Unlike many of the other islands near the Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island is a coral cay – literally part of the reef itself. To see the reef, all you have to do is walk down to the beach and bend over.
The island’s only resort organizes reef walks during low tide, and there’s also diving and snorkeling in the crystal-clear waters that teem with multicolored fish and coral. The coral spawns each November, when the polyps emit billions of pink-and-purple bundles of eggs and sperm. It’s like being inside a pink snowstorm, and the phenomenon attracts divers from all over the world. Situated on the Tropic of Capricorn and only about 30 acres in size (of which half is a national park), Heron is more a summer camp for naturalists and divers than a glitzy reef resort.
Hundreds of green sea turtles come in October and November and lay their eggs. They hatch in January and February. The humpback whales migrate north in June and July, and swim with their calves in October.
Sitting on its own private 900-acre island – one of the seventy-four Whitsunday Islands in the sapphire waters of the Great Barrier Reef – Hayman is one of the world’s most opulent resorts. Of the many island resorts off Queensland’s Golden Coast, it has no rival in natural attractions and manmade amenities.
Travelers with the wherewithal come here for the isolation, lush tropical landscaping, choice of five restaurants, smiling service, otherworldly network of saltwater and freshwater swimming pools, and a priceless location just 27 nautical miles from the Great Barrier Reef. With the relaxed elegance of a very posh private club, Hayman offers a maximum of 400 guests a roster of water sports, one-day-or-more rental of a 40-foot Beneteau yacht, a 5-mile wilderness trail – even a nightclub. At the rarefied height of the resort’s accommodations are the Lagoon Wing’s eleven penthouse suites, each individually decorated with priceless antiques and artwork in Art Deco, Moroccan, or Japanese themes.
The North Queensland Penthouse, an Australiana fantasy of a colonial homestead on the range (complete with butler service), will help remind you where you are.
The Australians call it the Eighth Wonder of the World, but that may actually be an understatement. The Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism on the planet that’s visible from outer space. Stretching for more than 1,200 miles at between 10 and 50 miles off the coast of Queensland, it’s not in fact one coral reef but an association of 2,900 smaller reefs, with some 300 stepping-stone islands sprinkled among them.
The largest marine preserve in the world, it’s home to a stupefying profusion of sea creatures, including 500 species of brilliantly colored hard and soft coral, 1,500 varieties of fish, and 4,000 kinds of mollusks.
You can sail it, snorkel it, and fly over it, but only by diving the depths of this extraordinary realm can you really grasp its diversity. Luckily, there’s no shortage of agencies promising you the ultimate reef experience. Quicksilver is a high-tech, wave-piercing, turbo- powered catamaran that makes the ninety-minute trip to an anchored glass-bottomed platform, where you can swim, snorkel, or scuba dive; or travel in a semi-submersible vessel and listen to your guide’s running commentary explaining the underwater extravaganza outside your window.
Those wanting a more prolonged experience can opt to spend four days aboard the luxurious mini-cruise ships Coral Princess or Coral Princess II. The 115-foot ships offer snorkeling, guided coral-viewing excursions in small glass-bottom boats, reef fishing, and evening presentations by trained marine biologists. If you’ve always dreamed of learning how to scuba dive, the ships’ qualified PADI instructors will have you logging your first underwater hours.
Most people think the Great Barrier Reef is the last word in deep-sea diving, but beyond it the waters of the lesser- known, less-dived Coral Sea may be even more wonderful. Highlights of this pristine wilderness of crystal-clear waters and uninhabited coral atolls include huge perpendicular drop- offs and 200- to 300-foot visibility. Imagine giant clams up to 7 feet across, 300-pound groupers, and innumerable turtles and sharks, along with an outstanding variety of hard corals and reef fish of all descriptions.
Some live-aboard trips include a visit to the wreck of the Yongala, a 363-foot wonder said to be home to the greatest concentration and diversity of marine life in the world – a mind-boggling underwater experience.
On the world’s largest sand island, you can swim in forty freshwater dune-surrounded lakes, walk through the ancient Valley of the Giants rain forest, join rangers to track down some of the island’s 350 species of birds, or just enjoy the uninterrupted 75 miles of broad coastal beach – the world’s most beautiful highway.
Rent a jeep from the island’s award-winning ecotourism hotel, the Kingfisher Bay Resort, and realize those macho dreams of Man Against the Outback. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and 40-foot cliffs patterned like Gothic towers on the other, spend the day cruising the beach without another vehicle in sight. You’ll feel like Lawrence of Arabia at Sandy Cape, on the island’s northern tip, where huge sand mountains roll down to a vibrant blue sea.
Come August, the hotel’s Kingfisher I catamaran is the perfect vehicle to sail amid the 2,000 migrating whales that return annually on their way south to the Antarctic.
Microscopic droplets of oil from the leaves of dense eucalyptus forests hang in the air, refracting the sunlight to create the misty blue haze that gave this park its name. Just ninety minutes from Sydney, the Blue Mountains are a glorious playground of twenty-six small townships that offer everything from antiques shopping to bushwalking.
The mountains are not even really mountains but a vast sandstone tableland whose dramatic eroded scenery is best enjoyed from lookouts like Govett’s Leap. Echo Point is the best place to view the park’s famous sandstone pillars, the Three Sisters.
Just west of here are two of the park’s highlights: The Scenic Skyway, Australia’s only gondola ride, travels 1,000 feet above the canyon, and the Katoomba Scenic Railway, an open-sided cograil incline, descends at 52 degrees but feels twice as steep. If they’re not hairy’ enough for you, there’s still the Zig-Zag railway near the town of Lithgow, an engineering marvel of switchbacks and bridges built in the 1860s.
You can catch a highlight or two on a day trip from Sydney, but the area really deserves a longer stay, and for that, the 19th-century Lilianfels hotel is hard to beat. It’s one of Australia’s best getaway destinations, with a fantastic setting, magnificent panoramas, and Darley’s, a smart, award-winning restaurant where the ingredients of your traditional meal come from the surrounding country.
Looking every bit like a gracious European home, the hotel is perched 3,300 feet above sea level, almost at the edge of the cliff at Echo Point, with the canyons and ravines of the Jamison Valley below. After all the outdoor adventure, you can sit by one of the hotel’s inviting fireplaces (even on summer evenings the air is crisp), or enjoy a proper afternoon tea served on a veranda overlooking acres of English gardens and the misty eucalyptus forests. Full spa facilities further tempt one to cocoon.
The Hunter Valley conjures up visions of horse and cattle breeding and of mining, but for the most part Australians associate it with the grape, since the area is home to more than fifty wineries and dozens of restaurants.
Visitors may recognize such international labels as Rosemount or Lindemans, while smaller, limited-production operations are much respected at home. An easy two-hour drive from Sydney—making it the most popular and well-known of Australia’s four wine regions—Hunter Valley is best avoided on weekends; on weekdays you’ll find the roads quiet and dinner reservations easy to come by.
Gourmands who like charming country hotels should head for the Pepper Tree, a magnificent complex in the heart of the valley. Hotel-restaurant combinations don’t get any more idyllic: lovely accommodations are in a tum-of-the-century former convent, where your elegant suite may be a former kindergarten or music room.
The hotel’s multiple-award-winning Robert’s restaurant serves long and leisurely meals in an 1876 settler’s cottage, accompanied by vintages from vines you can reach out and touch. Even if you don’t stay for dinner, stop by to pick up a gourmet hamper for a lunch under the trees down by the creek.
A vast area five times the size of Great Britain, Arnhem Land is a special place of pristine bush, eucalyptus forests, coastal wilderness, and abundant wildlife, owned and managed by the Gummulkbun Aboriginal people, whose home it has been for 65,000 years.
It is one of Australia’s most restricted areas, only recently opened to tourism (via Aboriginal-owned and -operated tour agencies). Cultural safaris allow small groups of visitors to share the wonders of the rich indigenous heritage, and to understand the meanings and mythology behind the ancient rock art that adorns the walls and ceilings of the caves and rock shelters throughout the area.
