Where to eat, drink and sleep in Tropical North Queensland

Along with rainforests, cane fields and a world-famous reef, Tropical North Queensland has a fresh crop of eateries and bars serving the true taste of the tropics.

By Fiona Donnelly
The Sugar Wharf, Port Douglas
It's mid-morning and the temperature is nearing 30 degrees. A gentle breeze stirs the banana trees that fringe the outdoor kitchen on a hillside tucked between cloud-capped rainforest and the waterfront hamlet of Oak Beach. A leisurely 15-minute drive south of Port Douglas, it's an idyllic location for a Southeast Asian cooking school, run by Melbourne escapees Ben Wallace and his wife Rachael Boon.
"This is a real garden-to-table effort," says Boon, who spent months with Wallace tackling jungle weeds and planting a kitchen garden on their lush 1.8-hectare block before opening Oaks Kitchen and Garden in February. "We only use produce that's local and local fish that are line-caught. It's an approach that happens all the time down south, but up here we're still seen as kind of niche."
He was a sous-chef at Easy Tiger in Melbourne; she managed Lee Ho Fook. Over chilled glasses of lime and tamarind leaf tea, they describe their sea-tree change and their aim to showcase regional abundance through cooking classes and catering for private dinners and functions. Organic beef is sourced from John Bull Farming at Malanda, on the Atherton Tablelands. Pork comes from Sunnyville Free Range Pastured Pigs, another Malanda farm. The leaves for our tea – and everything from mango and lemongrass to Thai eggplant and turmeric – are grown onsite.
Wallace and Boon's venture builds on momentum created by early innovators such as Nick Holloway, of the two-star Nu Nu Restaurant at Palm Cove. The chef-restaurateur arrived from Melbourne in 2004, and is celebrated for his ability to capture the essence of his adopted home in bold and vibrant flavours.
Labelled by tourism authorities as Tropical North Queensland, the reef-edged region sweeps along the coast from Mission Beach in the south to the Torres Strait in the north and spans the holiday hotspots of Port Douglas and Palm Cove.
Cash is flowing in the regional capital of Cairns. Three new upscale hotels by Crystalbrook Collection will open in the next two years. The first, the recently opened $130 million Riley, on The Esplanade at Cairns, has impressive Coral Sea views, three onsite restaurants and a rooftop bar. The second hotel, named Bailey and also in Cairns, is due to open in mid-2019, and 311-room Flynn overlooking Cairns Lagoon will follow.
A scattering of small bars and microbreweries has emerged, and the region's specialty coffee scene looks lively, too, with roasteries and cafés popping up in spots often off the well-trodden tourist track, in inner-city suburbs such as Stratford and Bungalow. Keen for a taste? Here's our pick.

