Palm Cove, Australia's new spa capital
Author: CHRISTINE MCCABE
Photography: chris chen
Like Bill Bryson I'm addicted to travel trivia and was especially diverted by a statistic I heard in Victoria claiming Daylesford boasts more masseurs, masseuses and spa therapists per capita (or was that square kilometre?) than anywhere else in the country.
But it's Palm Cove that has donned the mantle 'spa capital of Australia', a distinction not necessarily numerically based. It may have something to do with the compact nature of the town, where resort spas fall into line down the short but alluring esplanade, or the varied nature of these establishments. It may even have something to do with the tropical climate, so much more conducive to 'nuding up' for an afternoon.
Certainly one of Palm Cove's greatest charms is its size, tucked away just off the Captain Cook Highway behind a bank of forest, and so small you can walk everywhere - the perfect 'fly and flop' destination.
Low-rise resorts disappear into the trees leaving the long, lunar curve of the beach quite unspoiled, swamped in parts by mangrove jungle, overhung here and there with a casuarina creating the merest filigree of shade.
Down the esplanade, towering melaleucas stand sentry at restaurant doors and although most available space is gradually being in-filled by developers, the town retains an unhurried village atmosphere.
There are casual eateries, boutiques and a small cadre of some of Far North Queensland's best restaurants - Nu Nu (run by Melbourne imports Nick Holloway and Jason Rowbottom), the Reef House and Vivo Bar and Grill, where the extensive wine list threatens to undo any and all hard-earned spa gains.
All in all, it's hard to disagree with the widely held belief that, in the past three or four years, the area has evolved into Australia's ultimate spa destination.
"Palm Cove has been recognised nationally and internationally as a destination that offers true tropical spa experiences and indeed earns the moniker of Australia's Spa Capital," says Rob Giason, chief executive officer of Tourism Tropical North Queensland.
"The destination is the perfect place to relax and rejuvenate due to its serene setting and combination of resort accommodation, unique dining and of course award-winning spa experiences."
Jeff Fleming, co-director of the Exclusive Spas Group, adds that Palm Cove is "the perfect long week-end destination". "A high-end day spa has become as important as a signature restaurant to resort operators. Where else would you find six full day spas in less than two kilometres?" he says.
The Reef House, operated by Jeff and Carol Fleming, is still Palm Cove's most lauded day spa, situated within the 1958 hotel of the same name, where a low-key renovation has helped to preserve the property's quaint colonial charm. Mosquito net-swathed beds, swing chairs and artefacts from Thompson's travels to the Pacific Islands are as Old World as the complimentary punch bowl placed on the bar every evening at sundowners.
The Reef House Spa reflects the low-key tone of this much-loved establishment. There's no bling or wow factor here, just simple plantation-style interiors and expert therapists deploying the Australian Li' Tya (le-dee-a) range of products, exquisite lotions and potions made using indigenous plants, fruits, salts and ochres.
Taking their cue from the enormous, tissue-barked melaleucas looming at the front of the hotel, treatments begin with an indigenous smudging (or cleansing) ceremony, the burning of various aromatics together with melaleuca bark. Even the massage beds are made from this local timber, hewn from an enormous tree felled by a cyclone on the Tablelands.
Signature treatment is the Mala Mayi, a truly heavenly full-body makeover beginning with a scrub, using warm almond oil and lemon myrtle, then a mud wrap (pepperberry peat), followed by a Vichy shower, quandong mask and gentle head massage.
The key to their success is two-pronged: keep it small (the Reef House has only five treatment rooms and is so busy two teams of staff are rotated to prevent burn-out) and employ the very best therapists.
"We look for a strong remedial, not beauty, background," says Carol, "and a nurturing nature." Local energy is conjured in a Proustian fashion - the striking scent of melaleuca bark together with lemon myrtle leaves grown by the Flemings in their garden near the Daintree.
Down the beach at Angsana Spa we move from tropical Queensland and the earthy scent of melaleuca to Thailand, the waft of frangipani and the ministrations of sweet-natured girls who seem a very long way from home. This is a typical Angsana Spa with serene Asian-influenced interiors and therapists trained at the Banyan Tree Spa Academy in Phuket. The point of difference is the knockout location, the best in Palm Cove.
Set on absolute beachfront with only a small patch of lawn and coterie of coconut palms separating clients from the sand, the spa features three upstairs, open-air double treatment rooms with ocean views where one can lie listening to the swish of the Coral Sea or take herbal tea in the private plunge pool.
At the evocatively named Sea Temple Spa I emerge from my Balinese-themed Coconut Rub and Milk Ritual Wrap smelling, I'm told, like David Beckham. Not liniment and change room pong but Elemis' Skin Nourishing Milk Bath, which my therapist Julienne assures me is the soccer star's personal favourite.
Julienne's from Zimbabwe via an outback Queensland mining town where she ran a beauty salon patronised by burly Aussie blokes. Be that as it may she's the epitome of style, as is Sea Temple; sleek, smart, almost urban in design and quite the handsomest in town. The large treatment rooms feature state-of-the-art massage beds and Vichy facilities used in the European fashion, with hot and cold water and directed jets deployed to therapeutic effect.
The spa (with adjoining boutique) is only one of the attractions at this elegant resort. At its heart a large swimming pool meanders pleasantly like a jungle lagoon with a cluster of swim-out rooms and a restaurant terrace perched above the water. The public areas take the form of Asian-style pavilions and a board walk links the hotel to the beach via a mangrove forest.
