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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 cafĂ©, 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…


Ranger Rick and the Lion Fish

Brisbaine loses the ‘East Coast, Big City’ contest. I guess it’s hard to compete with Sydney, but Brisbaine’s too slick to even be in the running. While waterside, and potentially beautiful, it’s designed with too much chrome, glass, steel on both building and bridges, to be comparatively impressive. Luckily, I was just in and out, headed up to the reef-accessible city of Cairns (pronounced “cans” – they mute the ‘r’) then onto Port Douglas, the recent site of all those tacky Matthew McConaughey Down Under photos in the magazines that you all sent my way. “He’s in Australia, have you seen him?!?” No, I haven’t, though I’ve been looking . . .

Port Douglas is an adorable little town where they still park cars diagonally on the main street in front of the ice cream shop, the post, or the market. But, for all the quaint that Port Douglas dishes up, I was surprised to find that with respect to their bread and butter, diving, it’s very big business.

I was SO eager to dive the Great Barrier Reef. Just flying over it was breathtaking, the various hues of blue below me interrupted by greens and yellows glowing against the sun; it looked like a map, the underwater reef subbing for land mass. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen from the sky and the flight had me utterly transfixed, glued like an eight year old to the window. For me, diving the Reef was one of those things that I wanted to check off my life’s to-do list. Dove the Great Barrier Reef: check! Everyone was all Steve-Irwin-worried about my dives in Australia, but the places I was headed were nowhere as exotic as Irwin’s shoots. Plus, the outfit I had booked into at my hotel was “top-notch,” according to Steve, my B&B owner.

True to word, the Calypso boat was a three-decked glossy yacht of pristine white finish with royal blue trim. It was obvious that it was exceptionally cared for and each gleaming section of the boat offered more luxury. The top deck was devoted to plush lounge chairs; the second deck offered the same views, as well as shade. The bottom deck was divided into a designated dry space for our beautifully catered lunch and a wet staging area for the various divers (certified got red folders full of reef information and first-timers got green ones) and snorkelers (blue folders). There was a floating dive shop and (drumroll…) a full-fledged photo shop! The on-ship photographer, who looked like Pippy Longstocking, braids and all, was at the ready to snap you lounging with a book or engaged in underwater hi-jinks. The whole set-up was too perfect. I couldn’t imagine HOW people got left behind on the Reef with organization like this. It was here off Port Douglas that the “Open Water” couple was left at sea! I can’t imagine, given the onboard prep.

For all the hype, my three dives to the Outer Barrier Reef were disappointing. The coral was hardly colorful, the wildlife invisible, and the pace rushed. The most exciting part of the day came when Pippy the Photog had me sidle up to a spider-y looking fish hanging on some coral. She motioned (underwater signals are often guessing games…) for me to (I thought…) touch the fish. Um, really? He looks awfully menacing, Pippy. Throughout the day, Marty my divemaster had encouraged me to touch all sorts of anemone, coral, sea slugs, and clams that were double the size of me and looked like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. So, when Pippy signaled, in I went for the grab. Why not, right? The feel factor of the day was pretty fantastic, thus far. WELL…. Ever heard a human squeal of terror? Underwater? Yeah, a bit frightening. Pippy’s eyes widened to the size of donuts as she kept squealing at me. Thankfully, the Lion Fish (I’ve come to learn…) scurried off, spooked by either Pippy’s noise or the motion of my hand. I was told on surfacing that the effects of the Lion Fish’s venomous quills have yet to be truly understood. Initially, I would’ve suffered convulsions, followed by a paralysis. Depending on the sting, the paralysis might have been local to the bite and passing, or comprised a trauma to the better part of my nervous system. Yeah…so, I guess all the Irwin-worriers had right. I almost became a vegetable.

