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Eco-Friendly Resorts: Into the Woods

7 minute read
Lisa Clausen/Daintree

Snacking on green ants is not everyone’s idea of the most delicious holiday indulgence. But on a recent walk through the Daintree rain forest in Far North Queensland, Australia, Aboriginal guide Keely Naden assured a group of uncertain guests that the traditional food source of her Kuku Yalanji tribe was worth a try.

“Lemon, tangy and full of vitamin C,” she promised, picking a squirming insect from the trunk of a tree fern. She might have been right—but luckily for the native ants and the tourists, drops of rain came streaming down through the canopy, sending the tangy fare scurrying for cover.

Getting that close to nature isn’t a compulsory part of a stay at an environmentally friendly resort. But at the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa, where tree-house villas are set on stilts above the compound’s waterfall-fed creek, it’s hard to avoid a bit of communing. Located 90 minutes by car northwest of Cairns on 30 acres of rain forest next to the Daintree River, the Eco Lodge offers visitors a front-row seat at one of nature’s greatest shows: the world’s oldest continuously surviving rain forest. Dusk on any of Daintree’s screened-in balconies is a noisy delight as an invisible chorus of birds, frogs and insects serenades nightfall from the giant vine-draped ylang-ylang trees.

Although ecotourism is increasing in popularity, recording heady growth worldwide in the past decade, it still defies easy definition. For some travelers, ecotourism means eavesdropping on nature from the comfort of a plush bed with a magnificent view. For others, it’s about eschewing hot showers and trekking the tundra. Most industry watchers say the category’s basic tenet is minimal environmental impact combined with some contribution to education and conservation.

The Queensland-based International Centre for Ecotourism Research this year calculated that outdoor tourism—which includes both eco- and adventure tourism—accounts for about one-quarter of Australia’s tourism industry and generates about $14 billion in annual revenue. Since ecotourism became a buzzword in the early 1990s, the market for it has stabilized, says center director Ralf Buckley. “Tourists are coming to expect that tourism providers will have good environmental management practices,” he says. “They want luxury, but they expect that tourism operators will be doing whatever they can to minimize impact.”

Part eco-experience, part spa indulgence, Daintree Eco Lodge, certified by Australia’s National Ecotourism Accreditation Program, falls somewhere in between. There are the requisite Jacuzzis and air-conditioning for those who can’t live without such creature comforts. But there are green accents. The bio-cycle sanitary system, for example, recycles effluent and wastewater for irrigation, and the lodge has won plaudits from the Australian government for its energy-conservation efforts.

Owned and run by the Maloney family since 1995, Daintree has won a slew of tourism awards for its spa facilities, including being voted among the Top 10 Spa Retreats of the World in the 2005 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards. Just don’t arrive expecting gold faucets and air-conditioned walkways, says Cathy Maloney. “We don’t want people to have preconceptions,” she says. “We want them to leave with a feeling of well-being, of feeling more enriched for having come here.”

Do expect a magnificent setting. Nestled at the edge of almost 2.2 million acres of tropical rain forest protected by a World Heritage listing, Daintree is bursting with a dizzying array of flora and fauna, including nearly half of Australia’s bird species and what often sound like most of its frogs. Butterflies float among the palms like large leaves, their wings a flash of metallic blue in the shafts of sunlight.

Cathy and her husband Terry believe ardently in the restorative powers of the rain forest’s pure air and water. They have both battled cancer in the past few years, and now they want to expand the lodge’s range of therapies—such as naturopathy, yoga and meditation—and services to include healing retreats and corporate escapes. But their boutique-size spa has none of the hauteur you might expect at the Ritz. With room for only 30 guests, Daintree is so private that visitors are more likely to encounter a white-lipped tree frog than a fellow guest when they walk from their villa to the spa or the main dining room, the scent of quandong oil trailing behind them. Most guests—half of whom are overseas residents—head straight for the spa, where treatments range from the one-hour Walu BalBal facial, which uses wattle seeds and lillypilly berries, to the resort’s signature indulgence, the decadent two-hour Walbul-Walbul, or Butterfly, treatment, which involves a full-body exfoliation with desert salts and plenty of warm mud.

All the water used on the property comes from the waterfall, which snakes over shining rocks like a silver ribbon. Before a flood of gold miners, loggers and sugarcane farmers pushed them from their traditional lands, women from the Kuku Yalanji Aboriginal tribe visited the large pool at the base of the fall to make quartz knives and pounding stones. These days Keely Naden visits the same spot her ancestors knew so well, but now she takes lodge guests with her, and her daily walk is a highlight of a stay here. The bush amble includes spotting Boyd’s forest dragon lizards amid the thick foliage, pointing out the native hibiscus whose blooms signal when the eggs of the brush turkey are ready to eat and stopping at the waterfall, where Naden thanks the resident spirits for letting her visit.

Through Naden’s stories, picked up while she roamed the bush with her grandmother, the impenetrable-looking forest reveals itself as both larder and refuge. “There are so many things that can be learned from Aboriginal people,” says the 25-year-old, “not just about bush medicines but about our philosophies of living with nature as well.”

An involvement with local Aboriginal people that began as a friendship is now part of the ethos of the Maloneys’ business. Besides guided walks, guests, who range from bird watchers to honeymooners, can take Aboriginal art classes, buy pieces on exhibit by local Aboriginal artists or listen to a didgeridoo demonstration by one of the indigenous staff members. Traditional smoking ceremonies—believed to have spiritual cleansing properties—are held when new staff join, and in the spa, a traditional blend of lemon myrtle leaves and gum leaves is burned before each treatment. Local plants and Aboriginal remedies are featured throughout the treatments, which are based on the Australian-made Li’Tya product line. Ocher, highly valued by indigenous tribes in ceremony and art, is plentiful on the property and is used to detoxify and soothe, while such plants as wild lime and ginger are ingredients in other preparations. The Maloneys’ daughter Kelda, the resort’s spa manager, says the emphasis is on a holistic experience. “It’s not so much how the buildings look. It’s the experience that makes it five star,” she says.

On her first trip to Australia from her home in Taiwan, Soyoung Yuan says, she and her husband deliberately chose eco-friendly accommodations wherever they went: “We want to make sure our money is going to an organization that is going to make a positive impact.” Although she thinks the lodge could improve its green attributes, Yuan is impressed. “It’s very in harmony with the environment,” she says. As hundreds of bats wheel through the evening sky, tour guide Ian Worcester steers his small boat through the placid waters of the nearby Daintree River, spotting leaflike shadows that, on closer inspection, turn out to be azure kingfishers. Flowers that bloom for just one night a year open underneath the drooping branches of native cherry and nutmeg trees.

As the scent of ylang-ylang floats on the breeze, Worcester points out a dark swath of forest where he once lived on the banks of a tributary in a shack with no walls and, until a neighbor ran an extension cord to his place to power a lamp, no electricity. “I used to fish from my lounge room,” he says wistfully. Such accommodation might sound sweet to some, but if taking eco-holidays is about being immersed in natural beauty with some indulgence along the way, the Daintree lodge hideaway is a happy choice. Green ants or not.

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