Bayan, Not Banyan
The lodge has just 15 treehouse-like rooms, or “Bayans,” which means “rainforest houses,” each set off the ground at a distance from the others along leafy walkways.
Mine was decorated with local Aboriginal art, and had tile floors, wooden blinds, a small chaise lounge, a king-size bed, a simple white-tiled bathroom (with just a shower) a TV and DVD player, a mini bar with complimentary tea and coffee, a telephone, air conditioning and a ceiling fan, and even a strong signal from the resort’s free WiFi—though usually I just sat out on the fully screened balcony so that I could kick back and listen to the sounds of nature. Mine was one of the larger Spa Bayans, so it had a jacuzzi spa and small sitting area on the screened balcony overlooking the rushing spring-fed creek as well.
The whole effect is to help guests achieve a feeling of “being one with nature” while still providing them with the creature comforts (so to speak). That said, the rooms aren’t what we would call luxurious. They are, however, very clean, comfortable and spacious, and a welcome respite from the jungle heat and humidity.
The resort’s restaurant is called Julaymba, and is in a beautiful setting on the banks of a freshwater lagoon right in the heart of the resort, serving up a gourmet version of tropical Australian cuisine on its outdoor deck. The name comes from the name of the Daintree River in the local Kuku Yalanji language, and the restaurant also contains a small Art Gallery of indigenous artifacts and original artworks.
The menu incorporates as much local produce as possible like Queensland fruits, tropical reef fish, and indigenous nuts, berries, seeds and flowers, drawing upon much of the local indigenous culinary heritage.
While I was there, I sampled local delicacies like Tableland red claw yabbies (crayfish) tossed with lemon myrtle, pepperberry, pineapple juice, sugarcane syrup and rainforest liqueur over coconut-infused rice; and the signature dish, a wild-caught local barramundi wrapped in paperbark and cooked with native herbs and ginger leave over a rainforest salad among other dishes like smoked crocodile, and kangaroo in a wild hibiscus verjus.
The Lodge is surrounded by the medicinal plants of the rainforest, so it’s no wonder that they have set up a spa dedicated to healing weary travelers by harnessing the natural remedies of the forest, much as the menu at the restaurant uses local ingredients made under the Daintree Essentials label.
Almost as soon as I arrived, I headed to the spa for a 90-minute Walbul-Walbul treatment—which means butterfly-butterfly—the spa’s signature therapy. It started with a quick consultation to determine which oils and muds I wanted slathered on my body (in a good way), and included a full-body exfoliation using Australian desert salt, a body wrap in warm mud that were then washed off with a Vichy shower, and finally a back massage and head treatment with scented oils. I might have entered as a stressed-out little caterpillar, but I definitely left as a freshly hatched, limber butterfly ready to explore the rainforest.
So after my spa treatment, I headed out on a guided rainforest walk with the lodge’s dedicated indigenous tour guide, Ronald, who spent a wonderful hour leading me along the jungle paths pointing out plants and telling me what the Yalanji would use them for.
The Daintree Forest is not only the world’s oldest living rainforest (110 million years old by some counts), but it is also World Heriatage listed, and encompasses 140,000 acres with the highest number of rare and threatened plant and animal species anywhere in the world, including several that are found nowhere else—many of them are the living versions of what we’d only find as fossils elsewhere on earth. It’s like stepping back in time to a teeming, primordial jungle.
Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa itself has won over 40 Australian and international awards for its eco-tourism efforts and its best practices not only regarding the environment, but also in cultivating indigenous “local champions” and helping them start their own sustainable businesses in the tourism industry.
The next day, I enlisted the help of one of them, Juan Walker from Walkabout Cultural Adventures, who led me on an all-day rainforest retreat that included ziplining among the trees with Jungle Surfing Canopy Tours, learning about the local peoples, their crafts, and their relationship with the various plants and animals, stopping for locally made tropical ice cream, and swimming in forest streams. If I'd had more time, he also could have taken me spear-fishing and hunting for mud crabs. Instead, we just ate sandwiches for lunch.
Getting to Daintree is about a 90-minute drive north of Cairns airport, and 40 minutes north of Port Douglas, one of the big gateways to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s all along sealed roads, so no 4WD required, and international travelers can easily self-drive along the Cook Highway.
Daintree gets about 120 days of rain a year (it’s a rainforest after all), so chances are you’ll get wet while you’re there. Most people tend to visit during the cooler dry season from May-October, so it wasn’t as crowded when I was there in April. The weather was a bit hotter and more humid, with a few more “mossies,” but nothing a little Bushman bug spray couldn’t handle.
As I mentioned, the rooms are slightly Spartan, so with rates for a Bayan at Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa starting at $550 AUD ($580 USD) per bayan per night for two guests including breakfast, you are definitely paying a premium for the lush setting, but as you fall asleep to croaking frogs and calling night birds splashing in the creek below your room, it totally seems worth it.
Full disclosure: Eric Rosen was a guest of Daintree Eco Lodge and Spa for two nights, but all opinions expressed are entirely his own.