Where the wild rose goes

Lynne Whiley follows the holiday trail of Kylie Minogue in the luxurious expanses of Far North Queensland.

The stateroom is bigger than anticipated and I need a good lie down on the king-size bed to take it all in - drawers, wardrobes, ensuite with freshly cut flowers. Are those jewellery boxes on the bureau empty? I have to peek inside. Just in case ... just in case Kylie left an earring behind - or an engagement ring?

Minogue and her boyfriend, Andres Velencoso, were on Galaxy 1 just hours ago, cruising to a remote island on the Great Barrier Reef in Far North Queensland. Now it's my turn to be shown Australia's brilliant underworld.

Galaxy 1's captain, Nick Atkinson, and the ship's steward, her onboard chef and accompanying marine biologist, are gracious, conversational hosts - except about other guests who have chartered this 26-metre luxury yacht for nights of exclusive, offshore privacy. As with US naval officers, these yachties neither confirm nor deny.

Galaxy 1 is all sleek lines and polished timbers, designed around decks built for indolence. She has dropped anchor at the Low Islands, about an hour off Port Douglas, while I and other guests snorkel the reef with Qamar, the biologist. Back on the boat, the chef wows passengers with a sumptuous lunch of seafood, sushi rolls and salads, washed down with champagnes,wines and beer.

After lunch I find the stateroom a perfect place to rest, as I do the maths: my friends and I, a group of "fabulous nobodies", can share costs and charter Galaxy 1 overnight. She sleeps six guests and is kitted with kayaks, snorkelling gear, all mod-cons, a bar and a chef.

I'll bag Kylie's berth, of course. Not because I'm a celebrity tart - I've shaken hands with Nelson Mandela, so everyone else on the planet is just a mere mortal. No, it's because I want to know why she's here, in Port Douglas. Again. A moth to the flame.

After we dock back at the Douglas marina, I take a ride on a Sky Safari helicopter to the Australian Muster Experience at a venue tucked up in a valley behind Mossman, north of Port Douglas. I watch riders take fluid control of wild horses and young men seeking eight seconds of glory on the backs of angry bulls get tossed, flung and chased. The boss is Gordon Pringle, a Cape York cattleman who appreciates the efficiency of using choppers to muster thousands of head of cattle each season but wants to keep skills alive - the toughest bulls bring in the best riders from across Australia and New Zealand. Have Kylie and Andres seen this? He's Spanish - man-masters-beast is part of his culture, too - although the Muster's guest seating is much more comfortable than the benches at many Spanish bullfights.

That night I dine at Nautilus, an elegant restaurant set among rainforest behind Macrossan Street in Port Douglas, where thoughtful experts in the kitchen create delicious dishes accompanied by matching wines. Was Kylie here? But of course. The couple dined a few nights ago, ordering seafood and a Croser '98, followed by a Henschke Keyneton Estate. Nautilus combines a stone-floored main area with intimate dining decks lit by candles, surrounded by lush trees and linked by walkways. Unless you bumped into her in the bathroom, only the staff knew she was there.

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Everyone at the Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas knew she was there, though, staying in a friend's villa on the grounds, taking golf lessons (wearing a smart straw hat, neat pants and a floral top) and being her perky, polite self. The Sheraton's female staff confirm Andres is swoon-inducing good-looking. I'm also told a Sheraton employee who wrote about the couple on Facebook was immediately criticised by both colleagues and management and he deleted the entry within hours of posting it.

Port Douglas locals appear indifferent to seeing elites in straw hats stroll by; to limos loitering on Macrossan Street and sleek yachts beside dented trawlers at the marina. Tourism accounts for more than 80 per cent of the region's economy and residents seem to take the knock-on effects in their stride - as with Byron Bay, many are being priced out.

Locals have told me about Kylie's movements. But they do prefer a weightier discourse - rates hikes and local government blunders; the perpetual conflict between big-money developers and leaving things be; Brisbane, sport and the future of the reef and region.

At The Tin Shed, a non-profit-making workers' paradise with the best views in town, I nurse a drink while wondering if this region, given its history of wilderness-saving activists and progressive thinkers, will evolve into the destination of choice for travellers wanting to offset their carbon footprint. Port Douglas led the way in reef-rainforest-beach-spa-sanctuary but Asia-Pacific destinations have caught up.

I wonder why Kylie keeps coming back? If she wanted to show the boyfriend Australia's big backyard, they could have taken a Sky Safari ride from Cairns over the Daintree and Mossman Gorge, up to Cape Tribulation, across the reef and back to the airport. I'd guess she's back here because celebrities holiday where privacy is respected, affluence unremarked and needs met. Perhaps it's the potent mix of humidity and creative thinking that draws her back to where wilderness and reef, beach and the built environment combine.

Kylie could holiday anywhere in the world, yet she's here, ordering Australian wines and food and paying for diverse and unique experiences that employ locals. Like some incidental patriot, is she pointing the way for the rest of us to rediscover this singular destination?

The writer was the guest of Port Douglas and Daintree Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Virgin Blue flies daily to Cairns, from $369. See virginblue.com.au. Coaches meet flights and cost from $30 with the drive from Cairns to Port Douglas taking about an hour. Phone (07) 4098 5473, see eccportdouglas.com.

Staying there

One-bedroom apartments at the Hibiscus Resort and Spa, 22 Owen Street, Port Douglas, start from $210 a night. Phone 1800995995, see hibiscusportdouglas.com.au.

Cruising there

Galaxy I costs from $5000 a day; from $10,000 for an overnight charter. Phone 9998 8666, see galaxycharters.com.

Dining there

Nautilus Restaurant's six-course chef's tasting menu costs $105 a person, with matching wines for $50 a person. Phone (07)40995330, see nautilus-restaurant.com.au.

Things to do

Sky Safari helicopter tours of the Mossman-Daintree cost from $145 a person (for three people). Phone (07) 4099 3666, see skysafari.com.au. The Australian Muster Experience stockman's lunch muster costs $91 for adults; $71 for children. Phone (07) 4098 1149, see australianmusterexperience.com.

Further information

See pddt.com.au.

SILLY SEASON

Late May, low season, what's a town to do? Gather its chefs and artists, suits and musicians, cane cutters, sea-changers and traditionalists and party. Carnivale is when Port Douglas gets silly in a marvellous way, with a street parade and outdoor concerts, tournaments, beach cricket and excellent food and wine. Oh sure, book that rainforest walk you've always wanted to do, that reef cruise and that afternoon of spa indulgence this town doesn't stop functioning.

Locals are in party mode for hot-ticket Carnivale events such as the Longest Lunch, where the Mirage Country Club's lush lakeside venue is the place for teams of waiters bringing succulent dishes to hundreds of table-hopping diners. The hotel's kitchen team, led by executive chef Klaus Keller, serves a three-course meal that impresses even jaded southern palates.

Carnivale kicks off with a parade on the main drag, Macrossan Street, where the size of a float doesn't matter being there does; Movies Made In Douglas sees films screened in a pub, where else? Port Douglas has a population of about 5200, yet more than 60 liquor licences plus there's a masquerade ball, golf challenge, songwriting competition, yachting regatta and the Meridien Marina Seafood Extravaganza. See carnivale.com.au.

For the Longest Lunch, book on (07)40539111, see foodandwinenq.com.au. For accommodation, see pddt.com.au.

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