PALM COVE, Queensland -- Palm trees line the beautiful beachfront that give this Australian town its name, but locals know it's the melaleuca trees, along the esplanade, that reign supreme.
Sometimes called paperbark trees for the flaky bark that constantly peels and re-grows, these rise to heights of 40 metres and girths of up to 10 metres, and jut out of all sorts of local businesses, including hotel lobbies, shops and restaurants. One hotel, Paradise on the Beach, is built entirely around the stately trees.
"Why don't you cut that tree down?" a customer at the Lime & Pepper restaurant asks, referring to a particularly large trunk occupying a prominent place in the dining room, its resplendent upper canopy obscured by a tent over the outdoor terrace.
"We can't cut that down," replied Chris Northam, GM of Peppers Beach Club and Spa, the boutique resort that houses the restaurant. "It's a protected tree."
Palm Cove melaleucas require a special ecosystem to grow, such as the fresh water "swale" (a low tract of moist land) on the western side of the town promenade.
"These trees date back to Captain (James) Cook's time," explained a woman at a nearby travel agency, where I discovered yet another statuesque melaleuca protruding through the floor boards. Cook sailed his ship the Endeavour near this shore on June 10, 1770 -- the day before hitting a reef at Cape Tribulation.
The native Yirrganydji people used the tree bark for roofing, bedding material, baskets and poultices, while the leaves were used as a remedy for cold symptoms. These days, the fresh leaves and twigs are distilled into tea tree oil, which is still used as a cold remedy, an antispasmodic, stimulant, diaphoretic and antiseptic.
Birds and bees, though, prefer the nectar from the melaleuca's fragrant white flowers, which bloom throughout the year. The canopy provides a home for raucous and colourful Rainbow Lorikeets, Honeyeaters, Sunbirds, Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers (that visit from October to April) and fruit bats.
It seems there are many good reasons why they don't cut down melaleucas in Palm Cove, a town where beautiful centuries-old trees trump development.
Palm Cove is a laid-back holiday town of about 1,200 people in tropical northeast Queensland, a 25 minute drive north of Cairns. Most of Palm Cove's visitors are vacationing Australians from Sydney and Melbourne.
"Everyone is in bed by 9:30," Northam said, whose resort is one of about three dozen accommodation choices.
Visitors typically enjoy the town's pristine beach -- recently recognized as Australia's cleanest -- the Cairns Tropical Zoo, and visits to two nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites -- the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland, which includes the Daintree Rainforest.
For more on Palm Cove, check tourismpalmcove.com.
One of Queensland's most popular wildlife attractions, Cairns Tropical Zoo at Palm Cove, is a good place to see Australian animals, including dingo dogs, wombats, emus, crocodiles, kookaburras and endangered cassowaries (a big flightless bird with a horn-like crest called a casque). There are opportunities to feed kangaroos, pelicans, see the popular free flight birds show, and have your photo take with a koala.
For the ultimate closeup encounter there's Zootastic 5, where visitors can feed or hold the Top 5 favourite residents: Wombats, cassowaries, koalas, crocodiles (or an alligator, snake or lizard) and some of the colourful native birds. See cairnstropicalzoo.com.au.