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48 hours in Port Douglas: where ancient rainforest meets coral sea

The Guardian logo The Guardian 8/01/2017 Michael Slezak
The Coral Sea coast near Port Douglas © Alamy The Coral Sea coast near Port Douglas

When I was a child, I had a picture book called Where the Forest Meets the Sea. It is a beautiful story of a boy and his father who travel to a place that magically transports them from the modern world, back to a world millions of years old.

It is set in far north Queensland, where the Daintree rainforest meets the Coral Sea.

Ever since then, the ancient and unique worlds of the Daintree and the Great Barrier Reef have been a source of deep fascination for me.

They’re the only two world heritage sites that adjoin one another. The Daintree is the oldest rainforest in the world, having existed for 140m years. And the Great Barrier Reef is among the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet, and is by far the biggest reef coral reef system.

At the time the children’s book was written, the area was under threat from development. Now both these ecosystems are being threatened by climate change. But from the luxurious launching pad of Port Douglas, they can still be seen in all their glory, allowing you to travel back in time … before time runs out for them.

Friday 9.45pm

The end of the week is always a relief. But knowing you’ll be in a luxury hotel before bedtime, ready to start a weekend mini-break, is something else entirely.

We arrive at Cairns airport, hop on a shuttle ($21.50) and alight at the Sheraton Mirage resort a short while later.

The Mirage is the grand old lady of Port Douglas. It was built by the (now late) notorious white-collar fugitive, Christopher Skase, in the 1980s and underwent a major renovation in 2015.

And it is quite something. Situated on Port’s famous Four Mile beach, it has almost 300 rooms (from $294 a night), many of which have their own private access to the saltwater lagoon pools that surround the buildings.

Saturday 9am

We wake to the sounds of tropical birds, then wander to the dining room. After breakfast we lounge by one of the artificial sandy beaches that line the pools. Although the resort is right on the beach, the possibility of being served drinks while swimming – and avoiding any potential crocodiles and stingers – is too tempting.

Saturday 12.30pm

After a nap by the pool, we make our way to the lobby and a shuttle takes us to the marina. There we are met by Steve Edmondson, the owner of Sailaway Port Douglas, who takes us on a simply stunning tour of the Great Barrier Reef.

‘The fact we were are just a few hours from Sydney and an otherwise normal weekend seems impossible to comprehend.’ Photograph: Michael Slezak for the Guardian

There are lots of options for seeing the reef from Port. You can shoot out there on a speedboat. Or you can take one of the many slower boats that will get you there and back in a few hours.

But Sailaway’s sunset cruise ($261) is something different. Their fleet features two luxury sailing boats that make the journey to the reef almost as much of an experience as seeing the reef itself. The serenity of travellingthrough the Coral Sea on a boat that makes no sound other than a gentle splish-splash is hard to describe.

Our destination is the Low Isles – one of the most accessible places on the upper half of the reef and just a stone’s throw from Port. It’s a collection of two small islands – or coral cays, which are simply mounds of broken coral skeletons that have collected there over the centuries.    

By now, most people will have heard about the devastating bleaching that hit coral reefs around the world in 2016. While it hit the Great Barrier Reef hard, the worst damage was experienced in its most remote northerly parts, and from Port Douglas south the damage was less severe. That makes it easy for Port’s tourism operators to ensure that their customers see reefs that are in essentially pristine condition. Although it won’t affect your time in there, visitors should be aware that climate change has had its toll near the town too – with some spectacular reefs devastated.

But the Low Isles remain spectacular. The water is teeming with life – small colourful fish, large curious fish, giant blue clams that are as big as a human. And the seafloor is covered in brilliant coral. There are delicate brown branching corals with blue tips, enormous boulder corals, layers of plate coral and a veritable encyclopaedia of soft corals that sway with the gentle currents.

After snorkelling for about an hour, as I take off my flippers back on shore, we see what looks like a dark cloud moving through the water. Our guide tells us it’s a “bait ball” – a dense school of small fish. She says where there’s a bait ball, there’s usually a reef shark.

They’re harmless unless harassed, so I jump back in the water for what turns out to be a magical experience.

The dense school of fish seem mostly unconcerned by my presence. They simply keep a constant distance from me as I move through them, parting then recombining behind me.

For about five minutes I swim through them, watching them mould around me. And then a five-foot black-tip reef shark appears below me. It’s slow, purposeful movement is such a contrast to the fast, reactive movements of the smaller fish. The shark glides through the bait ball, creating a tunnel as the fish keep their distance. After watching their interaction for a while, I head back to the shore.

A little reluctantly, we pile back on to the boat and begin heading back to Port. On the way back, the boat quietly travels under the power of a gentle wind, and the crew serve champagne and canapes as we watch the sun set behind the rainforest.

With our feet dangling over the side of the boat, the cooling breeze in our hair and feeling the tingle of the second glass, the fact we are just a few hours from Sydney and an otherwise normal weekend seems impossible to comprehend. As far as we’re concerned, we’re a million miles away – in another time.

Saturday 6.30pm

It’s decision time when we arrive back at Port. The town has several excellent restaurants and bars. We decide to stay near the water for dinner. We wander randomly into one of the excellent fish restaurants in the marina, On the Inlet.

Being on the Great Barrier Reef, I feel I have to try its classic eating fish – a coral trout ($42). It comes cooked in the simplest manner with a mild lemon caper butter sauce and is perfectly done. My dining partner orders a fish and chips (or “beer-battered line-caught local Spanish mackerel”) ($28), which is about as good as the dish can be.

Sunday 9am

We’ve experienced the sea, now it’s time to see the rainforest. We grab our hats and walking shoes and jump on a coach which takes us on the short journey to Mossman Gorge.

Mossman Gorge, where crystal-clear freshwater slides down granite boulders. Photograph: Michael Slezak for the Guardian

There we are taken in a small tour group by an Indigenous guide whose ancestors lived in the region for millennia on a “Dreamtime Gorge Walk($62).

Over millions of years, Mossman river cut a deep gorge into the mountainside. Crystal-clear freshwater slides down the large granite boulders, creating a series of spectacular pools.

The deep and lasting connection to country is a pleasure to witness as our guide shows us his land. He shows us the lizards and berries and plants – explaining which are poisonous, which are taboo, and which are good bush tucker or medicine. He shows us how to make body paint from the various coloured rocks, and how to attract fish to the surface of the water – should we ever need to feed ourselves.

The juxtaposition of the ancient rainforest and coral sea is astounding. Just a short drive from the salty reef is a completely freshwater river in a rainforest that has stayed roughly the same for more than 100m years.

Sunday noon

At midday we make our way back into town and, after perusing the local markets (and buying a few small locally made clothing items), we settle in for lunch at the Port Douglas institution Salsa Bar & Grill. It’s been there for more than 20 years, and locals and visitors rave about it.

Redclaw crayfish linguini at a Port Douglas institution, Salsa Bar & Grill Photograph: Michael Slezak for the Guardian

It turns out their raving is justified. The restaurant looks out over the water and, in the distance, are cloud-topped mountains. The service is casual and friendly, and the menu is moderately sized.

My partner and I share a crayfish linguini ($28.50) and a mushroom gnocchi ($22.90). Both are divine.

We don’t need dessert but can’t resist the idea of a ginger creme brulee ($16.50) and a chocolate souffle ($17.50).

With bellies full once again, and feeling that we have been away for much longer than a mere two days, we hop on a bus to the airport and are home in time for dinner, an early night and a fresh start back at work on Monday.

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