As our plane descends into Broome, the young dude next to me nudges his mate. "Look, Johnno," he says, "a dugong." Sure enough, in the calm turquoise waters just off the West Kimberley coastline a smooth grey shape rides the swell with grace. Five minutes later, we're on the tarmac of one of the world's smallest international airports. The air is thick with the scent of frangipani and ripe mangoes. A hot easterly warms my cheeks.
Pearling may have put Broome on the map, but it's the region's unspoilt beauty and nature-based attractions that keep it there. Within five minutes' drive of town lie the red ochre cliffs of Gantheaume Point and a set of dinosaur footprints estimated to be more than 130 million years old. A few minutes more puts you on Cable Beach, a 22km expanse of pristine buttermilk sand. At low tide, the region's flats create an ideal habitat for the abundant visiting birdlife.
Out at Twelve Mile (you'll never guess how far it is from town) the land unfolds into pindan scrub and market gardeners grow much of the exotic produce for the town's fine-dining rooms, including pawpaw and various herbs. You can buy mango wine here, and fresh galangal, and organic pak choy.
Part Kimberley wild child, part model tourist town, Broome has experienced titanic growth as a tourist destination since the 1980s, when British peer Lord Alistair McAlpine saw potential in a scruffy red-dirt settlement overlooking the spearmint waters of Roebuck Bay and spent tens of millions of dollars realising his vision. It is here that Marilynne Paspaley has built her very own homage to the Kimberley landscape, the five-star Pinctada Cable Beach Resort & Spa, opened in mid-2009, the first full-service hotel to go up in Broome in two decades.
Paspaley, of the Paspaley Pearls family empire, takes her environmental responsibilities seriously and has incorporated a wide range of eco-friendly features into her $33 million baby. "My idea has always been to work with, not against, nature. Broome is basically on the edge of a desert," she says. "The water table is shallow. Take too much of it and you'll cause salinity problems."
Pinctada nestles in more than a hectare of pindan bush and reflects its surroundings with an elegant sense of reverence. The central pool area echoes the hues of the surrounding landscape. Plump boabs finger the sky. Kimberley stone paving and raised walkways fashioned from recycled timber meander through the property.
Paspaley named her intimate 72-room resort after the region's giant pearl oyster, Pinctada maxima, and the property reflects her strong commitment to environmental sustainability. Its groundbreaking water management system ensures all grey water is recycled for irrigation. A state-of-the-art solar heating system is the primary source of instantaneous hot water, designed to minimise energy consumption. All rooms are air-conditioned, yet guests can choose to open up strategically placed windows and doors to make the most of Broome's trademark breezes.
Each of the resort's three Honjin courtyards is an enclave of eight suites or studios opening onto a shared central area with its own plunge pool. Wide, shaded verandas and strategically placed sun beds are tailor-made for reading and snoozing among native plants and grasses. A five-minute stroll has Pinctada's guests dipping their toes into the surf at Cable Beach.
Paspaley is quick to acknowledge she couldn't have created Pinctada without husband Garry Grbavac by her side. "I've got the drive and the vision but Garry is the doer, the scientist."
The menus at Pinctada Cable Beach were designed by Melbourne's Greg Malouf, one of her favourite chefs. "I love Greg's commitment and passion," she says. "He got my ideas straight away and has been a joy to work with. He has visited the property several times." As a consequence, it would be hard to find a more comprehensively interesting place to eat in Broome than Selene, Pinctada's flagship fine-diner. True to the Malouf ethos, all breads, pastries and pasta are made in-house under the eye of executive chef Craig Hillis. All the signature Malouf touches are there, including kibbeh, labne and various homemade ice-creams and sorbets, augmented by a bunch of hot and cold mezze that slip down a treat with a cold beer at the Brizo pool bar. Hillis gives more than a nod to local produce, too. Seek out the local threadfin salmon, served with Turkish ratatouille and soft-cooked egg.
The resort is home to Australia's first Li'tya concept spa, where guests wrapped in fat, ochre-hued towels lounge around the garden drinking herbal Yulu tea after a range of treatments using the company's exotic range of luxe Australian native botanical products.
