From Cairns to Port Douglas is only about sixty kilometres. If you want to go on to Cape York, you have another thousand kilometres to go through challenging terrain, so I was content to stop this journey at Port Douglas to enjoy some FNQ (Far North Queensland) hospitality, and a swim without any crocodiles or marine stingers trying to bring me to an early grave.
In his 1970s play Travelling North, Australian playwright David Williamson tells the story of an elderly widower and his new wife who escape the big city and head north to a small town (Port Douglas) looking for some quiet times, great sunsets and relaxing times on the safe end of fishing rods.
I am quite a few years from wanting to sink into retired oblivion – with or without the fishing rods – but I did enjoy this journey up the coast to wonderful Port Douglas, calling in to several of the dozen small beach towns along the way.
The Captain Cook Highway runs a couple of kilometres inland from all these towns. I guess that the road north originally followed the coast linking all small towns, but today most of them are found at the end of a short tendril of a road running east from the excellent main highway.
Leaving Cairns and hitting the road, travellers can pop in to Machans Beach or to Holloways Beach, where some years ago I spent several glorious naked days at a small naturist Bed ‘n’ Breakfast place called, perhaps inappropriately, A White Cockatoo …
I don’t think the place exists anymore – perhaps the Cockatoo got too sunburned – but there is still a pleasant small sandy beach with gentle waves. All these coastal towns are sheltered from the rolling surf found further down Australia’s east coast by the magnificent Great Barrier Reef.
Opposite the Cairns Beach Resort in Holloways there is a little beach café and bar called Strait on the Beach which the pedantic English teacher in me rather liked because of the pun in its name. There is also a Men’s Shed nearby, should I change my mind and want to go back and create a new sign board for that café and get the spelling right … and destroy the sense of humour.
A small sling of a Singapore Sling north is Yorkeys Knob.
Again, the pedant in me wanted to run about with a thick black marker pen and scatter apostrophes everywhere, especially when I learned that the town is named after an early Yorkshire settler named George Lawson. The place was probably known for a while as “Yorkey’s Nab”. “Nab” was a reference to the Old Nab and the Penny Nab, hillsides at the ends of the Yorkshire beach where he grew up. As a nearby sign informs travellers:
- With his strong Yorkshire accent and with the “tongue in cheek” sense of humour of fellow settlers, the word “nab” soon became “knob”
Nabs or Knobs – but still no apostrophes.
A local history of the town adds a few gems:
- The Knob itself is the first headland north of the Harbour of Cairns, a cheeky headland layered in rock with a fuzz of timber. Its boulders tumble into the sea in arrow fashion forming a calm bay on its northern side and giving the surf full play to the south. (1)
Today the little town has two lovely beaches – one nestled below the “cheeky” headland and with a topless sunbather when I visited, and one with a lifeguard but no topless bathers. Strung along the waterfront is a collection of three-storey holiday apartment buildings. I did not find any of the old single-family homes I vaguely remember from childhood holidays. My family used to travel to the coast from Atherton and stay in ramshackle beachside houses, with kerosene-powered refrigerators and ice boxes topped up daily by visits from the Ice Man delivering pillow-sized blocks of ice.
Along the beach front are the statutory signs telling bathers of the joys of bathing with crocodiles and with the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, named for the First Nations people whose traditional lands stretch along this coastline. This tiny jellyfish – barely a cubic centimetre in size – packs a punch way above its weight as the sting from its metre-long tentacles can often be fatal to humans.
Fortunately, crocs and Irukandjis are seasonal.
Unfortunately, the season when they are present is during the hottest part of the year in FNQ: just when you want to go for a refreshing dip in the ocean …
I grew up knowing all about – and fearing – both these beasties, but several new signs are a little alarming as there is a suggestion that new demons and dragons await unaware travellers to the North:
- Don’t Spread Electric Ants
- Don’t Spread Crazy Yellow Ants
I do not know what these are, but I suspect that they are close kin to the Fire Ants that apparently can be found much further down the coast – about where I live – and are just a few more critters that might put people off from travelling to Australia:
- Sharks, crocks, jellyfish, blue-ringed octopuses, dingoes, red back spiders, coastal taipans (among the world’s most dangerous snakes) … and swooping magpies during the breeding season …
I travelled in July – the middle of Australia’s winter – and was safe from swooping birds, Irukandjis and ocean-going crocodiles as I pottered through Trinity Beach and its magnificent marina, Clifton Beach and on to the lovely and quiet and child-friendly Palm Cove. I swam every day in the sea – usually only me and one or two others – and much to the concern of fellow guests at my resort:
- But aren’t you worried about crocodiles …?
