Big lap, no budget

Catherine Lawson — 8 March 2019
From helicopter tours to remote island stays, big fish angling safaris, sunset sails and more

Get Sky High on the GBR

Cairns, QLD

Nothing beats the thrill of strapping yourself into a whirring bubble of metal to dip and dive at high speed over the largest coral reef on earth. Banking around to swoop close to the Great Barrier Reef’s exquisite tapestry of blue and green is an unbeatable buzz, and a 30-minute chopper ride reveals wondrous, big-picture scenes that just can’t be fathomed from a tour boat.  

The colours of the sea are surprising from this height, morphing from deep green to cerulean blue as the ocean floor drops away, and suddenly turning turquoise on top of the reef where water laps over idyllic, coral-fringed sand cays. 

On our bird’s-eye tour of the reef, we coasted over sailboats headed for nearby Green Island, and swooped above Arlington Reef and the blissful patch of sand that rises as Upolu Cay. Circling in daring manoeuvres meant to thrill, the pilot skimmed across Vlasoff Reef and a stunning sand cay nestled within, as we honed eagle eyes for manta rays and dolphins below.

MAKE IT YOURS: From Cairns, 30-minute reef flights cost around $400 per person (try nautilusaviation.com.au). Elsewhere in Australia: Take to the skies over Mitchell Falls, Victoria’s Twelve Apostles, the Bungle Range (Purnululu National Park) or Limmen’s Lost City (NT). 


Cruise Nitmiluk Gorge 

The Top End, NT

Carved deeply into rugged sandstone, Nitmiluk Gorge is dramatic from every angle: an immense system of 13 canyons that thrills walkers and paddlers from around the globe. But the very best way to experience the gorge is aboard a sunset cruise, immersed in Dreamtime storytelling and marveling at ancient Jawoyn rock art. 

River cruises depart throughout the day but the gorge shines best at sunrise and sunset. The Nabilil Dreaming Sunset Dinner Cruise woos you with a three-course dinner and complimentary bubbles as you explore two of the river gorges. When you go, splurge with a stay at Cicada Lodge whose luxury rooms are located within the national park (from $660/night, peak season). 

MAKE IT YOURS: Sunset river cruises are priced from $178/adult ($128/child) in peak season (nitmiluktours.com.au). Visit from May to September. Elsewhere in Australia: Board a boat on Lake Argyle, sail Sydney Harbour, cruise to the Kimberley’s Horizontal Falls or take it slow on a Murray River paddlesteamer. 


Coral Sea Angling Safari

Port Douglas, QLD

Barramundi might be enough to woo the boaties who launch their tinnies in the Daintree River, but travellers dreaming of coral trout and red emperor will need to hitch a ride further offshore. From Port Douglas ­— the far north’s quintessential holiday town — top angling reefs are within easy reach, reducing your travel time to around an hour. 

To avid anglers, there are few things more idyllic on a sunny winter’s day than to be floating above a reef on the Coral Sea. On my Bucket List safari, our troop reeled in big catches of coral trout, Spanish mackerel and red emperor, and hauled aboard a nannygai big enough to make my Dad swoon. 

Fishing trips from Port Douglas can access the reef in under an hour, priced from $275pp (shared charter, lunch included) or $2400 for your own boat. 

MAKE IT YOURS: The seasoned skipper on Dragon Lady can customise your adventure (dragonlady.com.au). Elsewhere in Australia: Fish the NT’s remote Cobourg Peninsula, join a charter from Sal Salis on Ningaloo Reef, or chase southern bluefin tuna off South Australia’s Coffin Bay.  


Sunset Camel Riding

Cable Beach, Broome, WA

Broome’s wonderful, end-of-the-earth ambience and tri-coloured vistas are equally intoxicating, perched as it is alongside some of the bluest water on earth. An intriguing pearling history and thriving Indigenous culture coupled with a creative heartbeat, add substance to this beautiful holiday hotspot, and who could resist a quirky camel ride at sunset?

Magnetising an eclectic mix of beach babes, cameleers and kayakers, Cable Beach is where Broome's best action takes place. At low tide on this 22km-long stretch of coastline, sun worshippers stretch out by day, and crowds gather at day’s end to climb aboard camel trains, silhouetted against the setting sun. 

There’s no denying the fun to be had and the camels set just the right, relaxing pace for absorbing the invigorating seaside energy as the sun slips west over the horizon.

MAKE IT YOURS: Hour-long sunset rides cost around $100/person (peak season) and $75/child (redsuncamels.com.au). Elsewhere in Australia:  Climb aboard a camel at Port Macquarie’s Lighthouse Beach, Lakes Entrance (VIC) or get a better view at Uluru. 


Dine on Rock Lobster

The Limestone Coast, SA

A dramatic sweep of limestone cliffs, eroded sea stacks and giant shifting sand dunes beguiles the travellers who discover Canunda National Park and the sleepy crayfishing capitals of Southend, Beachport and Robe. 

