Fitzroy Island, just a 45-minute boat trip from Cairns, is home to rugged coral beaches, wild rainforest and a turtle rehabilitation centre. Your perfect eco-escape awaits...
Nudey Beach is not a nude beach, warns the skipper on the Fast Cat ferrying us from Cairns to Fitzroy Island. We’ve rounded the volcanic headland south-east of Cairns with its splintered rock face and livid-red striations and have caught sight of Fitzroy Island, a green “sponge” bobbing on the sea. We can spy the island’s cherished beach curving around its south-western rim. “Please do visit Nudey Beach,” the skipper continues. “And wear appropriate swimwear.”
The beachgoers are wearing modest stinger suits when we visit (although unlikely, box jellyfish and Irukandji jellyfish can occur in the area and the resort recommends wearing the suits from November to May).
To get to Nudey, we must walk for 20 minutes through a tunnel of rainforest, climb up and down moss-slicked rocks, skirt waterfalls that trickle spontaneously through the undergrowth and pass through a channel delineated by beautiful, timeworn boulders.
And then it opens up before us: a beach composed almost entirely of “sea bones” – coral and shells warped and twisted by the churning ocean and the passing of time. Finally lifting our eyes from this mesmerising collection, we see crystalline waters framed by those boulders and, behind them, a soaring, mangrove-lipped rainforest.
Fitzroy Island has long hidden in plain sight from travellers passing through Tropical North Queensland’s gateway city of Cairns. Though just a 45-minute boat ride from the mainland, it’s tucked secretively below the Cairns headland. But the trip to the outer reef is foreshortened for guests staying on Fitzroy Island; from here it’s just a 45-minute trip by catamaran.
Once a backpacker destination, the island was relaunched six years ago with the construction of Fitzroy Island Resort. Understated and family-friendly, the apartment-style suites have a view of the beach and smaller rooms face the rainforest-clad mountainside. It’s compact, too; the resort’s footprint takes up just five per cent of this rainforest reserve, carving an inconspicuous wedge from the forest’s base, where it spills down the hill and onto a stretch of sand-and-coral beach. Baitfish cast dark shadows along the waterline; stalking them from the shallows are swallow-tailed dart fish, scissortail sergeants and fusiliers with butter-yellow tails.
Guests kayak, paddleboard and snorkel on the reef; they hike to the lighthouse or sip cocktails at the swim-up pool bar; and at night they dine on beautiful dishes – seafood broth with crocodile tortellini, paperbark-smoked swordfish and seafood platters – flavoured with native Australian plants such as muntrie berries, quandong and lemon myrtle.
A short walk north of the resort is the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, where sick and injured turtles are dispatched after receiving initial treatment on the mainland. It’s a reminder of the impact of human habitation on the region and the role that tourism plays in funding such conservation programs. Here we meet Ella, a green sea turtle named after the boat that lacerated his shell with its propeller. “We call her Ella the fella because she’s a boy,” says volunteer Barbara Bartlett, invoking the feminine pronoun. “Look how fat she is – she’s the most spoilt little diva on the planet!” It has taken three years for Ella’s shell to heal; in a few weeks’ time the turtle will be released onto Flynn Reef, 50 kilometres from here. It’s as beautiful as Fitzroy, Bartlett says, with pristine waters and turtles aplenty. “We’ll cry happy tears when Ella finally leaves.”