North Queensland is defined by two natural treasures, located on either side of its golden shores. Beneath warm waters to the east lies the famed Great Barrier Reef, a “must-see” for many first-time visitors to Australia. Meanwhile, covering the mountains to the west, the Daintree rainforest protects an ecosystem just as complex, ancient, and beautiful. Both should be explored on a Queensland vacation.
You haven’t really experienced North Queensland unless you’ve spent a day on the reef and a day exploring the forest. But there are options for taking this immersion in nature even deeper. Thala Beach Nature Reserve offers secluded accommodation that invites its guests to surround themselves with the region’s natural beauty without even having to leave the resort.
Set on 58 hectares of hilly rainforest as well as its own private beach, Thala offers natural seclusion just 15 minutes south of Port Douglas, or 50 minutes north of Cairns. Through sustainable practices and a focus on ecotourism, Thala is recognized with a high eco-accreditation, in addition to being one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.
We arrive at Thala soon after a light lunch and afternoon exploring just a little of Kuranda. This small village located high in the rainforest near Cairns boasts a number of attractions including the short walk to spectacular Barron Falls. Most of the drive north to Port Douglas hugs the coastline, allowing us to see many of the area’s most secluded and attractive beaches. All are empty of human visitors, a reminder that we’re visiting during North Queensland’s “stinger season,” which makes beach swimming a dangerous prospect from November to around May each year. On the upside, this ‘look, don’t touch’ irony of nature leaves the beaches looking pristine, like gateways to an untouched tropical island.
Our welcome at Thala is all about efficiency with a smile. Our bags are loaded onto one of the golf carts that whisk guests and staff through this extensive and leafy resort, while our car is parked a short walk down the hill. Located at the property’s highest point is Ospreys Restaurant, the perfect place for breakfast overlooking the nearby coves, as well as a welcome mocktail (or something stronger if you’d prefer). Ospreys is also open for lunch and dinner, extending its concept of open dining in the forest canopy throughout the day. With limited time in this beautiful corner of Queensland, we opt for dinner at one of the local pubs in Port Douglas. Still, as good as the local fare is, the varied and colourful plates we glimpse darting from kitchen to table in Ospreys on our way through have us second guessing our decision!
Thala is featured among National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. That means it satisfies the four pillars of helping to protect natural heritage, protecting cultural heritage, supporting local communities, and employing environmentally friendly practices. At Thala, the focus is on integration with the natural area. In North Queensland, that covers a diversity of habitats, each with its own unique range of wildlife.
Eucalypt woodlands dominate the main ridge leading to most of the lodges. Lowland vines lead into valley floor rainforest. Mangroves mark the southern end of Thala’s private stretch of Oak Beach, while coastal vegetation overlooks the beach itself, obscuring the resort’s buildings. It’s one thing for a resort to claim its own private beach, but stepping onto Oak Beach in time to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean feels otherworldly in the best way. A pathway lined with coconuts provides the only evidence that this is also a popular wedding spot.
For now, that’s way too much activity to even think about as I stretch out on my choice of a dozen or so empty loungers and watch the golden light spill over the waters. With my phone sitting untouched in our wi-fi free cabin, the most difficult question I want to tackle in that moment is when I should go wake my partner to share in this moment… or how much of it I just want to enjoy myself. Sunrise on a secluded beach is a transient experience, after all!
Native animals roam freely across Thala’s acreage. Many are of the winged variety, including almost 200 bird species and 120 species of butterfly. Over 50 wallabies are also thought to live in the forest, and are known to come in for feeding each morning and night. Guests can join an expert for walks that explore the local bird and butterfly life, as well as the broader balance between Thala’s natural inhabitants. One of Thala’s highlights is its dedicated coconut grove. The focus here however isn’t on farming the property’s coconuts or selling related products as such. Here, the coconut grove is treated as another natural habitat, and guests are invited to join a guide on Thala’s “coconut odyssey” to learn more about this delicious and refreshing plant, and to sample the local produce. Those who are won over can order up the alcoholic version later on in the bar! Thala’s reach even stretches to the stars, with stargazing tours operating when the night skies are clear.
All of these experiences are included for Thala guests, but numerous other amenities round out the experience for those who don’t mind upgrading. Even though stinger season keeps visitors out of the water during our stay, it’s safe to paddle on top of it on a sea kayaking trip. It’s not unusual for guests to spot dugongs, dolphins, stingrays, and marine turtles on these excursions. Thala will also happily arrange visits to the nearby rainforest, and to the Great Barrier Reef, but if that just sounds like far too much activity on your Queensland vacation, the Rejuvenate Spa is ready to melt away stress and rouse tired muscles back into action.
No visit to North Queensland is complete without sharing in some understanding of the people who’ve called it home for thousands of years. To that end, Thala invites guests to listen to the stories of the Kuku Yalanji people. Over the course of an hour on selected evenings, elders from the community talk with guests about “bush tucker,” and other traditions. We learn how the haunting sound of the didgeridoo is produced, and more about its role in relation to the first peoples here.
At Thala, guests can indulge in as many or as few experiences as they’d like. For those who’d rather relax or keep to themselves, there are trails through the forest, and two freeform rock pools offer an especially welcome respite in the summer humidity, without ever feeling like you’ve ever left the forest. The resort doesn’t capture the entire North Queensland experience, nor does it attempt to, balancing its many on-site activities with day trips to the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree – many visitors opt for one of each. But as an oasis that extends the region’s beauty to your accommodation’s front door (and back porch), it’s hard to imagine a stay that offers a better immersion in nature.