- Nope – it’s not the right season for them
I also prayed every day that the crocodiles and other nasties had their calendars up to date and that they knew they were NOT supposed to be in the sea when I was there.
Palm Cove is another very tiny beach town – but compared to the towns a little south, it is a little more up-market, and offers a great beach with a swimming enclosure, tons of laid-back bars and restaurants, kayak tours to nearby islands and pleasant beach-front walking tracks. See featured image LEFT
The main street – Williams Esplanade – is barely one kilometre long but it packs in several four-star resorts (including the “Adults Only” Reef House Resort), numerous magnificent paper bark trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia), a surf lifesaving club, frock shops and flip flop shops, real estate shops (Buy Me! Buy Me! Location! Location! Location!) and the local Post Office for doddering oldies like me who can remember what postage stamps or post cards are.
I had planned to join a kayak tour to Double Island, but it was rescheduled and I did not have time to join it on the new day. Pity, rather, as the area is rather awash with reefs and islands. Nearby, there are:
- Oyster Reef, Vlasoff Reef, Arlington Reef, Upolo Reef, Thetford Reef, Moore Reef, Elford Reef … and lots of islands including Woody, Green, Sandy Cay, High, Russell, Low and Fitzroy Islands.
There is also Sandy Island … which is actually a small township on the Barron River, quite a few kilometres inland from the coast. Perhaps the early settlers were trying to flog off their lots and knew that Location! Location! Location! was important and that buyers would probably prefer to buy houses on an island rather than a place plopped in the middle of nowhere in particular.
I was a guest at the Mantra Amphora Resort – quite nicely placed between Dumpling Cove and Vivo – two great spots for a beachside meal. My rooms looked through palm trees to the Coral Sea … with the Great Barrier Reef only thirty kilometres away.
The hotel was comfortable and had a superb free-form swimming pool, but not a lot of service – no in-room dining, no laundry, no daily servicing – but the bedside lights and overhead mini-spots were great for reading in bed. Palm Cove seems to cater for oldies and for young families. A random survey conducted from my balcony showed that there were about ten perambulators full of wee kiddies for every skateboarding teenager: the hotel should probably have dedicated parking spaces for oldies’ mobility scooters and youngsters’ prams.
I made sure that my scooter was fully charged, and that I had plenty of long extension power cables to plug in to outlets along the way, and set off again.
Not far north of Palm Cove is the Cape York Girl Academy (2). I had not heard of it but have now found that it is a boarding school where young indigenous woman and their babies can live and learn together. Many years ago I was a teacher on the far northern island of Thursday Island, where my teenaged students were often absent from class attending the local VD clinic or were looking after their babies: How I wish that there was a Girl Academy up there to care for those kids, too.
Ellis Beach popped its head above the palm trees. With a permanent population of about twenty happy surfers, a pub, a camping ground and a few cottages, it is the sort of place that I would love to visit and to be far from the madding crowd.
Further North is Rex Lookout, where I sat for a while watching a young couple assembled their hang gliders, while their anxious parents looked on. I guess they were also the support team to drive the truck to wherever the “kids” land and collect them and their gear.
Not far from Cairns is Fitzroy Island and its famous Nudey Beach. Unfortunately, Nudey Beach is not a naturist beach despite its name. Queensland has glorious sunshine and great weather and many beaches, but there are no official clothing-optional beaches in the entire state. However, at Wangetti just a bit further up the coast is the Turtle Cove Resort (www.turtlecove.com) which offers an unofficial clothing-optional beach just over a small creek as well as another beach that fronts the lawns and gardens of the resort proper.
Turtle Cove is an adults-only resort and bills itself as:
- Australia’s only LGBTQIA+ resort
When I called in for a swim and lunch, I was the only person on the clothing-optional beach and one of just two people in the lovely tree-surrounded Jacuzzi where I enjoyed lots of bubbles before lunch with a glass of bubbles. The resort has a variety of rooms and suites available, a large swimming pool, a great restaurant and hammocks stretched between sighing palm trees just a metre or two from the (non-clothing-optional) second beach.
Another short twenty-minute drive north is Port Douglas.
