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Friday, January 19, 2007

You Have an Ocean, People!

Oh, the Whitsundays…

Australia’s northeast coast is dominated by islands that flirt with the fringes of the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsundays were supposed to be one of the most beautiful groups, with blindingly gorgeous views. At the top of the Whitsundays is the famed indulgence of Hayman Island; in the south lies a more laid-back Lindeman Island. I stayed somewhere in between on Hamilton, a self-sufficient, more built up island that offered all different types of accommodations rather than one high-end accommodation where I would be a single girl in a sea of wealthy honeymooners or one low-end accommodation where I would be a wealthy girl in a sea of single backpackers. I wanted variety. Hamilton afforded that.

So, Qantas. My first flight on the Australian carrier. Why is it that American carriers just can’t get it right? Qantas was roomy; I boarded without hassle in 10 minutes; was served food on an hour flight; and they didn’t charge me excess baggage fees. Being honest, that’s what really gave them extra points in my book. Everywhere else takes advantage of the fact that I like to alter my wardrobe and pack black AND camel heels…just in case. Qantas understood. As we flew back down the Reef, I was again compelled to pant breathlessly out the cabin window. After about an hour, into view came a weird little island with a high-rise in the middle, which I’ve come to know as the Reef View Hotel on Hamilton Island.

Hamilton is, basically, a fake town, built on the basis of the tourist dollar, nothing more, nothing less. It looks like a Hollywood movie lot, with the perfectly painted storefronts, evenly paved streets, equally spaced palms, and golf-cart-driving population of Bermuda short clad gents and ladies wearing their color-coordinated key straps (for designated lodging) dutifully around their neck elevating the whole lodging situation into a modified caste system. Why, if you’re staying at the red-roped 2-star are you wearing your key so loudly? It’s not the chic black 5-star key you’re boasting about! There’s also something very Stepford about Hamilton, how you’re treated by all of the staff, at every service stop. Service with a smile, and then some. It’s a little unsettling. There’s a bakery, one restaurant of each Chinese, Italian, Deli, Ice Cream Shop, Seafood, Steak, and Coffee Shop. There’s one nightclub, a general store, a beauty salon, a children’s clothing store attached to an adult clothing store. One internet café, a Doctor’s office, and a Marina. You have everything you might need, sure, but Hamilton lacks, well…reality. All that said, I admit that I liked it. Trolling around on the wrong side of the street in my golf-cart (only losers take the free Hamilton shuttle…) worked. It’s this quirky little Truman-esque town.

So…diving here was so much better. While Port Douglas looked like it would provide less glitz with the diving, it was actually here in showy Hamilton that allowed the diving part of the dive to “wow.” I’m a fan of the rugged dive trip; those outfits employ the real dive aficionados, the grittier types. They offer no frill boats, homemade lunches in Tupperware containers that the divemasters made themselves that morning, and there’s no photographer. The crew all sport that shaggy sun-bleached blond over brown hair that they push back with plastic sunglasses while they sing Jimmy Buffet on loud at the day’s end. Now, THAT’S diving. Also, contrary to the legend of the Great Barrier Reef diving being the best, the inner “fringe” reef offered MUCH better visuals. The coral was more varied; the colors were vibrant, pale blues, pinks, purples, deep oranges and bright reds. On the outer reef dives here, we saw heaps of sharks, turtles, and rays but it was the coral odyssey of cauliflower and spaghetti shaped life that enthralled me. Overall, great dives. More on par with what I imagined in my head. However, definitely not the dives I expected the Great Barrier Reef to offer.

I guess I pushed my luck by heading out again for two more dives on the Outer Reef. I couldn’t be satiated with 5 dives over the past week and a brush with a lion fish. The upside was that I realized that I’d become so comfortable underwater that I didn’t need half of my air, going one-on-one with my divemaster when everyone else ran out (on both dives). My own private dive finales. Quite a confidence builder. But, before I had peaceful finishes with Alana, my divemaster, I got beaten up by a dive couple who seemingly didn’t learn the ABCs of diving etiquette in their courses. Sydneysiders, him in a turquoise Speedo and a gut the size of Santa Claus (not pretty) and his wife of equal girth in Billabong ensemble, were ALL over me. You have an OCEAN, people! Can’t you stay in your own space? God knows there’s plenty of it. She would creep up on one side and knock my tank. Annoyed, I’d slow down to let her pass and he would kick my head with a fin from the other side. I hated them. But they got their due on the way back to shore. The water was ultra-choppy and they couldn’t handle it; they were sick as dogs the whole way back. The crew was loath to take their double plastic grocery bag messes that pulled and sloshed on the bottom. Justice. Ha. But for all my silent nasty satisfaction, karma worked against me. Answering my curse on the fat Speedo and wife was a change in my equilibrium. Seemingly, I dove so much over the past week (after not diving in months) that I developed an inner ear infection that messed up sense of depth. Yep – I wobbled dizzily through the last days on Hamilton, missing steps, having trouble reading. Not so fun…
Two dive lessons learned: never touch a lion fish and don’t curse other people’s dive etiquette.

Heading to Melbourne tomorrow for a few days the Australian Open.
More from there…


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