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A Honeymoon in Australia

  • Submitted by: Franz Aubrey Metcalf
  • Submission Date: 15th Feb 2005



Here is my honeymoon travelogue. I tried to avoid any undue sappiness. I hope that you find it useful. Reading it over makes me want to go back, but then reading the posts in rec.travel makes me want to go every bloody where. We fully realized before we went that we would only cover a tiny part of the continent. There are nine million other things to do in Australia. We tried to only do one small part (Far North Queensland), and we checked out Sydney because it was there. You may want to do totally different things, don't think our not doing them means we looked into them and thought them not worth it. We wanted an island getaway honeymoon thing; cliche but magical. Lizard Island gave us that. Even on the reef there are many other possibilities. There are other islands with other resorts, and there are the dive boats. We found the Lonely Planet guide to the Islands of the Great Barrier Reef to be extremely helpful in plannng where we wanted to go. And once we were in Australia its comments were uniformly proven correct. I'd call it indispensible if you're seriously thinking about an island. We didn't use the general Lonely Planet guide to Australia, but I'm sure it is excellent. After they are, I believe the best guides to the world, and they are headquartered down under, no surprise they should do it right.

A few more comments on diving: we found the water to be surprisingly chilly. Of course, we were there in the depths of winter (which was quite warm and dry, even in Sydney). Still, winter meant no jellyfish on the coasts, and mostly good, not steaming, weather. Both of those might prove important factors in any trip. The jellyfish can sting horribly, they say. And the tropical weather can really drain a person (I've been in Sumatra and the Yucatan in the hot seasons, and they can take the joy out of the day). Still, Summer further South would surely be a plus.

Last thoughts: you need visas, they don't take long. Check out the tourist info, probably available where you get visas. They had alot of pamphlets with excellent photos to help you plan. Pack light; there are plenty of excellent clothes opportunities in Oz. People really wear those Australian hats with one brim up, and they really say G'Day. But, most of all, they say 'No worries,' all the time. It means about five different things, depending on context. You'll see. We loved that expression, and we loved our trip. You will too. Best of luck and have the best of times. Alright, here is the travelogue.

The real honeymoon began with a 27 hour epic series of flights on ever smaller planes, from LA to Sydney on a 747 (rack up those frequent flyer miles), from Sydney to Cairns on a 737, and from Cairns to Lizard Island on an 18 seater two engine prop plane. We did the brown paper bags on the feet thing (it's supposed to help overcome jet lag), and, what can I say?, we felt good when we arrived on Lizard.

Flying to Lizard Island was itself a pleasure. In fact, there are several companies that fly you out there or elsewhere on the reef, just for the views and maybe a lunch. The flight is a moving spectacle of the reef and the coast and the verdant mountains: every shade of blue and green you could imagine. And the reef doesn't stop there, even from 5,000 feet, it shows through the blue water in a welter of pinks and yellows, greens and browns, like great bubbles and daubs of paint dropped from some easel in the sky.

Yes yes, you say, get on with it. Okay, when they say Lizard Island is secluded they are not kidding around. You can only get to the place cuz they built a little landing strip there. It's about 150 miles from Cairns, which is not exactly a metropolis, and sixty miles from the coast, where there's nothing but rainforest, anyway. And, after all that, when we got in, at four in the afternoon, we went snorkeling. It just had to be. Well, first we went to the small, but thoughful little shop by reception, and Nina bought rather a nice bathing suit. They also have sunscreen, toothpaste, underwater cameras, T-shirts, videos, and postcards. We went back to the cabin to change, but we didn't stay there long (we never stayed there long). The beach beckons from outside your cabin; you can see the coral patches from your cabin porch. The cabins are very simple, they are clean and spacious, though hardly decorated at all. Good bathroom and dressing area. Porch, as I say, that looks out across a swath of grass to the bushes that mostly hide the beach. Though this means you can't see much of the beach from the cabins, it also means that you feel more private when you are on the beach. You know only the lizards are looking at you from behind.

