Port Douglas, in Far North Queensland, has lured tourists for decades with its balmy tropical weather, seaside small-town charm and proximity to two Unesco World Heritage sites: the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest.
But the array and quality of dining options has multiplied in recent years, making the village an even more enticing place to visit. And as the town has expanded, so have the shopping options.
If a trip to Port Douglas is in your future, you’ll likely book a trip out to the reef and a tour of the world’s oldest surviving tropical rainforest. Don’t forget to make a few restaurant reservations, too, and carve out some time for a trip to the local markets.
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WHERE TO STAY
The Sheraton Grand Mirage
The Sheraton Grand Mirage is Port Douglas’s most enduring luxury resort – it opened in 1987 and has been a destination for domestic and international tourists ever since (including the occasional Hollywood film star and touring US president). You could easily spend your entire trip here without leaving the property, but its location also makes it an excellent base to explore the town and beyond. In fact, the hotel is located on an idyllic stretch of beach just a few kilometres from Port Douglas village – it’s an easy walk along the sand, lined with soaring palm trees, from the hotel to the main street.
Rooms are spacious, with simple coastal decor. Some have been more recently upgraded, while others are showing their age. But it’s the grounds that are the pull here: lush tropical gardens, remarkable saltwater lagoons (two hectares of them), a golf course designed by five-time British Open winner Peter Thomson. The biggest challenge you’ll face each morning is deciding which sun lounge to grab for the day – the one by the lagoon, or the one by the pool (or the one by the other lagoon, or the one by the other lagoon with the waterfall).
There are 25 private cabanas fringing those saltwater pools, and they’re well worth booking for an extra bit of indulgence or privacy.
The property has seven restaurants and bars, including the excellent Harrisons by Spencer Patrick (see more on that below), with a new addition this year in Lagoon House, a casual open-air restaurant serving up Asian flavours poolside.
WHERE TO DINE AND DRINK
For farm-to-table Thai: Jungle Fowl
In town, Jungle Fowl is a cut above the rest, and the kind of place that tempts you to visit twice in one trip. The breezy Thai diner, by husband-and-wife team Benjamin Wallace and Rachael Boon, looks out over Dickson Inlet, so it’s an excellent spot to dine at sunset. Chef Wallace is an ace who spent time in the kitchens at Longrain and the acclaimed, now-closed Easy Tiger in Melbourne, before opening a celebrated Southeast Asian cooking school with Boon in Oak Beach, about a 15-minute drive from Port Douglas. Wallace’s coral trout, lightly cured in a green nahm jim dressing, and Wagyu beef skewers, coated in a moreish satay sauce, are standout entrees. You’ll want to lean into seafood here, but a vibrant yellow curry of tender pork and potato is worth a deviation. Boon, an artist with a hospo background (she grew up in her parents’ Thai restaurants and also managed Melbourne’s Lee Ho Fook) is responsible for the gorgeous, whimsical murals throughout the interior.
For daytime essentials: Origin Espresso and Port Douglas Deli & Smokehouse
Origin Espresso is an excellent small-batch roaster serving up the town’s best coffee and house-made chai (naturally, in these tropical climes, they’ve nailed the iced versions) alongside house-made vegan and gluten-free baked goods. And the unassuming Port Douglas Deli & Smokehouse is great for made-to-order takeaway rolls filled with your choice of locally smoked meats, antipasti and Australian and imported cheeses.
For easy, casual dinners and drinks: The Mexican, Bam Pow, Salsa Bar & Grill and Hemingways
The cheerful, fast-paced Mexican, on Macrossan Street, and Port Douglas institution Salsa Bar & Grill, which overlooks the water from an old Queenslander on Wharf Street, are constantly teeming with locals and return visitors. Bam Pow is a popular and spirited newcomer serving up vegan Vietnamese and playful cocktails, with happy hour every day from 4pm until 6pm. And local brewery Hemingway’s serves up its own craft beers – from tropical ales to refreshing lagers to barrel-aged porters – with a nautical view at the Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina.
For fine dining: Harrisons and Nautilus
Fine diners worth checking out include Nautilus, in town, and Harrisons at the Sheraton. You’ll need to book ahead at both, and at Harrisons make sure you request a table on the deck, which reaches out over the hotel pool and is particularly magical at night.
Spencer Patrick is an English chef who earned his stripes in Michelin-starred kitchens with Marco Pierre White. His menu at Harrisons makes use of excellent local produce – from the nearby Atherton Tablelands to the waters around north Queensland. Don’t-miss dishes include a coconut charcoal bread with malt and molasses butter; an entree of local spanner crab, garlanded with radish, cucumber, avocado and wild scampi caviar; a decadent pasta with local squid, ‘nduja, tomato and garlic crumb; and painted crayfish served with tandoori spices and smoked yoghurt.
Degustation-only Nautilus is a Port Douglas stalwart. Since 1954 it’s wooed diners (including David Bowie and Vivian Leigh) with its open-air, middle-of-the-rainforest style setting – it’s a pretty enchanting scene, especially as the sun sets and festoon lights glow amid the lush canopy. Apart from the romantic surrounds, diners return for Nautilus’s signature mud crab and coral trout dishes, which you’ll need to pre-order when you make your reservation.
WHERE TO SHOP
The Sunday Markets
Set aside a few hours on Sunday morning to weave your way through stands of tropical fruits, gorgeous ceramics, handcrafted linen clothing and jewellery made from local pearls at the Port Douglas Sunday Markets. This is a “cotters market”, which means stallholders must grow, produce or make the goods they’re selling, so you won’t find the kind of mass-produced wares that have come to dominate so many local marketplaces.
You also won’t find a setting like this at most markets – where you glimpse the blue of the Coral Sea between stalls and palm trees. Best to do your shopping, then grab a snack and hit the park that abuts the market (and overlooks the nearby inlet). On that note, come hungry too. There are plenty of excellent food options here. Hit Duke’s Doughnuts for locally made sourdough beauties, the fresh coconut stand (it doesn’t have an official name – just look for the bamboo stall) for sweet, fresh coconuts to sip from, and Taste of the Tropics for mackerel tacos and barramundi spring rolls. You can also buy fresh produce direct from farmers.
If you’ve raced through the one or two books you brought on your holiday and still have several days left for poolside reading, Whileaway on the main street has an excellent selection. And the Book Lounge is a treasure trove of second-hand volumes.
The writer was a guest of the Sheraton Grand Mirage.