Accommodation ranges from the compact Shinju studios to spacious self-contained suites, each with a marble bathroom, king bed with fine linen, personal pillow menu and Nespresso coffee maker. "Ultimately, everything has been designed to create a feeling rather than a look," says Paspaley. "I want my guests to wander around in their dressing gowns, snooze in the bar, put their feet up by the pool and feel like they're at home."
While Pinctada takes its inspiration from nature, the new Eco Beach Wilderness Retreat embraces it full-on, setting a global benchmark for sustainable tourism. Eco Beach lies just over an hour's drive south of Broome and is accessed via a fairly chunky 15-minute drive on a red dirt road. Modern Robinson Crusoes must then leave their four-wheelers in a large bush car park and buzz reception for a lift over the hill in an electric buggy to the resort proper.
This is owner Karl Plunkett's second bite of the remote beachside accommodation cherry. A decade ago, the original Eco Beach retreat was completely destroyed by a cyclone. "Funnily enough, it ended up being a useful process," says the affable Plunkett, who lives on site with his two children and partner, Donna Van NieKerk. "In rebuilding, I got to introduce the latest technology in energy monitoring and management. Guests can actually see how much power they're using and can choose to save that power if they wish by, say, turning off the airconditioner."
There are two styles of accommodation on offer. Villas are simple but elegant beach house-meets-luxe hotel room, set to a soundtrack of ocean. The most expensive of these overlook the magnificent shell-strewn beach, a vast ribbon that stretches from Jack's Creek in the north to the red sandstone cliffs of Cape Villaret in the south. Each features sleek, environmentally friendly bamboo flooring and a large, airy ensuite bedroom. There are no curtains. After all, the artwork is out there looking in. The ocean. The surrounding bush replete with occasional wallaby extra. The sky.
An outdoor shower takes care of après-beach sand issues. Wide verandas are made from recycled plastic wood-look eco-decking. There's everything you need, nothing you don't. Solar panels on the roof generate enough power to run the villa's lights, airconditioning and small fridge. Low-consumption three-watt LED lights are used throughout, and all buildings feature extra-thick glass coated with sun filter film which cuts down heat absorption.
Cheaper but no less atmospheric are the 30 safari-style eco-tents, made to a patented design by Plunkett "not to crackle like a crisp packet". Tents are positioned to offer both privacy and ventilation. Each features roll-up windows and flyscreens, along with ensuites, private verandas and king-size beds.
More than a kilometre of raised walkways link villas to the retreat's central restaurant and bar area - a sleek, simple space that relies on nature to provide the visual bells and whistles. Head chef Kenneth Clapham has created a menu that draws heavily on local produce, particularly Cone Bay barramundi, farmed north of Derby. "They're grown in the ocean, with big tides," he says. "The result is full-flavoured flesh with none of the muddiness you might associate with some farmed species." Clapham likes to coat his barramundi wings ("they're pretty much the best bit of the fish, bar the cheeks") in a chickpea flour batter. The latest menu sees them served crisp with a wakame, chilli and sesame oil salad. He's also growing some of his own herbs and chillies and is keen to do more.
On high tides, retreat staff offer guided kayaking trips or deep-water fishing in the offshore reef system. At lower tides, guests can avail themselves of the impressive birdwatching, walk to a local cave with a picnic or visit Jack's Creek for some of the best catch-and-release fishing in Australia. From July to October, humpback whales are regularly spotted. Plunkett even provides accommodation to researchers monitoring the many flatback turtles that nest here each year from October to January.
Plunkett leaves most of the day-to-day management of the resort to staff, but he can't help himself when it comes to special events. "I particularly love a good wedding, and we're doing lots here now," he says. "We can put up dining marquees with tables and chairs down on the sand. You should see it at night, lit by hundreds of candles. It looks absolutely beautiful." For Plunkett, this is the essence of Eco Beach. "What it's really about is the experience we offer out there with nature. The ocean, the beach, the wildlife. Being this close to remoteness is a very special thing."