Australia’s first seaside resort
  |  First Published: February 2005

Trying to decide where to spend your winter break? Where better than ‘Australia’s first seaside resort’, the charming settlement of Cooktown?

Cooktown is a terrific destination that’s packed full of history, provides visitors with countless things to see and do, and has a laid-back pace of life and some great fishing. You could easily enjoy a week or more there and leave with a strong desire to return (I know I always do).

We all know that in 1770 Jimmy Cook beached The Endeavour for repairs on the banks of the river that now bears its name, and spent several weeks there in the process. However, it wasn’t until over a century later that a town was established, following the discovery of the fabulous ‘River of Gold’, the Palmer.

The Palmer River goldfield quickly became the second richest alluvial field in Australia’s history and the huge influx of miners forced the government to act quickly to establish a seaport far enough north to service the rush. The site chosen for the port was on the Endeavour River where Cook had repaired his broken ship.

On October 25, 1873, the 800-ton SS Leichhardt arrived carrying the government Gold Commissioner Howard St. George, police, work crews (to build the new port and road to the Palmer) and another 86 diggers. The road gang hurriedly blazed a track west from Cook’s Town as the stream of optimistic arrivals continued to flood in.

Before long the town’s rows of tents were replaced with more substantial buildings of timber and stone as the wealth from the field was brought back by lucky diggers. These workers were eager for liquid refreshment or female companionship, and some reports claim that during its heyday Cooktown boasted 63 hotels and 40 brothels (but only two churches).

At its peak in the mid-1870s, the remote and dangerous Palmer field swarmed with around 20,000 European and Chinese diggers seeking their fortunes. Some of them found it, but many others just found a miserable death (check out the local cemetery).

The local Aboriginals, displaced from their traditional land by the noisy and destructive invaders, waged a fierce guerrilla war that claimed many lives on both sides. Disease, starvation, ‘claim-jumping’ and racial disputes on the field added to the death toll. When the field petered out in the mid-1880s hundreds of miners and aboriginals had perished, with local place names like Battle Camp, Murdering Lagoon, Cannibal Creek and Hell’s Gate reminders of this violent past.

Cooktown was practically deserted when the gold ran out, and was left a mere shadow of its former bustling self. Today it is a wonderful, relaxed holiday destination blessed with stunning vistas, grand historic buildings, deserted beaches, a beautiful botanical gardens, a great range of accommodation, excellent services and facilities plus the vast wilderness and 4WD paradise of Cape York on its doorstep. Sounds good to me!


1. Bushfires create a striking red sunset over the pristine Endeavour River.

2. The stumpy little Grassy Hill lighthouse has marked the entrance to the Endeavour River since 1886.

3. Looking over Cooktown and the Endeavour River from Grassy Hill.

4. Looking towards Cape Bedford from Cooktown Wharf.

5. The James Cook monument overlooks the Endeavour River. The James Cook Museum, originally a Convent, has an excellent collection including a cannon that was thrown overboard from the sinking Endeavour.

6. Pretty Quarantine Bay is just a short drive south of Cooktown.

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