All told, we spent four days there. Simply idyllic. The resort only has 32 cabins, the staff quarters, and the reception/bar/restaurant building. The only other buildings on the island are the little marine research station, around the bend, and a shack at the airport. We snorkeled, we dived, we lay on our private beach (accessible via our dinghy for the day), we windsurfed, we waterskied, and we ate. How we ate! They served us nine courses of food, every day. And beautiful food, at that. Real pride in presentation, and just excellent materials, especially the seafood and the fruits and vegetables. Very French influenced, but more nouvelle than haute. Anyway, better than we expected, and by far the longest onslaught of gourmet vittles in our experience. We only had lunch at the restaurant once since we were out diving or what-have-you, but it was as ambitious as dinner. The other days we had sort of picnic-y food away from the resort. But picnic-y food means crayfish tails and prawns and salad and cheese platters and tropical fruit, which they served on the boat when we dived or they put in coolers for us when we took our dinghies out for the day. Dinner was always your choices of one soup, a hot and a cold appetizer, three main dishes, and three desserts (one of which was always a chees platter). There was also, of course, bread, tea or coffee, and ice creams. You were expected to take the soup, an appetizer, a main, and dessert, but they seemed to like it when we elected to make stranger combinations. Vegetarians would have a problem, though. The soups were usually vegetarian, but nothing else ever was. But then, you'd be an odd bird to come here and not eat a bunch of seafood. I was particularly fond of the mackerel and the barramundi. We were always offered the wine and beverage list, but we only once had a glass. We were always tired and always getting up early the next morning. More leisure minded guests would want to drink, however, and though not cheap, the list was well thought out, and the wine steward was quite knowledgeable about Australian wines. This was good because I believe the only non-Autralian wines on the list were champagnes. Well, maybe not, but for sure there were no California wines at all. On the other hand, who needed them?

We took advantage of just about everything the island had to offer. We didn't get to climb Cook's Look, from which the famous Captain searched for an escape from the mazes of the reef, but that was about it. We took full advantage of the extremely personable and competent aquatics staff. They have their own little building right by the water, and it's chock full of snorkeling gear and wetsuits and stuff. The dive instructor, Paul, was serious, patient, conscientious, and affable. In fact all the guys (and they were all guys; it seemed to both of us that Australia suffers from some deep and powerful sexism, despite its openness) were happy and obliging. They really don't have to work much unless people ask them to do stuff (set up a windsurfing board for me; take me waterskiing; etc.), and yet the seemed always to really want to do it and to enjoy the process. We asked one of them about this and he said, listen, we live on an island for months or years among the same few people; the one who aren't both easy going and responsible just don't last. Quite understandable. For me the highlight was the trip to Cod Hole, where both Nina and I scuba dived among four foot long groupers in crystalline waters, surrounded by, it seemed, the sunken remains of a thousand rainbows, having suffered a sea-change into the rich and strange denizens of the Great Barrier Reef. This was Nina's first scuba dive. Wow. The divemaster on the trip was, of course, the one (Paul) who gave Nina her resort class. He was a perfect resort class teacher, and Nina was the only student. Since the resort is so small and the bay there is so calm, the resort dive was just perfect. They let me tag along, too, for only the equpment rental charge; that was good for Nina. Talk about a perfect introduction to Scuba: Nina has her private lesson (2+ hours), walks immediately out into the fish-full, azure waters, and ends up following a sea turtle around the bay! Then, next day, she takes a boat that would hold 20, but only has six divers on it, out to two dives on the very outer edge of the reef. She gets to pet fish weighing more than her, and gaze out at coral outcroppings that disappeared so far away I didn't believe it when someone said the visibility was 'only' 100 feet. Boy, is Nina spoiled.

One more thing: the stars. Now this is not confined to Lizard, but is particularly pronounced there: the stars shine in the southern hemisphere in a way that makes ours positively fade by comparison. We lay on the beach or grass and fell asleep gazing at the heavens, not once, but three times. Lizard's distance from the mainland and almost total lack of lights at night, make the spectacle truly magic.

This is the real world, though, and our time at Lizard Island had to end. Some staff person remarked that most people stayed about four days, as we did. I noticed, though, that a five day stay works out the fifth day being roughly half the price of the first four. Though we didn't take advantage of this, we both thought it was a good idea. We could easily have filled up another day on the island. I would recommend this special deal to travellers who either have the money and inclination to be pampered while avoiding the glitz of other beach resorts, or to clients who are sure they want to snorkel and hike and dive for five days. The time passes quickly on the island, especially if you spend one day on a dive trip. By the way, for snorkelers: the trip we took to Cod Hole was attended by two snorkelers in addition to about six divers. Though it's very expensive for snorkeling, it's a beautiful spot and not too deep to have a good time just floating on the top of the water. Right, prices: the resort usually does outer reef trips and inner reef trips on alternate days. The outer trips are A$165, including gear; the inner trips are A$140. That's a chunk of change, but the trip we took was fantastic. Much better than the overnight we did later (more below). They also take people out snorkeling around the island for free, but for really wonderful visibility you need to get out to the water that's flowing in directly off the Coral Sea. This rule applies everywhere along the reef. My guess is that the Rumrunner, Mike Ball, etc., trips, out to isolated reefs in the Coral Sea itself, are pretty nearly what they're cracked up to be in their brochures. For serious divers, I think that might be the best thing to do down there. I'd do it if I came back, unless I learned something surprising in the interim. Or I'd stay on Lizard and go diving every day (but that is one heckuvalotta clams). Speaking of clams: they were Nina's favorite, some looked to be nearly four feet long, and all were partially open, revealing iridescent lips of green, purple, and blue. Yes.

So, we had now spent two thirds of our budget and had to fly back to the mainland. But we immediately jumped on a bus and headed up to Silky Oaks Lodge, this beautiful, rather refined cluster of cabins up in the rainforest in Mossman Gorge. Now this was quite another side of Far North Queensland: one usually thinks of the reef and the coast, not the inlands. Here we found ourselves in the middle of what botanists claim is the oldest continually extant rainforest in the entire world. Many believe that flowers evolved right there, where we tramped. Cool. Great flowing roots reach up toward the hoary hanging vines; a caucus of ferns gathers around the mossy stones of hundred waterfalls and rocky pools, dark under a billion leaves. Oh, and probably a billion mosquitoes, too. Oh well, without mosquitoes we wouldn't have. . . well some useful animal, I hope.

Silky Oaks itself is a real triumph. It's nice enough (read also 'tame enough') to appeal to fairly conservative tourists, yet it truly is in the rainforest, bordering upon Daintree National Park, a World Heritage site by virtue of the age and variety of its flora. The walks you can take on trails through the forest begin on the grounds of the lodge and put you immediately in the middle of another world. One of them leads up to a mountain lookout; one to a lovely swimming hole; one along the respectable all year stream which the lodge fronts. In fact we were there at the driest time of year and the stream still ran quite nicely. Shirley Maclaine had been there a couple weeks before. This is understandable, the place is calm, quiet, woody, safe, airconditioned, private (you stay in your own deluxe bungalow), and yet preserves the feeling of being in nature. That's a neat trick, but the pull it off. And, to top it off, the food, which one consumes on an openair deck overlooking the stream and the myriad trees, is excellent. A$350 per night, room only. We, however, by mentioning our poverty, were offered the 'stand-by' rate of A$250 per night (this did not prevent them guaranteeing the reservation, anyway). Next day they took us to nearby Mossman Gorge, where all the rainforest tours go. But, as our driver told us, they only walk a few hundred feet. If you keep going, you are practically alone among the trees.

That evening, thinking 'economize,' we took a bus even further north. This vehicle, when it reached the end of the bitumen, had to be ferried over the Daintree River, with its mangroves and crocodiles (some of whom do indeed eat persons). And, on the far side, it encountered bitumen no longer: the road went dirt and the bus went bump. We ended up at Cow Bay (so called for its manatees, alas, no longer around), for more pools and treks and the discovery of Cooper's Ale, a superb Australian brew. Here we stayed at the Rainforest Retreat (A$50), which was essentially a motel in the rainforest and thus no great shakes. Still, the forest was particularly lush in that area, and there was an actually informative and interesting rainforest center and museum. In that area I would recommend The Jungle Lodge or Crocodylus Village, backpackers kind of places, or, for those with more money, one of the upmarket, Silky Oaks-like places like the Rainforest Resort. The Daintree Wilderness Lodge sounded really good for A$98, including breakfast, but we were trying to be really cheap just then.
Now, we were about to head back South by bus but found we would then have to spend the night in Cairns, and being loath yet to return to that much civilization, we looked for another option. That turned out to be the plane. Wait, you say: there's barely a bloody road, how could there be a plane? Don't ask me, there just was. There was no airport, it's true, but there was a plane. It landed in a field of some jungle grass and a telephone. We got in. The pilot, his friend (who seemed to be masquerading as the co-pilot; he say in front, anyway, but he didn't fool anyone), and Nina and I in the back seat. I guess this was technically a six seater, but then no one would be able to take any luggage. Need I tell you there was just the single prop? So, the aviatory time machine had reached back to its limit (it would now begin to move back to the jet age). But the flight was again lovely, and it whisked us to Cairns in time to catch the last bus up to Kuranda. Instead of A$20 each for the two and a half hour bus ride, we each paid A$60 for a half hour plane ride, a fun time, and a lovely hill town for the evening, rather than tawdry Cairns. Well worth it. Phone number for the 'airline' written on the signboard at the 'airport.' In other words, the piece of wood standing next to the phone booth. If other people were already scheduled to fly me might have gotten discount 'stand-by' rates. But then, where would they have made us sit?

Thus we made it to Kuranda, a somnolent little burg at night, a bustling market town by day. We had another fine dinner, eating 'bugs' Wellington, getting into a long conversation with the chef about the creation of an Australian cuisine, and receiving a complimentary bowl of his special (and not sweet) fruit soup. This was at Frogs, which is this man's passion at night, but is a just another eatery by day, run by the owner with an entirely different menu and staff. This is absolutely the place for dinner in Kuranda, but maybe not for lunch. What's going on here? Well Kuranda is a day-trip town, so between the hours of 10 and 3, the Kuranda city limits contain about fifty times the official town population. Next day we did the market (it does seem to be an excellent place for buying your gifts for those at home, especially opals, aboriginal arts, wood products, and T-shirts), the butterfly sanctuary (Nina loves butterflies and I would recommend the place to others who also love them; good free guides), and the Tjapukai Aboriginal Dance Theater (worth attending if you have no other time for more extended contact with aboriginal culture; it's quite touristy, but retains a certain dignity). Then we took the hundred year old train to the coast, passing through fifteen tunnels and by two waterfalls as we edged our way down along the sides of a the gorges, seeing the White Herons flying and roosting far below us in the forest canopy. So much nicer than Cairns. Gotta go overnight.

That night we ate at another great little place, a sort of funky bistro, run by a guy who wants to start a rent by the month artists' colony in the rainforest. It's called Feastish, the entrance to which is a walkway tucked between a second hand shop and a cutting-edge clothes store. We definitely recommend it: sort of Berkeleyan, but new, not run down, extremely visual (broken shards of mirror embeded in the walls), primarily mediterranean food, but with eclectic elements (e.g., delicious oyster shooters in spicy tomato sauce and bourbon). The bistro is currently B.Y.O., as so many of Australia's modest restaurants, but is hoping to get a license. What is all this about lousy Australian food? Were we smart or just lucky? I don't know, but the only dull food we had was over the next two days. And why was that? Just because we were thirty miles from shore on a dive boat anchored at the edge of the barrier reef.

Yes, we had not gotten enough diving in yet, and we decided to do an overnight trip to get our fix. Although it wasn't as good as that first dive, to Cod Hole, it was fun, and Nina is getting to be a darn good non-certified diver. We picked this particular dive operation because it had an overnight trip leaving the next morning; we booked it in Kuranda. Problem was they no longer went to their old location, Norman and Saxon Reefs, they now went to a new location, Moore Reef, which I find hard to believe is as good. The other problem was the tides and the weather. It had been getting increasingly cloudy while we were on Lizard, it even rained our last night. It continued to rain at night throughout the remainder of our time in Queensland. This was no problem at all for any activity except diving. It seems the associated winds stir up the water, which was already stirred up by the unusually high early Spring tides. These factors together made for a less than fully satisfactory diving trip. Down Under Dive, the people we went with, would be a good operation for those taking a four or five day certification course, I would recommend them for that, but those of us on our own felt more than a bit left out. We were sort of second class citizen on the boat, especially in the beginning. While the other divers knew what was going on, we had no idea, and only learned we were going to Moore Reef when we actually arrived there and were told this was it. That wasn't so bad for us, but what about the German couple who had learned to dive on Moore Reef and who had taken this trip specifically because it went to Norman and Saxon Reefs. Ooooh. (We became friends with them and together made a big stink about this when we returned to shore. Nice underlings there, total (excuse my language, but I quote Nina here) prick in charge. We tried to get their money at least partially refunded, but we doubt it worked. Still, it was fighting the good fight. So, all in all I don't recommend Down Under Dive, unless for a course. But then it would be good; the rates are competitive and the instructors were quite nice. We liked everyone out on the boat; it's clearly the management that are unresponsive and unpleasant. We heard good things about Deep Sea Divers Den, who do the two day trip we thought we were doing. As I wrote before, for divers who can afford it, Rum Runner and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions do trips out to the Coral Sea; I'd look into it. For day trips, TUSA out of Cairns, and a couple places out of Port Douglas, sounded good. There's also sailing trips out of Cairns that include diving; these also sound nice, especially for those not sure about diving all day ; I think there are some leaving out of Port Douglas, also. I'd love to do a whole review piece on this stuff; now if I could just get someone to finance it....:-)

