SASHAY TO THE SEA
Any closer to the coral and you’d be sleeping in it. Susan Kurosawa reports from Queensland’s Orpheus Island
ALL the talk at the cheese-and-wine hour, just as the sun goes splash beyond the golden sands of Orpheus Island Resort’s main beach, is of wildlife. In the spirit of fishermen spinning tall tales, we compare sightings of echidnas, bandicoots, tree snakes and butterflies by the bucketload. Of course, there are marine trophies, too, from stingrays in the shallows to black-tipped reef sharks this big.
My travelling companion Christine and I have some unusual encounters to add to this show-and-tell session. She has been comprehensively pooped upon by a flying fox (splattered fig pulp on white linen shirt) and I have been stung on my right arm by a hornet (in my bathroom, while applying my mascara). Everyone has had dinner with a bandicoot and slept with a gecko (the clicking noises of which always sound to me like a world-weary ‘‘ uh-oh’’).
Things definitely are next to nature at Orpheus Island Resort, a luxury enclave of 21 beachfront bungalows about 80km north of Townsville and about 24km from the Queensland coast. Clearly visible from the resort are the cloud-nudging peaks of Hinchinbrook Island and the smudgy blue outline of the mainland ranges.
Orpheus Island, at the northern end of the rugged Palm Islands group, is a designated national park and the low-rise resort, spread beside a beautiful crescent of beach cuffed with coral, offers a safety net of pampering and comfort within a shelter of tropical vegetation full of scurrying residents.
The small scale and intimacy of the resort are its prime assets. And this sense of seclusion starts as we step on to the landing pontoon after the 25-minute Cessna seaplane flight from Townsville. The sign at our feet reads: Welcome to Orpheus Island International Airport. No check-in, no formalities. Just the young and affable Canadian-born resort manager Aaron Murphy welcoming us to paradise.
There has been accommodation on this slender, hilly island — 11km long and 1km across at its widest point — since the 1930s, when the Morris family acquired the lease and built holiday huts for private guests. (A photograph displayed on a wall in one of the public rooms shows Mickey Rooney cutting what looks like a birthday cake, surrounded by fellow guests in holiday costumes.)
The island was dubbed Orpheus in 1887 by a lieutenant Richards of the Royal Navy, who was surveying the Palm Islands group for the British admiralty. He chose the name to commemorate a Royal Navy ship wrecked off New Zealand in 1863, which presumably was called Orpheus after the lyre-playing god of Greek mythology who accompanied the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.
I visited here with one of my sons in the 1980s when the resort was Italian-owned, and I have a photo of us sipping a Campari (me) and red cordial (him), trying to look far more glamorous than our Garfield T-shirts warranted. The new owner, who successfully developed Freycinet Lodge in Tasmania, took over in 2002. The rooms have been revamped — a simple makeover of white stucco walls, plantation shutters, tiled floors and pale-aqua soft furnishings — but, incredibly, a spa has not been added to the leisure facilities, which at this top end of the island-resort market is a given. Another odd thing is the absence of television sets in the ‘‘ retreats’’ (that is, the 17 standard-tariff studio rooms), which means few wet-weather options, although this is a boastful part of the world when it comes to climate; Townsville claims 300-plus days of sunshine a year.
The larger and more expensive Nautilus suites do have TV sets, plus sitting rooms and outdoor showers, but there are only four such rooms, at an average of $250 a day extra.
The weather for our stay is glorious, luckily, so snorkelling masks provide far more riveting viewing than any TV screen. Murphy takes us on a snappy catamaran to a veritable underwater city, Coral Gardens, just off nearby Curacoa Island, where we don our snorkelling gear and float over clusters of soft corals with names as rounded and abundant as lettuce, cabbage, toadstool, mushroom, closed brain and branching staghorn.
