The Lonely Planet guide to Western Australia takes a swipe at Ningaloo Reef Retreat for charging A$300 a person to stay in a tent, even if it is a luxury one. The backpacker bible thinks it's a crooked pitch paying so much for something you can do for next to nothing.
On October 1, this same retreat was officially relaunched by its new owners as Sal Salis. Same location on the beautiful white sands of South Mandu Beach. Same concept of sophisticated canvas structures furnished with a double bed. And twice the price.
Sal Salis is now part of the Wild Bush Luxury folio set up by Charles Carlow, the man who recently gave us Bamurru, a Top End wilderness lodge offering a potent mix of cachet, comfort and crocs.
So, what's in the Ningaloo camp revamp? Or more precisely, what's in it to warrant A$685 (NZ$763) a person a night? Well, it's bigger, with two new tents, increased solar capacity and a rebuilt deck where guests gather.
It also has a new stainless-steel kitchen under canvas and a licence pending a bar. The old tent interiors (including pastel doona covers with seashore motifs) have gone the way of the Batavia.
Your introduction to the place comes as a shock. After being driven 50 kilometres from Exmouth, you're dropped at a beachside parking area, shown a narrow track leading through the dunes and politely asked to walk.
It's as simple as it is brilliant. Kangaroos watch from beneath acacia bushes. Lizards skitter across the sands. Sea breezes tug at your city clothes. To the steady applause of waves breaking on the reef you wander into camp.
You're immediately struck by the relaxed tone of the place. The guests waving lazily from hammocks look like they belong to a commune, but in fact they've jetted in from Vaucluse and Toorak. On the deck, a laid-back young host wearing a khaki shirt, broad smile and a reef tan offers you a scented flannel.
You're also struck by the dazzling turquoise thing just 20 metres away, Ningaloo Reef, the largest fringing reef in the world. No Barrier Reef JetCats needed here, some of Australia's most diverse marine life can be had simply by stepping off the beach. But before you throw off those city clothes and dive into the blue, there's greener business to attend to.
Sal Salis can be dismantled at a moment's notice when the cyclone season hits in January or on notice from the Department of Environment and Conservation if it thinks Ningaloo National Park is being compromised.
This is why your tent is on stilts; it's why the bathroom area at the rear has a compost toilet and a (hapless) solar shower. It's also why you have a water limit: "Please note," reads the guest info with nary a blush, "each tent is allocated 20 litres of water a day. We recommend a swim in the morning as the best way to wake up."
Logic says this should send well-heeled guests screaming for a concierge.
But the heels are off and this barefoot approach to luxury, like the walk into camp, works beautifully.
Like all good operators, the Carlow group is good at obscuring the devilry of isolation with luxury details. The little brass hand-pump drawing water into the basin is gorgeous. Your soles feel either grass mats, wood or sand. Air-con is a sea breeze through the arrangement of canvas sails and meshes and it's a space that you willingly surrender to.
"Both David and I are really fastidious at home," Bronwyn, a Sydney accountant who wraps up insolvent companies, says. "But here I haven't washed my hair for three days."
The hosts chalk up a daily raft of activities, including guided snorkelling sessions and canoeing (though be aware, Ningaloo is more about fish variety than colourful coral).
You can also take gorge tours of the deceptively low-looking Cape Ranges, where a 32,000-year-old necklace of hair and shell was found, the world's earliest known adornment.
Sal Salis also has seasonal highlights. Humpback whales are on the move from July to mid-October. Be assured that lying in a hammock watching whales puffing their way south (all day, every day), is valium for the soul.
Whale sharks mysteriously appear from April to June and next year Sal Salis will be offering private (fee-paying) tours to where the 12-metre monsters hang out.
At night, everyone converges on the deck to mix over drinks, sunsets, books and board games.
It's also where the chef serves simple and sensational dishes such as cinnamon and sumac chicken on potato gratin with balsamic reduction and wilted spinach. A help-yourself bar is on its way.
Gripes? Some guests might find their exclusivity compromised by the occasional curious visitor blowing in from neighbouring beach areas; A$100 airport transfers seem a bit rich; and you should consign the Sal Salis brochure to a recycling bin because it does the camp no justice.
But at the end of three days, I am left thinking that Sal Salis is a fine five-star experience for cashed-up gen Xers.
The style is subdued, the elements are raw; the beer is cold, the experience is real. It's a hard one to put a price on.
Max Anderson stayed courtesy of Sal Salis.
Staying there: Sal Salis, South Mandu Beach, near Exmouth, costs A$685 a person a night, twin-share, minimum two nights. Price includes meals and drink, snorkelling and gorge tours. This is a terrific place for children (A$342 under-16s). See http://www.salsalis.com.au/ or phone +61 300 790 561.
- Sydney Morning Herald