“Sixty two years later the ‘Nautilus Dining Experience’ is still identified as a ‘Must Do’ when in the tropical far North of Queensland”. With sixty years of continuous operation on the same site, Nautilus remains the icon restaurant of tropical Queensland with a colourful history matched by very few Australian restaurants.
The story begins with Max & Dianna Bowden who arrived in Australia in the early 1950’s. Max had been an agent in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and had come to Australia seeking to start a new life away from the United Kingdom. His new wife Dianna, an elegant and very attractive lady, was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II. This intriguing pair found Port Douglas, fell in love with the natural beauty of the tropical paradise, and took up residence.
They purchased most of the property bounded by Macrossan, Murphy, Grant and Wharf Street; basically the whole side of flagstaff hill that included the current Nautilus Restaurant site. Max planted an orchard and Dianna was designing and manufacturing exquisite shell jewellery that she sold to department stores in Sydney and Melbourne, & exported to London. The beautiful jewellery was very popular and so a great number of people began journeying to Port Douglas specifically to buy direct from the factory.
Whilst there were plenty of pubs in town at the time, there were no restaurants. Max & Di realized the opportunity to supplement their living and began serving morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea. And so in 1954 Nautilus Restaurant was born. The Bowdens operated Nautilus themselves for about 4 years before offering the lease to Bart Allen who had arrived in Port Douglas seeking to run a restaurant.
THE THEATRE OF NAUTILUS
A number of restaurateurs then followed with varying levels of success. Perhaps the most accomplished in this period were partners John Haywood and Bill Austin who took over the lease in 1971. The pair had a theatrical background and focused on a provincial style menu sourcing most of their produce from the surrounding region, and even grew their own fruit and vegetables. A large fishing fleet operated out of Port Douglas at this time and fresh reef fish including coral trout were readily available.
Visitors including Sir Lawrence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, David Bowie, Gough Whitlam & Paul Hogan, were perhaps the first to savour the flavour of the now famous Whole Coral Trout.
DECADE OF DECADENCE
In 1980 ownership of the restaurant freehold and operation changed when the Bowdens sold the property to their close friends Dianne Cilento and Anthony Sheaffer. Dianne had enjoyed celebrity status in the 60's and 70's with a successful film and stage career, and a marriage to Sean Connery while he was starring as the first James Bond.
Dianne had moved to Port with Tony a couple of years earlier to purchase the property that is now Karnak Play House. Di & Tony’s background in theatre saw the Restaurant further develop its theatrical demeanour in the early 80’s. This was a decade of excesses, & Nautilus surely held its own in all things decadent, as everybody who was anybody visited. Nautilus won Best Restaurant Queensland & was runner up for Best Restaurant Australia.
In 1984 the restaurant celebrated its 30th birthday with the biggest bash Port Douglas had ever seen with Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson opening the festivities. Sunday lunches were the biggest event of the week for Nautilus. Each week a guest ‘Celebrity Chef’ would nominate their best dishes and people from the surrounding areas, including Cairns, would arrive to dine at the restaurant. The antiquated Queensland licensing restrictions at this time meant that the pubs could not serve liquor after a certain time of day. Nautilus somehow managed to keep the drinks flowing for these luncheons as they continued into the night, without being raided by the local police.
FLAVOURS OF MODERN AUSTRALIA
In 1986 Diane persuaded chef Mogens Bay Esbensen to leave his restaurant in Sydney and come to Nautilus. Mogens had owned a restaurant in Thailand and his ability to combine tropical ingredients with Thai flavours pioneered what is now considered Modern Australian Cuisine. During his time running Nautilus, Mogens operated cooking schools at the restaurant.
When Mogens returned to Sydney in 1989 to open his next restaurant ‘Butlers’, the Nautilus lease was taken over by Gold Coast restaurateurs John and Carmel Forest.
Later that year the restaurant property was sold by Di & Tony to the Wearne family consisting of Warren & Narelle, Grahame & Jeanette and Duncan & Janice. The family appointed Carmel as manager and the good times continued. Warren had been a successful restaurateur in Sydney and the Gold Coast, running Elizas at Double Bay, Oatlands House at Dundas and Oskars on the Gold Coast. With his wife Narelle he operated Nautilus until sadly he passed away in 1996.
THE PRESIDENTIAL VISIT
Cemented in the history of Nautilus is the US presidential visit of Bill & Hillary Clinton in October 1996. One night at around 8:40 pm, with no prior reservation, and two small tables of "minders" already dining in the restaurant, two of the Clintons' senior security officers entered the restaurant and spoke with Carmel. She was asked if all the guests had arrived, they had.
The secret service men then proceeded to advise her that all of the restaurant’s telephones had been disconnected and that the President and First Lady would be arriving to dine in around 10 minutes. None of the other diners then present in the restaurant were allowed to leave. Hillary had seen a feature on Nautilus in the New York Times and she had included a romantic anniversary dinner at Nautilus in their holiday plans.
The restaurant was sealed off, Murphy Street was blocked at both ends and officers were stationed at all points including the kitchen. The Clintons dined alone, and enjoyed their own intimate "Nautilus Experience". There was a small wedding party in the restaurant and Bill signed their wedding certificate and the bride presented her bouquet to Hillary for her wedding anniversary.
After his brother’s passing, Grahame and his wife Jeanette took over Warren’s family interest in the restaurant. The couple made many sojourns from Sydney to enjoy Nautilus and Port Douglas, often bringing their young daughter Raechel-Skye. Grahame & Jeanette moved to Port permanently in 2001 and now own and operate the restaurant outright, having acquired the remaining interest in 2004.
Grateful for the many chefs, waiters, managers and visitors who have helped to craft the vibrant history of this iconic restaurant, it is hoped Nautilus will continue to delight patrons with its truly unique dining experience for many more years to come.