PORT OF COOL

Port Dou­glas is back and bet­ter than ever.

Australian Traveller - - Contents -

“HAVE YOU TAKEN A KWELLS?” asks my ob­vi­ously con­cerned driver, as we snake around the first tight bend of the Cap­tain Cook High­way, the only path to Port Dou­glas from Cairns. My white-knuckle grip on the door han­dle must have given my green gut away. “This road gets pretty windy,” she adds, and she’s not kid­ding. The one-hour jour­ney from Cairns air­port to Port Dou­glas is an ag­gres­sively curly yet breath­tak­ingly scenic route, ro­tat­ing be­tween quick vi­sions of breezy sug­ar­cane plan­ta­tions, the dis­tant Dain­tree rain­for­est, some crocodile spot­ting, and, of course, the sparkling turquoise coast­line of the Co­ral Sea, lead­ing out to the Great Bar­rier Reef. With a front-seat view of such pic­turesque dis­trac­tions, my queasi­ness has no chance. Port Dou­glas, or Port as the lo­cals call it, is a town with a his­tory full of its own twists and turns. The gold rushes of the late 1800s saw it over­take Cairns as the main min­ing port, grow­ing the pop­u­la­tion by thou­sands. But tragedy struck in 1911, when a cy­clone flat­tened most of the town’s build­ings, many never to be re­built. When the ini­tial build of the Cap­tain Cook High­way be­tween Cairns and Moss­man by­passed Port Dou­glas, Moss­man was set up as the cen­tre of the Dou­glas Shire, and by 1960, just 100 Port Dou­glas lo­cals re­mained. I’m a new­comer to Port, with ex­pec­ta­tions based only on mixed re­views from friends who wax lyri­cal about best-ever child­hood fam­ily hol­i­days to more re­cent trav­ellers unim­pressed with the still daggy and dated fa­cil­i­ties from the 1980s. What I see to­day, as we drive through the small trop­i­cal town and pull up to the lobby of the newly ren­o­vated Sher­a­ton Grand Mi­rage Re­sort, is Port Dou­glas on the up­swing.

Af­ter the il­lus­tri­ous launch of the $100 mil­lion Sher­a­ton Mi­rage by Christo­pher Skase back in 1987, the town was opened up to the world and Port Dou­glas saw its big­gest boom pe­riod over the next two decades. “The re­sort be­came a playground for the rich and fa­mous,” says Steve Mol­nar, gen­eral man­ager of the re­sort; celebrity vis­i­tors in­cluded Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton, Tom Hanks, John Tra­volta and Mick Jag­ger. But as al­most 30 years passed and ’80s style turned from cool to cringe­wor­thy, the re­sort lost a lit­tle of its lus­tre, as did much of the town’s sur­rounds. “When you’re send­ing a mes­sage that Port Dou­glas is a high-end world trip, the prop­erty can’t be dated. Ev­ery­one is look­ing for that next new thing,” says Steve. With the in­ten­tion of bring­ing the five-star ho­tel’s rep­u­ta­tion back from its glory days, own­ers Full­share in­vested $43 mil­lion into a com­plete re­fur­bish­ment, keep­ing the bones of the build­ing in­tact, but with ev­ery­thing else reimag­ined for the 2017 vis­i­tor. Walk­ing past the two hectares of re­freshed salt­wa­ter swim­ming la­goons, I come to the Sher­a­ton’s pri­vate en­trance to Four Mile Beach, a sandy stretch of clear blue sea and wav­ing palms. It’s a sign of the town’s in­trin­sic con­nec­tion to the wa­ter – one it has built its very foun­da­tions on. Stretch­ing out for more than 2000 kilo­me­tres, the Great Bar­rier Reef is the world’s largest co­ral reef, and Port Dou­glas is one of the clos­est gate­ways to the UNESCO World Her­itage Site. Launch­ing the very first tour to the Low Isles back in 1979, Quick­sil­ver Cruises is a pi­o­neer in ex­plor­ing the area. Aboard its high-speed cata­ma­ran (sea­sick­ness tablets in hand, of course), I set­tle in for the one-hour jour­ney to Agin­court Reef. This small group of pris­tine rib­bon reefs runs par­al­lel to the

