We were somewhere around Cairns on the edge of the Dan Murphy's car park when far-north Queensland began to take hold.
Scott cracked open the bottle of rum and cradled a plastic cup between his bare knees on the front passenger seat, pouring out a big belt of Bundy and warm Coke. I eased the hire car over the Smithfield Shopping Centre speed bumps.
The road north passed sugar cane fields, state forests and a sign for a place called Yorkeys Knob. "Seen it," Scott said. We had bigger sights in mind for our short stay in the tropical north.
A tick over three hours on a flight from Sydney/Melbourne found us in a strange land, where winter never comes and no one wears trousers. Everything seems bigger in FNQ: the mud crabs, the crocs, the steaks, the beaches, the bellies. Happily, we had come to eat and drink our fill.
Sun glares at the smokers sheltering outside Cairns Airport. We squeeze into our Suzuki Swift and drive into town, stopping for a well-balanced Sunshine Coast-roasted brew at Blackbird Espresso. The polished concrete floor and worn wood counter are too cool for this fluorescent-lit shopping arcade. But we order a slice of carrot cake. "Superb density," Scott says.
Everything seems bigger in FNQ: the mud crabs, the crocs, the steaks, the beaches, the bellies.
It's a short jaunt to Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant, where we sit on the shaded verandah and watch the buses wheeze by. The kitchen sounds like a waterfall. We enjoy some spritely Bay Leaf Lagers and sweet 'n' rich satay sticks, which are served sizzling on a small grill. Every table should come with its own miniature barbecue, we decide.
A woman walking her dog at Palm Cove, 35 minutes' north of Cairns, warns us to beware crocodiles. Far-north Queenslanders take immense pride in the prospect of being killed by the local fauna. Bottles of vinegar sit by the beach in case of box jellyfish stings. We spy several sinister orange-footed scrub fowls.
It's dinner on the deck at the hatted restaurant Nu Nu, where the Coral Sea is only a coconut toss away. Welcome to fine dining with thongs. Big, bold flavours with a chilled coastal feel. Translucent house-cured barramundi with pomegranate seeds is light and bright. Smoked Red Emperor with salmon pearls and peanut and papaya relish is a party on a plate.
We splurge on a whole wok-fried mud crab with hunks of deep-fried pork belly in a rich ginger broth. The hi-vis orange crab is sweet, succulent and wonderfully messy. The table looks like a crustacean homicide scene.
We push on to the popular Port Douglas, 40 minutes' drive north from Palm Cove. But we arrive to discover that Scott has reserved our hotel room on the wrong date. Scott reminds me that he is Canadian. That is no excuse, I say.
Everywhere in town is booked out tonight, so we park by the beach and resign ourselves to sleeping rough. Scott folds his 194-centimetre frame across the back seat of the Swift. I borrow some outdoor cushions from a nearby villa and make my bed in nearby bushland. I see angry little orange-footed scrub fowls in my dreams.
There's a yoga class kicking off on Four Mile Beach and a man with a mohawk splitting coconuts in the sand. But our joie de vivre carries us only so far as the main street, which resembles a Tuscan/Gaudi/Miami Vice-infused wonderland. We queue for an outside table at The Little Larder, which is well worth the wait. For me, a hipster-happy coconut smoothie bowl of flax seeds, dried cranberries, honey nut granola and mango chia. For Scott, eggs benedict with extra double-smoked bacon. "Your body is a temple," I say.
We check into our garden villa apartment at QT Port Douglas, where the pool is filled with inflatable animals and every guest – especially those in the Estelio cocktail bar – has great hair.
Across the road is the behemoth Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, where the pool is roughly equivalent to 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools, or Liechtenstein. We're not staying here but there are sun loungers to spare, so what the heck. An old lady in the next recliner leans over to chat about fatal shark attacks. What's with these people?
We stay on at the Sheraton for an early dinner. Local chef Spencer Patrick recently moved his hatted restaurant Harrisons to these swanky new digs, rebranding it "Harrisons by Spencer Patrick". It joins the esteemed list of self-titled eateries, including Tetsuya's, Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill Las Vegas, and Jimmy's Tasty Kebabs.
Patrick has gone back to his British roots, from delightful deep-fried pig's ears to hearty ham hock with foie gras and smoked eel.
Patrick is also at the helm of the loverley Bistro H, with its classic French furniture and lush garden setting. "That may be the world's most pointless water feature," Scott says, pointing at a trickling pot. Sharing the Bistro's Black Angus Chateaubriand with Paris mash and truffled green beans should be mandatory for any visitor to the tropical north. The tender steak is served in the pan – an uttery buttery joy to behold.
We finish dinner in time for cane toad races at the faux rusted Ironbar. Our host Duncan, the man with the mullet, introduces each of the amphibious athletes by name: Jerry Springer; Gay Freddo; Skippy's Love Child; Camel Toad, Aussie Aussie Aussie; and Fat Bastard. "Everyone loves a fat bastard, don't they, love," Duncan calls to a woman in the crowd.
Cane toad races are perhaps FNQ's primary tourist attraction, followed by Hartley's Crocodile Adventures and the Great Barrier Reef. Duncan picks "jockeys" from the audience, who have to make the toads move by pushing party blowers against their backsides.
Scott is put in charge of the cane toad Jerry Springer. The race is short, slimy and good fun. Scott finishes fourth and is rewarded for his failure with a bottle of XXXX, which Duncan pulls from a big esky on stage. "Now give Jerry a kiss," Duncan says. The night goes downhill from there.
Everyone in FNQ seems to be a refugee from Sydney or Melbourne. I stumble into four neighbours, two book club members and my dogwalker. I may be paying her too much.
Scott snags a table on the wide verandah at Origin Espresso, which serves smooth house-roasted coffee and dentist-sponsored organic sugar cane juice on tap. The cafe's code of conduct is sketched on a blackboard by the counter.
"To avoid serious embarrassment, do not ask for coffee syrups," it says. "I probably shouldn't have asked for a frappuccino with extra whipped cream," Scott says.
While wandering down the main street in search of tourist tat (topless ladies on a fridge magnet, anyone?), we stumble on the sort of fish and chippery that dreams are made of. Lanternfish does super-fresh street food with style. So it's plastic cutlery all the way for punchy soft-shell crab roti and light 'n' bright reef fish ceviche with lime and fresh jalapenos. And is that a chocolate thickshake on the menu? Lanternfish, I like the cut of your jib.
But our time in the tropical north is nearing an end. We drive down the highway, passing service stations selling whole mud crabs in plastic tubs by the petrol bowsers. Scott opts instead for a chiko roll. It's so old that the paper wrapper comes with a "Joh for PM" ad.
We detour into Cairns CBD for some cheap and cheerful ramen and gyoza at the ambitiously-named Ganbaranba "Noodle Collosseum", where what we do in life echoes in eternity. The garlic and chilli hit from the Sunrise ramen is a suitably cleansing way to farewell FNQ.
"At my signal, unleash hell," Scott screams. It's time to go Scott, I say.
Where to go
Blackbird Espresso, Oceana Walk Arcade, 13/62 Grafton Street, Cairns
Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant, Bay Village Resort, Lake Gatton Street, Cairns
Vivo, 49 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove
Nu Nu, 1 Veivers Road, Palm Cove
The Little Larder, 40 Macrossan Street, Port Douglas
QT Port Douglas, 87-109 Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas
Harrisons by Spencer Patrick, Sheraton Grand Mirage Resort, Port Douglas Road, Port Douglas
Bistro H, 22 Wharf Street, Port Douglas
Cane toad races, Ironbar, 5 Macrossan Street, Port Douglas
Origin Espresso, 21-23 Warner Street, Port Douglas
Lanternfish, 22 Macrossan Street, Port Douglas
Ganbaranba, 20 Spence Street, Cairns