I was asked which destination of the three we recently stayed at did I like the best. This is a bit like comparing apples and oranges; they’re different, and each had its own appeal.
Let me say at the outset, that I wouldn’t think of staying at Cairns itself (although we did so last year). And although I’m very glad to have experienced it, I’m not sure that I’d rush back to Mission Beach. It’s a bit of a drive from Cairns (assuming that one flies in), and although the accommodation at Castaways is nice, it does offer a “resort” experience which isn’t really my scene (and there aren’t a lot of alternatives that we would regard as suitable).
So, as between Port Douglas and Palm Cove? That’s a hard decision! Four Mile beach at Port Douglas is a nicer beach than the one at Palm Cove, but the the one at Palm Cove is certainly OK (and both are exposed to the prevailing south-easterlies). And, actually, since we’re not sit-on-the-beach people, the standard of the beach isn’t a big deal for us. However, Port Douglas has more accommodation choices and restaurants/pubs/clubs (and facilities – such as a Coles supermarket and ATMs), so perhaps that would tip the scales slightly in its favour, in spite of the fact that Palm Cove is definitely “cuter” if that’s a relevant consideration! Just for the record, of course there’s a supermarket only a few minutes drive from Palm Cove (assuming you have a car), and it has the advantage of Cairns’ other northern beaches being not too far away as well as having a regular commuter bus into Cairns (if that’s of relevance). And Port Douglas is a drive from Cairns (but much closer than Mission Beach), although if you’re starting from the airport at Cairns, you’re already on the right side of town.
On a slightly different note, we are fans of self-catering accommodation, available at both places, even though the only meals we tend to have in the room are breakfast and perhaps the occasional informal lunch. We also actually quite like the fact that such accommodation is only serviced once or perhaps twice a week, on the basis that we don’t have to get the room “presentable” every day!