One of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges Of The World, Thala Beach Nature Reserve earns its place on the list, offering pared-back luxury within nature. This family-owned property is not only a sustainable eco-resort, it helped create the blueprint for all eco-resorts — and it’s right here in Tropical North Queensland.
In the 1970s, people who bought land in Far North Queensland were incentivised to chop down pristine rainforest in favour of sugarcane crops, the main industry at the time. So when Rob Prettejohn wanted to purchase 145 acres of private headland located between Cairns and Port Douglas, it was on the condition that he clear the land.
Not only that, but the council gave Rob planning approval to build a 700-room mega hotel – not that he’d asked for it. You see, Rob was a man with a vision and a passion for the environment and he had other plans for the property. In fact, in order to protect the ecosystem and opt-out of clearing the land, Rob copped a massive fine as part of the sale. The 70s were wild.
Today, this special sanctuary is known as Thala Beach Nature Reserve, where you’ll find 83 sensitively placed eco-bungalows among six different natural habitats, from ancient littoral rare vine rainforest to dry eucalypt forest, beaches and coconut plantations (that the Prettyjohns planted themselves).
Still owned by the same family today, Thala epitomises sustainably focussed barefoot luxury and complete immersion in nature, available to you from the moment you step onto the property. Thala’s entire ethos centres around nature; protecting it, appreciating it, enjoying it without disruption.
After all, nature is the star of the show in the spectacular Port Douglas region. This is Daintree territory, the world’s oldest rainforest renowned the world over for its diverse and unique flora and fauna. Most people will book day tours to check out the rainforest or take their chance at spotting Australian wildlife, but Thala Beach Nature Reserve has these experiences rolled into your stay.
As I was transported around the reserve by electric buggy, winding through eucalyptus and rainforest and looking out across the sea to the stunning coastal headlands hugging the Great Barrier Reef Drive, I had to pinch myself. I wasn’t in Asia or Mexico – this other world is right at home.
With water on three sides and cabins scattered up and down the cliffside within a tropical rainforest landscape, no matter which bungalow you stay in at Thala Beach Nature Reserve, you’ll be stoked.
Built high on stilts within the forest canopy, bush-facing cabins are requested by avid bird watchers, while ocean-facing bungalows will wow you with their sweeping vistas.
I stayed in a Coral Sea Bungalow (#1 to be precise) and as I walked the path toward the entry, my jaw dropped. Smack bang in front of me was an uninterrupted view of the bungalow’s namesake with a spectacular ridgeline behind it. I could see the tide rolling in from my actual bed.
The super spacious bungalows are the definition of low-key comfort. They have polished timber floorboards, pitched rooflines, wooden-louvred windows to allow that headland breeze to flow, roomy bathrooms with separate bathtubs, a mini-fridge and kettle, a writing desk and two beautiful armchairs to take in the views. Nothing is OTT; these cabins are timeless and pared back.
WiFi is available in the lobby area but you’ll probably struggle to get reception on your phone — it’s part of the charm/ kind of the point. Considering Thala is also a Green Travel Leader (achieving the highest accreditation of eco-certification available in Australia), things like housekeeping are every second day and plastic water bottles are non-existent. Instead, you are gifted complimentary reusable bottles that you can refill with filtered water in the lobby and take when you leave.
Hot tip: If you love sweeping water views, other than the Coral Sea-facing bungalows, check out bungalows 33 through 37. They afford seriously epic vistas south.
Nature And Free Activities
If you’re interested in staying at Thala, it goes without saying you’re likely interested in the wildlife. Sightings of birds, butterflies, wallabies, possums and sugar gliders are all the norm here, but you’ll probably spot some other fun things, too.
There is a complimentary activities program for in-house guests, with choices ranging from stargazing with an astronomy expert at the on-site observatory (complete with two incredible telescopes); guided walks through nature and garden, or to find birds and butterflies (there’s a network of marked walking trails); a cultural presentation by local Kuku Yalangi elders; and Australia’s only coconut tour, Coconut Odyssey. Be sure to check which days certain activities are on before booking.
If you’re keen on turtles, you’ll probably want to book in for kayaking with one of Thala’s expert guides who will take you to their secret places to look for marine turtles, stingrays, dolphins and dugongs. Apparently, the reef adjacent to Thala Beach Nature Reserve is known as a “turtle highway.”
There are private access beaches, too. You’ll definitely want to head down to Oak Beach as it’s what you mentally picture when someone says ‘paradise’. I’m no morning person, but I highly recommend making your way down there for sunrise. As the sky changed moods every 10 minutes, I ran around like a nutter, taking approximately 2,376 photos. Plus, I had the whole beach to myself.
The staff are so friendly and accommodating, if you miss the walks you can probably request a quick trip down to check out the super Instagrammable coconut plantation and palm groves in one of the electric buggies. When I did this, we spotted a few beautiful birds and a wallaby on the way back.
The Foodie Experience
Realistically though, you’ll be drinking in some of nature’s best offerings just by walking the grounds and plonking yourself down for a meal. You don’t really have to do much to get a lot out of your experience.
In an open-air pavilion among the treetops facing out toward the Great Barrier Reef with Port Douglas, the Daintree and Cape Tribulation in the distance, Ospreys is Thala’s on-site restaurant and I only have positives to say about it.
The menu is enticing – think creative Aussie fare with an Asian twist – and Head Chef Richard Howard and his team nail every dish. The food is seriously good and this is a case where you definitely get what you pay for. I still think about the best entree of my trip; miso buttered bug tail on layered white sweet potato with toasted nori and wasabi fish roe.
Guests can also order picnic hampers to enjoy anywhere on the Thala Beach Nature Reserve property. You can check out the brekkie, lunch and dinner menus here.
On the other side of the main pavilion, you’ll find a bar where you can join in their Sunday Sundowners session every Sunday from 4pm to 7pm, with cocktail specials and bar snacks. Unsurprisingly, it boasts another ridiculous view. Spot birds and watch the sky change colours while you enjoy your drink.
The Other Stuff
There are two freeform rock pools at Thala if you’re keen on a non-ocean dip. One of the cabins is home to Rejuvenate Massage Studio, which offers a selection of signature treatments from massage, facials, body scrubs and wraps.
If you’re keen on booking a few day tours while you’re in the area, Thala will be the last pick up and first drop off for tour companies, which is a bonus. This makes Thala a great alternative to staying in the heart of Port Douglas when you want a deeper connection to nature from your trip to Tropical North Queensland.
While prices start from an already reasonable $427, you can keep an eye on the website’s booking system for any available last minute deals or specials which can save you quite a bit. That price also includes the aforementioned tours and activities.
With Rob and Oonagh Prettejohn’s vision very much alive and thriving, being carefully passed down through the family and caretaken by a passionate team, Thala Beach Nature Reserve remains an unforgettable stay. This is one of those experiences that’ll stick with you for life.
The author stayed as a guest of Tourism Port Douglas Daintree and Thala Beach Nature Reserve.
(Lead image: provided / Thala Beach Nature Reserve)