The Reef House Review: Luxury Resort at Palm Cove Near the Great Barrier Reef

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The Reef House hotel in Palm Cove Cairns.
The Reef House hotel in Palm Cove. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Decades ago, the only reason to book a hotel outside of Cairns was to stay one night in Port Douglas before leaving for a day trip to the reefs or a multi-day liveaboard trip. Since then, quieter, upscale communities have sprung up in the area. Although not exactly a hidden gem anymore, Palm Cove is an upscale resort town located across from a beautifully manicured beach. To compare it to a US destination, think Carmel or Amelia Island.

Undoubtedly the best hotel in the Cairns area is The Reef House Adult Retreat in Palm Cove, a recent Gold Winner of the Australian Tourism Awards for 5-Star Luxury Accommodation and consistently one of the best-rated hotels in Queensland and Australia.

The stand-out reason for The Reef House ranking is the range of free hotel activities and an incredible staff eager to help you plan your vacation. For solo travelers and couples looking to interact with fellow travelers, The Reef House offers an unmatched experience in Australia.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Palm Cove is a 20-minute drive from Cairns. Although other transportation is available, renting a car is easy, and there is free parking at the resort. It’s useful for visitors planning on exploring the region for several days to have a car. Be aware, however, you’ll be driving on “the wrong side of the road.”

Enjoy the Turquoise water of Palm Cove in the Reef House Palm Cove Cairns.
Turquoise water of Palm Cove. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Top-Notch Concierge Service

Some hotels send an automated email asking for information. That’s not The Reef House style. Weeks and days before arrival, an “Escape Planning Specialist” reaches out personally to each guest not only to ensure the hotel is ready for guests, but to ensure guests receive help in planning the vacation and making reservations throughout the region. On our recent trip, they helped map out the best route to Kuranda Koala Gardens, suggested stops on the way back to the hotel from that attraction and offered ideas for enjoying the sunset in Cairns after our day diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

Upon arrival, guests are greeted with a gin-infused welcome drink and cold towel, setting the tone for the attentive service. Throughout the stay, the concierge team is available to assist with booking activities, tours and restaurant reservations.

Get drinks from the Brigadier’s Bar in the Reef House Palm Cove Cairns.
The Brigadier’s Bar. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

From Private Home to Resort

The Reef House has a rich history dating back to 1958 when it was built as a private family residence by a Cairns bookmaker and later acquired by Brigadier The Hon. David Thomson. In 1984, with the opening of Cairns International Airport, tourism in Palm Cove boomed. The Reef House transitioned into a boutique hotel. It has since undergone renovations and expansions while maintaining its colonial-inspired charm and personalized service, becoming an award-winning adults-only wellness resort. The Reef House celebrates its history through preserved traditions like the twilight canapes and punch hosted by the General Manager.

Enjoy a garden view from one of the guest rooms with patios in the Reef House Palm Cove Cairns.
Garden view guest room with patio. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Simple, Comfortable Rooms

The accommodations at The Reef House are designed to evoke the elegance of a colonial beach house with rich, tropical-inspired interiors. The resort offers 67 rooms including suites and villas to suit different group sizes and preferences. Many rooms feature private verandahs or balconies with outdoor furniture, perfect for enjoying the tropical ambiance. Amenities like kitchenettes, double spa baths and plush king-sized beds are available. In each room upon arrival, guests receive a bottle of sparkling wine and a hard-bound book about the hotel’s history, a Reef House hat and water bottle (for those guests booking directly with the hotel).

There is a free mini bar with milk.  Nespresso coffee, loose leaf tea and filtered and still water are complimentary. They also offer a pillow menu, plus blogs, videos, music playlist and audio files to provide helpful tips and techniques to ensure a good night’s sleep.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The number of electrical outlets varies from room to room. Make sure to bring adapters, and seek help as needed to locate working outlets or additional adapters.

