Blissed out down under: this once-in-a-lifetime voyage conjures magic and joy.
They say it’s the journey, not the destination.
Today, I take the journey, a clear day and, yes, I can see forever — the intense aquamarines, lush greens and deep blues that mix and mingle to afford a view nonpareil from a prop plane, all 14 seats of it, cruising at 10,000 feet. Even the pilot marvels; the visibility is the best he has seen in months. This is the edge of Queensland, the coastline of Capt. Cook, where he ran aground near the Endeavour River and where he first encountered the kangaroo. It’s the home of the Great Barrier Reef, and this part of the coast is where two world heritage sites converge — reef with rainforest, the Daintree to be exact. So, you see, for me, it’s also the destination, Australia, the only place on earth where this convergence occurs. But this is not the only thing unique to this continent.
Today, I swam in the Pacific.
And yet, this is not the ocean that most of us, here in the Great White North, know; the cold, steely domain of the salmon and the orca. This is the south, where you can feel the more peaceful origins of its name. The sunlight catches the waves, sparkling on their tops like diamonds, an unstudied dance with the azure and crystal and blue. I laugh out loud, at the sight of it.
The breeze tempers the heat; it’s April here, somewhere between late summer and early autumn, and I’m standing on the beach at Lizard Island. It is practically deserted (the hotel houses only about 80 guests at full capacity). The resort, which takes its name from the island and national park in which it is located, is a relaxed retreat, rooms are more like chic studio apartments that come straight out of Architectural Digest. Cosmopolitan touches aside, there is a rustic charm, nevertheless; mosquito coils live happily in the cupboard next to the high-end toiletries; the privacy button is a wooden slat outside your door you slide to the left to “turn on” and the only place with viable Wi-Fi is the guest lounge next to the pool.
Here, on Lizard Island, the miracles that my human eyes are feasting on right now, gorging on light, on shadow, on colour, where ocean blue meets golden beach meets tropical jungle greens. It’s delicious, almost overwhelming, and the quiet for a harried city type is a near cacophony of nature: you hear the wings of bugs beating, even over the screeching of gulls and calls of other birds and the gentle lapping of the waves onto the beach. If I could put it into words, well, you still wouldn’t quite see it; it’s like a desert island but where there’s a great resto that serves dessert.
My swim morphs into a guided snorkel. You can scuba dive here, too, out to the reef for an eye-popping display of the undersea world. Floating, face down, my mask giving my eyes clarity, I spy an angel, a devil, a shark, a clown. Underwater, the life aquatic’s silence is only counterbalanced by the roar of technicolour that is this national marine park’s flora, fauna, fish. Corals spike, curve and undulate like a free-form garden swaying in a soft breeze; a rainbow, in stark contrast to the bleached-out reef on which they squat. My first glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef. Magic.
This is, I find, a place of milestones. At breakfast, the table next to mine is a group celebrating a 65th birthday. They strike up a conversation, about learning to play the banjo, of all things, and all the films in which the instrument was used; Deliverance, Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde and Paint Your Wagon all come up and, then, one of the women says, “I’d always wished I’d learned to play the piano, but my fingers are too short.” She looked at one of her table mates and noticed her long, delicate hands. “You should learn,” she said, pointing to her digits. “You’ve got piano fingers.” To which her friend replied, “Oh, I’m too old.” She looked back at her flatly. “You’re never too old.”
I laugh, out loud: music to my ears. Sort of like Lizard Island. A place like this never gets old.
Today, I heard a kookaburra laugh.
Today, I walked through fire and then went on a walkabout in the rainforest.
A tree house – and not your old backyard tree fort, mind you – is seemingly suspended in mid-canopy; below, a river rushes, tumbling babblingly over the rocks it has honed to a smooth patina over the some 300 million years of its existence. Longevity of a different kind.
