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Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009
High life mixes with the wildlife on Australia's Great Barrier Reef
Special to The Japan Times
T he bed at the Reef View hotel on Hamilton Island is so large that I can't resist executing several flamboyant somersaults across its width, after which I unpack, flinging my belongings about the gigantic room in wild abandon. Used to the confines of life in Tokyo, I'm feeling a little giddy at being allowed such voluminous amounts of personal space. This is living large,I think to myself as I step out onto the balcony and gaze out at the picture-perfect panorama.
The sea is tinted a deep turquoise, the poinsettia trees flame with brilliant orange blossoms and the white sand on Catseye Beach is so dazzling it almost sears your retinas; it's as if you've been transported to an alternate Technicolor universe.
I'm here for a short stay in the Whitsunday Islands, starting on Hamilton Island and finishing up on Hayman Island. Located on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef, both are upmarket destinations, impeccably maintained for the pleasure of their well-heeled clientele. In Hamilton, the edges between manicured lawns and wild bush are so flawlessly smooth that one suspects a secret army of gloved butlers are hiding in the gum trees with pruning shears and bin bags, ready to leap out at a moment's notice to discreetly lop off an offending branch or remove an unsightly tissue.
Happily, the local wildlife appears oblivious to the neat boundaries between resort and wild bush land; white cockatoos strut their stuff on hotel balconies, their bright-yellow Mohawks flashing in the evening light, and gangs of wild wallabies often congregate on the hotel lawns in the dead of night.
While Hamilton offers numerous opportunities for interaction with local wildlife, most guests are understandably itching to get closer to Australia's most cuddly of creatures, the koala. "Breakfast With Koalas" at the Koala Gallery Wildlife Experience is a popular attraction giving guests the opportunity to chow down on a fulsome British breakfast while watching the soporific creatures hang sweetly above their heads. As I joined a huge scrum of people vying to snatch bacon from the hot plate,I began to envy the sleeping koalas their laid-back lifestyle.
No time for chilling by the pool though; on my first morning I was bound for the skies. One of the best ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef is from above, so we took a seaplane from Hamilton. The tiny, fragile-looking seaplanes are ideal for buzzing low over stunning seascapes. Little wrinkles of silver etch the surface while vast tracts of ancient coral formations loom beneath, interspersed by elegant swirls of sand.
It's difficult to tell whether your heart is in your mouth because of the plane bumping through turbulence or because of the breathtaking natural beauty of it all. If you're lucky you can catch a glimpse of dolphins, manta rays and stingrays, and in the winter months whales can also be spotted.
The most iconic sight to look out for is Heart Reef, named because of its eponymously shaped coral formation. A seaplane ride to take you over Heart Reef costs 699 Australian dollars (¥60 is 1 Australian dollar), including a 90-minute stopover on the pristine shore of Whitehaven Beach, which boasts nearly 6-km of blinding white sand.
The beach, a popular day-trip destination from Hamilton, is in a national park, and visitors are not allowed to wander past the shoreline so to protect the natural balance beyond. The look-but-don't-touch policy of protecting Australia's natural resources inevitably leaves adventurous visitors feeling a little frustrated, but it is a necessary constraint in the face of the growing numbers of tourists.
That being said, the beach is utterly idyllic and you are free to frolic pretty much as you please. Be prepared to discard some of your personal dignity along with your clothes, as visitors are advised to wear a form of protective clothing called a stinger suit. Though the name may have a whiff of James Bond about it, the reality is that you'll be wearing an adult-size brightly-colored romper suit in order to protect yourself from the poison sting of the Irukandji jellyfish, which can cause its victims breathing difficulties and severe pain.
I prefer to tackle nasty beasties out of the water and on the plate. Over on Hayman Island, at the Oriental restaurant, they serve up a dish that resembles a cross between a giant shrimp and the creature that came bursting out of Ian Hurt's tummy in "Alien." The Morton Bay Bug is surprisingly delicious and was just one of a number of fabulously inventive dishes served up at Oriental, Hayman Island's Asian-fusion restaurant there.
While you will shell out a pretty penny for accommodation on Hamilton and Hayman (rooms at the Reef View start from A$330 a night and Hayman at A$580), the food is extremely reasonable. Australian cuisine embraces a huge range of styles and is plentiful and mouthwatering. I particularly recommend eating at Manta Ray on Hamilton Island, where starters of olives, goats' cheese and basil bruschetta cost a mere A$14, and a glass of wine comes in at A$8.
Hayman Island is less populated and definitely a tad more exclusive than Hamilton. Its hotel complex resembles a vast 1930s cruise ship that has run aground and been almost engulfed by foliage. The old-world elegance carries on to the rooms, which are smart and chic and feature wooden shutters that slide back to display a gargantuan pool.
In my fridge nestled a complementary bottle of sparkling wine, which is assiduously tucked into after a turn around the pool. When it was time to come down for dinner, I had to wonder whether I'd overdone the fizz as I was confronted with the bizarre sight of rows of giant bats hanging from the treetops. After watching them swoop majestically above our heads for a while, I wondered what might happen next: Was a dinosaur going to come crashing out of the lush undergrowth?
And there the curtain crashes down on my island adventures. There are more than 600 islands along the 2,300-km of the Great Barrier Reef, all of which have an incredible abundance of interesting wildlife. Sadly, though, it's impossible for one person to explore all this in the space of one holiday.
Tourism Queensland is looking for a fluent English speaker who is comfortable with the media and up for an adventure to live on Hamilton Island and take up what it's calling "The Best Job in the World." The winner of a worldwide competition will get to stay in luxury accommodation on the island and spend their days exploring the islands of the Great Barrier Reef while regularly blogging about their experiences. The salary will be A$150,000 for a six-month contract. For more info, log on to www.islandreefjob.com The deadline for applications is Feb. 22. JetStar runs flights from Tokyo to Cairns from ¥20,000 one way, but that excludes any fuel surcharge and departure taxes. Hayman Island can be reached by air with Qantas or by ferry from Cairns. For more information, visit www.hamiltonisland.com.au and www.hayman.com.au