Port Douglas is a Tropical North Queensland town well-loved for its proximity to the reef and rainforest. It’s known as a retreat for celebrities and wealthy retirees, but Elisabeth Knowles wonders what it’s like for the rest of us.
From the lookout on Flagstaff Hill, Port Douglas presents itself as the perfect tropical beach town, unspoilt by overdevelopment – and, it must be said, unravaged by Cyclone Yasi, which whipped through north Queensland two weeks before I arrived.
To the south, Four Mile Beach stretches out in a blond arc. It’s seductively spooned between a disc of bright blue Coral Sea and a blanket of leafy treetops, which mimic the density of the nearby Daintree rainforest. This verdant buffer between the beach and the nearest manmade structure is evidence of clever town planning: 2.2km of the beach perimeter is dominated by the Sheraton Mirage Resort and Golf Course, but its accommodation is set well back so as not to bully the beachfront. You could walk along Four Mile Beach and not even realise the resort is there.
The Sheraton comes up in conversation quite a lot around here. Get talking to a Port Douglas resident and they’ll soon tell you how long they’ve lived here and whether they arrived BC (Before Chris), or AD (After Devastation or After Development, depending on their viewpoint). Most locals who settled AD don’t have a bad word to say about Christopher Skase, the eccentric ’80s tycoon cum fraudster who single-handedly kicked off the tourist boom here.
The story goes that in 1987, when Skase bought 109 hectares of prime beachfront land for his ambitious Sheraton Mirage Resort, he felt the Tropical North Queensland town was not quite tropical enough. So he decorated the grounds and the entire length of the avenue leading into Port Douglas with thousands of majestic North African oil palms, which were cultivated from a plantation he’d purchased on the edge of the Daintree.
And so it was that he imposed his personal interpretation of a tropical paradise on the entire population. Happily, the result coincided with many travellers’ idea of the idyllic too, and word soon got out about this alluringly beautiful holiday spot.
Fifteen years after Skase’s empire collapsed and a decade after his death, tourism is cemented as the town’s major revenue earner. But it brings relief to many that the last vestiges of the megalomaniac developer’s influence are finally being erased.
Skase’s infamous oil palm plantation, the very one that gave Port (as the locals call it) its grand entrance, was recently bought by Rainforest Rescue, a not-for-profit organisation that intends to eradicate the last of the non-native trees and regenerate this part of the Daintree, which is home to endangered cassowaries.
Meanwhile, the Sheraton Mirage Resort, still stately but in dire need of an update, is currently on the market and rumoured to have a buyer. According to The Cairns Post, it is expected to go for $50 million, roughly half what it cost to build.
It’s taken a while, but Port Douglas has finally crawled out from under Skase’s shadow and taken on its own identity – as an eclectic, eccentric mix of tourism experiences run by more down-to-earth, smaller-scale, community-driven operators.
Almost every visitor to Port Douglas is drawn here for the same reason – its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree, both World Heritage-listed attractions. The contrast of cool, dense, vivid green hinterland with expansive, clear, coral-filled seas makes Port a holiday destination with double the punch.
But its contrasts don’t stop with the geography. This is both a small country town and a sophisticated tourist destination, with impressive fine-dining in streetside cafés, international designer labels in small boutiques and a casual Sunday market where you can find beautifully crafted jewellery.
Port attracts both international tourists and weekend escapists from Cairns, rich retirees and skint backpackers, beach bums and intimidating heads of state, celebrities who want to hide out and nobodies who want to mix with everybody.
Post-Skase, the locals still love the odd bit of flash and glamour, and they are avid celebrity spotters. During my four-day stay in Port, I’m variously told “Kylie sat in that chair”, “Pink ate in that café” and “Bill Clinton was staying at the Mirage when the September 11 attacks occurred”. These stories are told not so much for the gossip itself as for the fact that the tale-teller wants you to know that, of all the places in the world, these famous faces chose to holiday here, in Port Douglas, in their home town. They are rightfully proud.
There’s one part of Port you can’t see from Flagstaff Hill: the riverside, frequented by yachties, fishermen, old salts and the leisure class. This is where private charters can whisk you off on a romantic trip to the evocatively named Low Isles, and where families can hire a pontoon boat for day-long croc-spotting expeditions upriver. It’s a different world entirely from the beach-and-café-culture side of Port, and despite some vessels’ intimidating size and shiny fittings, it’s open to all.
Meridien Marina should have a sign out front saying “Everyone welcome – yes, even you”. For example, rock up to the Port Douglas Yacht Club on a Wednesday afternoon at 4pm for WAGLS (Wednesday Afternoon Gentlemen and Ladies Sailing), and local skippers will take you out for a sail on their yacht free of charge. Don’t mistake it, though, for a luxury sunset sail like you may have experienced elsewhere: you won’t be provided with canapés and champagne. The yachties welcome you aboard out of the goodness of their hearts, so it would be remiss not to offer to buy them a beer at the clubhouse afterwards.
While I’m in Port, I hop aboard the 37ft custom-built sloop Ice with owners Helen and Mick Williams, who are getting in plenty of practice time for the Exemplar Clipper Cup. This is a multistage race that takes place May 20-29 as part of Port’s annual Carnivale.
An incentive to get tourists coming to town before the start of the high season, Carnivale is a series of big events – many involving fine wine and food. If you’ve ever heard Port referred to as “Bogan Paradise”, Carnivale blows the insult right out of the water. Sophisticated dining comes down to the foreshore with the Sheraton Mirage Longest Lunch, and extravagant sampling plates from Port’s top chefs are served at the Taste of Port event. At the marina during Carnivale, you can buy freshly cooked catch-of-the-day seafood right off the back of the boats.
But for now, we meander up Dickson Inlet, past the historic white timber chapel of St Mary’s by the Sea. On we drift, out to sea – prow up, prow down, prow up, prow down. A series of tropical islands lead off into the distance, while out in open water, the monolithic cruise ship Diamond Princess blocks out a fair chunk of the horizon. We sail for at least half an hour to a soundtrack of flapping sails and slapping water without coming close to it – it really must be a mammoth thing.
Shortly after, the weather closes in and we’re given big waterproof jackets to wear as we down sail and motor back in to the marina, where we enjoy rounds of beers and massive plates of chicken parma and chips. It’s hardly the haute cuisine you get in the cafés and restaurants on Macrossan St, or what you’re likely to tuck into during Carnivale, but it’s affordable and tasty, and it somehow feels right to be dining at a communal table and mixing with the locals, who’ve welcomed a bunch of blow-ins into their clubhouse in a way I’ve rarely experienced as an out-of-towner. It’s low-key and there’s no airs or graces. Christopher Skase is quite possibly spinning in his grave.
26 Wharf St; (07) 4099 4922; www.salsaportdouglas.com.au
Back Country Bliss Adventures offers guided rainforest bushwalks, sea kayaking, river snorkelling, helicopter adventures and mountain biking through the Daintree. backcountrybliss.com.au
Cruise out to Agincourt Ribbon Reefs and swim with clownfish and green turtles, or sail on a luxury catamaran out to Low Isles. quicksilver-cruises.com