The perfect Winter golf getaway
By Andrew Whiley
One of the best winter golf getaways for New Zealand golfers is definitely Cairns and Port Douglas. As the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree and with the climate in June through to October, it makes this a great place to tee it up.
Cairns and Port Douglas can be accessed via a direct flight from Auckland with either Philippine Airlines or Air New Zealand. Philippine Airlines fly this route four times a week as it connects on to Manila.
Golf Tourism in Northern Queensland was put “on the map” in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, when Japanese companies and Christopher Skase developed the courses that are now known as Paradise Palms, Palmer Sea Reef and the Mirage. These courses hosted the big name players of the day, such as Greg Norman, Jumbo Ozaki, Nick Faldo and Curtis Strange. Unfortunately, since the opening of these courses and over the last 10 to 15 years, these courses had been inconsistent in conditioning and management.
Today, however, Cairns and Port Douglas are ‘must play’ golf destinations! Not only do you have the three key name courses, but there are some great supporting courses to play as well. So be sure to plan on at least a week plus some additional time to visit the other local tourism experiences.
Last July, I visited the region with a group of twelve golfers for the first time. We have often enjoyed our trips to the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast but we were so impressed with Cairns/Port Douglas, that we are already planning our return visit. There was lots to see and do, a great climate to enjoy and the golf courses are worth playing- but do watch out for the crocodiles!
Cairns was our first stop, and there was more happening there than I had anticipated. There are some great bars and restaurants in the area and obviously, we enjoyed them even more after watching the Highlanders win! Some of the group also enjoyed a couple of nights at the casino which is handy to everything else going on.
Cairns Golf Club was our opening stop. Located only 10-minutes from the Cairns beachfront, this golf course doesn’t come with a lot of rave reviews but it is a course you should play. The whole group enjoyed the course, with the back nine proving to be a bigger challenge than the front nine. The course is flat but has some undulating elevated greens and some water hazards that can ruin a good score. It allowed our higher handicappers to have a great day out and still challenged our better players. The driving range is only metres from the golf shop, so it was a good course for us to warm-up our golf swings prior to teeing off. The conditioning was great and the team at the golf shop were extremely welcoming. It’s one of those courses where after the round, the locals come up and have a chat to see how you enjoyed the course and a yarn about where you are from.
Our next stop was Port Douglas which was also more “alive” and interesting than we expected. From the Sunday Farmers Market to the many restaurants and bars, there was something for everyone in our group. As I stayed on for an extra few days after the golf group headed home, I also discovered there was certainly a lot to do and enjoy for a non-golfing trip to the far north!
Port Douglas is a short 70-minute drive from Cairns, with some stunning coastal scenery. We arrived at the Palmer Sea Reef course, which was designed by the top design team of Thomson, Wolveridge & Perrett and which opened to rave reviews in 2000. The course is a challenging test (it is in Australia’s Top 100 courses) with one of the more interesting first holes in golf that I have ever played. The course is well groomed and will test all your shots. If you have a gentle fade off the tee, then you will miss most of the trouble off the tee. You will quickly notice the “Beware of Crocodiles” signs, so going after your ball in the hazards is not an option.
We played this course twice and what I really liked about the golf course is that it is enjoyable whether you are a high or a low handicapper. Everyone will have fun. This is all about the quality of the design; there are some bailout areas and the bunkers come into play when you start to attack the holes. The front nine is pretty closely connected whereas the back nine flow around native bush and housing sections waiting for development. The 18th Hole is a strong Par 4 and you will definitely enjoy a drink in the deluxe clubhouse after your golf.
Staying at the Paradise Links Resort was the perfect location for golf and handy for everything else. Big spacious units which are extremely comfortable, include everything you need for a great stay. We especially enjoyed the pool and BBQ area. Our units had great views of the golf course overlooking the 3rd Green and 4th Tee of the Palmer Sea Reef.
Round three was played at The Mirage Golf Course. This was part of the Sheraton Resort that Mr Skase built in the late ‘80’s. The course is unique in that it has six par three holes, six par four holes and six par five holes. The first nine play around the beach side of the road, with the first three holes going through some ancient rain forest, then around the hotel suites and villas. The back nine play around a series of lakes on the clubhouse side of the road. However, with the lakes, came the crocodile warning signs. One time, as we were playing the par three, 13th Hole, we actually heard the heavy splash of water as a ‘Croc’ dashed away from us! This was rather exciting for us New Zealanders, I must say. This course has struggled with conditioning in the past, but the recent purchase of the course and resort complex has seen a large investment quickly bring the course back up to championship quality.
Only 20-minutes North of Cairns is Paradise Palms. Designed by Graham Marsh and Ross Watson, who have designed many of Australia’s leading golf courses, this is the most challenging golf course in the region. Opened in 1990 to great fanfare, the course has struggled financially over many years. However, when we played it, it was apparent that the new owners have already made a major impact on the conditioning of the course and the golf carts have full GPS screens. Playing off the white tees, the course measures a challenging 5800m. The course was previously played the opposite way around, where the 10th Hole once was, it is now the 1st Hole. Many of the holes have water coming into play; from the first, where water is all down the right-hand side of the fairway. The first six holes are extremely challenging and the ninth hole really makes you think. It’s not a long par five, but one that requires good game management playing over water to a difficult green. The back nine plays a little shorter than the front nine but the last four holes can wreck any good card, with the 16th being the most difficult hole on the golf course. It has a creek running across the fairway at 210 meters off the tee, so needing a carry in excessive of 230 meters, with a long challenging second shot into the green. The clubhouse is huge and you will enjoy your cold beverage sitting on the deck watching the other golfers finish.
Cairns and Port Douglas are both great areas to enjoy on non-golfing days. My two “must do” activities are an excursion out to Great Barrier Reef and a visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. The Great Barrier Reef is the number one tourist attraction in the region and you can either experience the calm of the inner reef or venture to the outer reef from where you usually see those amazing photos. My wife and I chose the inner reef. We enjoyed a smaller group of 24 on a luxury catamaran, where we were able to experience some great snorkelling and even visit a small island while learning about life on the reef. It was a magical day where we got to snorkel with beautiful fish, a small 2-metre shark and sea turtles. Plus the lunch and crew were fabulous.
The other activity that I really enjoyed was visiting Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. This is a real crocodile farm and yes, they have some amazing big ones that you do get up close with, either behind a fence or out on the lagoon as you cruise around with a very informative guide. This is also a great opportunity to get up close and personal with a koala (and get that special photo moment), and with kangaroos and some of Australia’s other fine native animals. Hartley’s is located on the highway, a 50-minutes drive north of Cairns or 20-minutes south of Port Douglas.
Some of the other attractions to consider are the Kuranda Railway, just outside of Cairns or while in Port Douglas, the Lady Douglas cruise. On my next visit, I am really looking forward to doing the Mossman Gorge and the Cape Tribulation tour. I am keen to explore the magnificent and untouched World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, since it is the oldest living rainforest in the world at 160 million years.
I would also suggest you take the time to visit Trinity Beach or Palm Cove, as these resort areas have some great accommodation and restaurants to enjoy.
So the next time you are thinking where you should head for a winter getaway, Cairns and Port Douglas should be high on your list. There is something for everyone, with warm winter weather, great golf, awesome activities to enjoy, a variety of shopping, and wonderful options for eating. There are a multitude of options that would please anyone including some great R&R activities including some of the best spas in Australia. For golfers and non-golfers alike, it really is paradise!