Your hosts are Brian Rooke, an Aborigine from the Bass Strait Islands, and his wife, Phyllis. He has lived in the Arnhem Land region for twenty-five years and has an intimate knowledge of the country and culture. Home is a traditional safari-style tent deep in the Mudjeegarrdart bush, a quarter of a million acres that belongs to Phyllis’s tribal family.
The seasons and guests’ interests determine your activities, whether it’s a day trip or an extended camping tour. Identify traditional foods and medicines, visit the sites of cave paintings, explore the abundant bird life, cool off with a swim in a billibong (a natural water hole), or go fishing or crab spearing and have your catch prepared for dinner.
The operative word is “tradition,” which you will observe and appreciate in the company of local guides with a natural affinity for their ancestral homeland and its people.
Never mind how many times it’s appeared in movies or on postcards, the great red monolith of Ayers Rock, the world’s largest, still stirs the spirits of those who visit it. Revered as a spiritual center of power by the Aborigines, whose ancestors are believed to have lived here as much as 20,000 years ago, Ayers Rock constantly changes color, and at sunrise and sunset becomes such an amazing visual experience that you’ll soon understand why a world of mythology has been woven around it.
Otherwise known by its Aboriginal name Uluru, “Giant Pebble,” the rock rises 1,142 feet above the featureless plain and has a circumference of about 5 miles. Rich deposits of iron are the source of its orange-red color—Ayers Rock actually rusts when it rains.
Climbing it is not prohibited, although because of its religious significance it is quietly discouraged by the Aborigines, who have managed the surrounding 511-square-mile national park since 1985. The strenuous one-hour trek up a single path is not for the faint of heart nor weak of knee. Many prefer the walk around it, at the base.
About 30 miles west of Ayers Rock are the Olgas, thirty-six gigantic rock domes, some reaching 1,800 feet, separated by chasms and valleys and spread out over an area of 15 square miles. Even more significant to today’s Aborigines than Uluru, the area’s name in their language is Kata Tjuta, or Many Heads. Public access is limited to the “Valley of the Winds” walk, a 4-mile loop best experienced in the absence of afternoon tour-bus caravans.
With thousands of acres of untouched bush, mangrove, and jungle behind it and gorgeous waters and deserted beaches in front, this exceptional wilderness habitat is located in northern Australia’s “lop End” within the 50,000-year-old homeland of some of the last Aboriginal tribes still leading a traditional life.
Vast tracts of their land have been leased to the state to be managed as Gurig National Park, except for this resort and the land that surrounds it on the tip of the Coburg Peninsula, a finger of land pointing north toward Indonesia.
Accessible only by air, this remote pocket of comfort and civilization demonstrates an environmental sensitivity everywhere—the simple buildings, for example, are made of natural materials. Resident guides take guests fishing, and on bush walks and coastal tours. Or take a predawn hike to celebrate something as simple and magical as a sunrise.
Seven Spirit Bay takes its name from the cycle of seven seasons in northern Australian Aboriginal tradition: lightning, thundering, rainmaking, greening, wind storming, fire raging, and cloudless blue. If you’re lucky, every day will be cloudless blue.
On the world radar of superior wilderness areas, the 8,000-square-mile Kakadu National Park is a small but significant blip, still remote and little known despite its use as the outback location for Crocodile Dundee.
For now, its frontier freshness remains intact, and the resident population of 15-foot “saltie” and “freshie” crocodiles (the latter unique to these parts) still laze undisturbed in the shallows of the pristine river and marshland ecosystem.
In 1981 Kakadu received the rare double honor of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its natural wonders as well as for the 5,000 rock paintings that grace its sandstone caves—“the greatest body of rock art in the world,” according to the local museum.
The paintings can be classified into three distinct periods of Aboriginal history, and date back from 30 to more than 25,000 years. Ubirr, 27 miles north of park headquarters, is one of the most visited outcrops; in its cavelike “galleries,” images record life from the Stone Age to the 20th century.