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Reef House Palm Cove, review: A tropical treasure

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:44:17

Reef House Palm Cove, review: A tropical treasure

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Our rating

4 out of 5


Palm and Cove. The words conjure up louvre windows, palm fronds, hot nights and a gin sling or two. In fact, the  lush tropical north sort of demands such a setting. So you can imagine our disappointment a few years back when we headed to Far North Queensland for the first time, only to end up in a pricey but soulless resort. The dark, empty corridors, reminiscent of a bank, led out onto an even emptier pool, with a fence covered in what-not-to-do signs. It was a massive disappointment when you consider that Palm Cove, nestled midway between Cairns and Port Douglas by the turquoise waters of the Coral Sea, is in a sublime location. Fast forward and, luckily, my underwhelming introduction to Far North accommodation has been laid to rest thanks to Reef House Resort & Spa, a place perfectly sympatico with its surroundings. 


With the entrance to this gracious, plantation-style resort built around one of the 300-year-old melaleuca trees that line Williams Esplanade overlooking the beach, Reef House looks like it grew into its spot.  We arrive on a humid night with thunder crashing in the distance to a warm buzz eminating  from the candlelit open-air restaurant. Other guests  sit in small groups by the bar, or outside by the three pools framed by tropical gardens and the odd string of fairylights. Reef House is a series of whitewashed colonial-style buildings, the original having been built in 1958 by a Cairns bookmaker. In the early 1970s, the property was bought by a syndicate and operated for a while as a restaurant with limited accommodation until Brigadier  David Thomson, (later Federal Minister for Science & Technology), bought it in 1972 to open as a guest house. News of the Brigadier's hospitality and his insistence that visitors be treated as personal guests soon spread, and Reef House became a popular getaway. Some of the Brigadier's special touches remain today: guests can borrow fishing rods, bikes or books from the library, or mix themselves a cocktail or two (recipes provided) at the Brigadier's Bar by the pool, which operates on an honesty system. Each evening candles are lit throughout the resort denoting Twilight Hour, where guests can  meet and mingle over canapes and a glass of  Brigadier's Punch.  


I walk through a small garden and  portico with a swing seat to get to my room, which is directly opposite the beach. The room is spacious, light, cool and I'm delighted to see that the king-size bed has a full mosquito net if needed (it wasn't but it added to the picture.) There is a TV, free wi-fi, an enormous spa bath and a separate shower with Reef House Day Spa's signature toiletries.


The following night we are at the Reef House Restaurant to hear playwright Hannie Rayson speak on her new memoir Hello, Beautiful! as part of MGallery's Literary Collection In Conversation evenings, where authors are invited to discuss their works at various hotels over dinner. Reef House has gone all out tonight to make this event a special one. There are linen tablecloths and those candles again, in that stunning outdoor restaurant with beach views. The degustation menu is original and fresh with wild-caught barramundi in Thai red curry sauce and nam jim salad, and scallops with twice-cooked pork belly pineapple and candied ginger jam, the standouts. After the final question has been asked of Hannie Rayson, the author, a die-hard inner-city Melburnian, confesses that something in the air and the water at Palm Cove had got under her skin – in a good way. "I could happily stay here for good," she said, while pondering whether to have a late swim in the saltwater pool.


The beach is directly across the road, perfect outside of stinger season (November to May). Otherwise check with locals for netted areas. Nearby Cairns is the best way to access the reef for a swim or snorkle, with boats and tours leaving all day long, or you can book a Daintree visit for a rainforest tour or adventure.  Green Island is a perfect spot to sample both reef and rainforest with great snorkelling and stunning flora and birdlife. There are a wealth of restaurant choices along the Palm Cove strip, including the excellent Vivo. Closer to home, the Reef House Day Spa is excellent, with chic Swiss manager Isabelle Neil and her staff providing a range of services with locally sourced products. There are  some good boutiques at Palm Cove and plenty of shopping at nearby Port Douglas.


The boutique-style Reef House (see is a 20-minute drive from Cairns airport. Rates start at $220 per night and include Continental Breakfast and the Brigadier Punch & Canapes at twilight. The Reef House Restaurant is open seven days for buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner featuring a seasonal menu with local seafood and Tablelands produce. There is underground parking and free wi-fi in every room.


Anywhere with such a dramatic location and climate such as Palm Cove (think tropical sunsets, the Coral Sea, crocs, stingers, the Barrier Reef, the Big Wet, humidity) demands accommodation with at least a little bit of imagination. Reef House is not a five-star hotel and it's not trying to be. Rather it's a luxury beach house with elegant, personal touches that are sadly missing in a lot of new establishments.

HIGHLIGHT Its charm. Frankly, it's a bit of a treasure.

LOWLIGHT There's old worlde and there's old. Bathroom tiles are a bit tired.