One of the must-see destinations in Australia is the Great Barrier Reef, sometimes called the eighth natural wonder of the world. Listed by Unesco as a World Heritage site, the marine park stretches about 1,250 nautical miles, from neighboring Papua New Guinea down the eastern shores of Australia to Lady Elliott Island off Bundaberg, about halfway down the coast of the state of Queensland. In area, the park is about half the size of Texas.
Queensland ports such as Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville, Airlie Beach and Bundaberg are home to many companies offering day cruises that explore the reef. Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular ways to get in the water and explore, but not touch, the fragile coral and its marine inhabitants.
Other possibilities include staying a few days on a resort island. Options range from the super-luxurious and exclusive, such as Lizard Island, Bedarra, Orpheus and Hayman, to more family-oriented islands such as Green, Dunk, Hamilton, Heron and Brampton or even Lindeman, which hosts a Club Med.
One very relaxing way to get a better appreciation of the scale and variety of the Great Barrier Reef is to join a longer cruise. I recently sailed an eight-day itinerary aboard Coral Princess Cruises' Coral Princess II that consisted of two segments: a four-night leg from Cairns up to Lizard Island and back and a three-night trip from Cairns down to Townsville. Travelers with limited time can book either segment separately.
The Coral Princess II is a 115-foot, catamaran-hulled craft with 23 cabins for 46 passengers on two decks plus a large upper deck consisting of lounge/bar and a sun/viewing deck. Cabins are spacious; most have twin beds, but some doubles are available. All units have outside windows.
On my cruise, there were only 25 and 29 guests, respectively, on each segment. And with a crew of 12, there was plenty of friendly attention and service.
Rates, from about $1,670 to $3,100 per person, include three meals per day plus morning and afternoon snacks and 24-hour tea and coffee. The food was excellent throughout the cruise, especially the huge seafood buffet offered on the first night of each segment.
From Cairns, the Coral Princess II headed north along the Queensland coast, stopping first at Cooktown, where Capt. James Cook spent time on his voyage of exploration up the east coast of Australia in 1770. There, he repaired his ship, the Endeavour, which was damaged after striking a reef. Cooktown is a small coastal community on the Endeavour River, a pleasant town to wander through.
It has an excellent museum named after Cook containing relics from the seafarer's stay. It also has collections relating to indigenous peoples and the Chinese who settled in Cooktown during the gold rush at Palmer River in the 1870s.
Lizard Island was the next stop, for snorkeling and scuba diving. Snorkeling gear is provided free on the cruise, but there is a charge for scuba equipment and dives. The ship carries a certified dive instructor.
Ashore, the upmarket Lizard Island resort is tucked into a corner of the island that also contains a number of walking trails. These include a rather steep climb to Cook's Look, the highest point on the island. A scramble up smooth, granite rocks and through scenic vegetation is rewarded with panoramic views of the reef and nearby smaller islands. A short boardwalk over a mangrove swamp is an alternative trek for the less agile.
The Coral Princess II's next two moorings were at Ribbon Reef 9 and Escape Reef, both well offshore and close to the edge of the Continental Shelf. There, snorkeling and diving were excellent, with clear waters and coral and fish viewing at its best. At each stop, reef viewing was provided in a glass-bottom boat, an excellent way to see coral, fish, giant clams and perhaps even a sea turtle or a sea cow.
Reef cruise continued
After returning to Cairns for a three-hour break, the Coral Princess II set off with 10 guests from the first segment, plus 19 newcomers, on its second leg, bound for Thetford Reef.
Time was spent at Dunk Island, where guests were able to use the facilities of the island resort and take a leisurely sightseeing stroll. Nearby Hinchinbrook is one of the larger islands off Queensland; the channel between island and coast provides a tranquil cruise along mangrove-edged shores.
Coral Princess Cruises leases a corner of Pelorus, a small islet near Hinchinbrook. Although a couple live on Pelorus as managers, I spent time there imagining I was alone, a virtual Robinson Crusoe. The lovely barbecue meal on the beach, under the shade of umbrellas, facilitated by our hosts dispelled the fantasy to some extent.
Back at sea, onboard activities included lectures on the Great Barrier Reef, board games and a quiz night. A DVD recording of the cruise is made. Our cruise drew passengers from around the world, including Americans, Canadians, Britons, Germans and Russians as well as Australians. The leisurely pace of the trip allowed plenty of time to get to know them all.
The cruise ended at Townsville, the largest town in northern Queensland. It is a busy port for mineral exports and home to an army and air force base and James Cook University, which specializes in marine biology.
It is a good idea to arrive in Cairns a day or so before the cruise departs, as there are a number of land-based attractions in the region. The Novotel Oasis Resort in Cairns proper or the Castaways on the Beach Resort at lovely Mission Beach, south of the city, are among accommodations options.
Call (800) 441-6880 or visit www.coralprincesscruises.com.