Be swept away by affordable luxury in Port Douglas
I’m not quite sure of the exact moment it happened.
Maybe it was the “food theatre” of Harrisons owner and executive chef Spencer Patrick delicately unwrapping the paperbark from the baked coral trout at our table, filling our nostrils with its delightful smokiness and skilfully carving it like a surgeon.
Was it the realisation that every night’s a Friday night on lively Macrossan and Wharf streets – when we wanted to join the throng at “happening” bars instead of heading back to our rooms after a big day.
Or was it while drifting off to sleep as therapist Taylah worked lavender and geranium oil into my back during the couple’s massage at Vie Spa.
It could have been as early as that first flop on the kingsize bed before soaking up the thrill of an in-room spa bath and that view of seemingly endless lagoon pools at Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort.
No. I think the turning point of knowing I’d been wrong to underestimate Port Douglas came as I stood barefoot and hatless with one hand clasping a champagne flute of sparkling wine and the other hand the side of the bow as the Sailaway VI Lagoon 560 catamaran glided out of Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina to literally sail into the sunset.
That 360-degree vista – dominated by yachts on the Coral Sea, mountains shrouded in a misty veil and the thick dark green blanket of vegetation that is the Daintree Rainforest – won me over and summed up the feeling of three glorious days and two stunning nights in one of the world’s holiday hot spots.
It was enough to convince me: Port Douglas, you’ve changed. But in a good way.
Fun. Exotic. Sophisticated. Sublimely beautiful. If Port Douglas was a woman, she’d be a supermodel – minus the attitude.
She has come a long way since our first encounter on a year-long trip around Australia in 1996.
Millionaires’ playground or backpacker haven: Port Douglas back then seemed to me to have little for middle-ground travellers – those who appreciate good service, who want to be “wowed” and feel like they’re living it up but without worrying how much this would cost.
This time, Port Douglas fitted the bill of affordable luxury nicely.
And if the majestic tropical surroundings and spectacular-coloured waterways of the World Heritage-Listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest aren’t enough to lure you just 70km or a 45-minute scenic drive north of Cairns, maybe the famous hospitality and Port Douglas’s new-found fame as a foodie scene might.
We were spoilt for choice – right from a welcome dinner at Salsa Bar and Grill where the Seafood Moqueca (white fish, prawns, squid, red claw yabby and mussels) with Portuguese rice introduced us to North Queensland’s finest catch without leaving the tastebuds on fire.
It continued the next day at Pullman Port Douglas Sea Temple Resort and Spa, where an indulgent lunch began with finger foods including figs, cheeses, hummus, beetroot dip, pastrami, and pickled delights at a table overlooking the centrepiece pool.
A parade of waitstaff kept the dishes coming: a delicate deep-fried bug entree, pan-seared crispy skin barramundi with corn salsa, parsnip puree and fresh parsnip with sides of broccolini and chips.
A dessert platter of bite-size sweets including coconut ice, white choc and caramel slices to die for was the icing on the cake.
But to truly feel like you’ve had a vacation, you need to slow it down.
The five-star Sheraton Grand Mirage champions everything we love about the North Queensland lifestyle and sits in 147ha of lush tropical gardens.
The complex boasts an 18-hole golf course and more than 2ha of lagoon-style saltwater pools plus one freshwater pool with swim-up bar.
Financed by development tycoon Christopher Skase in the late-1980s boomtime, the resort was relaunched in 2016 following a $43 million rejuvenation.
The refurbishment celebrates chic coastal living with a nod to the glamour that has always been part of the resort’s DNA and attracted celebrities such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger, John Travolta and George Clooney.
Time spent in a poolside cabana or on a lounge under a wide white umbrella does wonders for mind, body and soul
But we truly found our holiday zen at morning yoga on Four Mile Beach – the ace up the Tourism Port Douglas sleeve.
Waves gently lapping the shore. An almost impenetrable line of palm trees and casuarinas forming a green barrier to the rest of the world.
A cloud-kissed mountain backdrop cloaked in green. Soft cream-coloured sand with the occasional coconut, a ribbon of harder golden grains left from high tide and blue-green water the colour of Chris Hemsworth’s eyes.
The gentle voice of Noeline Clarke took us through our changing positions.
We cleared our thoughts, monitored our breaths, found our rhythm.
And that’s what Port Douglas does best: it gives you time to breathe. To concentrate on what’s important in life. To take time out for you. To put back the balance.
You’ll sweat out the bad stuff in the Tropical North Queensland sun and humidity.
But you’ll also replenish energy and feel brand new, ready to face the everyday world again.
Harrisons takes fine dining to the max
Spencer Patrick and wife Reina spent a year travelling Australia looking for the perfect spot for the restaurant of their dreams.
They found it in Port Douglas, poolside at Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort and named it after their young son.
The most nationally awarded restaurant in Port Douglas and No. 38 in the latest Delicious Top 100 Restaurant Guide across Australia lives up to its reputation for modern Australian cuisine.
Spencer is the author, director and star of the show. He trained under the much-lauded British restaurateur and chef Marco Pierre White and was part of the team that earned The Restaurant Marco Pierre White three Michelin stars.
On this beautiful starry night in Port Douglas, Spencer is as generous with his time and conversation as he is with serving his paperbark coral trout – available as a special request.
This is a pinch-myself moment.
Yet Harrisons is as much laid-back as it is special occasion, with a light, tasty, seasonal North Queensland menu that brings together the paddock-to-plate/sea-to-plate ingredients in unusual yet more-ish combinations.
The farmed citrus-cured cobia ceviche with finger lime and local coconut milk plus toasted coconut and green chilli is so light and fresh we wanted to lick the plate clean.
The fresh ingredients and the light touch of the dishes ensures we don’t overindulge to the point where we must abstain from dessert … and coconut mousse and camomile sorbet with burnt butter crumb and Davidson plum gel is an offer too good to refuse.
Get carried away on the breeze at sunset
The Sailaway Sunset Cruise, as owner-operator Steve Edmondson points out, is all about sailing.
It’s not a dinner cruise, so guests can relax and soak up the natural surroundings over 90 minutes.
It operates every night, year-round and is such a romantic experience that some people just can’t help but be swept up in the moment.
Steve said more than 30 spontaneous marriage proposals had taken place under sail in the golden ambience of the tropical sunset.
Sailaway – recognised for its sustainable eco-tourism practices – has been operating luxury sailing experiences for 17 years. And it shows.
Long before a silver sun throws diamonds on the water as we make our way out of Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina, crew members have laid out platters of hot and cold canapes and delivered our drink orders.
As we glide past the quaint old Sugar Wharf building, locals on their daily afternoon stroll along the waterside promenade and travellers on camping chairs having afternoon drinks in the palm-treed Rex Smeal Park wave us off on our journey.
By the time we’ve eclipsed Flagstaff Hill Lighthouse, we already feel like rock stars.
Any afternoon on the water is a good afternoon and we settle in to good conversation and a passing parade of vessels from authentic Chinese junk Shaolin to like-minded yachties getting some wind in their sails.
We return just as the lights of Hemingways Brewery and the marina twinkle back into brightness.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Port Douglas Daintree.
Travel advisory: Australians must avoid all non-essential domestic travel at the time of publication. Stay up-to-date at health.gov.au.