Where to eat

The beachfront at Nu Nu Restaurant
Nu Nu Restaurant
Nick Holloway, Nu Nu's co-owner and chef, is a true pioneer of the Tropical North food scene. Everything at this two-star venue has a local story. Tomatoes might hail from the Atherton Tablelands, coffee beans are roasted in Cairns by The Tattooed Sailor, and sourdough emerges from the oven twice daily. For breakfast, dishes include the likes of cassava hash browns with avocado and whipped buffalo feta, or local mud-crab omelette in a white-pepper broth. Come sunset, icy cocktails with those palm-filtered Coral Sea views are the perfect precursor to the impressive tasting menu, which adds a sense of casual luxury to the local ethos. Tender heart of palm harvested at Innisfail could turn up in a salad with young coconut, melon, pickles and mint. Line-caught reef fish is smoked over paperbark then brightened with a peanut and papaya relish. And whey-poached goldband snapper with curry leaf and green masala is teamed with locally grown "rain-fed" rice. It's nothing but the best, condensed. 1 Veivers Rd, Palm Cove, (07) 4059 1880,
Grant Street Kitchen
Alice Heath and Scott Ledgar, formerly of Johnny Ripe, a bakery at Red Hill on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, own this neat little café-artisan bakery turning out breads and Danish pastries as well as breakfast bowls, salads and coffee made with beans from the small-batch Mornington Peninsula roastery, Brothers Roasters. Pies are filled with beef from the Atherton Tablelands and fish and prawns come from the reef. There's simple street-side dining but the focus is on grab and go, making it a handy – and tasty – pit stop for reef-goers. Shop 4/5, cnr Grant & Macrossan sts, Port Douglas, 0478 769 987,
Harrisons by Spencer Patrick
Interiors at Spencer and Reina Patrick's split-level space at the Sheraton Grand Mirage resort eschew the breezy coastal vibe of Port Douglas, conjuring instead an ambience of old-style hotel dining with statues, patterned carpet and potted greenery. In contrast, dishes are sharp and contemporary. A gravlax of north Queensland cobia is beautifully balanced by the tang of pickled cucumber and bush-lemon curd, with dill-flecked sour cream and crunch from rye crumbs. Those who prefer blue skies to chandeliers can enjoy the innovative fare out by the pool. Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Port Douglas Rd, Port Douglas, (07) 4099 0852,
Yellow curry of tiger prawns and pea eggplant at Oaks Kitchen and Garden
Oaks Kitchen and Garden
An egg-net salad fine-tuned with chilli vinegar, coriander, mint and ginger and served with fiery Isaan sausage. Tiger prawns poached in coconut milk. Chicken thighs smoked over paperbark with fermented shrimp and chilli. Dishes such as these make the 15-minute drive south from Port Douglas to Oaks Kitchen and Garden at Oak Beach more than worth it, but co-owner and chef Ben Wallace, formerly of Melbourne's Longrain, also caters at holiday venues. Hire the kitchen and garden for a special gathering, or book a hands-on class or a Saturday or Sunday demonstration session, which includes a garden tour, class and, of course, plenty of Thai treats. Lot 3, 11-13 Nancy Cl, Oak Beach, (07) 4098 5383,
The Little Larder
There's little to draw you into this low-key café on Port's main street – apart from curiosity about the seemingly ever-present queue outside. At peak times tables spill to an adjoining arcade; these will be filled with locals drinking the house matcha iced tea, or coffee made with beans roasted by Tim Adams on the Sunshine Coast. Keep it simple with a Buddhastyle bowl of oats steeped in cassia-infused coconut milk with young coconut and local tropical fruit, or ratchet up the heat with a turmeric crab omelette with chilli hoisin and spring onion. Shop 2, 40 Macrossan St, Port Douglas, (07) 4099 6450
Easy, breezy interiors at this suburban all-day venue belie the care and attention shown by the kitchen team. Grab a house soda – makrut lime and lemongrass, perhaps, or lychee and Thai basil – or a locally brewed Barrier Reef Two Turtles Pale Ale. Snacks include Korean-style bao of beef short rib and kimchi stuffed into steamed black sesame buns, roasted miso eggplant with rice crisps, crumbed salt-cod croquettes, and pulled-pork tacos with a pineapple and chilli agave salsa. 1 Pyne St, Edge Hill, Cairns, (07) 4032 3117,
And also
  • Ganbaranba This stalwart has Cairns' best ramen. 7/12-20 Spence St, Cairns, (07) 4031 2522
  • Lafew Teahouse and Kombucha Bar A quirky café selling house kombucha infused with turmeric and chamomile, dragonfruit, and more, with plenty of gluten-free and vegan offerings. 33 Sheridan St, Cairns, 0475 762 838,
  • Mama Coco Tickets sell out for monthly themed dinners, but daily café offerings are also worth nabbing. Try the vegan Godzilla bowl with pickles and miso dressing, or "your house deposit": avocado on toast with ricotta, chilli and onion. Shop 4/196 Mulgrave Rd, Westcourt, (07) 4052 1226
  • O'Cha Cha Tucked away in a shopping centre, this low-key izakaya, run by Japanese expats Hitomi Saeki and husband Seiichi, is authentic and well-priced. Palm Court, 34 Lake St, Cairns City, (07) 4051 7055
  • Rusty's Markets Try a durian or soursop frappé from the bánh mì stand and trawl the stalls. There's always something new each season: starchy hog plums or santol fruit, perhaps, or African plantains and red Dacca bananas. 57-89 Grafton St, Cairns, (07) 4040 2705,
The Conservatory Bar, Cairns

