There's plenty to explore where the forest finds the sea, writes Lee Atkinson.
The rainforest meets the reef at Port Douglas, or at least pretty close to it, so it's one of the few places where you can explore two very different World Heritage-listed landscapes from the one base. It's also got a nice beach, lots of accommodation options and great places to eat.
What it's known for
The reef and rainforest are the main attractions. Port Douglas is one of the closest spots on mainland Australia to the Great Barrier Reef; depending on where you go, it will take between an hour and 90 minutes of cruising before you reach the coral. The reef might be on Port Douglas's doorstep, but the backyard is just as fascinating: the Daintree is the world's oldest living rainforest and you can explore it in a four-wheel-drive or boat, on a quad bike, on horseback, on foot, by zip line or by torchlight at night on a guided spotlighting tour.
What you didn't know ...
At 6.39am on November 14, Port Douglas, or more specifically Oak Beach just a few kilometres to the south, will be directly underneath the central shadow line of a total solar eclipse, making it one of the best places in northern Australia to see it. According to the Britannica encyclopaedia, "the average number of total solar eclipses in a century is 66 for Earth as a whole" and on average, any point may experience "no more than one total solar eclipse in three to four centuries". Port Douglas is celebrating this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a festival, a photographic exhibition and a special marathon that begins as soon as the sun re-emerges from the shadow of the moon, making it quite possibly the first sporting event with an intergalactic start gun.
Mossman Gorge, a beautiful boulder-strewn river gorge in dense rainforest 20 kilometres north of Port Douglas, has long been a must-see spot in the Wet Tropics, but until now it's always been a do-it-yourself affair. The just-opened Mossman Gorge Centre offers easy access to the gorge, with shuttles departing every 10 minutes, as well as a cafe, indigenous art gallery and gift shop. Also new are two Dreamtime Gorge Walks on Kuku Yalanji land, run by indigenous guides. The walks start with a traditional "smoking" ceremony that cleanses and wards off bad spirits, before meandering through the rainforest and taking in traditional huts or humpies, a swim in a waterhole, and bush tea and damper to finish. The centre is open daily. The Dreamtime Gorge Walk costs $45 and the Dreamtime Legend Walk $65, with kids paying half price. The gorge shuttle bus costs $4.80 return for adults, $2.50 for children. mossmangorge.com.au.
The Captain Cook Highway between Cairns and Port Douglas is undoubtedly one of the country's most beautiful stretches of road. Hugging the coastline for most of the way, the views of the rainforest spilling down the mountainside to meet the sea in a necklace of deserted white beaches are magnificent.
Where to eat
Port Douglas has plenty of eating choices on the main street (Macrossan Street). The best breakfast in town is the daily "Breakfast with the Birds" in an aviary at the Wildlife Habitat on the edge of town. wildlifehabitat.com.au. A new contender for best breakfast is 3Nineteen (4 Dixie Street), though they also do a great lunch. Another top spot for lunch is the Treehouse Restaurant in the rainforest at Silky Oaks Lodge, near Mossman Gorge. Long-time favourite is Wharf Street's Salsa Bar & Grill - check out the signed plates from celebrity diners such as Bill Clinton and Nicole Kidman.
Where to stay
Silky Oaks Lodge has two new ultra-luxe Billabong Suites on the Mossman River, and their treehouses and river houses have also had a major refurbishment. Rates start at $548 a night for a treehouse, up to $998 in the recently opened Billabong Suites. silkyoakslodge.com.au. If your budget doesn't stretch quite that far, the QT Port Douglas is offering an opening "2 night stand" special until December: $220 (a person) for two nights' accommodation including breakfast, a cocktail and dinner for two. They are also running the Moonlight Cinema on the grounds of the hotel up until October. qtportdouglas.com.au.
How to get there
For more information, see pddt.com.au.