At Silky Oaks Lodge, the rainforest is the star attraction; if you saw the film Avatar, you’d know a little about what I’m going to describe next. You arrive, and the first thing you think is I am in a forest on Avatar’s Pandora. I laugh out loud, along with the kookaburra, at the sight of it. It’s said that James Cameron took, in part, the Daintree region as inspiration for his otherworldly location; yet here it is, right here on Mother Earth. Just like that imaginary planet, ancient trees pierce the sky, overgrown vines languidly drape, mammoth leaves fall or provide umbrella-like shade – yet there’s a hammock suspended on my timber tree house’s balcony, bringing me back to reality and suggesting a civilized afternoon siesta in the making. Just down the road is the Mossman Gorge Centre, a one-year-young indigenous culture complex, which takes people into the rainforest with guides and hosts who know their native lore — they are living native lore. Rodney, our guide, is an ex-Queensland cop who quit the race to get back to his roots. Mum was indigenous; Dad, a mix of Irish, Scottish; he’s an all-round Heinz 57. He welcomes us by walking us through the smoke of a campfire, a sort of cleansing/smudging that is said to purify us — and keep the mosquitoes at bay — before walking into this natural miracle of a forest.
Wherever you are, the river provides a soundtrack of forward movement — powerful enough to have fortified the old mill here; gentle enough to pool into picture-perfect swimming holes for a cool dip on a hot day. The creek that feeds into the Mossman River still provides drinking water for the surrounding area; yes, it’s still clean enough.
Back at Silky Oaks, the resident platypus makes a rare appearance at riverside. He’s sunning himself on this fine fall day and pays no mind to the voices that float down from our manmade tree-house perch. Here, there are small but luxurious pleasures: a sky-grazing open-sided restaurant with killer views and a kitchen that knows its way around complexity of flavours yet the simplicity of beautiful presentation and how to champion local bounty; a wine list that rivals the best in a big city; the lodge is Wi-Fi–enabled, and there’s a deep-blue pool that’s been modelled to look like a natural pond. Dutch expat Paul Van Min and his wife, Barbara, took over the property four years ago as a semi-retirement project and since, it has brought a sophistication to the area for which it’s been added to the Luxury Lodges of Australia portfolio. “This is a couples resort,” he says, “a place for our guests to reconnect, empty nesters whose children have flown; people with the time to appreciate what this place is.”
And people who love to laugh out loud.
Today, I saw a kangaroo and then two and then three … Wallaroos, too, a mother and her joey in pouch; holding so still, she is statuesque. I laughed out loud, watching them while they bound uphill in their leggy way. They inhabit the Wolgan Valley, where you’ll find the über-luxe resort of the same name, in the Greater Blue Mountains just a three-hour drive outside Sydney.
Blue because, early, just at sunrise hour, the hills are alive with a mist tinged with a pale shade of peacock, caused by oils released from the leaves of the ubiquitous eucalyptus. This is the birthplace of the tree and the home of the largest on earth. The plant’s scent permeates the air, tickling my nostrils with its familiar freshness. In the distance, the Three Sisters, a triad of rocky outcrops at Echo Point, which may have been a much larger family before erosion took its toll, point skyward, poised in yoga-like poses welcoming the sun.
Today, I rode an off-road Segway, balancing on fat tires, surprisingly easier than it looks. And it’s not just the domain of young daredevils.
It’s never too late, as Chris Hall, the managing director of Segway Blue Mountains tour company, relays that an octogenarian and her granddaughter were here recently, popping over hillocks and winding their way through the ancient forest with the greatest of ease.
It’s a forest so different that nothing that happens here happens anywhere else. A jeep drive deep into its heart with tour guide and fire rescue team member Tim Tranter of Tread Lightly Eco Tours reveals no bears, no primates, no hard-hoofed animals, just emus, kangaroos, koalas – but they’re in hiding today, keeping to themselves. Everything is so green but, in autumn, rather than falling leaves, bark is shed in strips, a natural exfoliation, says Tranter, like our own skin, in a year-round temperate zone like our own Vancouver Island.
