What you must do is try not to smile...,” advised the snorkelling instructor. After only a short foray into the water, I had waded back to him complaining that my ‘water-tight’ glasses weren’t a good fit; they would let water in. Hmph. So I tried again. Holding on tightly to Jane Hodges, our escort and guide in Queensland, I flipped on my belly and ducked my head under water to one of the most spectacular views available on the planet.
I was swimming in the Coral Sea, off the northeastern coast of Australia; before me sprawled the Great Barrier Reef. The wintry sun filtered in, piercing the water with beams of other-worldly light, and fishes of every hue gave me a swim-by. I gave up the effort — it was absolutely no use trying to keep the smile off my face.
Australia was exciting for its promise of the great outdoors. I had prepared to take in landscapes of breadth that had not before come my way but I had not prepared for the very many ways in which that landscape could be experienced. My 10-day tour of Queensland was one treat after another. I have a nerdy list of things I’d like to do in this lifetime, and I was ticking off items almost at the rate of one a day.
The Great Barrier Reef, there was no question, was a huge tick. When we drove into Port Douglas the previous day, it was after a tiring long-haul flight. A bath and bed were all that we needed — or so we thought. Instead we went aboard a sailboat. With a glass of champagne in my hand, canapés and cheese by my side, standing braced to take the roll of the vessel as we sliced past the sunset, with spray hitting our faces...this was a memorable welcome.
Today, we were in Agincourt Ribbon Reef, engaging with the sea in a much deeper way. Earlier, a small adventure — we walked down to an underwater platform wearing oxygenated helmets that miraculously didn’t let the water in. Gingerly we stepped lower and lower, feeling increasingly buoyant, and soon we were a few feet underwater watching clownfish, purple starfish and butterfly fish dart around us and, disconcertingly, under our arms and past our legs as we stood, laughing and wonderstruck. Quicksilver, which conducts tours to the reef, also has another special service — a tour in a semi-submersible.
So, suspended just a metre under the water we cruised, catching glimpses of a sea turtle, anemone and vivid forests of coral. Pink blooms, long protrusions, one that looked like broccoli... I brought out my camera but the results were disappointing: the glass was thick and none of the colour translated onto the screen. Just as well perhaps, for I put away my digital documenter-of-memories and switched on my mind. It was over all too soon but let me tell you, I who have seen it, that there is another world out there.
We left Port Douglas with acute regret but were caught up almost immediately with the drama at Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Monster reptiles lurked in the lagoons, snapping up chicken like chickenfeed, powerful tails thrashing about in naked aggression — I could see what Steve Irwin was on about. Here also was our chance to see wallabies, kangaroos as well as the remarkable cassowary. This last is a large, flightless bird native to the rainforests of northeastern Australia, once abundant but now endangered.
We moved south to Palm Cove, more or less a one-street boutique town known for its fancy resorts and spas. After the exertion of the previous days, I succumbed to a soothing Aboriginal massage technique and, later, walked on the beach. We flew out of here by helicopter the next morning, first over the shimmering reef, then into the hinterlands for a view of the famed Aussie outback. There was a greenish cast to the land, trickles of flowing creeks caught the sun — we weren’t inland enough, I suppose, for this wasn’t yet the dry, challenging bush that sorted the men from the boys. Lunch was a romantic meal.
We landed on a beautiful strip of beach on a private island; stripped to our swimming things, snorkelled, splashed and gambolled before heading back for a lavish picnic.
Cairns, after all this expanse, was a different shade of joy. Shops beckoned: I tried on stylish coats, improbable shoes and walked its urbane streets. Back in my room at the stunning Shangri-La, I sat in the balcony looking out at the gorgeous marina, listening to the thump-thump of a throbbing party nearby.
We took a charming heritage train to Kuranda next. This is an artists’ village, known for its Aboriginal art. Walking among the shops, soaking in the village’s carnival ambience, sampling mango wine and running my fingers over tumbling stones, I was allured to the verge of surrender by a rather exorbitant crocodile leather bag — pulled away, fortunately, by sensible friends.