Where to drink

The Conservatory Bar
The homely vibe at this small bar-café set in an arcade is underpinned by the friendly service of its owners, New Zealand expat graphic designer Jay Tweedie and UK-born Callum O'Brien. But it's the attention to detail that really sells it; the tonic, for example, is made in house from red cinchona bark, citrus zest and rose petals. There's a clipped list of seasonal cocktails, a wide-ranging wine list, plus vegan snacks and a range of charcuterie and cheese boards. 12-14 Lake St, Cairns, 0457 641 977,
Jimmy Rum's Mixing Lounge
Port Douglas's first proper small bar is hidden behind heavy drapes, with an eye-catching stencilled red floor. Nab a button-back couch or sit at the long counter and chat to the flirty white-shirted bartenders. 13/53-61 Macrossan St, Port Douglas, 0448 204 400,
Hemingway's Brewery, Cairns
Hemingway's Brewery
The heritage-listed Shed 2 overlooking Trinity Inlet at Cairns is now home to a second Tropical North Queensland gastro brewpub by local independent brewery Hemingway's. (The original overlooks the
superyachts of Port Douglas' Crystalbrook Marina.) Grab a crowler of Hard Yards dark lager for your next boat trip, sink a skiff, or take on a paddle of five beer tasters. 44 Wharf St, Port Douglas, and 4 Wharf St, Cairns, (07) 4099 6663,
Macalister Brewing Co
Ignore the uninspiring industrial-estate surrounds – this microbrewery crafts fresh, unfiltered beer onsite and serves a quintessentially north Queensland vista of cane fields against a backdrop of the Macalister Range from an unfussy cellar-door bar. Fans stir overhead and communal tables encourage conversation, while patrons order a pony of one of seven daily choices, a Cairns Pale Ale, perhaps, or a pot of Latitude 17, a citrussy, tropical blonde. Or settle with a schooner of Bushwacked, a 5 per cent smoked porter. 6 Danbulan St, Smithfield, 0408 086 814,
And also
  • Barbados With daybeds and stylish blue-and-whitestriped umbrellas, this waterfront cocktail bar is a beguiling post-reef destination. 44 Wharf St, Port Douglas, 0409 121 213,
  • Barrier Reef Brewing Brewer Cameron McPherson's small range of unfiltered beers, a Prawn Star pilsner, say, or an Arlington amber ale, can be enjoyed at the brewery's Two Turtles Tap Room. 2/17 Johnston St, Stratford, 0478 729 222,
  • Gin Social Effectively a lobby bar at the Hilton, Gin Social has 40-plus gins on pour including locally distilled Mt Uncle Navy Strength and Jinzu, a Japanese-inspired gin made with sake. Hilton Cairns,34 Esplanade, Cairns, (07) 4050 2006,
  • Mt Uncle Distillery Well worth the 90-minute drive from Port Douglas for the scenery alone, this distillery is set among banana plantations at Walkamin. A $10 tasting could include the likes of Mt Uncle's Botanic Australis gin range, including bushfire-smoked gin, a Navy Strength and a popular dry gin. All are made with local botanicals such as river mint, lemon-scented gum, anise myrtle, eucalyptus and native ginger. 1819 Chewko Rd, Walkamin, (07) 4086 8008,
  • Three Wolves This small, dimly lit bar has a speakeasy vibe and a laneway location. They love their whiskey here, and bar staff are happy to serve half-shots so patrons can explore more widely. 32 Abbott St, Cairns, (07) 4031 8040,
The Chamber Room, Cairns

