Port of call: Our guide to Port Douglas

Nov 16, 2011


Celebrity spotting is a sure thing in the Tropical North Queensland town of Port Douglas. Like heat-seeking missiles, countless celebrities home in on this tropical hot spot, their target the sun-drenched sandy beaches and sparkling waters that fringe the world-famous shores. While the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest are definite drawcards, the rich and famous go to Port Douglas to party without being pestered by the paparazzi. Superstars such as Billy Connolly, George Clooney, John Farnham and Kylie Minogue are smitten with the laid-back lifestyle and laconic locals, who don’t bat an eyelid when a Hollywood A-lister sits at the next table.

The tiny town, an hour’s drive north of Cairns, got its big-shot reputation in the 1980s when the man who would eventually become Australia’s most famous fugitive, Christopher Skase, constructed the Sheraton Mirage resort. The Mirage quickly became a favourite of the beau monde, attracting VIP guests such as former US president Bill Clinton and John Travolta. However, the grand old dame lost some of her lustre over the years, so new owner, the Melbourne property identity David Marriner, is planning a five-star facelift to turn back the clock – just like some of her glamorous guests.

Luckily, the multimillion-dollar makeover won’t see off the popular Sheraton Mirage Longest Lunch, held in the grounds of the iconic property during Carnivale, the 10-day food and wine festival in May that celebrates the region’s growing reputation for fine food. Held by a lake on the 18-hole golf course, the alfresco event is not for the fainthearted, with guests kicking up their heels long after the five-course degustation lunch is finished.

Another big crowd-puller at Carnivale is Food, Wine & A Taste Of Port, which sees about 2000 people pack the foreshore on a balmy autumn night, dancing, drinking and sampling menus at various stalls set up by some of the region’s best restaurants.
The locals love wining and dining – you’ll need staying power to keep up with them – and cosmopolitan eat streets Macrossan, Wharf and Grant are lined with open-air restaurants, cafes and pubs catering to all appetites. Being only 16-degrees south of the equator, most dining spots have adopted a trademark tropical style with outdoor tables making the most of the languid days and sultry nights.

If there’s a favourite dining spot for locals, it’s probably Salsa Bar & Grill on Wharf Street. The timber Queenslander is ideal for a lazy lunch with tables overlooking the park and St Mary’s By The Sea chapel. With the Coral Sea on the doorstep, it’s no surprise to find that head chef Goran Zonai’s menu favours seafood, with crowd-pullers such as preserved lemon tempura coral trout with wakame and kipfler potato salad and a white miso aioli, served alongside kick-ass cocktails using local fruit. The ceiling is covered with signed plates from prominent diners such as Matthew McConaughey (who stayed in town while filming Fool’s Gold) and Bill Clinton.

Next door is Harrisons Restaurant, home of the town’s celebrity chef – Michelin man Spencer Patrick. The former Michelin-star chef wows expectant diners with his European-inspired menu – with Asian flavours thrown in for good measure, for example Queensland spanner crab cannelloni with scallop, ginger and chilli mousse, carrot and lemongrass puree and a coconut velout. There are also plenty of meatier options, including caramelised pork belly, Chateaubriand, and a textbook steak frites – plus a cracking wine list with an eclectic collection of Australian and European brands.

For premium Champagne, and all-day dining, fizz fiends head to Zinc. The lounge bar is filled with the distinctive orange Veuve Cliquot label (piccolos, jeroboams, ice buckets) so it’s obviously a favourite tipple here, but Krug, Mot & Chandon and Dom Perignon are also available, with a menu covering breakfast to bar snacks and everything in between. A trip to the bathroom, where fish inhabit a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, is a must.

Fish are also an attraction at 2 Fish, but here it’s all about the catch of the day as diners mix ’n’ match their favourite fish – perhaps barramundi, red emperor or coral trout – with their choice of garnish, be it Thai, Mediterranean, French or English. Another ideal spot for a relaxed meal is Bistro 3 – opposite the perennially packed Court House Hotel. If you want to feed brain and body at the same time, Whileaway cafe/bookshop is exactly what the doctor ordered. The neighbouring Java Blue serves excellent coffee, while Watergate, Nautilus and Sassi Cantina are also highly regarded eateries.

Food figures prominently at the Port Douglas Market, too. Held every Sunday at Anzac Park, opposite the Court House Hotel, stalls display local arts and crafts (look out for sculptor Bob Gilmour’s exquisite timber bowls and cooking utensils) as well as an array of fresh produce from the nearby Atherton Tablelands and Daintree – from macadamias, mangoes, pestos and pickles to fresh coconut milk and more. Another good source of fresh produce is Blood Orange in Warner Street, which has an excellent range of exotic fruit, including the highly prized mangosteen and sapote, vegetables, spices, homemade dips as well as readymade pasta meals. A few steps away is Seafood House, a one-stop shop for fresh aquatic foods such as prawns, oysters, mussels, mud crabs, barramundi, mangrove jack and tuna.

The region is a produce powerhouse – often referred to as the exotic fruit bowl of Australia – thanks to its tropical climate. Regional food brand Taste Paradise has five self-drive food trails for epicurean adventurers, with exotic fruit orchards, tea and coffee plantations and farm gates on most trails: printouts of each are available at tasteparadise.com.

Near Port Douglas – on The Taste of the Rainforest Trail – Tony and Trudie Woodall produce more than a dozen tropical fruit wines and fortifieds at Shannonvale Tropical Fruit Winery. It began as a hobby 17 years ago and is now a thriving commercial concern with more than 12,000 litres of wine produced each year. Most of the fruit is grown in the Woodalls’ own orchard, including mango, pineapple, passionfruit, jaboticaba, purple mangosteen and black sapote. The single vineyard wines are drier than expected. Trudie Woodall suggests that they are best served with food, recommending that the pineapple wine be served with seafood and the vanilla port (using Daintree vanilla) drizzled over ice-cream.

With so much first-rate food and wine, it’s hard to watch your waistline, but every morning throngs of people walk off the previous night’s excess on Four Mile Beach. Coconut Grove Apartments is perfectly positioned nearby on the corner of Macrossan and Davidson Streets, a few steps to the beach and a short stroll to the bars and restaurants. It has 33 three-bedroom contemporary apartments all with luxe furnishings, plasma TVs and Bose sound systems. Fully equipped kitchens and barbecue cooking areas with expansive
terraces and balconies make for satisfying alfresco entertaining, and if you really want to channel that inner celebrity, opt for the terrace pool or penthouse apartments with private pool and spa.

At the other end of Four Mile Beach (a 10-minute drive from town) is Sea Temple Resort & Spa. The 4ha resort has a pristine lagoon-style pool, a day spa, golf-and-country club and restaurant on site; you could hide out here for your entire stay. There are 194 rooms in all configurations, but the spacious swim-out apartments are the pick of the bunch – it’s a real treat to slide from balcony to lagoon on a sizzler of a day. There is one place that’s an obligatory stop for anyone who remembers the glory days of the 1980s. Skase’s Bar at the Marina Mirage on the waterfront is a good spot to enjoy a chilled pick-me-up while reminiscing about the shenanigans of the white shoe brigade.

Port Douglas Carnivale, May 18-27, 2012, carnivale.com.au For more information visit tpdd.com.au

Source Qantas The Australian Way December 2011

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