It is really surprising how each of the towns along the coast is similar – tropical palms, beaches, relaxed mañana attitudes and feelings – but quite different. Palm Cove was full of oldies and young families with kids in the prams. While Port Douglas also has a good selection of the “silver nomads”, it is much more affluent and much more expensive, and popular with young married couples – and there is not a perambulator in sight.
Port Douglas is probably more “chic” than Palm Cove and certainly more so than Yorkeys Knob. There are plenty of five-star resorts to choose from – Mirage, Sheraton (rates about AU$758 per night), Ramada – and places like the fabulous Ironbar Steakhouse Restaurant in Macrossan Street where a meal for a king with the purse of a king can be found.
I had a delicious eye fillet that cost AU$52.00. It was perhaps the most expensive piece of beef I have ever eaten. Delightful as it was, this was one of the cheaper slabs of meat available. I could have chosen the 200g Japanese Wagyu at $150.00 or the Ironbar Signature John Dee Black Rib on the Bone (1.3 kg) at $175.00.
My eye fillet came on a bald plate … but my side dish of charred carrots etc (an additional $14.00) was almost tasty enough to justify the charge. If you splurge the $175.00 for the John Dee steak you get three sauces and a whopping three side dishes at no extra charge …
Hmm … It all almost makes me want to be a vegan …
Macrossan Street is the main artery of the town and offers – of course – lovely frock shops, jewellery shops, nail and tattoo parlours, bars, restaurants, art galleries and a couple of shops named “Nothing Over $39” and its cheapo neighbour “Nothing Over $22”. I’m not sure what they were selling.
There are also plenty of massage parlours, including one with a huge poster outside detailing all its services but also bearing a stick-on label stating NO HAPPY ENDINGS.
It would be disingenuous of me to ponder why a massage parlour would so openly say that its many massage offerings would not satisfy its customers.
But I lived for many years in Thailand, where many massage places offer “a happy ending” that is decidedly erotic in nature. I guess the Macrossan Street place was politely telling potential customers to pop in for a great massage … but to go back to the wife or husband or partner or BFF for any other service …
Four Mile Beach stretches one way from Macrossan Street and is dotted with gaily striped blue and white umbrellas and gaily sun-spotted oldies stretched on the sands.
There is a luscious emerald-green golf course just out of town – part of the Mirage Resort I think – and just over the road is the rather run down and tired local cemetery: a lovely juxtaposition! I can imagine some oldies retiring to Port Douglas, eating superb steaks at the Ironbar, playing golf at the Mirage … then turning up their toes, crossing the road and spending the next few years lying beside William “Billy” Thomson in the Pioneer Cemetery.
Billy met his death – not by a surfeit of golf – but by “cruel and treacherous murder” at the hands of his not-so-loving wife, who was executed in 1887. She earned the rather regrettable fame of being the only woman ever hanged in Queensland.
High above the cemetery is Flagstaff Hill with superb views over the beach, and where a plaque states that Melbourne lies 2300 km due south, and that Tokyo is 5700 km due north.
A path leads down from the hill back to the town and St Mary’s by the Sea and the fabulous Sunday Market where crystals are for sale along with fruit and recycled timber photo frames and hand-made beach wear (nothing over $39.00 …?), all sorts of foods, and drinking coconuts and all quite fun and family-friendly – although the doughnuts were very hot:
- Be careful Willow! Don’t burn your little lips!
Sorry … the Sunday Market’s New Age world of crystals, dream catchers, recycled timbers and hand-dyed fabrics suggested that Willow was a more appropriate name for my imaginary wee child than Fred …
Spirit of Queensland
It seemed like a luxurious and indolent lifetime of travel – those sixty or so kilometres and a couple of weeks – and when I returned to Cairns it was rather like TE Lawrence finally reaching Aqaba in 1917. But I was not, unlike El Aurens, invested as a Companion of the Order of the Bath.
My next journey, from Cairns back to Brisbane, was on the lovely new Spirit of Queensland train. Although it did not have a bath – and I had no companions to accompany me – it did have a huge bathroom with room for a pony or a party.
But that is another story.
- The Knob, A History of Yorkeys Knob, Mary T Williams, 1986
- https://good2give.ngo/resources/charity-directory/cape-york-girl-academy or https://capeyorkpartnership.org.au/our-partnership/cape-york-girl-academy
Journey July 2022
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall September 2022
Palm Cove trees image from Internet
In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship