Monday, February 18, 2019

Australia Vacation: Queensland And The Great Barrier Reef

Australia’s Queensland is called the Sunshine State. The Great Barrier Reef was a highlight of our recent visit.

A Visit To Paradise

After exploring Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, we embarked on the second leg our Australian adventure. Hopping a flight to Cairns (pronounced Cans by the Australians) we were soon were headed to the beach destination of Palm Cove.

Pancakes and smoothies at Espresso and Co. in Palm Cove
We stayed at Paradise on the Beach, a place we thoroughly enjoyed. This 34-unit hotel is in the heart of Palm Cove, right on the beach front. Our room had a balcony overlooking the pool and some giant Melaleuca trees.

When we went for a dip in the pool, we heard a peculiar cackling call from a bird in a towering tree. It was a Laughing Kookaburra, an iconic Australian bird that is the largest of the kingfisher family. It serenaded (or laughed at) us during our entire visit.

Not only could we stroll along the beach, but we were close to excellent dining. Each morning we enjoyed eating at Espresso & Co, a great breakfast joint with outdoor seating, a view of the ocean and beautifully prepared food. One unexpected addition to their pancakes is a scoop of ice cream!

Snapper with coconut curry sauce and
Clare Valley Pinot Gris at Neptune's
We tried a couple of restaurants during our stay most notably Neptune’s. At Neptune’s we sampled a local seafood specialty: Barramundi. Barramundi is native to the waters in northern Australia all the way up to southeast Asia and India. Neptune’s has a nice upscale, funky vibe and is just steps away from the beach – perfect for viewing crashing waves of the Coral Sea.

Although we didn’t take advantage of it, Paradise on the Beach has a barbecue grill available for guests. That would have been epic (shrimp on the barbie?).

As much as we enjoyed the accommodations, a key reason we chose it was the location as a staging point for some unique excursions.

The Great Barrier Reef

In my early planning for our Australia trip, I did what you might expect: tried to figure out how many different wine regions we could visit. This however didn’t fly with my wife, who has earned her nickname of Green Dragon. She said we weren’t going to Australia without snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef. She was right, of course.

Our day on the water was orchestrated by Reef Magic Cruises, and they did a nice job. We boarded a large and fast catamaran heading out to the GBR. Green Dragon took some Dramamine to offset any sea sickness. I’ve never had any problems – but then again, it was mighty rough on the water with the water splashing high on the windows and numerous passengers clutching paper bags and darting to the rest rooms.

Inside the submersible
The destination was Marine World, a floating platform that serves as the base of operations for snorkeling, SNUBA or even helicopter rides. Upon arrival we had morning tea and then went onboard the semi-submersible. The semi-submersible doesn’t go entirely underwater. Rather, it has a V-shaped hull with windows that goes under the waves. The seating is cramped, as you might expect, but the views are great. It gives you a chance to view the coral and sea life without worrying about swimming against the current.

We also found the submersible superior to the glass bottom boat, which was the next on our agenda. The water was choppy during our visit, and so it was difficult for the ship’s captain to position the boat over items of interest.

Into The Waters

We returned the Marine World to enjoy a buffet lunch. The next step was the most challenging part of the cruise for me – getting into the Lycra dive suit. This is a safety precaution due to marine stingers (AKA stinging jellyfish) in the water. I was first given what appeared to be a child-sized medium suit. After confirming the ridiculousness of the size selection, I wriggled into a new dive suit.

Snorkeler watching fish feeding
Snorkeling (and other activity) is limited to a cordoned off area, in a step designed to limit damage to the reef. There were several resting stations, tethered floats that you could latch on to if you became tired. There is also a staff member on overwatch, carefully viewing all those in the water.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest structure made by living organisms. It can be seen from space and stretches for 1,400 miles. Unfortunately, it is under siege from pollution and warming ocean temperatures.

Where The Heck Are My Photos?

For our underwater adventure, Green Dragon had purchased an underwater camera. It was the first time using it, but I had taken a few snaps on dry land to make sure it worked properly.

As we snorkeled along, I was snapping like crazy, taking what I felt were epic shots. Angelfish, Butterflyfish, the giant Wrasse, surgeon fish and a slew of other colorful fish darted by. Underwater was a palette of blues and greens accented with the yellows, blues, orange and blacks of the fish. The coral shows great diversity with some very cool brain coral and the occasional staghorn and elkhorn corals. Click, click, click.

When we finally surfaced, I went to the camera to view my works of art. WHAT! There was nothing, nada. I hadn’t realized that the camera had an automatic shutoff. It’s a bit tricky getting a good shot underwater. We were kicking our swim fins against the current, I was hanging on to Green Dragon and then I was trying to catch photos with the camera dangling on my wrist.

I turned around and went back for another dive -- making darn sure  that I could see the shot on the screen clearly before clicking. I wish I had some of my earlier shots, but came away with another great swim and some excellent shots to boot.

Back on Marine World we went up to the sundeck. Around us the waters varied in shades of sapphire blue and lighter aqua where the reefs approached the surface. A nice cooling breeze wafted the Australian flag as we soaked up the sun before boarding the catamaran for our return trip.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Depending on your excursion, it also comes with a buffet lunch! We highly recommend visiting this inspiring location.

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