We dive into the warm blue waters of Australia’s Barrier Reef
‘A slice of paradise between the reef and the rainforest.” That is how the marketing blurb describes northern Queensland, and it really is hard to argue. The day mama nature was distributing her bounty, tropical Queensland was at the front of the queue.
The first view of this paradise comes as the Qantas city-flyer descends towards Cairns airport. From the window, the view is of impenetrably dense swathes of forest intersected by an intricate pattern of rivers and lagoons, and conical, dark green hills everywhere that look like those drawn by kindergarten kids before they get the hang of reality.
Cairns is back-packer heaven, a town of cheap, few-frills hotels used by gap-year travellers as a base to explore the Barrier Reef and the magnificent rainforest.
For those travelling with suitcases, Cairns is not a place to linger in but to be collected from. In our case, by a shiny limo organised by upscale travel firm Abercrombie & Kent, which whisked us along a corniche road that swooped between rainforest and coast for much of the 35-mile drive north to Port Douglas.
A glossily prosperous resort town at the top of a peninsula, Port Douglas has a swathe of good hotels, lively restaurants, great shops and the laid-back, hippy-chic vibe of Florida Keys. The luggage there is more likely to be a Vuitton valise than a Berghaus backpack, and nowhere more so than at the luscious Sheraton Mirage.
One of Australia’s most luxurious mainland resort hotels, the Sheraton Mirage has fives acres of gardens, golf courses, tennis courts and every other amenity that even the most demanding guest could wish for.
Here, necessity has been the mother of blissful invention. For much of the year, Four Mile beach, beside which the hotel is built, is a no-go area due to the Box jellyfish — the planet’s most venomous creatures — which live in its waters. Without a usable beach, the hotel has supplemented the usual pools — of which it has several, including kiddie ones — with a magical series of palm-bounded lagoons.
All cool, blue water, the lagoons are safe, swimmable and designed so you can glide languidly around, or laze in the shallows as you lap up the sun or read. Alternatively, you can perch on one of the loungers dotted in pairs away from other sunbathers.
Rooms are wonderfully spacious and well equipped — sunken spa bath included — as one would expect from a hotel boasting five stars and dozens of accolades.
As well as offering golf, tennis, bicycles and free shuttle buses into town, the hotel can also arrange excursions to the rainforest and boat-trips with diving or snorkelling on the Barrier Reef.
Breakfasts here are lavish, with a seemingly endless menu of hot and cold food, fruits, breads, cereals, smoked salmon, cheeses, fresh-made omelettes, teas, tisanes and coffee.
In the hotel’s main fine-dining restaurant, your table is on a candlelit — and if you are lucky, moonlit — terrace overlooking one of the lagoons.
There you can eat very well from a menu featuring sensationally well-prepared veggie dishes like wild-mushroom risotto and, as befits an area where the waters teem with fish, fresh and deliciously prepared cod, sea-bass or halibut.
Another clever service from A&K is a list of recommended restaurants for the area in which you are staying. From their Port Douglas list, we chose On The Inlet. Al fresco, buzzy and fabulous, its pierside location and wood benches belie a restaurant with excellent food and great service.
It also serves what may be the biggest Margaritas and the largest Caeser salads on the planet, fish so fresh it probably left the water only half an hour before arriving on your plate and perhaps the yummiest chips in the southern hemisphere.
Suffering slight Margarita damage, we were picked up the next morning by limo to return to Cairns for a 40-minute flight by tiny Cessna to the elegant P&O-owned resort at Lizard Island. A&K had warned us in advance about baggage restrictions on the flight, so we were able to pack accordingly in Port Douglas. Others were not so fortunate, scrabbling around on the floor of Cairns airport fretfully trying to work out what they could deposit at left-luggage.
Lizard Island was named by Captain James Cook because of the abundance of lizards rather than for its contours, which is odd since part of the island exactly echoes the shape of one of these scaly reptiles.
In tribute to the English sea-captain who clambered ashore while trying to navigate a safe route through the coral outcrops, the island’s highest point is known as Cook’s Look. Cook, incidentally, also named the Great Barrier Reef. Or rather mis-named it, since it is not a single “great” reef or a barrier, except in the sense that it barred his way to the mainland.
Today’s visitors to this sublime resort come for boho-chic atmosphere, the exclusivity (it can accommodate a maximum 80 guests), the vast, secluded beach-side bungalows equipped with every possible amenity and comfort, and for the collection of top-of-the-range toys (boats of every sort, bikes and pedaloes) available for guests’ use.
Lizard general manager Caroline Dey knows what her guests value most: privacy, comfort, quiet pampering and time to themselves.
And all these are provided in abundance, from the second you arrive when, over iced tea and nibbles, she enquires about culinary preferences and ensures any special dietary requirements are met, to guaranteeing that the island is a paparazzi-free zone (the resort controls its airspace and guards the ocean, so celebs can — and do, though it is P&O policy not to reveal names — sojourn here in peace).
A typical Lizard day might start with a stroll along a shady path, or on the fine, sandy beach to breakfast in the vast, open-sided pavilion that houses reception, lounge and restaurant. Breakfast is a healthy feast of fresh, tropical fruits, Bircher muesli, breads, a buffet of fish and cheeses and hot dishes to order.
From breakfast, you might visit the spa, the pool, the tennis courts, a beach or go down to Anchor Bay to hop aboard the glass-bottom boat for your first introduction to the reef.
Alternatively, having pre-ordered a picnic, you could collect your motor launch from the flotilla free for guests and take your own cruise around Lizard or to a nearby uninhabited island. Before setting off you inform the beach crew where you plan to land, and that beach or islet is yours for the day. You can sail the beaches, bays and coves before anchoring. Then, with your lavish picnic and an umbrella to shade you, you can while away the hours reading, snoozing or swimming till it’s time to head back.
There are also half-day and whole-day cruises to the best diving and snorkelling spots where you get an up-close view of the breathtakingly beautiful, magical and colourful reef.
For an hour at a time, you flip around in the warm sea, swimming from an area of coral that looks like a forest of leafless trees, to another that resembles a field of technicolour mushrooms. And swimming around and through it are fish of every shape, colour and pattern to dazzle the eye and confound the senses.
Then it’s back on board for lunch and soft drinks — there is an alcohol ban on board that is part of a reassuringly strict safety policy — before sailing to the next dive spot to repeat the whole experience.
While Lizard lunches — if you are not out picnicking or cruising — are light and casual, dinner is a leisurely and romantic affair, with tables set out in a semi-circle with views of the moon-lit sea and beach.
Chef Mark Long prepares the kind of modern Australian gourmet food which features light, healthy dishes, fresh flavours and no rich sauces. His speciality is a selection of smooth, fat-free soups made with one or two vegetables (Jerusalem artichoke and parsnip and red pepper were our favourites), while there was always either a permitted fish or vegetarian dish among the main courses.
As those Queensland marketing people said, a slice of paradise...