The waters around this Palm Islands group are rich with marine life and support 1100 species of fish (from giant trevally and potato cod to orange-and-white swirls of clownfish) and record numbers of giant clams, more than 100 of which sit splendidly in the clear waters of Hazard Bay, about 10 minutes by dinghy from the resort. These bountiful waters have been a marine park since the 1960s and Townsville’s James Cook University runs a research station at the island’s Pioneer Bay. From the end of the resort jetty, we toss feed pellets into the sea to a frenzied congregation of sand whiting and diamond-scale mullet, which cruise like mini-sharks.
Strolling around Orpheus Island Resort is like being let loose in a botanic garden full of the tropical stalwarts — strelitzias, heliconias, oleanders, Chinese fan and coconut palms and bright flowering vines — and blazing with butterflies. Lemon migrants flutter past like scraps of sun-shot silk on the breeze; the ulysses butterflies are easy to spot with those vibrant blue wing patches, which mother nature surely painted on a particularly joyous day. The Cairns birdwing, Murphy tells us, is the largest species of butterfly in Australia; the females have a wing span of up to 150mm and they seem more like tiny birds — finches, perhaps — as they bustle about the bushes.
Yellow-bellied sunbirds flit in front of my retreat room, which I have worked out is a happy 20 steps from the beach. There are reddish-coloured dragonflies zooming past and, coasting overhead, ospreys and brahminy kites.
No pesticides are used in the garden, hence its attraction as a haven for wildlife. At night, Christine and I take the long way around to dinner — on to the sand, past the pool and the bar, careful not to tread on striped rocket frogs — rather than risk walking under the massive mango and banyan trees with their colonies of screeching, fruit-crazed flying foxes.
Orpheus Island Resort takes food seriously, with seven-course degustation menus most nights (meals are included in the tariff; drinks are extra). A wok evening is perhaps better fun, with sous chef Ashley in charge of an altar-like contraption of two cooking stations powered by bottled gas.
We choose our chopped and prepared ingredients from rows of bowls — bean sprouts, red cabbage, onions, snow peas, red peppers, zucchinis, dollops of ginger, chilli, lemongrass and garlic — and then add raw chunks of salmon, cuttlefish and beef fillet. Ashley fires up the woks with our selected sauces — oyster, light soy, sweet chilli, green curry paste or hoisin — and tosses in nests of Hokkien noodles. It’s interactive and deliciously spicy, an encouragement for diners to mingle, too.
During sunset cheese-and-wine hour, Murphy and his wife, Bridget, pour tasting glasses of boutique Australian and New Zealand wines (Ninth Island pinot grigio, for one, which tastes irresistibly of pears) and explain a variety of cheeses, mostly from South Australia and Tasmania.
Guests also are encouraged to ‘‘ dine with the tides’’ on at least one evening. Tables for two (this is a resort for couples) are set up under torch flares along the jetty or on the beach, and seafood feasts — whole baked barramundi, red-claw crayfish, blue swimmer crab, king prawns, scallops poached in chilli, garlic and lemongrass — are served, each platter the size of a Melbourne Cup hat.
Similar seafood excess appears in hampers for ‘‘ dinghy picnics’’ at any of seven secluded beaches. We venture just five minutes away to Little Sandy Beach and squabble like Girl Guides on how to uncap the mineral water (someone forgot to pack the bottle opener, although there are crab-gouging implements of many kinds). Such a picnic is of the Robinson Crusoe idyllic variety, with no other footprints in the sand, just reef herons and egrets joining us for a delightful bout of beachcombing.
Given that the Orpheus Island Resort logo is a secretively furled nautilus shell, we decide it would seem churlish at this point not to unscrew a bottle of Nautilus sauvignon blanc as the tide comes in. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Orpheus Island Resort.
Orpheus Island Resort has a five-night package, valid for selected dates, that includes return seaplane transfers from Townsville (a saving of $900 a person). More: (07) 3832 9333; www.orpheus.com.au.
Secluded paradise: Orpheus Island, off the north Queensland coast, is a haven for native wildlife and exotic coral and fish species