The journey from Kuranda to Cairns was accomplished by different means of transport — the Skyrail cableway. This is an astounding feat of engineering — 114 gondolas ferry people over dense rainforest canopy across 7.5km. The 32 towers were placed, for the most part, in existing gaps in the forest. No roads were laid; sections of the towers were carried in by special helicopters. The result of all this environmental sensitivity is the ride gives a very close yet unobtrusive insight into the ecosystem that harbours nearly 700 species of endemic flora. At two mid-stations, guides walked us through a microcosm of the rainforest: the towering kauri pines, the dreaded stinging bush and more. These are the oldest continually surviving rainforests on earth, and once covered the entire continent. The Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforests are both Unesco World Heritage Sites.
On the flight south early the next morning, I jerked out of my nodding slumber and looked out. The rounded window pane of the airplane framed the light outside — sunrise was still an hour away but the skies were preparing. At the top of the rectangle was a deep purple paling to ultramarine but the bottom half was flooded with cadmium red, streaked with trails of gold. We were moving along the easternmost shore of our planet...so this was what the very first light of a day looked like!
Next stop, Gold Coast. Urban delights and also a visit to Mount Tamborine. We stopped for elevenses at a farm — scones with jam and fresh cream, washed down by coffee — and then to explore the green mountain resort that serves up fine beer, cheese and wine. Not all of Gold Coast’s attractions are so genteel, though. We entered the theme park Dreamworld with sunny moods and left it on an adrenaline high. After a few gentle warm-up rides, we tried the notorious Claw. The ride lasts only 90 seconds, but feels interminable; it introduces you to the idea of relativity in a way that e = mc2 just can’t. We were pumped up for more and got the Giant Drop.
The idea is disarmingly simple: they take you up to 120m and drop you, trusting some tricky magnetism to break your plummet. You’re strapped onto a seat, of course, but it’s not much comfort when you feel it part from under you. There is no time to scream — five bloodcurdling seconds and it’s over.
We rode back from our peregrinations by chopper one evening, and I was amazed anew at the difference a bird’s eye view makes. From the ground, Gold Coast is a lovely place — even to approach a place as bustling as the Pacific Fair mall needs you to pass a calmish, beatific creek with desultory ducks in it. From the sky, however, the cityscape is stunning. Canals run everywhere (the city has over 260km of manmade waterways, roughly nine times that of Venice), and waterfront homes were quite normal. Its combination of bright lights and natural beauty pulled at me — I could see myself acquiring a des res here, maybe spending a year or two.
We had tried almost every mode of transport in Australia — trains, planes, bus, car, copter, submarine. Been in the water, under it, over it. We had gone jouncing across the bush in four-wheel drives, learnt to navigate an all-terrain vehicle, picnicked on a ‘castaway’ island, frolicked in river cascades. But there was still a little more adventure to be wrung from the trip, one I had been looking forward to for ages, in fact most of my life: hot-air ballooning. This was going to be a giant tick on that life-list. “Only cameras, please!” they said, “No bags.” So I took my camera out of the bag it lives in, hauled myself into the balloon basket —and discovered, as we drifted gently off the ground, that my memory card was full. The back-up card was in the camera bag, of course, and if I wanted my first-ever balloon ride captured (and I did! What would Facebook think?), I was going to have to delete. Casting a desperate roving glance at the beautiful morning, turning my back on the absurdly silent and judderless ascent, the hiss of the gas and the lick of the flame as it blew into the balloon, the idyllic fields floating beneath us...turning my back on all this, I bent to the screen, sorting and deleting my pictures. I could hear the gods chuckle.
But they made up for it almost immediately. At O’Reilly’s Vineyard, where we stopped for breakfast with champagne, I strolled out to admire a mellow stream they have. The reeds on the far-side seemed promising for birds. A soft plop and telltale ripples caught the eye and soon enough, the creature came up again, its paddle visible as it dived in again. An honest-to-goodness platypus! In the wild, what’s more! I hadn’t asked for a platypus, hadn’t thought to ask for it, but I’d got it. I would keep it. I would keep it all.
Emirates flies daily from Mumbai to Brisbane (www.emirates.com).
