A Real Holiday on the Great Barrier ReefAngela | July 15th, 2007 | 11:27 pm
Eric and I recently spent a week up in northern Queensland for a long-awaited holiday. It’s winter here in Sydney, and it’s been a pretty wet and miserable one so far, so I was really aching to be someplace warm and sunny. Normally it is not Eric’s idea of fun and relaxation to go to the tropics, but since this is the coolest time of year there, I figured he’d be fine and promised him that we could use the opportunity to become acquainted with scuba diving.
We had gorgeous sun all week and temperatures in the mid 70’s during the day (25 C). It got chilly at night, but that helped keep the mosquitoes at bay. We headed up to Queensland using our frequent flyer miles on Qantas, which was a feat of its own. Unbeknownst to us, we were trying to book during high season and school holidays to boot. All of Australia, it seems, was booking vacations during the same 2 week period. Alas, we ended up on a flight that routed us to Cairns via Uluru. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Aussie geography, Uluru is dead center of the country, also called Ayer’s Rock by the gringos. Note that this is akin to flying from New York to Miami via Denver.
However, we chose to have a positive attitude and hoped that at the least we would catch a glimpse of Uluru from the plane. Uluru is an outcropping of sandstone that sits atop the desert as the result of millions of years of erosion of the softer rock around it. Iron content in the rock is what gives it its rusty-red color. It’s a massive thingâ€”it’s almost 6 miles to walk around the whole thingâ€”and we were lucky enough to see it from the air on both takeoff and landing.
We also glimpsed it from the tarmac and decided to use our 1-hour layover to take a bit of a hike. We walked out of the tiny terminal, where all the other tourists were piling onto big, white tour buses and continued on the edge of the road to a fire road that ran alongside the airport boundaries. We schlepped through the sand up a gradual rise, and when we got to the top, Uluru emerged into view. It was a fun little walk, and neat to see the colors and textures of the desert. The blueness of the sky contrasted against the red-orange of the earth was really beautiful. We had to dump a bunch of sand out of our shoes when we got back to the terminal, and it stained our socks red.
On the Reef
This was really the whole point of coming up to Port Douglas. We wanted to experience the Great Barrier Reef, especially since it hasn’t been faring well with recent climate changes and pollution and may not be around in another 10-20 years.
It absolutely lived up to everything you see in the nature films. The coral and the sealife were stunning. We saw countless varieties of fishâ€”so many that within five minutes your memory was full and you had to wipe it clean and start over. We saw giant clams, sea turtles, sting rays, sharks, various large slug-like creatures, bright blue starfish, clownfish (though none of the Nemo variety), red bass, grouper, including a human-sized giant grouper that Eric swam with, and many tiny fishes of every color, shape and pattern imaginable. Unfortunately, we did not spot any minke whales or manta rays, which would have really made my day.
Our first day was scheduled on a snorkling boat called Wavelength. We chose this tour because it was recommended as a smaller, locally-owned operator. They picked us up at the hotel at 7:30am and brought us to the marina. We had the maximum 30 people on board, and we headed out to the reef, which was about a 2 hour journey. Since it is a small boat, we were able to go to parts of the reef that the bigger boats can’t visitâ€”very shallow, so even snorkling at the surface, you were close to coral and sealife.
We had three different sites, with two in the morning and one after lunch. We hired wetsuits to make the time in the water more comfortable. It was actually more uncomfortable back on deck, once the wind wicked the heat off our wet bodies. We had a great time. It turned out that the mini-bus driver who picked us up in the morning was also our skipper, Aaron. The other crew were two marine biologist guides, Vanessa, and “Big” Jim, who was just a big love who helped us get into the whole experience and gave us a guided snorkel tour. It was my first time snorkling (apart from the kiddie masks I had at the beach as a kid.) We actually had to be waved in from the second site because we were so absorbed in exploring the reef that we didn’t notice that everyone else was already back on the boat.