Con­ti­nen­tal Shelf, and Quick­sil­ver have an­chored a two-level float­ing plat­form just above it. It’s a lit­tle daunt­ing for those with­out their sea legs – there’s noth­ing but 360 de­grees of deep blue sur­round­ing us, and a whole other ecosys­tem thriv­ing just be­low. “One of the things I love the most about the tour is you’ll see even the long-term crew come out of the wa­ter, with big grins on their faces, and say ‘Did you see that? How amaz­ing!’. To have that as your of­fice every day, it’s pretty great,” says Me­gan Bell, who has been in the Quick­sil­ver com­pany for 18 years. I’ve never been this far north in Aus­tralia, and it’s my first chance to catch a glimpse of this un­der­wa­ter uni­verse. I jump off the snorkelling plat­form into the wa­ter and see first­hand that Quick­sil­ver’s of­fice is, in­deed, amaz­ing. While it’s not quite as colour­ful as I imag­ined, the dra­matic si­lence of be­ing un­der­wa­ter, deep drops open­ing up to never-end­ing chains of co­ral, schools of glid­ing fish and even a tur­tle swim­ming by to say hello, is liv­ing proof that Port Dou­glas will never re­ally go out of style. Back on dry land, I have a lunch date booked at the newly ren­o­vated Reef Ma­rina. Walk­ing across the palm-fringed har­bour, past the re­mains of the de­serted shop­ping com­plex, I won­der if I’m in the right place. Weath­ered tim­ber boards and chipped yel­low paint are ev­i­dence of the ma­rina’s de­cay­ing hey­day; most of the build­ings have been left un­touched over the past 30 years. But closer to the wa­ter, along the re­cently up­dated board­walk, you can see why this spot is now the talk of the town. Opened at the ma­rina in 2016, Hem­ing­way’s is Port Dou­glas’s first craft brewery. Putting the pure waters of nearby Moss­man Gorge to good use, the brewery makes a range of high-qual­ity beers that nod to im­por­tant mo­ments in the town’s time­line. “We wanted the lo­cals to feel like it was their pub, their place and their beer; all of our six beers have been named af­ter some­one who was lo­cal here,” says Hem­ing­way’s gen­eral man­ager, Dean Scadding. The Prospec­tor is a bright and re­fresh­ing pil­sner brewed in hon­our of the gold rush; Doug’s Courage, a pine-scented IPA, com­mem­o­rates the com­mu­nity’s in­cred­i­ble spirit af­ter the tragic cy­clone; and Pitch­fork Betty’s is a pale ale named af­ter the town’s most fa­mous pub­li­can. “Betty Whit­ing used to have one of the first pubs here in Port Dou­glas. She be­came a bit se­nile and, if any­body started to up­set her, she’d start chas­ing them out of the pub with a pitch­fork – she was a bit of a leg­end in town,” says Dean. It’s places like this, along with mod­ern restau­rant and cock­tail bar Bar­ba­dos around the cor­ner, that have brought life back to the ma­rina. “We’re not a tra­di­tional sort of pub. Peo­ple can ac­tu­ally sit down, taste and ex­pe­ri­ence the dif­fer­ent beers,” says Dean. “We of­fer some­where else for peo­ple to go, not just wan­der up and down Macrossan Street. Ev­ery­body loves sit­ting be­side the wa­ter.”

There’s def­i­nitely some­thing in the wa­ter here. From the ma­rina, the launch­ing point to the in­cred­i­ble Great Bar­rier Reef, you’ll see the iconic St Mary’s by the Sea chapel, torn apart by the cy­clone, then up­lifted and re­lo­cated to the har­bour. The Co­ral Sea coast­line frames the town, and the con­stant wa­ter­front views and sea­side life­style are hard to beat. It’s the fi­nal morn­ing of my trip, and I have just enough time for a cof­fee stop be­fore my flight back home. Spar­row Cof­fee, a bright blue take­away cof­fee shop on the town’s main drag, Macrossan Street, is at­tached to a colour­ful beach-themed home­wares store Ahoy Trader, which is just the spot for sea­side sou­venirs. With orig­i­nal lo­ca­tions in Ban­ga­low and By­ron Bay, Spar­row was opened in Port Dou­glas in June 2015 by hus­band-and-wife team Tris­tan and Kas­sia Grier, and co-owner Brooke Hud­son. For Tris­tan and Kas­sia, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore they re­turned to Port Dou­glas, af­ter fall­ing un­der the town’s spell 10 years ago. “Port Dou­glas for us has al­ways been a bit per­sonal – it was the first place my wife and I went when we first fell in love. When we left Port, we were so in love with the place, we wanted to come back once a year, at least,” says Tris­tan. While the town may be in the throes of a much-needed facelift to keep up with the rest of the world’s big tourist draws, Tris­tan be­lieves that it’s Port’s nat­u­ral at­trac­tions that make it a place that peo­ple want to come back to. “When you get off the plane in Cairns, the Dain­tree is right there and it’s just pump­ing en­ergy into the world… then you take the drive from Cairns to Port Dou­glas and there’s just noth­ing like it,” he says. “You’re so far from ev­ery­thing, but then you get here and ac­tu­ally have [what feels like] a me­trop­o­lis and great hos­pi­tal­ity – it’s wicked.”

CLOCK­WISE FROM FAR LEFT: The Great Bar­rier Reef is yours to ex­plore; The colour pal­ette of Port Dou­glas runs blue; Quick­sil­ver Cruises have their own spa­cious plat­form on Agin­court Reef; A re­fresh­ing bev­er­age awaits at Bar­ba­dos; Spar­row Cof­fee can help­fully caf­feinate your sou­venir shop­ping spree. PRE­VI­OUS PAGE: Moss­man Gorge pro­vides more re­fresh­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, just 20 min­utes out of town.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: The open deck at Bar­ba­dos at the ma­rina; A cock­tail at Bar­ba­dos; The home­wares at Ahoy Trader are en­tirely suit­case wor­thy. OP­PO­SITE: St Mary’s by the Sea, torn asun­der by a cy­clone and re­built pride of place on the har­bour.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Re­vamped and five-star once again, the Sher­a­ton Grand Mi­rage Re­sort; High and dry at Hem­ing­way’s Brewery and (be­low) the wet stuff; Trop­i­cal blooms in town; Port Dou­glas’s fa­mous Four Mile Beach. OP­PO­SITE: Pool­side lux­ury at the Sher­a­ton Grand Mi­rage.

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