When the southern swelter becomes too much, it's time to hit the tropics in style, writes Helen Pitt.
When temperatures are searing in Sydney and melting in Melbourne, it's a quirky concept to think of going to Cairns to cool off. But that has indeed often been the case this summer, with temperatures in tropical far north Queensland often cooler than the southern capitals.
So when the mercury pushed over 40 in Sydney and bushfires fanned NSW, I headed off to north Queensland for some respite from the heat and rush of city life.
It's an easy three-hour flight from Sydney to Cairns. The moment I arrive I can feel the stress start to melt off me. After hopping into an airconditioned car, it's a 25-minute drive north from the airport through multiple giant roundabouts to the beach resort of Palm Cove. There's no city road rage, just the odd bit of roadkill (the occasional cane toad) on my journey to the palm-fringed beachside resort town.
When I arrive at the beachfront Reef House, it is like walking into the tropical sophistication of Singapore's Raffles Hotel - ceiling fans whirling overhead, plantation wooden shutters, and even a welcome cocktail. Sipping it on the rattan swing on my beachfront balcony, watching the full moon and hearing the waves gently lap, I gaze at the magnificent melaleucas that are close on 300 years old, lit up in all their gnarled glory. They are my final vision before falling asleep to the soothing rhythm of the waves and the ceiling fan.
The next morning I head for a daytrip to Fitzroy Island on the Great Barrier Reef. As I pass the netted beach at Palm Cove, I consider that the weather isn't the only bad press the tropics get in summer time. There are also the stingers and the deadly jellyfish (irukandji, as the locals call some of them) - which are all easily avoided either by wearing the wonderfully named "stinger suit" or just swimming in the resort pool.
Fitzroy Island is an easy hour's boat trip from Cairns. The resort, reopened in 2010, has one of those swim-up pool bars (does anything say indulgent holiday more than a swim-up bar?) where I could have happily lounged all day. Instead, I take my packed brekky box from Reef House for a morning stroll to the glorious white coral of Nudey Beach (where most people keep their clothes on, despite the name). After walking on the rainforest path with no one but the cockatoos for company, I find my only companions at the beach are lounging lizards. Looking back over the clear aquamarine waters to Cairns, I think I've found paradise.
But the reef beckons, so I head back to the island's dive shop to get the gear to have a dive and snorkel and a spot of reef gazing.
As our dive class dons our stinger suits (just tell yourself you'll look like a Bond girl is what I advise my reluctant dive companion) I notice a tattoo on the torso of our dive instructor, Zac. "The plan is to have no plans," it says on his six-pack. I decide that will be my motto for my three days in the tropics.
Out on the reef, shards of sunlight break through from the surface to reveal a cornucopia of colourful reef fish and coral below. It is marred only by a slight case of sea lice under my arm through my stinger suit (the staff at Reef House later advised I could go to the chemist but recommended the local cure for sea lice - toothpaste - which works a charm). An afternoon canoe trip, followed by a cocktail at the pool bar, explains why I am rather reluctant to leave the Fitzroy Island resort.
But it is no hardship to return to Palm Cove, the once-sleepy resort town that was a mass of Besser-Block built weekenders, but soon sprouted into a seaside resort because of its glorious palm and gum-fringed waterfront.
The next morning I head off to the Atherton Tablelands. "It's always a good five degrees cooler up here than in Cairns," explains coffee baron Ian MacLaughlin at his Skybury coffee plantation just outside Mareeba. He's spot on - it's 28 degrees there and 33 in Cairns.
Skybury is Australia's oldest coffee-producing plantation, the country's largest exporter of home-grown coffee, and a labour of love for MacLaughlin, his wife Marion, and their family and staff. They moved to the area 25 years ago, when the tobacco farmers were moving out and the coffee growers were moving in. Sip a cappuccino on the balcony of the Skybury cafe looking out over their 120-hectare plantation, and you could easily imagine you're on some colonial rubber plantation - like Reef House, it's all very Raffles-esque.
With the breeze blowing up from the coast, you can easily understand why the Atherton Tablelands are cooler. You can explore the hinterland in airconditioned comfort, take a glimpse into the past at Herberton's historic village, or be awed by Atherton's famous curtain fig tree.
The Tablelands are in full bloom in summer - a rich patchwork of green pastures and rainforest, red dirt and flame trees, with the odd dot of purple bougainvillea.
After a seven-course degustation meal at Reef House, a late-night dip in the pool and an early-morning massage, I am refreshed and ready to return, albeit reluctantly, to Sydney.
The best advice for heading to far north Queensland in summer remains the message on that tattooed torso: "The plan is to have no plans." But do pack the toothpaste.
Qantas flies daily to Cairns (13 13 13, qantas.com) and Palm Cove is a 25-minute drive.
Reef House Boutique Resort and Spa (now part of the M Gallery collection), Palm Cove, 99 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove, Queensland, 4879. (07) 4080 2600. Rates from $198 a room a night (summer special), reefhouse.com.au.
Fitzroy Island resort ferry service departs daily from Cairns Reef fleet terminal at 7.30am and 2pm, return $65 ($30 for children). (07) 4044 6700, fitzroyisland.com.
Skybury, the Australian coffee centre, 136 Ivicevic Road, Mareeba, Queensland 4880. (07) 4093 2190, skybury.com.au.
Herberton Historic Village, (07) 4096 2002. Entry costs $25/$12. herbertonhistoricvillage.com.au.