I'VE only been in Port Douglas half an hour and a woman I just met can't keep her hands off me.
Holiday Port Douglas Style
My wife's in the next room but I don't care - in fact, she's getting the same treatment. They said the locals were eager to please much-needed tourists, but surely this is too much.
It's exactly what a couple of stressed-out city slickers need. We're in the Exclusive Spa at Peppers Beach Club resort and I'm enjoying something called the Su Su Wave Melody a full-body massage that will "realign my energy flow and enhance my mind and body balance", apparently.
All I know is it feels fantastic. This is a totally new experience for me. I've had an irrational fear of day spas ever since a mate told me of being greased and beaten by a large, hairy, excited man in a Turkish bath house in 1986.
But under the expert hands of my masseuse, Clotilde, the tension built up from two hours of howling kids kicking my economy seat melts away.
Feeling thoroughly realigned, we check out our Peppers Beach Club home. The impressive room is more like a swanky riverside apartment complete with gleaming kitchen, separate lounge, private balcony and even our own poolside pontoon.
There's everything a family needs for a fully self-contained holiday: European appliances including washing machine/dryer, family-size fridge, oven and cooktop and dishwasher plus a massive flat-screen TV with DVD player. Every room even has an electric barbecue on the balcony, so there's no excuse to miss out on north Queensland's famous beef and seafood.
It's such a welcoming environment, I'm wondering why tropical north Queensland had fallen off my radar.
Like many Australians, I'd been lured to overseas destinations, or taken advantage of bargain deals at up-market Asian resorts.
And, I admit, it was not without a twinge of doubt that I made my first return visit to Port Douglas in more than a decade.
There were nagging fears that the laid-back beach hamlet I fell in love with would have become a tacky tourist sideshow.
Happily, it took just a five-minute walk beyond the cheery staff in reception for those concerns to evaporate. Downtown Macrossan St may be unrecognisable from my last visit, with its shopping arcades and wine bars, but the character of Port Douglas remains largely untarnished.
In fact, Port Douglas has managed to capture what many of Australia's tourist towns have lost: a happy blend of universal appeal and eccentric charm. It has the postcard beach, bling boutiques and gourmet eateries to match Noosa, without the snobby attitude. And it has the alternative lifestylers, hippie culture and backpacker bargains of Byron Bay, without the aggro.
Then there's that north Queensland frontier lifestyle: long, lazy lunches watching the rainforest meet the Coral Sea, gorging on the best prawns you ever tasted straight off the trawler. A few refreshing cold beers in a real colonial pub, where gnarly old fishermen, adventurers and drop-outs sit contentedly among wide-eyed tourists. Or just a stroll along one of Australia's most beautiful stretches of coastline, with no high-rises in sight.
Of course, there's more to do than watch the world go by. This region is Australia's adventure capital. More than 100 tours depart from Port Douglas to playgrounds in the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest.
From hang gliders, sea kayaks and rainforest walks to private air charters, luxury catamarans and four-wheel-drive safaris, if you can't satisfy your appetite for excitement here, maybe you need some chemical alternatives.
The plight of north Queensland's tourism industry has been well documented: it has been hit hard by the double whammy of a global financial crisis drying up foreign tourists, and a strong Aussie dollar sending locals overseas.
Then last summer's floods and Cyclone Yasi left many resorts physically battered, too.
Port Douglas escaped storm damage but the tourists still stayed away. Ill-informed foreigners may have an excuse but it's puzzling why Australians have shunned this amazing destination.
A bumper Easter period and strong winter bookings have sent encouraging signs to tourist operators that the tide is turning.
It deserves to there is a real determination and pride among the locals to bring back the good times. And if Clotilde is any indication, north Queensland's tourism future is in very gifted hands.
The writer was a guest of Peppers Beach Club resort, Port Douglas.
Where to eat
- Rex Smeal Park picnic area, on Port Douglas peninsula overlooking the Coral Sea. Free barbecues. Priceless views.
- Cafe Fresq, cnr Macrossan and Grant streets, ph 4099 6111. Great breakfasts, coffee.Port Douglas and District Combined Club (aka The Tin Shed), 7 Ashford Ave, ph 4099 5553. Lunch/dinner mains from $13.50. Try the Seafood Extravaganza, with wine ($75 for two).
- Salsa Bar & Grill, 26 Wharf St, ph 4099 4922. Mains from $28.50. Try the pan-seared barramundi with orange, red mizuna and shaved baby fennel salad, and roasted banana chilli salsa ($29.50).
- Bistro 3, cnr Macrossan and Wharf streets (opposite Court House Hotel), ph 4099 6100. Lunch/dinner mains from $34. Try the seafood linguini with roasted garlic, chilli, capers, lemon, anchovies, olives, basil, parsley, rich tomato sauce.
Where to go
Court House Hotel, cnr Macrossan and Wharf streets. Colonial pub built 1878 bistro food, live music, veranda bar.
Watergate Restaurant and Lounge Bar, cnr Macrossan and Grant streets. Trendy cocktails, fine wines.
Exclusive Spa, Peppers Beach Club, ph 4087 1000. Treatments from $86.