In the 1970s, Rob and Oonagh Prettejohn were living in Cairns. They had always loved the outdoors and were in awe of the array of flora and fauna that Far North Queensland offered. Raising their family on the land and sea, through education and experience the family were encouraged to appreciate the fine balance and co-existence between themselves and the natural environment.

Building on this passion, the couple designed, built and owned their first resort on the Northern Beaches of Cairns, Kewarra Beach Resort.
Familiar with seeing a vision appear literally “from the ground up” their son Seton Prettejohn was not surprised when Rob and Oonagh announced they were considering another block of farm land they owned (some 145 acres), a little further north.  

Covered by bush, it was only 40 minutes from the local Cairns airport and had access to the most fabulous coastline. Their vision, to offer a resort that was based on eco principles with a bio-dynamic environment. Way ahead of their time and the current environmental trends, they believed that travellers would appreciate a resort that had minimal impact on the landscape, but still offered comfortable facilities and with the right design and build, spectacular views of the Coral Sea.

Seton said that once the land had been secured Rob embraced his surroundings, quite literally. He spent many a day and night on the site, accompanied only by his dog, visualizing from every angle and developing the concept in his mind. With the help of local architect Gordon McClymont he translated his vision onto paper. He wanted buildings designed with open plans, using natural materials such as stone and timber that would complement the surrounding landscape. His dream? To ensure this bushland would one day not only be recognised but used as a model for eco resorts of the future across the globe.

With their experience from Kewarra Beach Resort a few years earlier, the family understood it was important to be considerate of the local people. They wanted to keep impact to a minimum, be respectful of the wildlife and native plants and ensure the environment continued to flourish for everyone to enjoy.

Opening its doors to guests in May 1998, the Thala Beach Nature Reserve (as it is now known) now sits spectacularly atop a peninsula with breathtaking views of untouched coastline and is testament to a family’s vision, hard work and sustainable practices.

In more recent times it was invited to join the exclusive ranks of membership to the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, one of only five granted to an Australian eco-retreat.

In boasting the highest advanced eco-tourism accreditation, its accommodation encompasses bungalows raised on poles, designed for minimal impact on the landscape. It offers tours run by on-site rangers, beach discovery, nature, garden, bird and butterfly walks; and the elders from the Kuku Yalanji people visit for cultural presentations.

To complement its uniqueness, about 120 butterfly species and some 200 bird species have been spotted at Thala.  Agile Wallabies, Spectacled Flying foxes, and Green Tree Frogs too and for a fortunate few a sighting of marine life such as a turtles on the Coastal walk.

Port Douglas Magazine had the opportunity of talking to Seton Prettejohn, the Digital Marketing Manager and son of owners Rob and Oonagh about the past, present and future. 

Port Douglas Magazine: It must have been hugely satisfying when Thala Lodge was invited to join the exclusive ranks of membership to the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, and one of five granted to an Australian eco-retreat. Does this vindicate what Thala Lodge is all about?

Seton Prettejohn: Thala Beach Nature Reserve's membership with National Geographic Unique Lodges is a great recognition of what Thala has stood for since its inception. Long before the National Geographic Unique Lodges (NGUL) membership program even existed we had a strong focus on environment and experience. 
As of just recently there are actually only two properties in Australia that have NGUL membership: ourselves and Lizard Island. The NGUL program is indicative of the future trend in travel, with an emphasis on sustainability and benefit to the local community. 

PDM: When the lodge was built, there was a vision. What was the vision and has it changed over the years? Did your dad have a clear idea about the concept? How did he come up with the concept?

SP: Rob is a local pioneer in the tourism industry. From his own travel experience he noticed that most international hotels are built to standardised corporate formulas that do not necessarily embrace the distinctive local attributes of a destination. 
He has always loved the magnificent natural environment of our area and the astonishing characters it has nurtured. So Rob was determined to break with tradition and create an environment where he and Oonagh would themselves want to stay; a place where guests feel immersed in nature that reaches out to our local lifestyle, history and traditions. 
All the landscaping has been with native plants. When we opened Thala in May 1998, there were 40 species on our bird list. Today we have around 200 and this is a ringing endorsement of eco-tourism not only creating stable local employment but also a force for building and restoring biodiversity. Today we are attracting visitors from around the globe.

PDM: When did Thala Lodge open for business? How long did it take to build?

SP: As of this year Thala has been open for business for 21 years. Prior to opening, many years of planning, applications and building took place before we welcomed our first guest.

PDM: Are there any future plans for the lodge, e.g. changes, improvements, increase its exposure to select markets?

SP: One of the directions we are really pushing ahead with and pioneering is our free on-site experiences where we like to educate our guests a little bit about our unique environment and local culture.  
Environmental impact is a big one for us so we have been reviewing all our printed materials, opting for sustainable materials, lowering food miles by using local produce and also auditing our waste to create a baseline which we will improve on year-on-year to reduce our contribution to landfill. 
A little bit of education for our guests about their impact on the local areas they are visiting is important and we hope they take that with them on their onward journey.

PDM: Is there still a strong focus on locals (predominantly Port Douglas residents) and are they a major part of your target market? Would you like to see this enhanced and, if so, what would you do?

SP: We get great local support which we really appreciate. Thala’s Ospreys restaurant is a great favourite for Sunday lunches and treating visiting friends and family. Of course Thala is also a great choice for local weddings and celebrations. 
Word-of-mouth is one of our best assets and when people visit the area and stay or dine with us we love to hear that Thala was recommended by a local. We have a special accommodation rate available for locals.


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