The next day, opting for a safer activity, I headed up to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree Rainforest. Here is the only place in the world where two World Heritage sites meet – the oldest rainforest on Earth (with more species than ALL of the species in the whole world) meets the largest living thing in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Ta-daa! Now, that deserves a trip, no? Well… I again listened to Steve and booked onto Tony’s Tropical Tours. Name full of alliteration, high recommendation, I’ll see what it’s all about. Picked up at 7 AM, I should’ve known that I was in for a long, long, long day.

After a brief rainforest walk where David, my eco-friendly, pony-tailed waif of a guide, pointed out a few species, I remembered that I get bored on these kinds of trips. I usually opt for the half-day version as I can only feign interest for so long. But, out of travel-practice, I forgot my “half-day is the way” theory and booked full. I’ve been to quite a few rainforests in my day, I’m kind of from the “seen one, seen them all” school. But, it seemed we were headed onward quickly, not spending too much time in the forest. Excellent. To Cape Tribulation next, where Captain Cook discovered the Australian coast. (No, not Captain Hook, the Disney character who lost a hand when bitten by a crocodile – but I understand the confusion…)

Photo op accomplished, we went for another walk through the rainforest. Another one? Here, I started to wilt. Seemingly I joined a group of aspiring botanists and entomologists who knew their omnivores, carnivores, and herbivores on sight. They were all SO into the rainforest walks, asking questions to which David would answer, “Now, that’s a GR-EAT question, Mark!” and embark on a ten-minute lichen tangent. Ranger Rick had as much of a hard on for the lively group as he did for marsupials, reptiles, cassowarys (a prehistoric bird, bigger than a peacock that lives in Daintree, and got Dave really going...). Being “green,” the commentary didn’t stop. Ranger Rick’s NON-STOP soapbox preaching about anything remotely un-eco stole thunder from an otherwise nice day. “This is the original Garden of Eden, people.” And you’re freaking Adam, right? “This world is a world of harmony, the rainforest. Do you hear the forests song?” No David. No I don’t. “When it comes to the environment, America leads the pack of those going to hell. With the Devil, uh Bush, at the helm. Sorry, Marie. I can’t help the eco-chatter, it’s my passion.” Learn to help it, David. Americans tip, Australian’s don’t. “Fun and friends in the forest. We’re all friends, us and the animals?” Uh, no. No David, we’re not. Two World Heritage Sites, a day at one with nature, an exploration of our scientific lineage in the rainforest -- I couldn’t wait to get off the goddamn tour. Half-days, half-days.

More soon from the Lower Great Barrier Reef. I’m headed to Hamilton Island, part of the Whitsunday group for four days of beach and diving (yes, more…). I promise to look not touch, this time…


Sunday, January 14, 2007

No Shirt, No Shoes....Service!

Australia’s East Coast is a virtual wonderland of beach towns. From small, sleepy little hamlets to glitzy, designer promenades, the Coast is rife with a beach community for even the toughest of customers.

I stopped in Byron Bay (in the northern part of New South Wales, Byron is the easternmost point on Australia's coastline) with Simon for a quick overnight, most of which I slept through. However, on the return, I found Byron to be a funky little town, full of bohemian ideals and hippie culture against an absolutely breathtaking beach backdrop. A backpackers wet dream, 100% surfer's haven with lessons being given by leather-faced pros on every stretch of beach imaginable, Byron Bay was a great few days. To start, the whole place runs on the anti-philosophy of No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. Here, in Byron, it’s all about barefoot, shirtless service. Flip-flops were a practical luxury item. In Byron, everyone shed all conventions and I went along with the craze, tucking my Haviannas into my day bag for the duration. In addition, as I made my way through the maze of streets lined with bazaar-like stores filled with trinkets from dark corners of Asia, stores sporting frangipani incenses, tuberose oils, Thai fisherman pants, Indian tunics,Vietnamese silk skirts, golden Buddha heads and silver ankle bracelets, I was hard pressed to find a store actually open on a sunny afternoon. Signs hung gently in the windows, swaying from the recent posting that read: “Be back in 10 minutes.” Most of the shopkeepers were “sneaking a wave” when the surf provided. And, 10 minutes usually meant an hour plus. When I did find an open store, sunny day or otherwise, the shopkeepers usually had a beer or a glass of Shiraz in hand, as they threw a “How you going, mate? Can I help?” my way. Laid back is an understatement. But, it worked here.

