Just off Mission Beach here in Far North Queensland, Dunk Island rises from the water like a glittering crown of the coast – a high peak, covered in lush rainforest, surrounded by golden white beaches. But, with all those jewels, crowns can weigh heavy, and Dunk Island is no exception.
There are just four of us on the short water taxi ride from the mainland this morning and, not long after I arrive and start walking along the island’s main beach, I notice the ruins of the resort that was once the main fixture. Crumbling concrete amongst thriving palm trees, it was badly damaged by Cyclone Yasi in 2011. There have been several plans to build a new resort in its place but just last month the latest project (a billion-dollar redevelopment) seemed to fall over, with the land back on the market for a reduced price.
Yet, I look around to spot the other three passengers from my boat – an elderly man setting up his fishing rod on the jetty and a middle-aged couple carrying snorkelling gear towards some rocks – I wonder whether the latest development setback is really a bad thing. Hiking up to the summit of Mount Kootaloo (the island’s tallest point, at 271 metres), I can see a silver lining on this crown. Dunk Island remains a peaceful tropical escape for a day trip (or overnight stay at the campsite), even though it’s a mere four kilometres from the mainland.ADVERTISING
In that sense, it’s much like Mission Beach itself, just 1.5 hours south of Cairns but without the crowds you can find in other tourist areas along the coast. The largest accommodation here is Castaways, an excellent resort with generous pools and a modern-Australian restaurant, that looks out to the brilliant blue water. But even the resort feels organic and relaxed, like part of the natural environment, where tourists can do nothing or set off to explore the tropics.
While there is a village called Mission Beach, the name is generally used to refer to the collection of four small villages along this 14-kilometre stretch of sandy coast and it’s best to have a car to explore the region. Driving along, you’ll constantly cross the narrow-gauge tram tracks linking the sugar cane farms to the nearby sugar mills. On the side of the road are small fruit stands selling local produce like bananas, paw paws, and mangos. Most have scrawled prices, a metal scale, and a coin box – an honesty system that’s rather refreshing.
After Lynn Jahnke moved to Mission Beach, she co-founded a cocoa farm, clearing banana trees and planting the cocoa from seed in 2012. Those seeds have now grown into Charley’s Chocolate Factory, which is well known in the region for its product – but also because it offers tours on a couple of days during the week.
“One thing I find that people really like on the tour is the history side of chocolate,” Lynn tells me. “Because everyone’s used to eating it, but they don’t know how it came to be.”
Sure, there are the Maya, Aztecs, and Spanish in the story … but today, I can see for myself how this chocolate came to be. There are 2000 cocoa trees on a trellis system stretching out in front of me, loving life in this warm humid environment. From there, the pods and their seeds move only metres in their journey towards becoming a chocolate bar, and I can see seeds drying, being turned into liquid, then poured into moulds.
Of course, a chocolate tour would not be complete without a tasting and there are 11 types to try today – dark, milk, nutty, fruity. Many of the ingredients are local, like the Davidson’s plum, a sour fruit that complements the sweet chocolate.
“It’s got three times the antioxidants of blueberries, so it’s no longer confectionary, it’s a health food,” Lynn jokes, as I taste a little bit of it.
Lynn has created quite an experience for visitors here – but she’s not the first or, dare I say it, the most famous. That title probably goes to José Paronella, a Spaniard, who bought some virgin scrubland in 1929 and began to build the pleasure gardens of his dreams. In the tropical rainforest, around a lake with a waterfall, he created avenues of trees, a concrete castle inspired by Gaudi, and a myriad of recreation areas. José died in 1948 but his vision lived on. Paronella Park was bought by Mark and Judy Evans in 1993 and they have been restoring it ever since.
“We had never seen it, we didn’t know what to expect, and that probably still happens today,” Mark tells me when I visit. “But when we arrived here, it blew our minds. We were walking here through this park and we discovered a place that captured our imagination.”
Paronella Park is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Queensland, but most people probably can’t picture it. You need to visit to see José’s dream – and Mark and Judy’s inspiration.
Nearby, the Mamu Tropical Skywalk takes you amongst the canopy of the forest, along a 350-metre-long elevated walkway and up a 37-metre observation tower. From here, the Wet Tropics World Heritage Site flows all the way back down to the coast, where it meets the Great Barrier Reef. There are some other places in Queensland that like to claim they’re where “the rainforest meets the reef” (I’m looking at you, Cape Tribulation!) but this is actually the closest point.
That two of the country’s natural icons can meet like this here, yet the tourist villages stay so laidback and not overdeveloped, is as refreshing as those honesty boxes at the fruit stands.
Take me there