When we got back to Cairns after the diving trip we had another dinner at 'our' bistro and stayed just long enough to get a few hours sleep before our flight to Sydney. We had stayed at Inn the Tropics (A$45) the other night in Cairns, a bit dank and with some really bad sheets. Not recommended. This time we found a room at Bel Aire Backpackers, one of the perhaps dozens of cheap places scattered around the town. This one was quite pleasant and right on the Esplanade (the street running along the water. There is no beach at Cairns.) It was only A$30 (it was more than the normal double room because it came with a kitchen, the other doubles were full) and they lent us an alarm clock so we could wake at 5:30am. In general I was impressed with the quality of the double rooms to be had at 'backpackers' places. These often compare favorable to inexpensive pensions in Europe, but remain significantly cheaper. The combination of lots of dorm beds and a few rooms is quite common in Asia, and clearly in Australia, but has not been disovered in America seemingly, more's the pity. Now, I caution, these are not for my parents. They might appreciate the qualities one pays extra for. But for the adventurous these places will seem quite comfortable, and they will allow splurges where, in my opinion, it really counts, like taking the plane rather than the bus, or going on the more expensive dive trip, or whatever.

So, it was 6:00 in the morning and we were supposed to be on the way to the airport to leave Australia at this point, but we had decided that since we had to stop over in Sydney for a couple hours, perhaps we should make it a day and see a little something. We had phoned United and gotten conflicting information on how much this stopover was going to cost us, but we figured we go for it. We had heard about Sydney, 'The Big Smoke,' from several people in Queensland, and though they were ambivalent about the place we figured it was worth a look; besides, who cares what these country bumpkins think, anyway. So we did Sydney in a day. Wonderful. A really friendly, negotiable, comprehensible, safe, clean, sophisticated city. Imagine trying to 'do' LA in a day, mostly on foot! We took the ferry from our harbor (Darling Harbour, a sort of cultural/shopping/amusement complex) to the downtown harbor (Circular Quay), two short bus rides and one short cab ride, then a monorail home. The rest of the day we spent wandering around the historic neighborhood (The Rocks, right next to Circular Quay, full of old buildings and nice shops), and the artistic neighborhood (Paddington, reminding me of Hampstead, but where all the row houses have fabulous wrought iron railings over their fronts; theis is where the artistic crowd hangs out; fun; it's where we'd want to live). Then we went to the Opera. Yes, not just the building, we actually saw an entire opera (_Midsummer_Night's_Dream_, by Benjamin Britten). Next day we wandered around the harbor and went to the excellent aquarium (where we reacquainted ourselves with our old Barrier Reef friends) before we had to toddle off to the airport and spend our last few Australian dollars. We missed the zoo and all museums, but the only thing I felt bad about was the zoo. It looked to be pretty great. Next time.

Back to Sydney. We stayed at a place on the far side of Darling Harbour, called The Wool Brokers Arms. A$60 for an airy room with a lovely comforter and a simple breakfast layout included. Share bath, but its seemed there was one 'shared' bath for every room! Easy walk to the whole Darling Harbour complex, and from there it's a lovely ferry ride to Circular Quay (pronounced 'key'), downtown. Great town, 'The Big Smoke,' what a joke! Seemed like about as much air pollution as San Francisco. In fact, as I, and no doubt others, have told you, the city is reminiscent of San Francisco, among other cultured port cities. Franz and Nina say 'Check it out.'

That about covers it, except for one last strange sight of Australian wildlife. On a Saturday night at Circular Quay, 10,000 miles from home, we also saw a herd of Elvis impersonators in white sequined jumpsuits wandering the streets and piling into taxis. Who were they? Where were they going? It's a strange world.

Well, that's the extent of it. If anyone who reads this does make it to Australia, Nina and I would love to hear from you. How is the health of the reef? Is Feastish still in business? How are the diving boats and the Coral Sea? And many other questions. All good things to you and any trips you make.

Peace,

Franz

Franz Aubrey Metcalf fmetcalf@crl.com That ol' U of Chicago
But now happily researching in Los Angeles


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