The folks in Byron embraced the charm of the place, preferring and asserting individuality in all fashions, starting with dress -- polka dot top hats, Raggedy Ann knee socks, layered tulle skirts, koolats for men, floral patterned daisy dukes, and wrist warmers (in 90 degree weather, mind you…). The only cohesive body decorations seemed to be dredlocks, tattoos, and of course, piercings. But, the bent toward being unique extended far beyond frock. The creative arts were alive and well in Byron. Art galleries peppered the place; my own hotel room had the work of three different artists’ for sale. Entrepreneurs sat in closed doorways after hours, selling beaded necklaces, handmade wind chimes and homemade soaps. Street performers were everywhere: mock cover bands plugged into street outlets – 4 guys, no rhythm – belting everything from Billie Jean, the jazz version, to Will She Be Loved by Maroon 5 to Motown. Lone guitar players sat idly at every corner, top hat at the ready for an extra dollar. All had weird little voices, but crowds were large, generous and boisterously involved. (This has happened everywhere – these horrible Aussie bands of 1-5 guys. I think it occurs, and endures, because Aussies have too many drinks to realize how horrible it all really is by the time the singing urchins come out to play. Hence, it turns out to be a bonafide blast. So, really…what’s the harm, eh?) Add to the singers, contortionists, magicians, kids riding unicycles while juggling, and one over-40-year-old-man dressed in a yellow leotard with red wings. A human chicken, he clucked and pecked until you gave him a tip. At which point, he looked up to the heavens and let out a whopping “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Welcome to Byron Bay.

Farther up, closer to Brisbaine on Queensland’s Gold Coast, there is an actual place called Surfers Paradise. I know, right? A marketing strategy from inception. It’s Australia’s answer to Florida, almost frozen in time circa 1975 when the plastic slatted loungers at dodgy looking tiled pools of pastel-colored high-rise communities and hotels were in Floridian vogue. Makeshift carnivals line the boardwalk and casinos lurk behind every doorway; Surfer’s Paradise, to me, was stuck in that Jersey Shore-esque, early Miami Beach time warp. Restaurants with names like Pancakes in Paradise and Surfer’s Seafood Lovers were plentiful. I noticed many a Red Lobster, McDonalds, Hungry Jacks (Australian Burger King), and Subways, along the Strip. The only addition that I found that brought the place current was the influx of designer boutiques to cater to an upper echelon of visitor (though most I met in Sydney that would fit the demographic advised me AGAINST coming to Surfers Paradise in the first place): Ralph Lauren, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci. But, overall, Surfers Paradise, I felt, could use one big face-lift. A little north of Surfers was a smaller town called Southport that might be considered the South Beach of the Gold Coast, housing some ritzier hotels, restaurants and shops. Here is where Donatella Versace has decided to try her hand at being a hotelier. Why HERE? I’m not sure. But, it didn’t seemingly stop me from booking a room for the night. Unremarkable, except I remember A LOT of gold. A lot of overdone, cluttered ugly-ass patterns on china, throw pillows, lobby lounge chair fabric, and tablecloths. And a lot of those Versace/Medusa-hair inspired heads embossed on everything from towels to sheets to the room pencils. BUT, the saving grace of Surfers, Southport and the Gold Coast is the beaches. If for no other reason, the Gold Coast should be a stop on everyone’s tour circuit around Australia. They’re absolutely amazing, expansive and pristine perfect beaches that weren’t crowded, eroded, or polluted. But…a quick stop only. I hightailed it back to Byron the next morning, removing my own gold necklace if but for just the afternoon.

I’m on my way north to Cairns, Port Douglas, Cape Tribulation and the Great Barrier Reef. More soon…