Where to go for coffee

Founded by Oliver James, Caffiend started as a graffiti-daubed laneway joint in 2009 and is often credited with kickstarting the specialty coffee scene in Cairns. The current incarnation, on Grafton Street, is now owned by former patron Fern Campbell, who liked the café so much she bought it when James switched focus to roasting and wholesaling through his Tattooed Sailor brand. Close connections continue with The Tattooed Sailor (see below), with seasonal filter and espresso beans on pour as well as guest single origins. James' popular chilli eggs remains on the menu, along with sriracha tofu bowls and a miso scramble with shichimi togarashi. 72 Grafton St, Cairns, (07) 4051 5522,
The Chamber Room
Black is, well, the new black at The Chamber Room – everything from the gothic-looking website and the darkly gleaming brew bar to owner-barista Kristy Greenardi's focus on no-milk brews hits the theme. There's a clipped but clever offering of snacks including soft-boiled eggs with parmesan and Vegemite soldiers, and pumpkin toast with house-made hummus. Tea is brewed with the same level of care shown in the coffee-making process. Suite 43-47 Village Lane, 20 Lake St, Cairns,
The Tattooed Sailor Coffee Roasters
With sharp lines, vintage sailor-siren branding and an edgy industrial-estate location, this small-batch roaster and café avoids tropical tropes. Co-owner Oliver James is the region's specialty coffee pioneer, and The Tattooed Sailor's beans can be found at some of the region's best venues. 176 Newell St, Bungalow, Cairns, 0420 901 414,
And also
  • Annee's Caphê Sua Da Prefer a Vietnamese-style brew? This stall at the front of Rusty's Markets specialises in drip coffee with condensed milk, but also serves straightup cold brew and kombucha. Shop 14 / 57-89 Grafton Street - Rusty's Market, Cairns,
  • Blackbird Espresso This nicely detailed café is tucked away in a city arcade. More recently, the focus has shifted to founder Troy Furner's larger roastery-café at Bungalow. Oceana Walk, 62 Grafton St, Cairns, (07) 4031 1587; roastery at 205 Newell St, Bungalow, (07) 4211 2911,
  • Origin Espresso It's not just about espresso here, despite the name. With a low-key roastery café in Port Douglas (3/21-23 Warner St, 07 4099 4586) and another in Cairns (1 Dalgety St, Stratford,07 4055 1004), there's everything from cold-drip to filter on offer.
A room at the Peninsula Boutique Hotel

Where to stay

Peninsula Boutique Hotel
Palm-fringed Four Mile Beach is a coconut toss away, and the Peninsula's digs come with spa baths and floor-to-ceiling glass, leading to a balcony or a decked courtyard. Interiors are practical and neat, with well-equipped kitchenettes. Need a sunlounger? Staff will install it on the sand across the road. Breakfast is served by the pool, or try beach-facing Hi Tide Café for the hearty likes of pumpkin toast with avocado, feta and corn salsa. 9-13 Esplanade, Port Douglas, 1800 676 674,
The Reef Hotel Casino
It's easy to avoid the ker-ching of the onsite casino at this well-located hotel, one of two Pullman options in Cairns. A plush corner suite on the seventh floor offers wraparound vistas of yachts bobbing on Trinity Inlet with the deep greens of the mangroves and mountains beyond. In-house fine diner Tamarind is Thai-accented and moodily lit. Whole crisp barramundi with tamarind chilli sauce is a signature,
while saddletail snapper with a dashi-style broth displays elegance and finesse. 35-41 Wharf St, Cairns City, (07) 4040 8888,
The Reef House
City stresses evaporate as soon as you pull up at this Palm Cove property, part of Sofitel's MGallery collection. Guests relax in lush gardens with two pools, a day spa and big old paperbark trees framing postcard views of the palm-edged beach opposite. There are 67 rooms, dazzlingly white and some with four-poster beds. The onsite Reef House Restaurant continues the laid-back theme with friendly service and a focus on local ingredients – saltwater barramundi paired with a papaya salad and red curry sauce, perhaps, or Daintree chocolate with strawberries and coconut. 99 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove, (07) 4080 2600,
Shangri-La Cairns
Dropping a fishing line during your reef trip? Hang on to your catch. Shangri-La's executive chef Aaron Habgood will cook it one of four ways. The hotel has a prime waterfront location and a recent $13 million makeover; upgraded rooms have blue and white nautical-themed interiors, with timber floors and banquettes angled to make the most of balcony views. A grassed area that opens out onto the marina is a scenic spot to enjoy family-style breakfast; come nightfall it turns into a lively space with music and entertainment. The Marina, Pier Point Rd, (07) 4031 1411,

How to get there

Most travellers hire cars to get around the Tropical North Queensland region. From Cairns airport, it's a 28-minute drive north to Palm Cove, and a spectacular 40-minute coastal drive further north to Port Douglas.
  • undefined: Fiona Donnelly