Travel Editor Susie Boswell visits a dream destination – where the essence of the tropics blends with romance and colonial charm.
The closest I’ve come in Australia to my favourite holiday spots, Bora Bora and the Maldives, is Palm Cove in tropical north Queensland. The bonus: holidaying at home means saving thousands of dollars in airfares and precious days otherwise eaten up by long-haul travel and jetlag. At Palm Cove – just 15 minutes from Cairns’ new international airport to martini, bikini and poolside sun lounge – I spent a week in the exotic surrounds of three beautiful resorts, all dotted along the cove’s Esplanade beachfront with its sandy shores and ocean-side boardwalk winding through groves of tall swaying palms.
Palm Cove’s exclusivity reminds me of the old TV series, Fantasy Island: an intimate, very special, holiday experience. I lazed by the pool, sipped cocktails delivered to my steamer chair and dined at open-air restaurants – each one set right at the edge of the Coral Sea – watching the passing promenade and the ocean vista by day, under fiery gas-flamed beacons at night. I’m told that, shortly before she passed away in April, former PM’s wife Sonia McMahon chose to spend some idyllic days at these tables ordering up “a bucket of prawns, please!” and a beer. Perfect. Palm Cove, she knew, is a place that indulges the senses: subtle, without the bustle of Port Douglas; sexy, with its appeal to eye and palate; soothing, with its aura of privacy, couples’ sunbathing nooks and lapping of the waves by night.
“We created Palm Cove as Australia’s true romantic destination,” architect Leigh Ratcliffe tells me. I’m being spoiled with eggs Benedict and fresh watermelon juice, both of us are relaxing ourselves gently into the day in the soft morning sunshine on the deck of Reef House. Ratcliffe, his practice in Melbourne’s fashionable South Yarra, is the latter-day “Mr Palm Cove”. “Palm Cove is where my heart is,” he declares. The real father, though, of this unique pleasure spot is the now elderly former Brigadier David Thomson. The debonair veteran of Raj-influenced Pakistan created Reef House as a stylish retreat back in the ’70s when civilisation as most knew it ended at Cairns. Thomson discovered the then six-room guesthouse with its perfect location on the beach just as he was about to retire from the Army. He developed it into a sought-after destination with understated chic, capitalising on a mysterious aura that typifies Palm Cove, still, today. Early Reef House guests included PM Gough Whitlam but later, when Thomson became Nationals’ Member for Leichhardt, patrons came from the other side of the political fence. One thing hasn’t changed: the Brigadier’s honour system, borrowed from the officers’ mess, of recording one’s drinks from the bar on chits, still operates today.
Ratcliffe snapped up Reef House with its unique reputation and appeal a decade later, laying the foundations of the modern-day experience. “We expanded it,” he recalls, “and marketed it in Europe and the US. They love it here because it’s exactly as they imagine an Australian tropical oasis: love the esplanade, promenading up and down, the little shopping village …” Up the road, Chris Skase was changing Port Douglas’s village atmosphere forever, while Ratcliffe moved more sensitively in Palm Cove, next taking on Jewel of the Reef which, under Banyan Tree group, became Allamanda, now Angsana; then creating Peppers on the same beachfront stretch. Ancient giant paperbarks were protected, height/density controls established and environmental design elements installed.
His style is lots of white; plantation shutters; private poolside sundecks off individual suites, sheltered from neighbours with hibiscus and frangipani; intimate garden/poolside outdoor kitchens for each guestroom, equipped with barbecue, wet bar, furnishings. My favourite things:
The Sebel Reef House & Spa: private BBQ terrace/balcony spa tub; 3 bougainvillea-draped pools, 2 spa pools, waterfall; Brigadier’s bar, candles lit at twilight, complimentary punch; drop-dead superb restaurant. www.reefhouse.com.au; freecall 1800 079 052. Sister hotel: Sebel Cairns freecall 1800 079 100.
Peppers Beach Club & Spa: my apartment with multiple different spaces to rest and relax in, private poolside BBQ sundeck; exotic complimentary canapés at the bar. Sister hotel, Peppers Beach Club Port Douglas with direct guestroom access to lagoon pool. www.peppers.com.au; central reservations 1300 987 600.
Angsana Resort & Spa, Great Barrier Reef: welcome fruit plate, sensuous oil-burner; house-sized suite, huge loft bedroom, dressing room, poolside balcony; Miele kitchen, laundry (easy family holiday housekeeping); exclusive guest sunlounges on the absolute-beachfront lawn/sand. www.angsana.com; 07 4055 3000.
Overall: Cracking crab claws, other fantastic food, budget outlets too; chic atmosphere; superb day spas; heaps of reef/rainforest activities (or none: why spoil that serenity?); friendly service by all, from GMs to the porters. Tip: Virgin Blue has daily flights Port Macquarie-Sydney-Cairns at lowest fares or choose Premium Economy.
See virginblue.com.au for specials, bookings.
Story by Susie Boswell.