I don't know about you but I'm a sucker for a good holiday house – especially a rambling, spacious one where everyone gets their own space: something not always possible in a typical hotel or resort. We booked the newly opened Artist's Beach House, a sprawling five-bedroom sixties house that celebrates old-style tropical living, with another family from Newcastle. We'd become friends when our daughters were at daycare together.
With its gun metal grey and crisp white weatherboard exterior, wooden shutters and breezy ambiance, the house begs you to kick off your shoes, slip on a kaftan and enjoy G&T's on the upstairs deck overlooking the towering rainforest and paperbark trees. Pineapple and palm tree wallpaper, mismatched furniture, a reading room filled with home magazines and coffee table books, plus a sweet children's room overlooking a mango tree are just some of the features of the eclectic house. The house is not luxurious in the sense that everything is modern and high tech. But when it comes to character, location and the chance to live like the locals then look no further.
The Artist's Houses, a selection of artistically inspired holiday rentals in Port Douglas (and one in Berlin, Germany), with their bohemian, tropical chic design, married with my romantic fantasy of how a Far North Queensland sojourn should best be enjoyed. We holidayed first at the Artist's Beach Cottage last year, a charming white one-bedroom weatherboard cottage filled with colourful art and op shop finds, exploring the resort town through the eyes of the owners Nina Gonsglaves, an artist, and chef Matt Wild. When the couple told us they were transforming a sixties house into their third holiday rental in the town they've called home since the eighties (when Christopher Skase reigned), a quick drive by was enough to seal a return visit.
A side gate leads onto a path to Four Mile Beach, which is terrific for walking and swimming, fringed with coconut palms. It's where locals gather for sundowners; exercise their dogs, or do morning yoga classes. Not that I needed a class. Instead I practiced yoga in the upstairs bedroom, the bi fold windows open onto the backyard with its saltwater pool (which the kids loved), Ulysses butterflies flitting through the bamboo grove.
Over the week we take up many of Tina and Matt's suggestions: dining with our feet in the sand at the nearby Beach Shack on their Sri Lankan chicken curry, coffee at Origin Espresso and breakfast with the birds at the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we get to hold a black cockatoo, feed wallabies, explore the new Cassowary Walk and hold a koala, which was a highlight for Ella.
The local surf club is excellent for family dinners with an attached playground. We mosey around the Port Douglas Markets on a Sunday morning, buying wooden flutes from a man with a King Parrot on his shoulder; another day we head across the road to QT Port Douglas for cocktails and a blissful thermal massage at spaQ, which launched last year.
Most days however we head out of town and turn right for the friendly sugar cane town of Mossman, a scenic 10-minute drive through the cane fields. Despite having Four Mile Beach on our doorstep, our favourite swimming spot in this neck of the woods is found on the road heading towards Silky Oaks Lodge in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest. We swim here almost daily and each time it feels practically baptismal.
Afterwards we tuck into smashed avocado with feta and poached eggs at the retro styled Junction Café, where the welcome is always warm and the coffee good.
On our last night we book an excellent local babysitter and dine at the Treehouse restaurant at Silky Oaks Lodge, overlooking the fast flowing Mossman River below. An American tourist shudders as he towels himself on the riverbank. "You can't come all the way here and not take a swim," he says, and we agree wholeheartedly.
The next day we reluctantly pack up and head south for another quintessential tropical resort town, Palm Cove. There's something completely charming about Palm Cove with its waterfront lined with swaying coconut trees and shaded by mighty Melalucas. All of Palm Cove is low rise, which ensures this exclusive seaside address retains a chic resort feel. And it's a terrific spot for families with family friendly restaurants and cafes, a fun, sandy playground and a safe swimming beach. There are many self-contained apartment complexes and stylish resorts along the beachfront strip that cater to those with kids but the newly branded Alamanda at Palm Cove (formerly the Angsana) is a good choice.
The resort features spacious beachfront apartments that either overlook the Coral Sea, the lush gardens or pool. Our three bedroom apartment is certainly spacious, cool and features all the mod cons a family could desire (including fully equipped kitchen), but it's a little on the sterile and tired side. The resort is apparently slated for a refurbishment, which will bring the sparkle back to this iconic boutique resort.
The resort features two pools, one of which is heated and ideal for children, and an excellent beachfront spa. Best of all is the fact that acclaimed Palm Cove restaurant Nu Nu's is now based at the Alamanda after moving from its long-term base up the road at the Peppers Beach Club and Spa. Nu Nu's has morphed from a 69-seat to 169-seat restaurant and has sadly lost a little of the magic that made it so special in the move. Having said that it is still one of the best restaurants in Palm Cove and with its beachfront location, excellent breakfasts and the restaurant also doing in-room dining, in-house guests are incredibly lucky.
On a postcard perfect sunny morning we head for Freshwater Railway Station, where we collect our tickets and board the historic Kuranda Scenic Railway. The gorgeous old train winds through the Barron Gorge National Park, past plunging valleys and gushing waterfalls on the 90-minute trip. We pass through 15 tunnels as we climb to 328m before arriving at the charming Kuranda station, where we tuck into Devonshire tea and milkshakes.
You can return back to Freshwater or Cairns on the train or do as we did and head back on the Skyrail, zooming over the rainforest canopy clearly visible through the new Diamond View Gondolas, which have a glass-viewing floor. The 7.5km cableway glides over the world heritage protected rainforest, which stretches for more than 500 kilometres along Tropical North Queensland's coastline - the oldest continually surviving rainforests on earth and once covering the entire Australian continent. We stop at Red Peak Station and Ella runs the length of the 175-metre boardwalk, gazing up at the towering Kauri pines, before we descend back to sea level taking in the incredible panoramic vista of the Coral Sea, Cairns city and the lush Cairns Highlands.
Back at Palm Cove we head to the beach for one last sunset, building sandcastles as the sky turns a dusty pink. From our sun lounge we can see Haycock and Double Island. We enjoy a glass of wine as we watch Ella play – one of dozens of kids running, jumping, swimming and carefree as their parents stroll hand in hand along this gorgeous stretch of beach, framed by palm trees.
Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Tiger Airways fly direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Cairns. Port Douglas is approximately one hour's drive from Cairns Airport on the Captain Cook Highway while Palm Cove is approximately 30 minutes drive north.
The Artist's Beach House costs from $335 in low season (summer) for six people. See stayz.com.au/accommodation/qld/cairns-barrier-reef/port-douglas/120128 or www.artistshouses.com.
A one-bedroom studio at the Alamanda Palm Cove costs from $221 a night; three bedrooms from $538 per night. See www.lancemore.com.au/alamanda.
Kuranda Scenic Railway and return SkyRail service costs $121 an adult, $61 per child or $303 for a family ticket including transfers to Cairns City or the northern beaches. See www.ksr.com.au or skyrail.com.au.
Admission to Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas costs $33 per adult, $16.50 per child or $82.50 for a family of four. Breakfast with the bird's costs $49 for adults and $24.50 for children including park admission. See www.wildlifehabitat.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Tropical North Queensland and Alamanda Palm Cove. She stayed at the Artist's Beach House at her own expense.
Sheriden Rhodes is a travel writer and photographer who travels the globe with her 'frequent small flyer', Ella. You can follow their adventures and pick up family travel tips on the Frequent Small Flyer Facebook page.