The bold and the beautiful flocked to the Sheraton Grand Mirage Port Douglas in the 80s and 90s. Thanks to some savvy updates, this substantial resort still has the power to impress.
Artworks in resort lobbies have a nasty habit of being "meh". Happily, the offerings in the light-filled atrium of the Sheraton Grand Mirage Port Douglas hit you in the eye – as well they should, since the huge celebrity portraits are by luminaries like Terry O'Neill, David Bailey and Helmut Newton.
It's all down to the resort's new in-house gallery, owned by Darryn Lyons. You might recognise Darryn, who sports bright pink hair: he was one of the biggest names among the British tabloid paparazzi for two decades, he flashed his implanted six-pack on Big Brother and he became the unlikely Mayor of Geelong.
Could there be a better cipher for a resort synonymous with excess and celebrity? Probably not. The "Sheraton Mirage" was of course built in 1987 by Christopher Skase and decorated by his wife, Pixie, who had the whole place painted pink. Together with its Peter Thomson-designed golf course and a Skase-built marina (three minutes' drive away), it gave Port Douglas enough pulling power to persuade the likes of Bill Clinton, John Travolta and Jerry Hall to head to the hitherto unsung outpost in Far North Queensland.
Today, the last vestige of "Pixie pink" is in a lady's toilet (the fabulous resort staff will delight in telling you which). This was down to a $43 million refit in 2016 which saw the lobby reinvented, the 295 rooms upgraded and the property given enough white(ish) paint to render it rather more Daintree FNQ than Dynasty WTF.
But the truth is Skase's vision is absolutely intact. The scope and ambition are plain to see, and no apologies are necessary. The gleaming property remains Port Douglas' only five-star beach-side resort, occupying an astonishing 147 hectares.
Two of those hectares are turquoise lagoons, a 20 million-litre saltwater complex criss-crossed with boardwalks and dressed with sandy beaches and luscious tropical groves. This creates nine azure spaces, variously attended by peaceful cocktail cabanas, lazy lounges and a more vibrant swim-up bar. All told it makes for a goldilocks mix of energetic hubs and quiet hideaways: whether you're here to party with your mates or splash with your littlies, you'll find a bit of paradise to suit.
For total solace, you need only step through the thick curtain of palms, figs and sheoaks along the eastern boundary. This is where Four Mile Beach reveals itself, and such is the contrast, that it's all a bit "through the looking glass". You can turn left for the intimate chic of Port Douglas, or turn right for a wild eyeful of mountain-filled foreverness that will make you gasp.
Suite sizes are generous, with even entry-level rooms starting at a salubrious 42 square metres (the Presidential suites measure 152) featuring king-sized bed and marble en suite. The decor suggests "cool and tropical" with its use of whites, wheat tones and "cane plantation" louvered window shutters. You could argue the rooms could do with a splash of Mr Lyons' panache, but the floor to ceiling windows are lavish canvases of colour thanks to views onto lagoons or gardens. Fifty-three suites have balconies from which guests can sink directly into water.
Breakfast and lunch are served in Feast, the casual diner spread over a series of levels (indoors and out). The jewel in the crown however is Harrisons, a sumptuous, elegant retreat serving British-inspired cuisine by Spencer Patrick who hitherto earned Michelin stars for his boss, Marco Pierre White. His flank steak with spinach, shallot, chard, smoked mash and ox tail gives you the gist, though his rather-less-British Hervey Bay scallops in squid ink aioli remains a Port Douglas institution.
While Pixie Skase's five-day opening party was a thing of big hair, bubbles and yacht squadron blazers, today the vibe is cool and casual. The Daintree Bar serves cocktails into the wee hours and is very much part of the wider whirl of Port Douglas' stellar bar scene, open to any in the community who care to join.
The Mirage Country Club is likewise open to guests and locals. It's a reasonable walk (or buggy ride) to reach this quintessential resort hub which comprises a swimming pool, tennis courts and well-equipped gymnasium. The clubhouse could definitely do with a refurb but as land values around the nation go through the roof, it's getting harder to find these sorts of leisure facilities in one place. Even more surprisingly, it features a full 18-hole golf course.
And what a course it is. The back nine are flanked by the distant mountains of Mount Lewis and Mowbray National Parks, a series of muscular profiles that feel incredibly exotic under a bright tropical sky. Among the same nine holes are a series of lagoons which house no fewer than nine local crocs, with one of the local hazards measuring 3.5 metres. The club regularly hosts "Survivor Golf", with rules that enable rank amateurs to play in teams alongside professionals and still be competitive. It's a belter of a morning for locals and guests alike.
Indeed, though the resort is somewhat removed from Port Douglas (three minutes by car or a 15-minute walk up the beach) the 3500 permanent village residents still regard the resort as their own. In a way, it's part of their backstory.
This was very much on show in October when the Sheraton took the gutsy decision to stare down COVID and bring back the Taste Port Douglas food festival.
After a hiatus of four years, the festival's organiser's, Reina and Spencer Patrick, of Harrisons restaurant, thought they might be on a hiding to nowhere, particularly with hard borders that prevented many celebrity chefs from attending. As it happened, however, the town's restaurateurs, providores and community went all-in on a four-day fuddle of food, frolics and - yes- famous chefs who made it to Port Douglas. (Among them, Philip Johnson of Ec'co, Laura Sharrad of Nido and Adam Wolfers of Gerard's Bistro).
Among the festival standouts was a spectacular 200-person Long Lunch held under giant hardwoods in Port Douglas' Anzac Park. While the seated guests were endlessly showered with Aperol cocktails, Jansz bubbles and Hemingway beer, eight chefs served up 12 dishes. Standouts included a North Queensland Painted Crayfish with painted beets and black olive crumble (by Zinc Restaurant); lemon and pecorino gnocchi with fire-roasted heirloom tomatoes (by Dominique Rizzo); and a Baba al Rum with Chantilly Cream (by Sassi restaurant). The whole four-hour event cost a very un-Skase-like $200 a head.
Perhaps indicative of how much the festival was missed – or perhaps how much Port Douglas likes to indulge – all the events were sold out. This included a Harry Hawker Food Village beside the Sheraton lagoons, nine holes of "'gourmet golf" and masterclasses galore. A wrap-up party under the palms saw a few guests ending up fully-clothed in the lagoon.
Next year's festival – in August 2022 – should be a monster.
Thirty-four years after opening, the Sheraton Grand Mirage is still as bold and ambitious as it ever was – if not quite so brazen. Much like a celebrity, it may have had a few nips and tucks but the glamour is unfaded and the stories just get better with age.
All of the major airlines operate frequent flights between Sydney and Melbourne to Cairns. See qantas.com.au; virginaustralia.com; jetstar.com Port Douglas is an hour's drive north; car hire from the airport.
Rooms in the Sheraton Grand Mirage are from $300 a night.