The upstairs penthouse apartments feature enormous rooftop terraces with barbecues and spas large enough to entertain a crowd.
At the Peppers Beach Club and Spa (formerly the Outrigger), the handsome Leigh Ratcliffe-designed resort wraps around a large pool with its own white sand beach. Sprawling bougainvillaea, hibiscus hedges and well-maintained tropical gardens are complemented by four restaurants (including Nu Nu).
Resort general manager Murray Worthington believes Palm Cove's new spa focus sits comfortably with the town's "low-key commercial vibe". "No-one can build out this long strip," he says. "It's a unique selling point, one that has helped preserve our village atmosphere. People are happy just to come and flop, read by the pool, have a few treatments."
Peppers' Sanctum Spa offers perhaps the most interesting menu in Palm Cove, using the excellent French Phytomer products, a range strong on marine-based remedies. Facials for delicate skins, pre- and post-natal massages and revitalising eye treatments get the thumbs up from your correspondent. As does the curious self-heating deep sea mud. The powdered product is added to water, where it heats of its own volition to 38 degrees, then is placed under the spine to suck out all those nasty toxins. The mud bubbles and pops like Champagne, a most satisfying sensation.
The nearby Amphora Day Spa, one of nine around Australia operated by the Spas Of Serenity Australasia group, is tucked away behind the Mantra Amphora Resort on the esplanade. Interiors are suave and soothing with muted lighting and mud-coloured walls. Sensuous, elliptical massage beds, crafted by a local artisan using salvaged timber from the rainforest floor, impart a sense of organic luxury. I can recommend the Vichy Shower Treatment which includes a lavender and sea salt scrub, an excellent way to relax tension and relieve nerves.
Newest resort on the block is the Grand Mercure-branded Rockford Esplanade with 129 apartments and a large lagoon pool that meanders all the way into the contemporary lobby area. It includes the strip's best-looking watering hole, the Blue Ice Bar and Spice Market eatery. The resort is also the focus for a minor retail renaissance featuring the Shak (easily the smartest boutique in town) and Castro's, a tiny café serving good coffee and Mövenpick ice-cream. Inside the resort, you'll find the charming Coco-Noix, selling French linen and tableware and boxed tea sets.
So is this the spa capital of Australia? Well it's hard to imagine a lovelier spot to fly, flop and exfoliate, and many feel Palm Cove has stolen a march on nearby Port Douglas as the boutique bolthole of choice in Far North Queensland.
All spas are professionally operated and each offers something different from its neighbour, making a week-long spa crawl an eminently viable proposition.
Palm Cove hasn't lost its small-town magic - a couple of 60s beach houses still survive on the esplanade - but the future seems to lie with its five-star spas.
Next door to the Sea Temple Resort a long wall of temporary hoarding with a false door inset into a fake sheikh's tent obscures a large empty paddock, site of what developers of The Royal Palm Cove promise will be Australia's first seven-star resort. Rival hoteliers are sceptical about the star count, as am I. To rate seven you'd need Brad Pitt as the doorman, Jamie Oliver as maître d' and the Vichy shower to rain Bollinger.
THE FINE PRINT
Getting thereJetstar flies daily from Sydney to Cairns International Airport. One-way fares from $169, www.jetstar.com.au. Palm Cove is a 20- to 30-minute drive north from the airport.
Features 126 large (one- to four- bedroom) apartments plus private
plunge pool and swim-out apartments. 1800 010 241, www.seatemple.com.au.
Sea Temple Resort & Spa
Colonial-style hotel with dress circle location and excellent
restaurant with chef Philip Mitchell. (07) 4055 3633, www.reefhouse.com.au.
The Sebel Reef House & Spa
This 129-room resort has plenty of places to shop and eat. 1800 788
Grand Mercure Rockford Esplanade Apartments
Exciting Asian-influenced cuisine courtesy of savvy ex-Melbourne
chef Nick Holloway. (07) 4059 1880.
Vivo Bar and GrillSmart Italian food and excellent wine list. (07) 4059 0944.
Reef House RestaurantPerennially popular restaurant with gorgeous locale only metres from the Coral Sea. The Sebel Reef House & Spa.
Far HorizonsBright, breezy restaurant with beachfront-set terrace. Perfect for sunset cocktails. Angsana Resort & Spa.
Sea Temple Spa
Mala Mayi body treatment. People travel from across the country to
enjoy this full-body rejuvenation with kodo massage.
Reef House Spa
Signature Angsana massage combines a range of techniques in
delightful tropical surrounds. Angsana Great Barrier Reef, (07)
4055 3000, www.angsanaspa.com.
Try a Phytomer marine-based treatment. The 'Sea Tonic' full-body makeover uses freeze-dried seawater. Peppers Beach Club and Spa, (07) 4059 9206, www.sanctumspa.com.
The Ultimate Spa Experience runs eight hours and covers the works:
body wrap, scrub, massage, Vichy shower, facial, care for feet,
hands and eyes and a light lunch. Mantra Amphora Resort, (07) 4059
Amphora Day Spa
Builders of this resort employed feng shui experts and Aboriginal
elders to get it right. On offer are ayurvedic massage and
indulgent 'pure silver' or '24 carat gold' facials. Mango Lagoon
Resort, (07) 4055 3400, www.mangolagoon.com.au.
Mango Lagoon Wellness Spa