The highlight: Australia
Diving the Great Barrier Reef is the experience of a lifetime.
Before dawn, I swim laps alone in the Shangri-La Cairns hotel pool. The sky is gray and silent until, over the gurgle of the pool’s waterfall, a din of tropical chirping arises. I flip on my back to float. A swarm of birds, thousands of them, are coming in from the Coral Sea, latching themselves to palm trees. But something is off. The wings are too articulated, fleshy. Holy Christmas, these are bats, massive bats. Clouding the sky. Local Queenslanders call them flying foxes because, well, they are the size and color of an adult fox.
Australia’s history, people, personality and pastimes are remarkably similar to America’s, possibly more so than any other country. Yet the bizarre, ominous nature of the place constantly reminds you that you are far, far away from home. The verdant tablelands that rise from the coast around Cairns, laced with twisting roads and dairy farms, look as if rural Wisconsin were sucked up and dropped on top of a jungle. The animators who worked on Avatar flew here to gather ideas from the fecund forest.
Later that day, a large catamaran carries us 20 miles off the coast to Michaelmas Cay, a hundred-yard spine of bone-white sand breaking through sapphire water. Most tourists are heading out to snorkel; retirees sit on the bouncing deck, swallowing ginger pills to prevent seasickness, just to take in the sun and the intoxicating surplus of blue. A small group of us takes a crash scuba course taught by a friendly Kiwi. I’d had no experience with a breathing apparatus, but the guides reassure us shallow water is fine for amateurs, providing I sign a waiver and promise not to board an airplane within 24 hours lest I get the bends.
We ride a dinghy to the bird-covered cay. From there we sink and drift mere inches over fat mounds of coral reefs back to the boat. One of the swarthy, trim diving experts proudly explains to me that elderly Apollo astronauts often come to this place, desperately seeking the sensations of moon exploration, like space-walk junkies needing one last high. It’s easy to see why. The coral reef is an alien place, an orgy of color and unbelievable living things, the names of which are as brilliant and playful as the sea creatures themselves. Chocolate dip damselfish. Staghorn coral. Bubble anemone. Teardrop butterflyfish. Blotched porcupinefish. Nemo. They go about their business before your mask, pecking, burping and swaying, as the incredible weight of the clear water literally crushes you. The only sound is your own breath, cutting in and transmitted to you as if over radio.
Going back to the mainland, drunk on the place and feeling insignificant in the universe, I spot the bats again as they fly to sea in the fading light. They have it all backward.
PLAN IT | More to do
Where to explore
The rotting former jungle estate of a dead, quixotic Spaniard, Paronella Park is a gorgeous park and romantic ruin. Waterfalls, towering kaori pines, strangler figs and wild ginger flowers have overtaken what was once a tennis court and mansion.
Where to eat
Cairns is a beach town full of pubs. Hit the harborside North for the most refined bite of the ubiquitous and buttery barramundi fish, an Aussie staple.
Get there V Australia flights to Cairns ($800–$2,000), with a stop in Sydney or Brisbane, leave out of LAX, so you will first have to get to L.A. (around $200). Rooms at the Shangri-La Cairns are $225–$330/night for a standard room. Ocean Spirit Cruises (about $195) depart for Michaelmas Cay from Cairns harbor at 8:30am and return at 5:30pm. Scuba rental and lessons cost about $80.
Writer’s trip courtesy of Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts and V Australia.