23 October 2017

Reef, Rainforest and Rain in Port Douglas

From sunny Melbourne, I flew to tropical North Queensland to enjoy some R and R. In this part of the world, that means ‘reef and rainforest’, although I also got a large amount of a third R: rain. Travelling to various Antipodean locations in one trip makes it hard to find the perfect time of year weather-wise for them all. The wet season in Queensland (as opposed to the slightly-less-wet season) isn’t supposed to start until the end of November, so I thought I might be OK.

But we landed at Cairns Airport in a tropical storm that lasted several days and it rained for about 80% of my time in the area. Such is life. Rather than staying in busy party town Cairns, I based myself in Port Douglas, some 40 miles to the north. Once a small fishing village, Port (as the locals call it) still only has about 3,000 residents, but most nights they are joined by some 13,000 visitors. Smaller and quieter, if also more expensive, Port Douglas has plenty of good restaurants, boutiques and even some speciality coffee. It’s also closer to the Great Barrier Reef’s Outer Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, both of which had long been on my bucket list.

There is no public transport from Cairns Airport to Port Douglas, so I booked a shuttle for $66 return with Port Douglas Bus. The journey takes about 1h15 and the coastal road is stunning (look out for the fields of kangaroos as well as the beach and rainforest vistas), but arriving just before nightfall and in a storm meant I didn’t quite appreciate it as much as on the way back when the rain had slowed to a heavy drizzle.

I booked a private ensuite room at the Port Douglas Backpackers. There are a lot of smart hotels and fancy resorts in the CBD and along Four Mile Beach, which runs south down the town’s eastern shore. These were all out of my price range and after checking out the budget hotel accommodation, I thought I’d be better off staying in a hostel. The room still cost $95 per night but it was clean, comfortable and relatively quiet. Crucially, the hostel was only five minutes’ walk from Four Mile Beach, the Reef Marina and Macrossan Street, the town’s main shopping and eating street. I was in my room for so little time that all I really needed was a place to crash, and the Port Douglas Backpackers is pleasant and well-run.

Great Barrier Reef
I waited as late as possible before booking my Great Barrier Reef trip, mainly because the weather forecast was so bad that I was holding out for the least-bad option. Myriad boat operators offer dive and/or snorkel trips to various parts of the Outer Reef. I learned to dive15 years ago and have long wanted to dive on the Great Barrier Reef but I’ve been having some problems with my ears and I didn’t want to risk ruining the rest of my holiday. As I knew that sites frequented by both divers and snorkelers would likely be less good for the latter — apprentice divers who can’t yet control their buoyancy can inadvertently damage the coral closer to the surface — I went for a snorkelling-only operator.

I booked in with Wavelength mainly because the company is run by marine biologists and there is a big focus during the day on education about the reef ecosystem, biodiversity and the recent catastrophic coral bleaching events. I paid about $240 and we had three 1–1.5-hour snorkelling trips during the day. The guides were excellent — knowledgeable, friendly and experienced— and I would highly recommend Wavelength if you’re looking to snorkel on the reef. There were about 40 of us on board but the sites were large enough that everyone could explore without it being too crowded.

The journey out to Opal Reef was rather bumpy but it was calmer once we reached the reef, which offers some protection against the wind. I’d been hoping for a clear, sunny day for optimum visibility and in the end we got some sunny spells and a little rain in the afternoon. Our guides later told us that those perfect sunny, wind- and rain-free days (there are about 20 per year) are the ones that contribute most to coral damage, so it was hard to mind much.

Across the three sites we visited — Ray Ban (owing to its sunglasses-like shape), Mojo and Bashful Bommie ('bommie' being an abbreviation of bombora) — I saw dozens of beautiful, colourful tropical fish species (including the clownfish, AKA ‘Nemo’), three turtles, a cowtail stingray and a reef shark.

Despite the bleaching, the sites we visited were in relatively good condition and I loved swimming through the beautiful coral gardens, marvelling at the diversity.

Mossman Gorge, the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation
A short drive from Port Douglas lies the UNESCO-listed Daintree Rainforest, one of the most ancient and diverse rainforests in the world. There are various sights and activities in and around the rainforest and if you don’t have a car, the easiest way to see them all in a short space of time is by taking a tour. Following the recommendation of my Lonely Planet guidebook, I booked in on a small-group tour with Tony’s Tropical Tours. The full-day tour costs $190 and so isn’t cheap but it was a very well-organised day and our guide, Steve, was excellent — a fountain of knowledge about the history, culture, ecology and zoology of the area.

We started off with a walk through the rainforest at Mossman Gorge. It was, of course, raining, although the rainforest canopy provided some shelter. We saw many species of plant and tree, most of which had incredible adaptations to a low-light ecosystem. We also spotted a brush turkey, a forest dragon lizard, and many colourful birds and butterflies. We walked along the river, which is normally crystal clear and swimmable but following the downpours, it was rough and muddy, and frankly, we were wet enough already!

Next up was a boat ride along the Daintree River. We were on the hunt for crocodiles but didn’t spot any — it was high tide and the river condition weren’t optimal. Our guide did point out a tree snake (I wish he hadn’t!) and a colony of roosting bats. Towards the end, it began to really throw it down with rain, so I can’t say that I was devastated to leave the boat despite the lack of croc sightings.

After a barbecue lunch, we went for another walk through a privately owned estate in the Daintree rainforest. Again, we saw all sorts of weird and wonderful plant species, including a Rebecca fern, which, of course, I had to photograph! We had hoped to see the elusive cassowary — a five-foot-tall, flightless bird with a bright blue neck, which looks more like a feathered dinosaur than a modern bird. We didn’t spot any on our walk, but we did catch a glimpse of a skittish female while driving up to Cape Tribulation (she ran away before I could get a photo; the males, who look after the eggs and rear the young, are apparently less nervous).