Dine at the Reef Restaurant with view of Pacific Ocean in Cairns.
The Reef Restaurant with a view of the Pacific Ocean. Photo credit: R.C. Staab


Breakfast, lunch or dinner, the Reef Restaurant boasts stunning vistas of Palm Cove, especially at breakfast during sunrise. The restaurant serves a diverse menu featuring Mediterranean, Asian and modern Australian cuisine, with fresh-caught seafood, wood-fired pizzas and creative fusion plates.

The restaurant is open only to resort guests for breakfast and primarily for resort guests for lunch from noon to 3 pm and for dinner from 6-9 pm. There is limited seating for the public. Most reservations include a free ala carte breakfast with tea, coffee and fresh juice. Not having a huge buffet and ordering our entrees off a menu kept our calorie count in check for the day.

There is meal service available at the pool for resort guests from 11 am to 5 pm. Next to the dining room is a full-service bar open all day. Guests also can follow a Reef House tradition at the smaller Brigadier’s Bar, an honesty bar or honor bar, where they can pour their own drinks or grab snacks.

In-room dining is also available during restaurant hours.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The restaurant is a popular place for visitors staying in other Palm Cove hotels and Cairns, so do as the staff suggests and make reservations for all meals including breakfast.

The Lounge area of the Reef House Palm Cove Cairns.
Lounge area. Photo credit: R.C. Staab


As a way to encourage interaction and camaraderie among guests, The Reef House offers cocktail-making classes, Sunrise Beach Yoga, stretch and breathe classes, aqua aerobics, wine appreciation class, a reef conservation talk, Aboriginal interpretation experience, and evening canapés and punch with the General Manager. Most of the activities are free.

During our jammed-pack visit to Cairns, we didn’t have time for any activities but passing through the hotel, we saw groups of people chatting at the lounge, sipping wine at a tasting and interacting at breakfast. For solo travelers and those eager to strike up a conversation and make friends, the Reef House is ideal.

The Reef House Spa offers a beautifully appointed seaside escape. The spa is available for in-house guests and can get very busy, so book in advance.

Swim in the heated pool of Reef House Palm Cove Cairns.
Heated pool. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Dip in the Heated Pool

The main swimming pool is right off the lobby and surrounded by rooms on three sides.  If it’s windy outside, the pool is a calm sanctuary. Separately, there is a mineral pool, Jacuzzi and heated Japanese-style outdoor spa. At 11 am, resort staff offer cold towels to guests and then return at 3 pm with complimentary sorbet.

SheBuysTravel Tip: There is a small netted area at the Palm Cove beach to protect swimmers from poisonous jellyfish and crocodiles. Don’t risk even wading into the water at the beach, much less go out for a quick swim.

Grab some Scuba diving gear on board a boat when you visit the Reef House Palm Cove Cairns.
Scuba diving gear on board a boat. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Explore the Reef (the one in the water)

The Reef concierge staff is happy to connect you with tour operators in Cairns and Port Douglas that offer smaller group trips to the Great Barrier Reef for snorkeling or scuba diving. If you are looking for additional opportunities to get out on the water, stop at the Reef Fleet Terminal in Cairns across from the main pier. Like an airport check-in counter, the terminal has multiple stands with operators eager to pitch adventures for scuba divers, snorkelers and day-trippers. The Cairns Maria is home to boat captains offering fishing charters for small or large groups.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Wait until the rush is over and visit the Reef Fleet Terminal in late morning or early afternoon to find a tour that suits your budget and, importantly, your comfort level at sea.

Take a walk in the Beach at Palm Cove.
Beach at Palm Cove. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Basic Information

Guaranteed check-in time is 3 pm. Check-out is 11 am. If the hotel has received your arrival information and the room is available, guests can access the room as early at 9 am. The same applies to late checkout.

We were in the middle of our Australian vacation that began in Melbourne. So a huge benefit to staying here is access to a free guest laundry with three washing machines and dryers on premises. It’s especially helpful for those of us who pack light. As this was the 10th day of our travels, we were able to do two quick loads of essential clothes such as socks, T-shirts, swimsuits and underwear.

The resort’s address is 99 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove, QLD 4879. Phone is 07-4080-2600. Email them at

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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