I retreat from this, yet another sensory overload, to Lilianfels, a boutique resort in Katoomba and just a short walk from the Three Sisters. It’s been here since the late 1800s, when Sir Frederick Darley, once a chief justice of New South Wales, christened his summer home after his daughter, Lilian. The rooms are decorated with a Victorian charm, chinoiserie patterns coat the walls and window coverings, vintage-look avian prints hang in pairs and everything that can be overstuffed and tufted is just that. It was converted to a hotel about 20 years ago and, with it, the stand-alone heritage home on site presented the perfect spot for a restaurant. Darleys is equally rich (that goes for the food, too): black, gold, green, the palette is dark, not of the oppressive but of the opulent.
It’s an embarrassment of natural riches, these 1.03 million hectares of UNESCO-recognized world heritage Blue Mountains, a place where you can walk through six biospheres, where more than 700 waterfalls collect, the most in one place in the whole world. At Govett’s Leap lookout, where one of these waterfalls spills, I laugh. There’s no bottom, no sight of where the water plunges nearly 180 metres (that’s more than 590 feet) to make land. Only here.
The journey back means I must return to the city, and for many Canadians, the gateway to Australia. Today, I fly above Sydney and the greatest natural harbour in the world. Sydney, with its iconic Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, an engineering marvel. Today, I climbed that bridge. And I laughed.
Where in the world can you find crowea, pink mulla mulla and she-oak? If you guessed Australia, you’d be correct. I hadn’t even stepped foot on the soil, yet there I was, drinking in the flora and fauna, literally. It was the bottled water on the flight over on Qantas, made infamous by Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman, quoting its rather impressive safety record (they really do take it seriously!). Also impressive is the feeling that I’m already in Oz: the attendants are very friendly, spouting “G’day” and pouring bubbles like it grows on trees (well, vines in Australia!), with just a touch of the lighthearted, yet deprecating humour some say is similar to our own Canadian sensibilities. In biz class, it’s like being in a high-end, space-age cockpit, with coverlets and comforters all plumped and ready for the long night’s flight, but the bottled concoction (the aforementioned flora and fauna) that I’m drinking is loaded with earth-bound Australian flower essences known to promote health and well-being. As for the food, Qantas’ cook of choice is super chef Neil Perry, and I’ve been given the chance to taste his desserts at both 25,000 feet and at his topnotch restaurant, Rockpool, located in the Rocks, one of Sydney’s oldest neighbourhoods. The caramel tart on board is surprisingly better than I’d expected for an in-flight sweet, but the Pavlova at Rockpool – well, it’s decadently en pointe. www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/home/ca/en
If you go
Lizard Island is the only resort here. As I mentioned, the journey is half the fun. A 60-minute scenic flight over the Reef is booked on Hinterland Aviation via the nearby city of Cairns, through the Lizard Island team. It’s all-inclusive with dining and most aquatic pursuits part of the tariff, except for expertly guided diving/snorkelling and island tours. The diving/snorkelling is worth the bucket-list expense, and the resort’s MV Serranidae is a purpose-built dive boat that takes explorers out to inner and outer reef sites, including Cod Hole, where you can swim with the massive but gentle potato cod. Plus, a full-day tour is recorded on DVD for you to take home for posterity. Azure Spa features Aboriginal-inspired healing treatments. www.lizardisland.com.au
Silky Oaks Lodge is just a 20-minute drive from the charming seaside town of Port Douglas, for which the lodge provides shuttle service should you want to shop, take in a catamaran harbour cruise or eat with the locals. Based on the near full occupancy of the lodge’s Treehouse Restaurant, however, guests are happy to stay, eat and linger among the canopy. And, with only 36 stand-alone deluxe tree houses and river houses, privacy – and the spa-like bathrooms – is a boon. Speaking of spas, the lodge’s Healing Waters was a World Luxury Spa award-winner in 2011. www.silkyoakslodge.com.au
Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa is an Emirates property at the base of Mount Wolgan. It’s secluded, fully immersive in its natural surroundings with heritage-style wood and stone cabins rather than rooms. www.wolganvalley.com
Lilianfels is lovely in its boutique size, with just 85 rooms, many with views of the Jamison Valley. The spa is modern and, rather than going the indigenous route, the product line is Sothys, direct from France. Have lunch at its sister property, Echoes, down the road, and ask for a table with a view. www.lilianfels.com.au