Cape Tribulation was named by Captain Cook during his first voyage in 1770. He’d been having a rough time, you see, after his boat got stuck on what is now known as Endeavour Reef. The beach at Cape Trib is the only place on Earth where two UNESCO World Heritage sites meet — the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef. The rain stopped for just long enough for me to pose for a leaping photo on the beach, although I soon had the poncho on again. Even in better climes, the beach isn’t a great place to swim as there are sometimes estuarine crocodiles and, in some seasons, stingers. If you do get stung, there is free vinegar available at the car park.

Port Douglas

There isn’t a huge amount to do in Port Douglas itself — you can take a crocodile-spotting river cruise or visit the beach, though. It only stopped raining for long enough for me to get to the beach on my last day and although the sun wasn’t shining it was at least a warm day. Four Mile beach is pretty — fringed with palm trees and with the moody mountains looming in the distance. There’s a patrolled swimming area close to the Macrossan Street entrance. It isn’t yet stinger season, but after hearing various crocodile-related horror stories, I was very careful to swim between the flags. I did go for a jog along the soft sand, though. It was extremely humid, which gave me great respect for the runners taking part in the Great Barrier Reef Marathon in Port Douglas yesterday.

Coffee, Food and DrinkAfter gorging on many top-notch meals while in Melbourne, I tried to limit my eating out budget while in Port Douglas. There are some nice restaurants in town — 2 Fish, On the Inlet, Salsa and Watergate all came recommended, for example — but this being a resort town, the prices were similar to those in Melbourne and I wasn’t convinced they would compare favourably. Moreover, most of the café-style eateries close at 3 pm or 4 pm, which isn’t much use if you are out on excursions all day. Food-wise, I stuck mainly to cheaper Asian eateries — I had a decent Thai meal and some good pho at a Vietnamese spot.

There are several speciality coffee shops in town. The best was Origin Espresso on Grant Street, the café of Port Douglas-based Four Mile Roasters. They serve espresso-based drinks and doughnuts from Duke’s (if you get there early enough). I had a piccolo made with a Brazilian/Indonesian espresso blend, which was really good.

On Macrossan Street, Sparrow is another good option. They have a beautiful turquoise La Marzocco machine and serve Allpress coffee. I had a nice piccolo, although missed out on the doughnuts, which sell out by 7 am on Fridays!

On my last day in town, I had brunch at Betty’s Bohemian Beach Cafe on Macrossan Street. I had a very good piccolo made with espresso from Cairns-based Blackbird Espresso, as well as delicious scrambled eggs on toast with a side of bacon.

Inside the excellent Whileaway Bookshop, there’s a small espresso bar serving espresso from Sydney-based Single O. My piccolo was decent, although a little hot and slightly under-extracted. I didn’t go to The Little Larder café, but they serve coffee from Toby’s Estate, so it may be worth a visit if you’re in the market for a decent cup of coffee.

I went for a pre-dinner cocktail one night at Jimmy Rum’s Mixing Lounge on Macrossan Street. It’s a sleek bar with an extensive cocktail list — and about as close as you will get to a New York-style speakeasy in Port Douglas. I had an excellent martini with Australian Four Pillars gin. Be warned, though (as I was not when I ordered): if you order a drink with ‘premium’ spirits, you’ll pay a lot more: my martini was $24 instead of the $15 price for a regular martini. If I’d been told when ordering, I might have been less annoyed when the bill came. Otherwise, though, Jimmy Rum’s is a great bar.

Despite its petite size, Port Douglas has a huge number of shops. There’s a particular focus on lifestyle and clothing boutiques, and sports and swimwear shops.

Some of the places I liked included: Floral Edge (Macrossan Street; flowers, gifts and accessories); Spring Court (Macrossan Street; upscale men’s and women’s fashions); Ahoy Trader (Macrosssan Street (next to Sparrow); clothing, accessories and gifts); With Sugar (Macrossan Street; gifts and homewares); Pebble (Wharf Street; minimalist homewares); Seafolly (Macrossan Street) upscale Australian swimwear brand) and Lorna Jane (Macrossan Street; Lululemon-esque activewear).

I didn’t plan to stay in Cairns but the aforementioned Great Barrier Reef Marathon in Port Douglas meant I couldn’t find an affordable room for Saturday night. Instead, I took a shuttle down to Cairns and stayed at the Coral Tree Inn. The décor was rather tired but my room was huge, with a separate living room and kitchen and two balconies, and well-appointed. There was a small swimming pool although I wasn’t there long enough to use it. It was a ten-minute walk into the CBD.

By the time I got to Cairns on Saturday afternoon, the speciality coffee possibilities I’d identified (Blackbird Espresso, Caffeind and Sing Sing Espresso) had already closed. Cairns doesn't have a natural beach in the city centre but there is a free public swimming pool right on the esplanade. The rain made this a less appealing prospect. Instead, I went for a wander in the Cairns CBD but after an hour, I’d had my fill of large, rowdy bars and clubs and tourist gift shops. The Cairns Art Gallery had already closed, and the new aquarium’s entry fee was a rather cynically priced $42.

My Lonely Planet guidebook highly recommended a restaurant called Ganbaranba on Spence Street, so I went there for dinner. This cash-only ramen joint serves some really delicious ramen. I slurped away at my bowl — comfort food at its best.

The airport is under 3 miles from the CBD and I was tempted to walk, but the road is quite dangerous and not well-suited to pedestrians. Instead, I took an Uber, which cost $13 — only slightly cheaper than the various airport shuttles, but the journey took less than 10 minutes, whereas in the shuttles, you can end up spending 30 minutes driving between various other hotels.

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