In the early ‘70’s, Rob and Oonagh Prettejohn bought a degraded sugar cane plantation south of Port Douglas in Tropical North Queensland. Slowly, painstakingly they transformed this slice of land into a remarkable, 58-hectare sanctuary for tired humans and native wildlife. With the zoning rules at the time, they could have built an ugly apartment development. But the conservation-minded couple instead created Thala Beach Nature Reserve.
Sitting between two UNESCO World Heritage areas – the Wet Tropics Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, this little piece of paradise now has six different habitats and thrums with life, with 200 bird species, 120 butterfly species and 50 wallabies calling Thala home. For early morning to late into the night, you can see, feel and wonder here.
For years, it seemed only overseas visitors were in on the secret. Once here, Aussies soon realise how very lucky they are to share this eco-resort for even a few days. On a private beach headland, overlooking the Coral Sea, it’s out of this world but only 45 minutes north of Cairns.
Since opening in 1998, Thala Beach Nature Reserve has been awarded for its sustainability as an eco-tourism leader. Earlier this year, the resort passed the ultimate eco test to join some of the most environmentally sensitive properties on the planet: The National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Each member of this exclusive club is judged on protecting natural and cultural heritage, supporting local communities while touching the earth softly.
From the private beach, it’s hard to believe there is a resort here at all – it barely peeks out from the rainforest. The main building and 83 eco-designed bungalows blend so well it seems like they’ve grown with the trees. Sea breezes rustle the gums and sway the palms for the perfect bedtime soundtrack.
It’s easy to forget about the outside world in Thala. With its own desert island feel, couples can fall in love all over again, while parents love how the kids don’t need screen time. Checking your emails or catching up with Facebook doesn’t seem that important anymore.
Sleeping in the trees
The bungalow suites are built for maximum views and immediate chill. Elegant cane and timber combine for a relaxed, tropical mood while the Coral Sea Bungalows live up to their name with sweeping views of the ocean beyond Thala. You’ll forget the king size bed and deep, soaking tub when you swing open the French doors and bring the outdoors in.
Who needs a sleep-in when you can breakfast with chatty lorikeets up close in Osprey’s Restaurant? Occasionally, the aromas of the fresh fruit, nuts and muesli are too tempting and feathered locals fly in for a look. Or is it the freshly baked croissants?
Afterwards, take a dip in the lagoon pool that looks like its carved out of the rainforest floor. Or you could wander down to the private beach to have your very own Robinson Crusoe moment, gently swinging between the palms on a hammock made for two.
Walk in the rainforest, take a deep breath and stand still. You slowly become aware of the living, breathing rainforest and how it never stops growing and moving. You start to notice ants making slow work of gathering nectar, see a small wallaby or monarch butterfly enjoying the sun. It’s your very own David Attenborough moment.
Twitchers can bird watch solo or walk with one of the expert guides – local Kuku Yalangi elders who share stories passed down by those who came before. In the main lodge, visitors are also treated to bush tucker and learn how this land gives back so much.
Crazy for coconuts
The Prettejohns may have been a little ahead of their time when they planted a coconut plantation now that everyone eats, drinks or cooks with coconuts. Here, on Australia’s only guided Coconut Odyssey you can learn all the superfood secrets while sipping on a cool coconut and munching the sweet, nutty flesh
Botanists say coconuts aren’t nuts or fruit. It’s a drupe. It’s the tree of life to many first nations people because it just keeps on giving as vitamin-rich food, milk and water and even a replacement for human plasma!
Our guide Napari isn’t a local but he tells us how from the age of eight his job was to gather and ‘milk’ the coconuts for his granddad on Thursday Island. He keeps the kids (and adults) fascinated with the lifecycle of the coconut and as he jokes they’re “perfect as long as they don’t drop on your head”.
As night falls, you’ll even find some of the bounty from the plantation on Osprey’s Mod Oz menu. Championing local seafood, meat and the surrounding farm produce, dishes run from line caught tuna and local reef fish to an Asian-inspired pork belly stunner with plantation coconut papaya salad, mango, lemongrass and puffed black rice.
Go full holiday mode and retire to the bar for a creamy “Toblerone” cocktail of Frangelico, Baileys and Kahlua, served with a paper straw, of course. It’s the perfect nightcap or prelude to a five million star show during the resort’s stargazing tour that is held a few nights a week, weather permitting.
Digital detox complete
Sometimes it takes a few days to unwind on holiday. Not at Thala Beach Nature Reserve.
Here you quickly slip into another world, different and comforting; another dimension from your usual 24/7. Do as little as you care to. Forget everything. It’s a holiday that will remain with you long after you return home.
*If you can’t bear the thought of going home just yet we’ve wrapped up a list of the best island resorts off Cairns so you can put your feet up a little while longer.