Where to eat in Tropical North Queensland

21 March 2018

There are plenty of tropical places where you can eat well, but few offer as much as Tropical North Queensland, the Cairns-adjacent region with the Whitsunday Islands and the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep. Here you'll eat freshly line-caught fish and tropical fruit galore, but also cheese from the cooler inland regions, game foods like kangaroo and crocodile, and great meat and produce from all over Australia. 

Ochre, Cairns. Photo: supplied

Cairns – the real taste of Australia

For a city of just 150,000, Cairns has no shortage of top-flight restaurants, cafes and bars. Of course, TNQ's incredible local produce doesn't hurt, and there's nowhere better to experience it than at Ochre, the acclaimed restaurant where fine dining meets indigenous flavours. If you've got a hankering to try char-grilled kangaroo and Vietnamese-style crocodile, followed by an indulgent serving of wattle seed pavlova, you've come to the right place (but there's plenty for the less adventurous palates too). Located on the Cairns boardwalk, your meal will be accompanied by superb views across the marina to the forested mountains beyond. 

Nautilus, Port Douglas. Photo: supplied

Port Douglas – dinner under a canopy of leaves

Known as the jumping off point for trips to the Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas has more than enough going for it to warrant a few days of chilling out in town. Its food scene is widely regarded as one of the best in TNQ and its crown jewel is Nautilus restaurant, more than 60 years old and still going strong. Dining at Nautilus is completely al fresco: you eat nestled in a stunning 'private tropical oasis', surrounded by towering rainforest and gently twinkling paper lanterns. Al fresco eating does mean there’s some weather risk involved, but don't worry, if there's a sudden downpour they've got you covered – literally, with a clear, rain-resistant canopy. Food is modern Australian with an Asian twist: diners rave about the twice-cooked pork belly and sea scallop with bean sprouts, mandarin and burnt palm sugar caramel.

Atherton Tableland. Photo: Getty Images

Atherton Tableland – tropical wineries and roadside stalls

A highland plateau southwest of Cairns, Atherton Tableland is full of surprises – not least of which is the climate. This might be the tropics, but the Tableland's elevated position means its weather stays cool enough for dairy farming. Gallo Dairyland and Mungalli Creek Dairy are both working dairies with incredible cheeses for sale. Combine your visit with stops at wineries where the raw materials are fruits like mango, lychee and pineapple – a wine and cheese tasting with a difference. On your way back to Cairns, stop at a roadside stall (they're everywhere) for fresh fruit, dirt-cheap avocados and bags of macadamias.

Nu Nu, Palm Cove. Photo: supplied

Palm Cove – acclaimed dining by the sea

Located 27 km north of Cairns, serene Palm Cove is home to some of the region's very best resorts, including Peppers Beach Club, Reef House and the Alamanda. While you're there, don't miss a magical evening at Nu Nu, the 2017 Good Food Guide Queensland Regional Restaurant of the Year. The menu at Nu Nu includes dishes like cinnamon-roasted Victorian lamb and smoked Wagyu beef in a pumpkin mole, plus a range of small bites (Nu Nu calls them 'tidbits') including pork ribs, cassava crisps and spanner crab sandwiches. The restaurant itself is an airy space, modern but comfortable, with hanging greenery and incredible views across the sand to the Coral Sea.

The Beach Club, Hamilton Island. Photo: supplied

The Whitsundays – resort dining at its best

There are plenty of places to stay in the Whitsundays, the string of dreamy islands neighbouring the Great Barrier Reef, but the biggest and most popular is definitely Hamilton Island. After a day spent getting active with a jet ski, kayak or snorkel, or taking it easy with a spot of shopping or a round of golf,  there's nowhere better to watch the sun go down than at The Beach Club, a gorgeous child-free restaurant with views over the infinity pool and to Catseye Beach beyond. Dine on linguine with Moreton Bay bugs and Queensland tiger prawns, followed by raisin and TNQ-grown macadamia parfait and a glass of the chef's house made limoncello.