The third day was scheduled on a larger diving boat called Poseidon
Our first dive was very short indeed. By the time we went through the training maneuvers, it was time to get back on the bloody boat. But things improved with the second dive. We had a good look around with our instructor, the tall and gamely Gus. It still felt a bit awkward, getting the moves right as we swam up and over and down around walls of coral and staying in line with the other divers, and trying not to touch anything. Gus did some show and tell, pointing out different creatures.
We had only signed up for two dives, but Eric decided to add a third. I was still a little nervous about the whole thing and decided two was enough. Of course, Eric thought that the third dive was the best. While I was snorkling on my own, he was descending along a wall of coral against the edge of the deeper sea, seeing all kinds of cool creatures, including a giant grouper.
At the Hotel
Cairns is the “big city” of northern Queensland. However, we were implored by just about every Aussie we asked not to stay there, but to stay about an hour north in Port Douglas instead. We were glad to have the wisdom, as we ended up with a stunningly beautiful location and relaxing isolation from the crowds. Early on, we decided that we really wanted to have more of a “resort” experience than a hotel or B&B. In researching options, I then stumbled across a deal advertised for a place just south of Port Douglas, out of town a bit. It was an eco-resort called Thala Beach.
This ended being a great choice. It was a bit more rustic than the typical resort set-up, but that added to the sense of really getting away from it all. The resort is an array of cabins on stilts, spread over several jagged acres of eucalypt forest and beach. Rugged footpaths guided you up to the central perch of the lodge. The grade was so steep in some places that a woman in heels would never make it. In fact, the hotel offered to fetch you in a golf cart if you thought the walk to dinner was too strenuous. Fortunately, the walk back after dinner was downhill.
The resort featured just one main restaurant, which was both its most wonderful and most vexing feature. The restaurant is perched on top of the lodge, a circular platform under a pitched timber roof, entirely open to the forest and sea. The views from our breakfast table were breathtaking. Birds gathered nearby to drink at a fountain rigged up to one of the trees, and the sound of waves rolled in on the breeze. Lunchtimes were equally tranquil. Evening dinners were surrounded by the darkness outside and lizzards sitting under the eaves near the warmth of the lights.
The food was excellent. But we quickly learned that the sole restaurant offered only a highbrow menuâ€”at highbrow prices. There were no other meal alternatives (apart from a $60 picnic hamper, which we decided didn’t sound interesting enough to experiment with.) We had packed a few snacks, but ended up making a trip into Port Douglas on Day 2 and picking up some additional provisions. We generally ate one meal per day at the resort. On the days we were out on tours it didn’t matter, as we usually returned to our cabin too exhausted to enjoy a good meal. But we did enjoy excellent food at every meal we had there.
The best feature of the resort was its spectacular natural setting. Thala sits on a peninsula with a rocky bay on the north end (where our cabin was situated) and a long stretch of beach and forest along the eastern edge. The beach was pristine and nearly empty the first day we wandered down. We spend Days 4 and 5 wallowing in the sun reading and walking up and down the beach. It truly was a tropical paradise. We encountered only a few other guests who were spread along the length of the beach. There were also some picturesque swimming pools fashioned like rock pools with plenty of deck chairs. If anything, we wished it were just a few degrees warmer, as the breeze added a chill whenever you were not in direct sun.
In Port Douglas
We took a shuttle bus into Port Douglas on the afternoon of Day 2 to have a look around. The town reminded me a lot of Key West. Quaint and laid back, but very touristy, with a couple main drags devoted to giftshops and restaurants. We had an enjoyable leisurely lunch at a seafood restaurant called 2Fish. We spent some time on the beachâ€”which felt much more crowded and crass compared to the solitary beach we had walked on that morning back at the resort! And we wandered around as the sun set, taking in the beauty of the harbor and the mountains behind. But we felt glad that we made the decision to stay outside of town, where we had more peace and quiet, and didn’t have to deal with the crowds of other tourists.
See all the photos here: