Torrential rain drummed into the windscreen, a buzz of white noise so loud we had to shout to hear one another. The full, charcoal-grey clouds ahead promised no relief despite the fact that 170mm of rain had already bucketed down on Cairns overnight. Surely it had to ease up soon? Or was that wishful thinking? Ben and I looked at one another and tried to smile. Welcome to Tropical North Queensland.
Now that we were back in Australia after living in Berlin for almost three years, I was itching to explore more of my beautiful home country. The previous week I’d been in Adelaide for the first time and now Ben and I had jetted off to the very tip of Queensland along Australia’s far northeast coast to take a few days to explore the rainforest, the reef and everything in between in this pristine region, including a side of wedding destination scouting (read about the proposal here)! When I discovered that one of Australia’s best eco-retreats, Thala Beach Nature Reserve, was located nearby, I made a beeline for it because you know that I’m all about sustainable tourism (read about some of my other eco stays here and here).
All bundled up in our rental car, we hit Captain Cook Highway with our windscreen wipers working overtime and drove north up the coast for about 45 minutes. The road which hugs the coastline affords spectacular views out to the Coral Sea and even in the rainstorm, the vista was dramatic. On a clear day, be sure to pull over at Rex Lookout for some of the best scenic coastal views. Ravenous from our early morning flight from Melbourne, we stopped at beautiful Palm Cove for brunch before continuing on to our destination.
Located in Oak Beach, which is approximately 15 minutes south of Port Douglas, Thala Beach Nature Reserve is on a private headland that spans 145 acres and encompasses six different natural habitats. Its remote location means that it supports a constantly changing kaleidoscope of natural wonders, giving guests an opportunity to experience the native Australian wildlife first-hand. Having a rental car definitely gave us more freedom to enjoy the surrounding region, but if you don’t have one, there’s also a shuttle bus that you can book to and from Port Douglas.
What most attracted me to Thala Beach Nature Reserve was not only the expansive, pristine location of the retreat, but also the story behind its achievement of the highest possible eco-tourism accreditation for maximising informative and meaningful experiences whilst being committed to supporting and enhancing the local environment. In the early 1970s when the owners, Rob and Oonagh Prettejohn, purchased the property, only a third remained forested, the rest having been cleared for a sugarcane plantation. Committed to restoring the natural environment, thousands of indigenous trees were planted to begin the rehabilitation process and return the land to its wild, native state. The lodge is built entirely out of natural, sustainable materials in a low impact style that blends naturally in with the landscape.
Passing by the coconut plantation, we followed the signs and turned into the property. A narrow road led us deep into the forest and up to the open-air main reception. Pulling up alongside, one of the bell boys braved the rain to meet us, whisked away our luggage and valet parked our car while we checked in. After a few paperwork formalities, we were led up the sweeping staircase and into the treetop Masked Plovers Bar for a welcome drink. Sheltering in the open-air bar, my pineapple-garnished fruity drink definitely convinced me I was now on holiday, even if the weather suggested otherwise. Finishing our drinks, we grabbed an umbrella and set off along one of the winding paths to find our room, map in hand.
All of Thala Beach Nature Reserve’s 83 bungalows are built high on stilts and nestled within the forest. Our Coral Sea Bungalow was perched in the upper canopy of the ridge and offered spectacular views over the treetops and out to the Coral Sea. The first thing I did was get cosy in my fluffy robe, make a cup of tea and sit outside on the verandah, watching the mist dance up the mountains in the distance and the birds flit about in the rain below. We stayed for hours in a tranquil hypnosis, eventually swapping the tea for a bottle of wine.
The main room of our bungalow featured a large bed and lounge area that looked out to a sea of green below — the treetops below that stretched all the way to the ocean. There was no Wi-Fi in the rooms, but honestly in a place as beautiful as this, the last thing I felt like doing was being glued to a screen. You can get a signal at the main reception and restaurant area, only a short walk away.
There are four classes of rooms available to guests including the most luxurious Sandpiper Suite, the Coral Sea Bungalows (our room) the Eucalypt Bungalows as well as the Jungle Walk Bungalows. Each is built at a different height and location in the forest, but all are surrounded by the most lush vegetation.
If sleeping in the treetops wasn’t enough, here you dine in the treetops as well! The open-air Osprey Restaurant is located at the top of the sweeping staircase that leads from reception. On clear days, the panoramic vista affords spectacular views all the way from Double Island to Cape Tribulation, said to be some of the best views in far north Queensland! We woke up over a breakfast of fresh eggs, tropical fruit, pastries and homemade granola in the company of rainbow lorikeets darting around in the treetops only metres away.
It’s no less special dining here after the sun has set accompanied by a choir of nocturnal critters in the rainforest just metres away. The Modern Australian cuisine here is beautifully crafted with a focus on local, tropical north Queensland ingredients. We couldn’t resist the pan-seared, line-caught rare Yellow Fin tuna and the slow-cooked lamb neck in Mediterranean-spiced brik pastry. To finish, the chilled chocolate and peanut parfait was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
The most special thing about Thala Beach Nature Reserve is, of course, it’s pristine natural setting. Surrounded by water on three sides, the private peninsula juts out into the Coral Sea and is surrounded by kilometres and kilometres of World Heritage coastline and the Great Barrier Reef. The headland is rich in biodiversity with six different natural habitats concentrated into this area. Ancient littoral rainforest, casuarinas and mangroves hug the coastline, while dry eucalypt woodland, gallery forest and coconuts occupy the higher ground and inland creeks. Each habitat attracts its own unique wildlife species, including wallabies (there’s even one that visits reception most days named ‘Apple’), lace monitor lizards, ospreys, sugar gliders, flying foxes, over 120 butterfly species and over 200 species of birds! What a playground!
Make the best of it by grabbing a map, a pair of binoculars and a field guide from reception and take yourself off on a self-guided exploration of the grounds. Stop by the bird hide or the wallaby grazing patch, see if you can spot some sea turtles from the turtle lookout point or head down the 3km southern walking track to the butterfly patch.
Surrounded by over 2km of private sandy beaches and sheltered coves, it wasn’t until our very last day that the weather cleared and we were able to explore some of the beautiful coastline. It really was the perfect paradise with hammocks strung up between palm trees, fallen coconuts strewn along the beach and kilometres of coastline without a soul in sight.
But my favourite thing about Thala’s beachfront? Herbie’s Beach Shack. Used for private functions and events or for the perfect beach picnic spot (hampers can be ordered from reception), this has to be the coolest spot ever. Did someone say dream wedding location? Oh, right, that was me.
Other facilities and services
Given the time of year we travelled in, the sea isn’t safe to swim in due to the presence of marine stingers (November to May) so the two free-form pools were definitely more than welcome in the high humidity. There’s also a massage studio, a small boutique that stocks products from local suppliers, an art gallery that showcases local artwork and an adventure tour desk where you can organise day trips and excursions.
Complimentary tours and activities
What I truly loved about my stay at Thala Beach Nature Reserve was that it offered so much more than your run-of-the-mill hotel experience. The owners, Rob and Oonagh are so passionate about the environment that they want all of their guests to experience the best of it and therefore offer a host of complimentary experiences.
Eager to learn as much as possible about this beautiful environment we were staying in, we booked into one of the complimentary guided nature walks with resident botanist, Brett. Lasting for 90 minutes, we were guided through the surrounding forest, learning about the native flora and fauna and spotting all manner of interesting critters from a huge golden orb spider, an Australian tarantula to a tiny coin-sized green tree frog.
We also attended an indigenous presentation from the elders of the local aboriginal community, the Kuku Yalangi people, where we learnt about bush tucker, the Didgeridoo as well as how the rainforest is a vital source of life for the community. Connecting with the elders was such a special, unique experience and it was so wonderful to see such a strong partnership between Thala and the local indigenous people.
But the complimentary activities don’t stop there. There’s also bird and butterfly walks, a stargazing tour at the retreat’s outdoor observatory as well as a coconut odyssey tour through the incredible coconut plantation. Plenty to keep you busy.
Book this hotel if…
If eco-tourism is important to you, a stay at Thala Beach Nature Reserve will offer you one of the most environmentally-rich experiences in all of Australia. Seclusion and luxury is paramount here, but you can rest easy knowing that this is never at the expense of the surrounding natural environment. Not only will a stay here be rejuvenating, it will also foster a deeper connection and appreciation to the delicate ecosystem of this spectacular region. The expansive property offers something for everyone, from whiling away the afternoons in a hammock by the private beach to wildlife spotting on one of the many nature trails. The staff were always exceptionally attentive and helpful and this warm hospitality has always been an integral part of this family-run retreat. I am already desperate to return when the rain clouds stay away!
Rooms can be booked through the Thala Beach Nature Reserve website.
Looking for more inspiration on Far North Queensland? You might like to read:
- Crocs, Cassowaries and Kangaroos: Where to Spot Wildlife in Far North Queensland
- This Proves that Far North Queensland is the ULTIMATE Holiday Destination
- First time to the Great Barrier Reef? 10 Things to Know Before You Go
Disclosure: I was welcomed at Thala Beach Nature Reserve as a guest, but as always, this review is an honest reflection of my experience.