Sunday, September 27, 2009

the Reef

Twenty months after we moved to Sydney, we finally made it to Australia's can't-miss natural attraction, the Great Barrier Reef. We took the first Friday of September off from work to make the most of our weekend in Port Douglas (one hour drive north of Cairns), once a small fishing village, but now a tourist hub acting as the gateway to the reef.

Mickey booked us in at the Thala Beach Lodge because it boasted its own beach and eco huts in a rainforest setting, 15 minutes from Port Douglas. Clouds covered the sky when we first arrived and I felt disappointed initially by Thala's eco offerings: no pretty landscaping or gardens and no heated pool. However, the next day brought better weather and I began to see Thala in a new light (literally); I came to appreciate its natural beauty and the privacy of its wild beach.

We celebrated our first night at Flames of the Forest, not merely a restaurant, but an outdoor dining experience. A van collected us from our hotel and drove us to the rainforest location (we could tell we were getting close when the driver turned off the headlights and stopped in front of a burning stick in the road!) We sipped champagne and mingled with the other diners while taking blurry photos next to a candlelit tree. A bride and her small wedding party were celebrating their reception at Flames of the Forest and many other diners were there for special occasions: honeymoons, engagements, etc.

Unfortunately, I don't think Flames of the Forest was worth all the expectation. $200 per person promised a six-course meal, wine, transportation to and from your hotel and aboriginal entertainment. I was excited about the show because Mickey and I had yet to experience an aboriginal performance while in Australia. Shortly after arriving, an indigenous gentleman and his brother appeared in traditional "clothes" (a loincloth and body paint) and led us to the dining tent, decorated elegantly with candles and richly colored linens. He spoke for a couple of minutes about his personal family history with the land where we were dining and told a dreamtime story while his brother played the didgeridoo mid-meal. They stood politely next to diners for pictures (very awkward), but that was the end of the entertainment.

In retrospect I might have paid the $150 per person for the experience minus the "show" which is an option a couple nights of the week. Most of the food was both local and tasty (crocodile and kangaroo risotto), but the pavlova for dessert was most memorable.

The highlight of our trip was our snorkeling adventure on the reef the following day. There are at least a dozen different boat companies that offer dive and snorkel tours of the reef, but we chose Wavelength because they never take more than 30 people out each day and stop at the best snorkel sites. About an hour into the hour and forty five minute boat ride to the outer reef, Mickey started feeling seasick and I wondered if we might have been better off in a bigger boat. However, we dutifully swallowed the seasickness medicine and Mickey ate a ginger biscuit and felt better.

He's not really comfortable in open water so upon sliding in to the turquoise water, it looked like the whole day was going to be a no go for Mickey. He was terrified and outside his comfort zone. However, he pushed through his fear and slowly gained confidence with his mask, snorkel, fins and noodles for flotation. With the gear, a wetsuit and holding my hand, there was no way he would sink and once he realized that, he started to feel more comfortable. I'm so proud of him. If he hadn't pushed himself then he would have never seen the coral, brightly colored fish, sea turtle and even four sharks that we saw.

Wavelength took us to three different reefs and served lunch on the boat. The marine biologists led a snorkel tour around the reefs and pointed out giant clams and rays and took lots of pictures. In the end, we bought the $30 pictures on CD because we needed to document such a special day. I felt so free in the cool, clear water. Observing the reef from the surface of the water felt like flying over a different world.

We spent our last day in Port Douglas on a tour of the Mossman Gorge and Daintree River and Rainforest. Our young Australian tour guide, Sabine, was a really sweet girl and knowledgeable about the region, but a bit naive when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Less than an hour into the trip, she commented "Mickey, you're really brown!" Looking back, she must have assumed that he was a white guy with an incredible tan. Again, later she boldly declared "Mickey, you look almost aboriginal" before asking "what color is your skin normally?" Mickey was amused by the whole thing, but I hope for Sabine's sake that she stops commenting on her guests' skin colors.

The style and pace of our tour indicated that it was geared for seniors and less mobile tourists, but I loved every minute of it. We saw a saltwater crocodile on the Daintree River and enjoyed a tropical fruit tasting at lunch.

I spent our last hours in north Queensland playing in the waves on Thala Beach and deciding that it was the best beach I'd ever visited: calm waves, warm water, soft white sand and no crowds. At first I found the lack of bathers alarming; could there be a reason why no one else is swimming here? Sharks and stingers (jellyfish) came to mind. After a while a couple other people joined me in the water so I stopped worrying about deadly creatures.

If it's possible, I'd love to take another trip back to Port Douglas. It's a beautiful place and I can see why it's so special to so many people. Thor and Jennie met there a couple of years ago and got engaged there just last month. At the end of June, Mike and Shannon exchanged wedding vows there on the beach. Now, Mickey and I have created our own memories there and I'll cherish them always.