At one end of the crooked coastal road that runs along Queensland’s spine is the touristy carnival of Cairns. At the other, the Hamptons-esque weatherboards and chic marina-side dining of Port Douglas. Both have their charms but if you know where to go, it’s the one-hour car journey between the two towns that offers some of the region’s best food, nature and accommodation.
If you’re heading south from Port Douglas your first stop – providing you’ve booked first – should be Oaks Kitchen and Garden, a jungly, jubilant cooking school and restaurant presided over by chef Ben Wallace and front-of-house gardener-in-chief Rachael Boon, and their flock of free-range chickens. Ben prepares a multi-course, long-table South East Asian lunch on Thursday, Friday and Saturday using only local meats and seafood and whatever’s in season in Rachael’s garden, from rosella flowers to aerial yams to galangal – something Rachael calls “seed to plate”. It’s all served in an open-air shed with a corrugated iron roof with breezy tunes in the background, while you help yourself to whatever you brought to chill in the BYO wine fridge and share good times with your new dining companions.
If you’re organised you will already have booked Spice at Oak, a four-bedroom absolute beachfront luxury villa that seems like it’s made of more view than walls. Mix yourself a pina colada and settle into one of the plush rattan sofas on one of the upper balconies and watch the final light of the day fade away through the palms. If it’s mid-week, so you missed out on lunch on at Oaks Kitchen and Garden, you can order their Wednesday Curry Night delivery online and they’ll bring it to the door.
The next day carry on south but don’t miss any opportunity to take in the wild ocean views. You’ll know the Rex Lookout when you see it because odds are several other road-trippers will have pulled over to the side of the road to breathe in the wind-whipping salty air and take in the views. It’s one of the most arresting places in the area to get a broad panorama of the region’s two big natural wonders: the rainforest and the reef, as they meet on the shores of Trinity Bay below.
Then it’s on to the elegant town of Palm Cove, which is strictly a suburb of Cairns but in reality its own dreamily pretty little village. There are plenty of restaurants here – though it’s highly likely many of them will be booked up with receptions, as the town’s a popular wedding spot, so plan in advance. The pick is Nu Nu – chef Nicko Holloway is a flavour genie, creating spice-packed, often chargrilled dishes from hyperlocal produce. Ask for a seat outside so you’re sitting absolute beach-front, then ask for what dishes the staff recommend: if you’re fed whatever Nicko thinks is good that day, you’re going to be in for a treat. The only rules he plays by is that there are no rules; it just has to taste good.
Afterwards, take Kamerunga Road which curves inland as your final leg to Cairns. It’s slower, but you’ll drive towards the Stoney Creek swimming hole, a popular spot to dive into the jewel-green freshwater and wash away some of that far north tropical heat before you complete your journey into Cairns.
The fine print
How to get there
The closest airport to Port Douglas is Cairns. It’s serviced daily by flights from all over Australia.
When to go
Everyone says winter to avoid the worst of the heat. But summer avoids the worst of the tourists. Your choice.
Suggested trip length
You can do the drive between Port Douglas and Cairns in an hour without stops, but give yourself a couple of days to take in the sights.
What to pack
The is the tropics, baby! It’s all about shorts, gauzy dresses and a swimsuit underneath
A cool coastline calls for modern surf rock. California lo-fi beach queens La Luz should do the trick.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My life in travel
Favourite Aussie holiday memory
“From when I was tiny my family would regularly stay at an old-school holiday resort, Kim’s Camp, on the NSW Central Coast (it’s still there but it has a nice new name and is much more glamorous today). I was only a newborn when I went the first time and my parents tell me I slept in an esky. Ah, the carefree (careless?) late-1970s.”
Next local holiday
“I’m planning on disappearing into the bush with my husband and two dogs to this tiny house, buried somewhere mysterious in the Blue Mountains of NSW.”
Favourite international holiday spot
“I could happily see out the rest of my days on an island in the Philippines – there are only about 7000 to choose from.”
Australian bucket list destination
“I haven’t seen nearly as much Australian outback as I’d like. I’m obsessed with the idea of flying over Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and viewing the mysterious Marree Man from the air.”