I am floating in a pool under the emerald canopy of date palms, coconuts, and melaleuca trees at the perimeter of the lush North Queensland tropical rainforest. Twilight is approaching, but the air is still steamy in late-November. The waning golden sunshine highlights the leaves from behind, creating shifting patterns of color and shimmering light onto the surface of the water—green to gold and back to green again.
Already in a transfixed state of relaxation, I think perhaps I have drifted off to sleep when the gentle sounds of a strumming harp filters into my consciousness. Improbably, a pretty brunette woman with deeply, tanned skin is strumming a harp by the side of the pool here at Villa Marine Holiday Rentals, an enchanting little property nestled at the edge of the rainforest by Yorkeys Knob Beach just north of Cairns, in Australia.
Villa Marine is at the forefront of the minimal impact, sustainable travel movement in North Queensland and has won "Best Accommodation" in its budget category from the Cairns Tourism Board for four years running. The hotel's idyllic location and emphasis on eco-friendly tourism drew me to stay here, but fellow guests like musician Deb Robinson, the harpist I would later befriend, were what convinced me this property had its own distinct personality amongst hundreds of accommodation options scattered in and around Cairns.
A truly memorable, joyous travel experience can mean very different things to different individuals, and with it being such a personal experience it can be hard for me, even as a travel writer, to make recommendations to others if I don't know them well.
This summer in Denali National Park in Alaska, I met a woman in her sixties who was traveling alone. She put her goal for her Alaska trip into such evocative words, that they stayed with me, and I think they epitomize my own love affair with travel better than anyone ever had before. Her aim was for each day of her holiday to bring "a gasp of pure delight." Her unselfconscious, unadulterated love for life was reflected in her joy with travel, and I had that goal in mind as I explored the captivating rainforest, beaches and Great Barrier Reef from my home base of Villa Marine.
Deb, the harpist, had already been staying at Villa Marine for five weeks when I met her, so she definitely had the inside scoop on the best the area had to offer. One Sunday morning I went to Cafe Buzz Aroma, a coffee shop in Yorkeys Knob, to listen to her play while sipping one of the best cappuccinos I've had outside of Italy. Born of Irish parents, Deb's music reminded me of Dolores O'Riordan meets Joni Mitchell meets the harp.
After breakfast, my boyfriend and I spent the day lazing by the pool at the villas, breaking our reverie only occasionally to crack open a coconut or a Corona. The nine fully self-contained apartments are designed to make it easy to self cater. Each has a full kitchen, comfortable dining area, and outdoor seating area overlooking the rainforest.
We left our home in Hawaii for a year of travel over six months ago, and we try to be as conscious as possible about minimizing our impact. We fly as infrequently as possible, move slowly over land and sea, and choose eco-friendly options whenever we can. Still, we were impressed to learn that Villa Marine is the first solar-powered property in Cairns.
The owner, Peter Sprigg, has gone out of his way to create a responsible business model at his holiday rentals, including utilizing solar panels and a rain catchment system, repurposing building materials, and avoiding harmful chemicals in cleaning and garden maintenance products.
His personal attention to his guests is actually touching. He treated us more as guests in his home than clients. He even took us to see a great salsa band at The Reef Hotel Casino in Cairns one night. We picked mangoes at the home of his friend another evening.
We were lucky enough to spot a dinosaur-like cassowary minutes after hiking into the Daintree Rainforest one morning, as well as a swamp wallaby (like a tiny kangaroo) on the way to the stunning Cape Tribulation.
The wildlife we saw under the sea around the Great Barrier Reef the following day was even more striking. Every color of the rainbow was represented in the coral. Swimming around were giant grouper, huge mollusks, parrot fish, sea turtles, angelfish, and thousands more.
I had a chance to chat with divemaster and instructor in training Katherine Turley with Deep Sea Divers Den as we made the 90 minute drive back to shore. In 2006 Deep Sea Divers Den was awarded Go Eco status from Project Aware for its commitment to sustainability. Project Aware is the leading nonprofit environmental agency in the diving industry.
As part of its sustainability efforts, Deep Sea Divers Den avoids using disposable products for its lunch and beverage service, recycles, utilizes water desalination treatments on their liveaboards, and educates people on how to protect the reef for future generations.
In tropical North Queensland, in all of Australia, the way to travel is slowly. One could so easily miss the scent of jasmine, the hidden cove tucked out of sight of the busy beach, the sometimes elusive wildlife, and the kindness of strangers who take the time to stop and chat. Swim in crystalline waters, climb a banyan tree, crack open a fresh young coconut, wander a bit further afield. Let every day bring "a gasp of pure delight."
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.