The precious slice of country between Townsville and Cairns that takes in two world heritage areas - the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics - is the epicentre of eco-tourism in Australia, and for good reason. Queensland has more officially accredited eco-tourism operators than any other Australian state, and the Townsville-Cairns region has the lion's share - more than 50 at last count.
"There's a conscious effort from many local operators to be more eco-friendly," says Ross McLennan, operations manager of Hidden Valley near Paluma, which was recently declared Australia's first solar-powered and carbon-neutral resort. "We've got two natural wonders and when you live somewhere and enjoy it, you want to look after it."
Last year the resort finished installing 90 square metres of solar panels that power the restaurant, cabins and swimming pool. Fuel used to run the business is offset by buying carbon credits from Climate Friendly and, at the end of their stay, guests receive a certificate congratulating them for having a sustainable experience. "I think if we did this five years ago, people wouldn't have appreciated it as much," Ross says. "There's a real awareness now of where power is coming from."
At the other end of the green palette is Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa, voted the World's Leading Eco Lodge at the 2007 World Travel Awards. As you submit to sleep-inducing massages and mud, salt and hot oil treatments in a sheltered valley in the Daintree, you can rest easy in the knowledge that all the water is treated on site and the lodge has a strong focus on preserving the Aboriginal heritage of this valley. "We own this land freehold, but we don't do anything without asking the Aboriginal elders," says lodge founder and owner Terry Maloney. "The three Ps - people, planet and profit - you've got to have them in balance."
Maloney is in no doubt about what makes this area the eco-tourism capital of Australia. "It's one of the six wonders of the world - the Great Barrier Reef - and the world's oldest rainforest and, in our case, the world's oldest race in the world's oldest rainforest," he says.
Eco-tourism has been wielding its green wand through this region for decades. Hinchinbrook Island Wilderness Lodge was revolutionary when it began in 1974. Built on national park land, near the richest mangrove system in the world and a vital habitat for the dugong, it has no more than the smallest toehold on the 393-square-kilometre Hinchinbrook Island.
Resort manager David Stanborough compares the lodge's gentle approach with those on other tropical islands, such as Hamilton. "This island was developed low-key style: there wasn't a 20-storey building on the beach front. It was designed with wildlife and nature in mind," he says. On-site sewage treatment returns water to a potable level, and the raised cabins and walkways are designed to minimise the number of trees cut down, prevent compaction of the forest floor and allow animals to walk through - eco-design features that have since been adopted elsewhere. Unfortunately, a few years ago, the lodge gave up on solar power, removing the existing system that was providing a small amount of power to rely completely on diesel generators.
Newer-style eco-tourism abounds in the region also, with profits being ploughed back into conservation. On the Atherton Tablelands, Rose Gums Wilderness Retreat has a private nature reserve of 92 hectares where there was once degraded farmland, funding its massive weed-clearing and revegetation program by renting out nine elegant pole and timber tree houses.
At Mission Beach, Sanctuary Retreat is protecting 20 hectares of some of the best cassowary rainforest habitat left in the world, sealing it with a registered covenant so no one can clear the land in the future. "When I bought this in 1996, there was plenty of private forested land right next to the coast, now this is the last," says owner/operator Paul Verity. "I wanted to fund the preservation of this land through eco-tourism, building a business that obviously would sustain us, but also sustain the environment it was in."
In one of the latest of these "conservation through accommodation" models, you can stay in one of three deluxe safari tents, or two new solar-powered eco-tents, in an extraordinary nature reserve once marked for agricultural development. The 2000-hectare Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve has eight bird-filled lagoons, is now one of the most important crane-roosting sites in Queensland, and is run by a non-profit trust that includes the Wildlife Conservancy of Tropical North Queensland. Stay here and you'll be woken by nature's alarm clock - the dawn chorus - as the mist lifts off Clancy's Lagoon and freshwater crocodiles haul themselves out to sun themselves. Emus and pied butcherbirds join you on the deck for breakfast, and you don't need to wander far to see red-backed fairy-wrens, wallabies, massive termite mounds or comb-crested jacanas among lotus lilies.
Chook Crawford, an ex-cattleman and pig-shooter who's now a tour guide on the reserve, will regale you with information about the place you're helping to protect, whether tasting quinine fruits, working up a lather with the leaves of the soap tree, or demonstrating the survival tactics of the delicate snow-flake lily. "Without people like you coming here, places like this wouldn't exist," Chook says. "The Conservancy thanks you, I personally thank you and, believe me, the wildlife thanks you."