Or­pheus and the wa­ter world

Marine mar­vels above and below

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - TIANA TEM­PLE­MAN

Or­pheus Is­land used to be the des­ti­na­tion of choice for wealthy cou­ples, hon­ey­moon­ers and rock stars. But thanks to a change of own­er­ship, the only re­sort on the is­land — a 12km-long na­tional park sur­rounded by the Great Bar­rier Reef, north­east of Townsville — now wel­comes guests of all kinds who come to revel in the laid­back yet luxe vibe.

Ad­ven­ture seek­ers can ex­plore se­cluded bays in a tinny, go div­ing or fish­ing on the outer reef or snorkel over clams large enough to hide a mer­maid. With the prom­ise of cerulean skies and stun­ning scenery above the wa­ter­line, and brightly coloured coral and trop­i­cal fish below, our fam­ily could not wait to dive in.

On the af­ter­noon of our ar­rival we clam­ber into a sil­ver tinny, which the staff taste­fully call a dinghy, filled with the ex­cite­ment and the over-con­fi­dence of those too naive to know bet­ter. We are keen to ex­plore the is­land’s renowned Clam Gar­dens snorkelling site, where an aban­doned science ex­per­i­ment has left clus­ters of gi­ant clams cov­er­ing the ocean floor.

Ig­nor­ing the wind whip­ping at our hats, we push the out­board to max­i­mum power and set off across the bay. Small white caps smack against the bow along the way, spray­ing us with so much wa­ter it looks like we’ve al­ready been snorkelling when we fi­nally reach the moor­ing buoy. The waves aren’t par­tic­u­larly large but seem de­ter­mined to pre­vent us reach­ing the re­tractable rear lad­der.

Our tinny bucks like a bronco as we stum­ble around on its slip­pery floor, land­ing with legs akimbo and our bright or­ange flip­pers wav­ing in the air. Af­ter sev­eral failed at­tempts to en­ter the wa­ter, each more lu­di­crous than the last, we ad­mit de­feat and re­turn to shore for a warm shower and to plot our sec­ond at­tempt. With only two nights on the is­land, we are de­ter­mined to see those jewel-bright clams.

Thank­fully our next snorkelling ad­ven­ture is on the re­sort’s large dive boat. Like most ac­tiv­i­ties at Or­pheus, the trip is com­pli­men­tary. We are joined by a fam­ily with grown-up kids from Chicago and two cou­ples, the youngest of whom be­came en­gaged the night be­fore. We all blend sur­pris­ingly well, much like the in­gre­di­ents used to cre­ate the in­ven­tive cock­tails that ap­pear each evening at the beach­side bar.

We drift in the gen­tle cur­rent as our guide points out a “pick-’n’-mix’’ as­sort­ment of some of the Great Bar­rier Reef’s most renowned species, plus a few sur­prises, such as a huge blue starfish so brightly coloured it looks fake.

Half­way through the tour our guide’s head pops above the wa­ter. “Lis­ten to the singing!’’ she says, plung­ing her ears below the sur­face once more. Our group has been joined by a choir of dis­tant whales, their song a cross be­tween the keen­ing tune of a Hawai­ian slide gui­tar and muf­fled white noise. It is the Chicago fam­ily’s first snorkel and their sense of won­der at what they see and hear is a mag­i­cal high­light for all of us.

Or­pheus may have lit­tle in com­mon with a tra­di­tional five-star ho­tel but lux­u­ri­ous touches abound. Each of the beach­side rooms has a free mini­bar and crisp white decor that prac­ti­cally screams “is­land hol­i­day” (al­beit in a posh voice), and ser­vice is al­most pre­cog­ni­tive. Sur­rounded by so much lux­ury it is hard to be too up­set when the dive team con­firms the wind is still too high to ex­plore the Clam Gar­dens. Be­fore we have time to ask, they sug­gest an al­ter­na­tive and pro­vide a goodie-filled chiller bag, is­land map, and fi­nal piece of advice: “Have fun.”

My hus­band takes the helm of the dinghy and we mo­tor down a clearly marked chan­nel, avoid­ing the coral and shal­low wa­ter on each side, and head to­wards one of the ruggedly pic­turesque head­lands formed by a vol­cano al­most 300 mil­lion years ago. Rocky edges drop dra­mat­i­cally into clear blue wa­ter and scrubby veg­e­ta­tion rings the pris­tine white sand of a de­serted cove.

Af­ter yes­ter­day’s un­der­wa­ter ad­ven­ture we have packed our snorkelling gear but there is lit­tle to see around this part of the is­land. In­stead, we revel in the joy of hav­ing this sub­lime spot to our­selves, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween snack­ing on house-made choc-chip bis­cuits, swim­ming in the ocean and ly­ing in the sun. Our 12- yearold takes us for a spin be­fore we head back to the re­sort, steer­ing the tinny un­der the watchful eye of his fa­ther.

Only one of us has the en­ergy for stand-up pad­dle board­ing on our re­turn. An im­promptu les­son is pro­vided by re­sort man­ager Jen Pene­gar who steps on to the board in full uni­form, with a mo­bile phone in her pocket. She is bet­ter at this than we are. Our son kneels as in­structed and pad­dles into the la­goon, cre­at­ing a shim­mer­ing wake in wa­ter that is as smooth as glass. We be­gin to won­der if he is head­ing to New Zealand, but he has sim­ply for­got­ten how to turn. Soon the pad­dle­board swings around and he climbs to his feet, sil­hou­et­ted against a sil­ver sky lit by the set­ting sun.

On the morn­ing of de­par­ture the wind is still too high to snorkel the Clam Gar­dens but the dive team has ar­ranged to take us in one of the dive boats for a quick look. Clouds scat­ter and the sun ap­pears, cre­at­ing shim­mer­ing pat­terns of turquoise, pur­ple and blue in­side gi­ant clams sur­rounded by colour co-or­di­nated par­rot fish.

Tiana Tem­ple­man was a guest of Or­pheus Is­land.

Or­pheus Is­land Re­sort, top; snorkelling on the fring­ing reef, above; by dinghy to a se­cluded spot, above right

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