Early this year, Tourism Queensland ran a campaign titled ‘The Best Job in the World’. They were looking for a caretaker for the islands of the Great Barrier Reef – one of the most beautiful places in the world. The campaign received such a response that the official website crashed on the first day itself. And after a gruelling contest between 16 shortlisted possible caretakers (including one from Bangalore), Britisher Ben Southall landed The Best Job in the World.
I had followed the campaign with some amusement while it was on, and forgotten it soon after it had been won. But when I arrived in Australia, or more precisely, when I stepped off the Virgin Airlines flight from Brisbane to Hamilton Island, I had murder in my heart. As my jetlagged eyes swept over the island’s lush greenery bordered with crystal clear waters, I was aware of one thing only. I wanted to eliminate the caretaker and take for myself The Best Job in the World.
Hamilton Island is one of the largest in the group of 74 that make up the Whitsunday Islands, close to the Great Barrier Reef. It isn’t easy to get there. The closest international airport is at Brisbane, but Brisbane is not connected directly from Delhi. So it’s a long journey to undertake, but it’s entirely worth it.
The landscape is breathtaking – and there is absolutely no pollution because cars and other vehicles are banned on the island. Which means, as Danielle Seymour, our host-cum-guide from the Tourism Queensland office, pointed out, the only way to travel on the island is either on foot or by golf buggies. (This is a bit of a case of putting the cart before the horse. Golf buggies exist on Hamilton Island, but the world-class golf course is still under construction!)
We stayed at the Reef View Hotel, but dinner that night was at Qualia, Hamilton Island’s new six star private resort. Situated as the island is in the heart of one of the world’s seven natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef, a 2,000 km long stretch of breathtaking beauty and sapphire seas – we knew there would be a lot for us to see and do. So after a memorable breakfast with Koala bears (we actually held them) followed by some go-karting, we arrived at the office of the seaplane company to see the Great Barrier Reef.
This was something we had been itching for. And the flight included a short break for champagne at the beautiful but uninhabited Whitehaven, famous for its award-winning pristine beaches of a very fine dazzling white sand that is 98 per cent pure silica! Whitehaven lived up to its reputation – the champagne contributed very little to our high.
It’s a heart-stopping moment when you spot the heart-shaped lagoon in the reef from the plane. The world’s largest coral reef, home to an abundance of marine life, seems like a fantasy island. It has beautiful beaches and you could go scuba diving or snorkelling and even spend a night on board a cruise ship at the reef. It was an eventful day, made more thrilling by the unexpected but much-appreciated rain that added a pleasant coolness to a special seafood dinner at the Marina that overlooks yachts in the bay.
A Kind of Magic
We left for Daydream Island the next morning – the ideal place, we were assured, to laze around and, well, daydream. Daydream Island can be easily identified even from a distance because of the statue of three mermaids jutting out from the water. Legend has it that the explorer Captain Cook, credited with ‘discovering’ Australia and New Zealand, had met a mermaid here and was asked to say nothing about it. But he couldn’t resist mentioning the incident in his memoirs and apparently, after that, the mermaids of the island turned to stone. The statue of the three mermaids bears testimony to the legend.
We were ready to believe any legends at all – the beauty of the place had transported us to a magical world. So, after an equally magical welcome to the island by the staff of the Daydream Island Resort and Spa, we went exploring.
It was holiday season so the island was crowded with families and young couples. Kids were having a blast at this child-friendly island, learning to swim and to scuba dive, and collecting corals of all shapes and sizes. Souvenir shops give retail therapy enthusiasts something to do, and you can take a rainforest walk if you’re tired of the sea and want to see some trees instead. In fact there are endless options for everyone.
Our early start that morning and the tour of Daydream Island had left us tired, so when Danielle informed us that we’d been booked for a massage at the spa, we almost shrieked in delight. Imagine a massage in a room that overlooks a beach with pristine sands fringed by crystal clear water. You don’t actually need a massage to relax. The view could rejuvenate any tired soul.
Refreshed, we set out to meet a few of the island’s original inhabitants via a fish-feeding programme. Huge swordfish battled each other for the fish their feeder threw at them and we got up close and personal with colourful nemos and barramundi. But you can feed the swordfish with your own hands and touch their slimy heads, or hold a starfish in your hand (it feels like a stone!) and you can even touch a baby whale!
Daydream Island is a popular destination for weddings – people travel here from all over the world including India, for the wedding of their dreams. Which again may explain why food choices for a vegetarian like myself suddenly became more varied. They are used to catering to everyone.
Thank You for the Music
We left for Hayman Island at dawn on a luxury cruise liner and after disembarking, found ourselves winding through what looked like a rainforest. Flanked by palm and bamboo trees, the Hayman Resort, acknowledged as one of the most magnificent private island resorts in the world, can take your breath away.
Hayman Island is home to many varieties of fish, wildlife, birds and butterflies. The resort also boasts a spa, tennis courts and several theme restaurants that serve all kinds of world cuisine. Dinner that night was at the Oriental – exotic Asian cuisine and… a veg thali, dal makhani, shahi paneer, lots of sabzis, Goan cuisine and an array of South Indian cuisine. Home food tasted good, but it also made me realise that the trip was almost over and soon I would be home. The thought of saying bye to these beautiful islands was sad. Their magic had left me spellbound.
So it was just as well that we had three days left in Queensland to experience another side of this Australian state. After the quiet islands, Gold Coast City with its busy shopping areas, highrise buildings and zooming cars and superbikes was the perfect antithesis.
After checking in at Q1 Resort and Spa, the tallest residential tower in the world, we decided to check out Surfers Paradise. It had been a long day but the best was yet to come. After dinner, we were taken to the Q1 deck way up on level 77, which offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the entire Gold Coast, from the surf to the hinterland and beyond.
But the last day of the trip was truly the grand finale. We shifted from the Q1 to the luxurious Palazzo Versace, an avant-garde hotel concept combining design features from the opulent palaces of Europe and the classical architecture of Roman times. In the evening, we watched one of the most spectacular musical events I have ever seen – The ABBA Mania at Conrad Jupiters. The ABBA Mania recreates the magic of the last ever concert by ABBA in 1979, including hits like Dancing Queen, Mamma Mia and Super Trouper. Truly a spectacular way to end the trip.
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