuming Douglas Community and Sports Club (known as Combined Club), is a standout. Outside your usual set dining times, you can also order a bucket of cold cooked prawns with cocktail sauce, all while looking out to sea. And if you were hankering for some low-key takeaway fish and chips, Dave’s is a good bet.

Things To Do

 

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Hit the markets

Found at the western end of Macrossan Street, the Sunday Port Douglas Markets are a perfect way to start your day. Having run for a whopping 35 years, they kick off at about 8am and run to 2pm, with everything from jewellery and fresh produce to hand-crafted souvenirs.

Those in the know will make sure they grab a fresh shaved coconut.

Relax at the beach

Four Mile Beach is a Port Douglas landmark and your trip isn’t complete without a visit. With its palm-fringed coastline and golden sands taking a gentle curve as far as the eye can see, this is one pretty mama. From May through November, there is also a stinger net so swimming is safe.

Walk to the lookout

To really drink in the beauty of the area, take the Flagstaff Hill Walking Trail to the lookout at its northern end for sweeping views of the beach, sea, rainforest and mountains.

Stroll Macrossan Street

In your downtime, take a wander along Macrossan Street to check out its art galleries and boutiques.

Indulge in a spa day

Port Douglas also has a handful of gorgeous spas, like the Balinese-inspired Niramaya Day Spa & Villas. For something truly incredible, though, head north to Daintree Ecolodge for the Wellness Spa’s Indigenous-inspired treatments, with permission from the local Indigenous Kuku Yalanji. They even use the pure waters of the onsite waterfall in their healing treatments, a very special women’s place to the Kuku Yalanji.

Set sail for crocodiles or sunsets

If crocodiles are on your mind, then you’ll want to jump aboard the iconic Lady Douglas, which has a 95 percent sighting rate along Port Douglas’ mangroves. Another wonderful way to end a day is on Shaolin – a traditional Chinese vintage timber Junk boat and one of the few left in the world – for a sunset cruise.

Snorkel through  the rainforest

My half day tour with Back Country Bliss Adventures ended up being an unexpected highlight of my trip (you can read why here). For this one, you’ll be enjoying a mix of river sledding and drift snorkelling under the Daintree rainforest canopy, as you float along the Mossman River. 

Discover the Daintree and visit Cape Tribulation

Take in the unique Wet Tropics area in a single day with Tony’s Tropical Tours. This multi award-winning Advanced Eco-Accredited small group tour offers punters the chance to walk through the 135-year-old rainforest on a private property away from other tour groups. You can even swim in a waterhole in the middle of the Daintree after lunch, a pretty special experience. 

The big man himself took our group. Tony was friendly, super knowledgeable and an all round good time. After starting with a walk to the serene Mossman Gorge, we made our way via crocodile cruise (where we spotted the infamous ScarFace) to Noah Valley for our rainforest walk and lunch. Then it was off to Cape Tribulation – the only place on Earth where two world heritage sites meet and the rainforest kisses the reef. We topped it all off with a stop at Daintree Icecream Company for unique flavours like wattleseed, Davidson Plum and even Black Sapote (traditionally from Mexico). 

It was a ripper of a day – we were even so lucky as to see not one, but three elusive Cassowaries, along with a Boyd’s Forest Dragon. Tony’s Tropical Tours also make trips to the Atherton Tablelands.

Learn from the Kuku Yalanji

This is the land of the Kuku Yalanji people, who have a wealth of knowledge that will completely transform your experience and understanding of the region.

Walkabout Cultural Adventures offer half or full-day tours in the Port Douglas Daintree region, where you will learn about the environment, different bush foods and medicine as well as sample some seasonal bush tucker while appreciating the history, culture and traditions of Australian Aboriginal people.

If you’d like a deeper understanding of the incredible Mossman Gorge in the Daintree Rainforest, then book yourself in for a Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk. Kuku Yalanji guides will take you along private tracks, visiting special places and culturally significant sites.

 

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Get out on the reef

Port Douglas is one of the best places to visit the Great Barrier Reef so it’s an absolute must if you’re in the area. 

Calypso Reef Tours will take you to snorkel or dive some of the best spots, including a posting in the outer reef. I saw countless insanely-coloured tropical fish, a reef shark and stingray – all before we’d even hit our final spot in the outer reef. 

I was pretty damn chuffed and figured snorkelling the two huge coral bommies wouldn’t compare to my sightings thus far. But then the clouds parted and the sun shone down, bringing the whole scene to life so vividly I can still picture it when I close my eyes. It was a magical, technicolour underwater wonderland complete with pulsating neon purple and yellow coral. Day made. 

Visit their unique zoo

I’m not one to usually recommend zoos, but it felt like every traveller I met raved about Wildlife Habitat. This award-winning Port Douglas Daintree icon gets visitors up close and personal with Australian wildlife in a window of their natural environment.

They cover five unique habitats: the Wetlands, Rainforest, Savannah, Woodlands and Nocturnal. You can see everything from Koalas and Estuarine Crocs to the endangered Cassowary and even Tree Kangaroos. 


The author stayed in Port Douglas as a guest of Tourism Port Douglas Daintree.

(Lead image: supplied / Tourism Port Douglas Daintree)