Swim with sea turtles off a tropical island. Spot colourful cassowaries from your rainforest cabin. Gaze into the blackest sky you’ve seen while eating produce plucked from the rainforest. Luxe escape comes with a tiny footprint at these six sustainable sanctuaries in Tropical North Queensland.
Stay to help save the reef
Set in the heart of one of the most ancient ecosystems on earth, yet just 90 minutes north of Cairns, the carbon-neutral Daintree Ecolodge is a treat for the senses. Hear nothing but birdsong from one of 15 bayan cabins, savour local organic produce in the restaurant overlooking a lagoon, then cool down in the private waterfall and swimming hole during the hottest part of the day.
The emissions of your stay are offset by funds for local reforestation. And for every guest, the lodge donates $50 to the Reef Keepers Fund, an environmental initiative created by the Morris family which owns Daintree Ecolodge to support projects that preserve the nearby Great Barrier Reef.
Swim where they save the turtles
The tropical atoll of Fitzroy Island sits right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef and is one of only a handful of places where you can swim off the beach straight out to colourful corals where clownfish, parrotfish and manta rays glide. But the big draw here is the gracious (and curious!) green sea turtle. No turtle fan goes home disappointed.
Fitzroy Island Resort, where single-use plastics are banned and staff help cultivate heat-resistant coral with the Reef Restoration Foundation, has an array of accommodation types from basic campsites to a deluxe four-bedroom penthouse with views over Welcome Bay. The resort also houses the Fitzroy Island Sports Hub (FISH) where you can find all the equipment you need, as well as two restaurants. Here, you’ll also find the Turtle Rehabilitation Centre, which rescues green and hawksbill turtles from the reef and Yorke Peninsula and returns them to the wild with a success rate of up to 85 per cent.
Slumber in the ultimate sanctuary
Mossman Gorge, on the southern side of the Daintree River, is a series of freshwater swimming holes formed by huge granite boulders. Downstream from the gorge, the newly renovated hideaway Silky Oaks Lodge offers accommodation in luxury treehouses designed to have minimal impact on the environment. Perched among the leafy canopy of the rainforest, take in lofty views from a hammock – or open-air shower – on your private deck.
The surrounding 32-hectare property is home to more than 70 species of mammal, 150 species of reptile and 330 species of bird. From water and energy to waste management, the lodge’s sustainability plan is geared to put the wildlife and their habitat first.
There’s much to explore and you can unwind after the adventure at the lodge’s Healing Waters Spa. “Our treatments are inspired by ancient Indigenous beliefs that the water in the Mossman River is a renewing and life-giving force,” says spa manager Lacey Kerr. Appropriately relaxed, head to dinner at the open-air restaurant and bar, where locally caught barramundi, tropical fruits, and cocktails infused with native wattleseed and Davidson plum tempt your tastebuds.
Find the hidden refuge in the highlands
Shaped by millennia of volcanic activity, the elevated plains inland of Cairns are lush rainforest. In the centre of this tropical plateau lies the 93-hectare Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat. Listed as a Nature Refuge since 2007, it provides a safe haven for species including the endangered southern cassowary and the vulnerable Macleay’s fig-parrot.
Pole-hugging treetop villas each have a private verandah and pot-bellied stove to fire up in winter. Fall asleep to the sounds of the rainforest and wake up to a tropical bird chorus. Reforestation work here means birdlife is abundant, with 160 species on record. And eyes down for Australia’s oldest and smallest roo, the musky rat-kangaroo. Go rock-hopping over the granite boulders, and look out for platypus in the pools upstream at Butchers Creek.
On your way back to Cairns, the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway is a must-stop. Straddling the spectacular Barron Falls between Cairns and the village of Kuranda, this cable-car ride shows you what only the birds would otherwise see and is one of the first tourism attractions in Australia to achieve Ecotourism Australia Advanced certification.
Go completely off the grid
Cross the Daintree River by cable ferry to the northern side of the rainforest and you’ll see yet another face of the World Heritage-listed rainforest. A string of often deserted beaches and coves stretches from Cow Bay in the south to the dreamy sands of Cape Tribulation.
The Daintree Wilderness Lodge, deep in Kuku Yalangi country, comprises just seven cabins set inside a giant fan-palm gully. Astonishingly, only two trees were ever removed as the resort was being built, with most of the construction work being done by hand. The cabins where you sleep are on stilts to preserve the canopy floor, with vines and trees growing through floors and roofs. The whole resort runs low-voltage appliances on a stand-alone solar array system that doesn’t tap into the grid.
But this is by no means roughing it. Luxe finishes make surrendering to nature chic. And at the in-house Cycad restaurant, you’ll dine on an ever-changing menu of tempting local and seasonal produce under a blanket of stars.
You’re also prime-positioned to see the best of the rainforest. It’s less than five kilometres to the excellent Daintree Discovery Centre, a member of the Ecotourism Australia Hall of Fame. Wander around interpretive displays about native reptiles and fish and don’t miss the 23-metre-high Canopy Tower or 125-metre-long Aerial Walkway Rainforest Skywalk.
Flop and drop – without the footprint
Constructed from sustainable materials in a way that minimises environmental impact, Thala Beach Nature Reserve wraps around a private headland just south of Port Douglas, where deluxe bungalows and suites are scattered across 59 hectares and six different wildlife habitats. Almost 200 bird species have been spotted at Thala and rangers estimate that there are at least 50 agile wallabies inhabiting the forest. Frogs, lace monitor lizards, sugar gliders, echidnas and geckos rule the domain, too.
You can get energetic, joining a guided bird and butterfly walk or exploring the coconut plantation within the reserve’s bounds. But the lap, lap, lap of water on the private white beach is hypnotic – nobody would blame you for just ordering a Hibiscus Heaven cocktail and kicking back.
“At night, the sky above Thala is gloriously free from light pollution and awash with stars,” says director Seton Prettejohn. “Surrounded by the sounds of the rainforest and ocean, you can gaze at the wondrous constellations and get a closer look using the telescopes at our outdoor observatory.”
If you fancy some island time, book an Eco Adventure tour to the 6000-year-old coral cay of Green Island with accredited eco tour guides at Great Adventures.