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Where to stay
Sheraton Mirage ( +61-7-40995888, www.sheraton.com) boasts two hectares of swimmable lagoons and access to a secluded white-sand beach. See www.portdouglas.com.au for more options.
Where to eat
The Sheraton Mirage has award-winning restaurants. In town, the main Macrossan Street is a celebrated eat street. Try Zinc or Bistro for some exceptional fare.
What to see & do
This boutique town gives the best access to the Great Barrier Reef.
A leisurely walk around the town’s charming centre is mandatory.
Sailing in the Coral Sea is a superb way to be introduced to it. And the experience comes with champagne, canapés and dramatic sunsets. Try Sailaway (40994772, www.sailawayportdouglas.com).
There are several ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef, and Quicksilver (40872100, www.quicksilver-cruises.com) offers quite a few of them. You can snorkel, dive, walk down to an underwater observatory and view the corals from a submarine.
About 25km from Port Douglas, on the Captain Cook Highway, is Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures, a crocodile farm that allows you close contact with Australia’s lethal reptiles (40553576,www.crocodileadventures.com).
Where to stay
The Sebel Reef House & Spa (40553633, www.reefhouse.com.au) is an elegant beachfront property. There are many resort-style options all along the esplanade; see www.cairnsconnect.com.
Where to eat
The Sebel Reef House is regarded as one of the area’s finest restaurants and offers impeccable service and fine food. Apart from the various options on Williams Esplanade, try Far Horizons at the Angsana Resort.
What to see & do
Palm Cove has something of a reputation as a ‘spa capital’. The spa at the Sebel is a particularly fine one: choose from their Mala Mayi signature treatment, Paloma hand treatment, Gubbera Kodo stones and other native treatments.
Take a helicopter ride for a bird’s eye view of the seas. Skysafari organises a variety of flights from Palm Cove (40993666, www.skysafari.com.au).
Where to stay
You’re spoilt for choice here — the southern tip of the city has a clutch of fabulous options. You couldn’t do better, however, than stay at the stunning Shangri-La Hotel (40311411, www.shangri-la.com) by the Marina, where the rooms combine spare embellishments with rare warmth.
Where to eat
Cairns’ restaurants rank with Australia’s best. The Shangri-La’s Horizon Club Lounge is a wonderful place for an evening out. Hanuman, at the Hilton Cairns, has kitschy Indian décor but surprisingly good food.
What to see & do
A testimony to the arduous lives of the pioneers in Queensland, the Kuranda Scenic Rail to the ethnic village of Kuranda is a journey well worth making (40369267, www.ksr.com.au). In Kuranda, shop for Aboriginal art and taste kangaroo kebabs.
For a taste of the rough and ready world of the outback, go horse riding or try your hand at driving an all-terrain vehicle the way the natives do it. Try Blazing Saddles (40850197, www.blazingsaddles.com.au).
The 7.5km Skyrail Rainforest Cableway (40381555, www.skyrail.com.au) is an amazing way to experience the tropical rainforest canopy.
Where to stay
With its superb location, casino and shows, Conrad Jupiters (from AUD189; 55928100, www.conrad.com.au) is all-glitter accommodation. But equally plush and some notches classier is the Palazzo Versace (55098000, www.palazzoversace.com).
Where to eat
Try Mario’s at Broadbeach for its famous gourmet pizzas and the signature dish, Steak Mario. Also, Songbirds at Mt Tamborine is an award-winning restaurant set beautifully in the midst of the rainforest.
What to see & do
Visit Mt Tamborine for its verdure, cheese, wine and fabulous beer. Go with Southern Cross 4WD Tours (55745041, www.sc4wd.com.au).
Try ballooning over this spectacular landscape. Hot Air (1800-800-829, www.hotair.com.au) offers a balloon ride with a champagne breakfast thrown in.
Theme park Dreamworld (55881111, www.dreamworld.com.au) is special for its extra-thrilling rides. The Giant Drop (120m) is the world’s tallest freefall drop but do try, if you dare, the Tower of Terror or 2.5 memorable minutes of Wipeout