When it comes to food, Cairns and Tropical North Queensland is the Promised Land. Produce is grown in exotic gardens in the north, dairy comes from an exquisitely lush hinterland, catch-of-the-day seafood is brought in daily from the Coral Sea and native bush spices have journeyed through 40,000 years of indigenous culture to arrive on our plates. Dining here is a feast of the senses and experiences go beyond the restaurant doors. Here are just 10 palate pleasing experiences to do in and around Cairns.
- Nu Nu Restaurant
Half way between Cairns and Port Douglas is Palm Cove, a palm-fringed village mapped out by bon vivants as the must-do beachfront dining precinct. Ask any local where best to capture the magic of seaside dining and fingers most often point to NuNu, a place where you can also dig your toes in the sand while trying out Modern Australian cuisine. Starters include house-cured barramundi with orange, toasted crumbs & hazelnuts while the big gun of the restaurant is a wok fried North Queensland mud crab with chilli tamarind caramel and sweet pork. Unsure of what to choose? Then pick the tasting course: four dishes for $85 or seven for $125 per person.
Oh, and if you see someone running around in chef whites paired with colourful board shorts, chances are it's Nick Holloway, a former Melbournian from the much-awarded Pearl restaurant who - like his food - has gone 100 percent tropical. http://www.nunu.com.au/
Take a traditional Italian Gelati recipe and throw in exotic fruits straight from the farms of Tropical North Queensland. Blend the two together. Freeze the mix and then put a stick in the middle. What you have is Gelacchio, a Queensland take on the old-fashioned popsicle and the perfect icy tonic for the tropics.
But Valentina and the Gelati masters at this Esplanade street shop don't stop there. Whatever flavoured popsicle you choose, you can dip into one of three chocolate covertures and roll that over nine different toppings. Willy Wonka would love this place.
- Nautilus Restaurant, Port Douglas
There are so many things to love about this restaurant, but let's start with three. It was personally chosen by Hilary for a sneaky date night during Bill Clinton's 1996 Presidential Tour (Hilary had read about the restaurant in the New York Times). It does not cater for children under eight; a shame really, as the fairy lights and the lush tropical garden would appeal to any tot. And, finally it's been operating for just on 60 years, making it one of Australia's longest running restaurants. Then, there is the consistent wizardry with the cuisine: a fine blend of produce from the tropics mixed with inspiration from Asia. Try grilled local crayfish with fennel, or citrus risotto with char grilled tiger prawns and rock seared scallops. If you can't decide, there's always the five-course degustation menu for $89 or seven courses for $115.
P.S. Aside from the Clintons, other star diners known to have frequented Nautilus include Sir Lawrence Oliver, Vivian Leigh, Rupert Murdoch and Paul Hogan. http://www.nautilus-restaurant.com.au
- The Junction Café
Anyone missing their Nana needs to get here fast. The Junction Cafe is a 1950s-time warp serving superb coffee in mismatched vintage china cups, using local Atherton Tablelands milk. There's a simple menu with all the usual suspects, but look to the blackboard for the showpiece of the day, like slow-cooked pork belly, green pawpaw and calamari salad and house-smoked ocean trout with orange, fennel and tamarind dressing.
- Mocka's Pies
Mocka's Pies is a classic example that pushing the palate doesn't always mean going Heston Blumenthal with a Bunsen burner. This cheap and cheerful bakery located just around the corner from Macrossan Street has been the cornerstone lunch spot for tradies and tourists for years and there's one must try item on the menu: the Croc Laksa pie. (You can't miss it, there's a snappy little croc shaped pastry on the pie crust). At $4.50 it's just one of those bucket list dining experiences in the region.
This is not a meal, it is an event. And at $80 a pop, the 2Fish tasting menu wins the all-important food election for dishing up plump seafood bursting with local ocean flavours and paired with incredibly memorable flavours; like the two giant prawns coated in an exquisitely light coconut curry. Unlike some venues in Queensland, the service here is as schmick as the produce with friendly waiters knowing just when to appear. It must be good, in 2016 2Fish won Gold at the National Restaurant and Catering Award for Best Seafood Restaurant in Australia. http://www.2fishrestaurant.com.au
- Coffee Works
Warning! You wouldn't know it from the uninspiring tin shed exterior, but this place is a riot of colour and senses. It is home to 43 different coffee blends including premium Arabica and local beans, hand-crafted chocolate, liqueurs, Australian style teas, and more souvenirs than you possibly have relatives.
At the heart of the activity there's an important story about the history of modern coffee. It was this very plantation that developed the world's first mechanical coffee harvester in the 1980s, freeing Australian coffee growers to compete on the world stage and to fuel an industry that surely wakes the nation. Taking cue, the owners have created a museum to everything about the bean, with an unusual assortment of contraptions to roast, percolate, drip and filter the brew. Allow at least two hours here to make the most of the roast. https://coffeeworks.com.au/
- Mt Uncle Distillery
A plantation that makes a liqueur that tastes like marshmallows and calls it “Sexy Cat” has got my vote for one of the must-do food experiences around Cairns. Mt Uncle is North Queensland's first and only distillery with the bottles of liquid magic made using local sugar, vanilla and coffee beans. But this is no light-weight spirit maker, the team at Mt Uncle have recently cleaned up global awards, including Gold for their FNQ Iridium Gold Rum and Silver for the Botanic Australis Gin at the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition.
For those not into alcohol, the distillery is hidden in a stunning banana plantation and the onsite noshery, Bridges Café, serves the best-ever wood-fired pizzas and salads - as well as more than 50 blends of tea. www.mtuncle.com
- Private picnic on a sandy cay
Calling all rock stars and romantics, this is the ultimate food experience around Cairns - if you have the budget. Charter a private helicopter, circle the Great Barrier Reef and then land on a tiny (and I mean tiny) bump of sand for a two-hour exclusive gourmet picnic packed with champagne, picnic blanket, beach umbrella and snorkelling equipment. This is the stuff of Crusoe legend. The main difference is the promise that the helicopter will return.
- Walkabout Tours
Kick off your shoes and join Juan Walker as he ambles through ankle deep water in his ancestral homeland - with a spear in hand - searching for the day's catch. This is not a pretty tour and you have to be prepared to muck in, at times jiving in the mudflats to dislodge cockles, at others trekking through a swampy mangrove to pluck marine molluscs from tree roots. The tour is more than a scrounge for food. As custodian of his culture, Juan (named after his grandmother's second husband who was a Philippino) also explains the history of the Kuku Yalanji people and the importance of indigenous culture. At the end of the tour, you get to eat your catch served with a splash of native chilli sauce – all made on mama's stove top by Juan himself. http://www.walkaboutadventures.com.au/Walkabout/Home.html