Aussie town you have to visit
As far as domestic travel goes, I'm kind of a rubbish Australian.
Like many young Aussies who took that rite-of-passage round-the-world trip in their early 20s, I bypassed my own continent and sought to get as far away as possible.
So when my editor informed me I'd be spending a four-day weekend in Port Douglas, I went in with the same naivety as a clueless foreign backpacker with zero understanding of the appropriate Vegemite-to-butter ratio: Can I wear pants in the humidity? Will there be murderous spiders in my room? Does Grindr even work up here?
INSIDE QUEENSLAND'S LUXURIOUS FAR NORTH
Port Douglas is an iconic town in Queensland, now popular with honeymooners and families on holiday.
It's had its share of famous guests from George Clooney and John Travolta to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
With its year-round mild climate, the fishing town tends to be most popular in winter, when travellers from NSW, Victoria and SA head north to escape the cold.
The Sheraton in Port Douglas, where I'm staying, is fancy. Beyond fancy.
It feels less like a hotel and more like a resort-within-a-rainforest, with two hectares of saltwater lagoon pool, a waterfall, palm trees on every corner and rows of private poolside cabanas where - speaking from experience - you will not receive a judgmental look for ordering a beer before 10am.
I'm treated to a breakfast and dinner buffet for four nights, where the waitstaff insist on calling me "Sir" despite the fact I'm wearing broken knock-off loafers and it takes me four days to figure out how the salt and pepper shakers work. (Turned out there was an electric button on top, for luxury means not having to exercise your wrists to season your food.)
From any angle, you can see enormous palm trees that make you feel like you're starring in a Beverly Hills 90210 reboot, minus all the Botoxed 30-somethings posing as teenagers.
Even the hour-long drive from Cairns Airport up to Port Douglas is stunning. Endless sweeping hills sit to your north, and the vast ocean to the east.
But unlike Bondi or Coogee during the summer months, we drive past miles and miles of beach and barely see a soul on the sand. I'm told you might get two or three families on a certain patch of sand at a busy time - there's so much of it that everyone can afford to scatter out.
The whole region looks slightly photoshopped. Every sweeping green hill and rainforest tree looks slightly greener than those back at home; the ocean and the two hectares of saltwater lagoon pools all look more blue than they should.
It's unsurprising, then, that there seems to be a trend of people moving up to Cairns from other parts of the country and … well … never leaving.
Chrissy, the hotel's marketing and communications director, moved here from Brighton in the UK, said sayonara to the perils of public transport (she now rides a bicycle to and from work every day), and stands firm that the beer in Far North Queensland tastes better than the beer anywhere else in Australia. ("The cold just goes through your throat and stays there.")
David, my driver, moved up here on a whim from outer Melbourne 30 years ago and never went back.
"Literally, never," he says with a laugh. "I haven't been back once since we came up here."
There's Youri, the bartender, who moved to Cairns with no set return date in mind.
And then there's James, one of my tour guides, who discovered a passion for rainforests and wildlife, and can now recite every detail about the most specific organisms at the drop of a hat.
AN EMPHASIS ON TRADITION
One of the most striking thing about Port Douglas is the focus on local culture.
On Saturday night, the traditional Kuku Yalanji people arrive at the Sheraton to take the stage - literally - and give people an insight into their 50,000-year-old culture.
The Kuku Yalanji people are known as the "rainforest people" due to their close affinity with nature and their surrounding scenery. They're also the oldest chefs in the world, with cooking methods dating back tens of thousands of years (Fun fact: They were also the first people to invent bread.)
Gary Creek, who orchestrated the event, walked me through the intricate underground oven process - three shallow holes heated with burning hot rocks (gathered from a nearby site), which are then sealed with sand and wet hessian bags, and steamed over banana leaves.
All the materials are natural, and the method hasn't deviated for thousands of years.
"We used a car to get the materials and a chainsaw to cut the wood," says Gary. "Those were the only modernisations we made.
"We figured the ancestors would be OK with that," he added with a laugh.
The Underground Gourmet event was an important part of the Kuku Yalanji people's attempt to bridge the cultural gap between traditional and non-Indigenous Australians.
"There are these misconceptions about us … and I think we need to do our part in changing that. That's what this is about - we want to teach people about what we do, the processes behind all this -" he gestures to the burning underground oven - "and why we do it."
Sheraton Chef Andrew Johnson says the same thing. He tells news.com.au it's the hotel giant's first time doing an event like this, and that a key part of it is promoting mutual understanding between two cultures.
As part of this, he went out with the local people to help gather the materials for the underground oven.
During the main performance of the night - a traditional smoking ceremony followed by a live dance - Gary and the other performers invite audience members up on stage to teach them a traditional dance.
He stressed to me that some ancestral knowledge is kept secret; certain stories are confined by gender, or by tribe. But for many other things - the traditional dancing, the artwork and the cooking - people of all cultures are welcome to learn and take part.
Brian Swindley, a local artist also known as Binna, tells a similar story.
Born in Cooktown and raised in Mossman, Binna has owned and operated the Janbal Art Gallery in Port Douglas for over a decade. While he tries to spend a few hours a day working on his artworks ("They can take up to six months to finish," he says) he also runs hour-long art workshops.
His paintings - which range from coaster-sized to nearly floor-to-ceiling - all hang proudly around his studio.
On first glance, the dot paintings might look like a laborious-but-simple process - but after 60 seconds with a paintbrush and a carved boomerang, I'm made to realise just how difficult it is. The "jellyfish" he breezily demonstrated looks like a shapeless smudgey blob when I attempt it, and even the dots I try to piece together are hopelessly uneven.
"Kids are always a lot better at this than adults," he says with a laugh. "Adults overthink things too much. They got lost in their own heads. You can't do that with this."
Indeed, the pair of five-year-olds next to me have made mini-masterpieces on their first tries. Show-offs.
BACK TO NATURE
Far North Queensland is also a hiker's heaven.
Daintree Rainforest and Mossman Gorge have managed to survive for more than 135 million years, and the Daintree is the oldest continuously surviving rainforest containing one of the most complex ecosystems on the planet. You can spend a whole day getting lost in there, and it's oddly peaceful.
My tour guide, James Boettcher of FNQ Tours, is another one who moved up to Mossman over a decade ago and never looked back.
The epitome of outdoors enthusiast, he feels right at home here. James is a walking encyclopaedia - point to literally any tree, plant or living creature in this forest, and he can tell you exactly what it is, how it functions and what it does for the wider ecosystem - from the strangler fig - which gradually wraps its roots around other tropical trees for survival - to the illusive tree dragon, a shy, camouflaged lizard which usually stands vertical on tree branches at eye level.
In one day, I see more Australian wildlife diversity than I have in a whole lifetime in Sydney - including saltwater crocodiles, which are surprisingly cute provided you keep your distance.
In short - it's easy to grab your passport and get on a plane out of the country. But before you jump to Barcelona or Beijing, it's well worth checking out your own backyard first.
Gavin travelled to Far North Queensland as a guest of GTI Tourism and Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort Port Douglas.
To explore the Port Douglas and Daintree region with FNQ Nature Tours, visit: fnqnaturetours.com.au.