SASHAY TO THE SEA

Any closer to the coral and you’d be sleep­ing in it. Susan Kuro­sawa re­ports from Queens­land’s Or­pheus Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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