Aug 26, 2019
For almost as long as humans have been able to swing a hammer, we have taken a bigger-is-better approach to just about everything we build, whether it's cars or cruise ships, skyscrapers or shopping malls. Modern city hotels have grown so much it's as though they're determined to swallow the sky: huge, gleaming structures constructed from steel and glass, all of them burning through electricity and water.
But a new movement is pushing back against the growth, with smaller, eco-friendly holiday spots, built from sustainable, renewable wood and often off the grid entirely, attracting more attention than ever.
A new report produced by Planet Ark found that most workers spend up to 90 per cent of their time inside, almost entirely disconnected from nature - a symptom of our increasingly busy, urban lives.
What's missing, it says, is our need for biophilic design: the concept that humans evolved in a more 'natural' environment than exists today, and so find happiness and a sense of wellbeing when surrounded by natural elements such as wood, plants and water.
And so when it does come time to disconnect from office life, if only for a week or so, the very last thing this new generation of eco-travellers want is to check-in to a giant resort and spend their time dodging crowds under artificial lights.
Take Cam Grant and his twin brother Chris, the brains behind the Unyoked movement currently sweeping Australia. (A yoke, if you're wondering, is the part of the harness that ties a working animal to a cart or plough – to be unyoked is to be set free.)
The brothers scour NSW for secluded camping sites on vast private acreages, then approach the owners with a proposition: they will build a stunning self-contained wooden cabin on the land, and city folk will come and stay in it.
"I'd spend every afternoon looking over these photos on the internet of beautiful wooden cabins tucked away in the wilderness somewhere," says Cam, who advocates for the calming nature of a log cabin. “I'd be stuck at the desk, suffering death by spreadsheet, and I'd be overcome by this desire to get out of the city."
Humans love of nature has been termed 'biophilia', which explains our innate desire to connect with nature and improve our health and wellbeing. Biophilic design, such as wood cabins and eco retreats aimed at encouraging relaxation and 'switching off', is focused on enabling a human connection to nature.
Certainly, research shows that successful implementation of biophilic design principles, including the use of wood in the interior of a building, can have physiological and psychological benefits that mimic the effect of spending time outside. Wood elicits feelings of warmth and comfort in people that has the effect of lowering blood pressure and heart rates, reducing stress and anxiety and increasing positive social interactions.
It all makes sense when you see the breathtaking Unyoked locations and accommodation. Picture a modern take on the kind of relaxing log cabin you might find on a lake in Maine. The Unyoked versions arrive clad with beautiful hardwood designed to blend seamlessly with their natural surrounds, and each is completely off the grid. The term “logging off" has never felt so apt.
When it comes to enjoying the benefits of an eco-retreat, Australia offers other, more luxurious options too.
A constant on any list of the world's best eco-resorts is the Wildman Wilderness Lodge on the Mary River Wetlands outside the Kakadu National Park. The resort centers on a line of habitats – wooden “cabins" so luxurious the term doesn't do them justice.
The habitats, which were actually built in Queensland before being towed to the Northern Territory, have been constructed using several types of hardwood, each designed to give the space a natural feel that blends man-made elements with nature.
The interior flooring and outside decking is merbau, while jarrah was chosen for the interior furnishings and fittings. The habitats themselves are wrapped in a natural hardwood that is simply oiled to protect it from the elements without changing its character.
Or if the beach is calling, there's the eco-certified Thala Beach Nature Reserve in Port Douglas, where the star attraction is the Eucalypt Bungalow, a modern and luxurious take on a Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse, perched atop a eucalypt forest.
Unsurprisingly, warming woods feature heavily throughout, from the hardwood flooring to the vast deck built to make the most of the sweeping valley views.
As Cam says: “We're on our phones or laptops all day, every day, and people are looking for a way to escape ... We think you should be able to have all the benefits that come from a fulfilling career, but still have these wilderness experiences that bring you back to nature."
There's another benefit to this new style of travel, of course, and that is that not only do you feel better as a result, but by choosing an eco-friendly holiday option, you're doing the planet a favour, too.
Photo: Moonlight Cabin
Design: Jackson Clements Burrows