PORT DOUGLAS, Australia - In a back room at the Ironbar, the crowds were cheering on Forrest Jump, Prince Charming and Skippy's Love Child in the cane toad races and chuckling at the master of ceremonies' earthy Aussie wit.
Down the block and over a spit or two, former President Clinton, in town for a couple of days after speaking engagements in Sydney and Melbourne, was enjoying a quiet meal with friends at the chic Salsa Bar & Grill.
High-brow or low-brow, the choice is yours in Port Douglas, a tropical resort town on Australia's northeast coast, about 40 miles north of Cairns. It offers $700-a-night villas on the beachfront and on-the-cheap stays at trailer parks and campgrounds; rugged outdoor adventure and lazy, pampered days by the pool; noisy saloons and quiet al fresco, haute-cuisine dining.
Mostly, though, it offers nature. Visitors, nearly half of whom come from outside Australia, are drawn by the water, the world's most spectacular reefs, the mountainous jungle terrain and the abundant wildlife.
Located on a headland of the Coral Sea on the same latitude as Tahiti and Fiji, Port Douglas has a bay with a gleaming marina on one side of its small downtown and Four Mile Beach - one of Australia's best - on the other. It also is the only place in the world where two World Heritage areas - the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree rain forest - lie side by side.
The reef, the only living structure on Earth visible from the moon, stretches 1,250 miles from north of Brisbane to just south of Papua New Guinea. It's about 30 miles off the coast from Port Douglas, making this town one of the closest of the main departure points for the reef.
The Daintree rain forest, which has survived largely unchanged for more than 100 million years, is the second-largest surviving tract of rain forest in the world after the Amazon in South America. More than 400 species of trees have been identified, including some more than 3,000 years old.
The stunning natural surroundings have attracted casual tourists and the glitterati alike. John Travolta, George Clooney, Claudia Schiffer, Harry Connick Jr., Jerry Seinfeld, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Marlon Brando, Rod Stewart and Kiefer Sutherland - back in Port Douglas earlier this year to shoot a film in which he plays artist Paul Gauguin - have all enjoyed its charms.
Port Douglas has scores of accommodations, shops and restaurants. Yet it remains in scale with its surroundings and is mindful that it exists primarily as a base for excursions to the area's natural attractions. Heading the list are the reef, Daintree National Forest, the mountain town of Kuranda and the numerous wildlife sanctuaries where you can see Australia's animals and reptiles up close.
The Great Barrier Reef, a network of 2,900 individual reefs that is home to 1,500 kinds of fish and 400 species of coral, is the top draw. Most people get there on catamarans that can accommodate up to 400 people. After a 90-minute ride, they dock at an anchored pontoon equipped with a cafeteria, dive shop and changing facilities.
The reefs can be explored right off the pontoon, or on guided snorkeling tours and diving expeditions. Agincourt Reefs, the destination for most expeditions leaving Port Douglas, are situated just over a mile from the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, where the sea floor drops about 1,500 feet. Helicopter rides are available from an adjacent pontoon.
Most tours to the Daintree National Forest include a crocodile-spotting tour on the Daintree River, a tour and lecture at an environmental center, a trip through rugged Cape Tribulation and its lovely mangrove-lined, moon-shaped beach, and lunch at an isolated spot in the jungle.
Another popular attraction is a trip to Kuranda through Barron River Gorge. Many visitors take a train one way and the five-mile Skyrail suspended above the jungle canopy the other. The Skyrail stops at an educational center and scenic lookouts, and guided tours in the heart of the rain forest are offered.
Kuranda, an attractive town with unique shops and a range of restaurants, houses Bird World, billed as the largest cageless aviary in the Southern Hemisphere. It has a spectacular array of macaws, lorikeets and other colorful birds, some of which are likely to perch on your shoulder. Bird World also is home to the endangered cassowary, the world's third-largest flightless bird and one of the few species in which the male tends to the young.
Kuranda also has a butterfly sanctuary boasting 1,500 tropical butterflies, including the stunningly beautiful "Ulysses blue." Most trips to Kuranda, which is about a half-hour south of Port Douglas, are coupled with a stop at Tjapukai, an aboriginal cultural park with presentations on aboriginal history, dance and spiritual beliefs, and demonstrations of didgeridoo-playing, boomerang and spear throwing, and preparation of bush foods and medicines.
The most popular nature parks in the area are Wild World, the Rainforest Habitat wildlife sanctuary and Hartleys Creek Crocodile Farm.
Wild World, where visitors can cuddle a koala, is home to hundreds of native species. It has a walk-through kangaroo enclosure, a free-flight bird show, a bird aviary, a reptile house, crocodile and alligator feedings, and dingoes, wombats and emus. It also has excellent educational shows and presentations by a knowledgeable staff.
There are plenty of other opportunities for adventure, including white-water rafting, bungee jumping, game fishing and skydiving. There also is golf, biking, hiking and bird-watching - and, of course cane toad racing.
Cane toads are large brown toads that Australian sugar cane farmers introduced to the country from South America in the 1930s to control beetles. They have spread like wildfire in Queensland, and attempts to control them have been largely unsuccessful.
In the frequent "races," a contestant is dropped in the center of a table with other cane toads. The winner is the first to jump off the edge.
It's pretty amusing stuff if you've had a couple of Foster's or XXXX lagers beforehand.
The Port Douglas Visitors Bureau Web site - at http://www.portdouglas.com/ - has a comprehensive list of accommodations, as well as information on tours and cruises from Port Douglas, airfares and weather information.
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