Orpheus and the water world
Marine marvels above and below
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