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A backpacker’s paradise in Queensland’s far north

After spending a year backpacking around the world, I am often asked about my favourite place.  The answer comes without hesitation- Port Douglas in Northern Queensland, Australia. The small town is home to exclusive resorts, award winning restaurants, beautiful galleries, boutique shopping and with the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree rainforest near by, I really did find myself in bliss.

After spending too much time in the slightly seedy Cairns, it was time for a change of scene.  In Cairns a friend and I about some work in the Daintree rainforest. The job we took wasn’t as fun as it sounded, and with only tree frogs and very strange locals for company, our first welcoming bonfire was shortly followed by a leaving bonfire.  Some backpackers at the bar the night before we left said they’d had a great few days in Port Douglas.  Acting upon this vague advice we headed about 70km up from Cairns to Port Douglas and arrived at Dougies backpackers.

Port Douglas was founded in 1877 as the port town for the Hodgkinson River Goldfields.  Initially exploring the area didn’t take us long.  Macrossan Street remains the main hub of the town and is vibrant and sophisticated, meticulously lined with palm trees.  The street is full of varied world class restaurants, bars, cafes, boutiques and galleries.  This once forgotten fishing town became one of Australia’s best kept secrets and has become a popular destination for Australians to spend winter months as well as a must visit for backpackers and holiday destination for the international traveler.  International travellers work the peak season in Port Douglas (May to October) making it a tourist town run by the tourists.  A trip to one of the many restaurants is not only a great place to eat locally caught barramundi and soft shell crab but also a place to meet like-minded travellers who serve such delights.  After dinner those up for a party head to the infamous Ironbar- a place I spent countless nights meeting new people, dancing, drinking and if you are there on a Tuesday or Thursday you can even place your bets on some cane toad racing!  Turns out it’s a big tradition in Northern Queensland and those brave enough would even kiss the toad for good luck!

Port Douglas is probably best known for its fantastic four mile beach, which is where I  (and lots of others) spent many lazy days sunbathing or just chilling out and reading.  The sand on the beach is particularly compact and this combined with the length of the beach means it has been used for horse and motorbike racing.  Like many other cheeky backpackers I loved sneaking into the Sheraton Mirage Resort to make use of the 5 star luxury facilities.  As I lay sipping a strawberry daiquiri on a sun lounger surrounded by two hectares of magnificent swimmable saltwater lagoons, with the four mile beach and a huge golf course behind me, and palm trees and a bar at my side I often though to myself that life doesn’t get much better than this.

Sunday is market day in Port Douglas.  People often come up from other parts of North Queensland to visit the town’s popular market.  Located in Anzac Park, right on the waterfront overlooking the Coral Sea, the markets are a delightful mix of local art, craft, souvenirs and fresh produce.  I loved to get up early on a Sunday and soak up the great atmosphere then stroll around to get the best Sunday breakfast in town at Soul n’ Pepper bistro where the queues headed down the street- but well worth the wait for a first class eggs Benedict with smoked salmon.  Anzac park is a great place to watch as the dive boats come in for the day in the early evening, whilst enjoying a nice cold beverage and watching the sunset.  From this spot I frequently watched weddings at the quaint St Mary’s by the Sea church, which apparently has a three year waiting list- Seems like everyone’s keen to having their big day in paradise.

The guide books often describe Port Douglas a great place to visit where “the reef meets the rainforest”.  Port Douglas is the closest gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a reef tour to suit every style, making it so easily accessible that everyone can experience the extraordinary underwater world.  I did my first scuba dive on a Haba reef trip from Port and enjoyed some amazing snorkeling where I saw an array of coral and tropical marine life.  Only in Port Douglas did a typical day involve a day out at the reef followed by five dollar jäger bombs (Redbull and a shot of Jägermeister- lethal!) at the hostel and then on to a beach party to finish.

The World Heritage rainforests are also within easy reach of Port Douglas. The green coastal strip of the Daintree, Cape Tribulation region to the north of Port Douglas is home to some of the oldest forests in the world and is a treasure trove of rare plant and animal species.  Macrossan Street is full of tour shops offering every type of trip.  We decided to hire a car and take a twenty minute drive from Port to Mossman Gorge.  Here we experienced the rainforest walking tracks and taking a dip in the refreshing watering holes.

It was only after I was chatting to local restaurant owners in Port who had signed photos pinned up that I found out the towns celebrity status.  It turns out it’s not just my favorite holiday destination but also for world travelers and celebrities such as John Travolta, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Bill Clinton, and Kylie Minogue. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  The wet season really kicks in during October and those hot and sticky temperatures proved too much for tent life so it was time to bid farewell and take the shuttle bus back to Cairns and then on to the more bearable temperatures of New South Wales.

The picturesque road back to Cairns along the captain Cook highway is one of the most famous and scenic drives in the Southern Hemisphere and follows a stunning coastal path. It is hard not to be impressed with this charming place- and its hard to believe it was just a sleepy fishing village a few decades ago.  It’s a tough place to beat and the only place on my travels where I felt like a backpacker living in five star luxury- even if I did sleep in a tent!

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