On this coastline, an amazing 3000 tonnes of southern rock lobsters (which are technically crayfish) are hauled ashore every year: ‘Big Reds’ that fetch around $100 a kilo. More than 95 per cent of the Limestone Coast’s annual catch is shipped live to China, but this favourite Chinese splurge can be yours as well. 

At Sky Seafoods in Robe you can choose your own fresh lobster straight from the tanks and sauté it yourself in garlic and butter with just a splash of white wine. Devouring this indulgent splurge, just hours out of the sea, made us the envy of our campground in Southend’s Canunda National Park. 

MAKE IT YOURS: Head to Southend over summer to watch the lobster boats unload their daily catch, and overnight in nearby Canunda National Park (southaustralia.com). Elsewhere in Australia: Dive for WA’s best lobsters from Busselton to Hamlin Bay, snap them up at the Sydney Fish Market or follow the Eyre Peninsula Seafood Trail from Whyalla to Streaky Bay.


Take an Island Fling

Lizard Island, QLD

This may well be the East Coast’s most beautiful isle: 24 shimmering white sand beaches, big blue lagoons and endless flourishing coral reefs where you can float with green sea turtles, spot giant clams and spook moray eels, reef sharks and octopus. 

Crowning it all, Cooks Lookout’s 359 metre-high granite knoll overlooks the see-through curl of baby blue called Watson’s Bay, where yachties and national park campers mingle on the sand. 

Enjoying a stay on Lizard Island is easier than you might think, with twice-daily flights during the north’s dry winter months (May to October) when marine stingers disappear and the snorkelling is sublime.  

An opulent stay at five-star Lizard Island Resort is a once-in-a-lifetime splurge. Book the villa for $5999 per night or a beachfront suite for $2979, or go ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and pay just $6.55 a night for your own beautifully primitive beachfront campsite on Watson’s Bay.

MAKE IT YOURS: Lizard Island is located 240km north of Cairns. East Air flies twice daily ($710 return, lizardisland.com.au). Book national park campsites online (parks.des.qld.gov.au) and visit from May to September. Elsewhere in Australia: Escape to Maria Island (Tasmania), Rottnest Island (WA), The Whitsundays (QLD) or the NT’s Tiwi Islands. 


Climb a Mountain

Cradle Mountain, TAS

One of Tasmania’s most famous sights, the fluted, crater peak of Cradle Mountain elevates thousands of walkers every year, rewarding four hours of strenuous hiking with views over a tapestry of picturesque peaks, alpine forests and buttongrass plains.

Setting out from Dove Lake, the summit trail follows boardwalks past tannin-stained, sandy tarns to Lake Lilla and Marions Lookout, and crosses the ridge to Kitchen Hut before tackling the rocky ascent to the top. From Cradle Mountain’s lofty summit, the sky reflected in Dove Lake’s deep, indigo pool is hypnotic, and on a clear day, views of Barn Bluff and beyond will simply blow you away.

The track might be easy enough to follow in good weather, but joining a guided hike improves not only your safety, but also your chances of making it to the top and back again. 

MAKE IT YOURS: Cradle Mountain is located a 90 minute-drive from Devonport. Guided summit hikes (10 hours return) start from $350 per person (try mcdermotts.com.au). February promises the best chance of good weather. Elsewhere in Australia: Climb Mount Warning (NSW), the Red Centre’s Kings Canyon, or venture into Queensland’s Carnarvon Gorge. 


Sail Away

Undine Cay, FNQ

For a big splurge and a special underwater experience, a yacht charter to unpretentious Undine Cay delivers you to a tiny rise of sand that all but disappears with the rising tide. Shimmering like an ocean jewel and lapped by opal-blue waters that allow eyes to penetrate deep into the rich coral garden below, Undine Cay lies just off the coast at Cape Tribulation.  

Arrive in style aboard a private luxury charter yacht from nearby Port Douglas and by lunchtime you’ll be joining colourful schools of parrotfish and turtles in a kaleidoscopic sea of lime and tangerine corals. This isolated atoll tops my list of blissful, crowd-free escapes and a charter here might also include an overnight stop at Mackay Reef. Memories made here are bound to linger with you long after the bill has been paid.  

MAKE IT YOURS: Luxury charters depart from Marina Mirage Port Douglas (try liquiddesire.com) or take a more affordable day trip with Sailaway, priced from $271/person (sailawayportdouglas.com). Elsewhere in Australia: Sail The Whitsundays, Brisbane’s Moreton Bay, explore Tassie’s D’Entrecasteaux Channel or WA’s Geographe Bay. 


Sea kayak with sea lions 

Penguin Island, WA

Barely a ripple snags the shoreline as we push off into Safety Bay, adjusting skirts and rudders and dipping paddles into the clear water that washes over seagrass beds below. 

Less than a kilometre offshore, a string of rocky islets protected as Shoalwater Islands Marine Park is home to the west’s largest colony of little penguins, Australian sea lions and a rare breeding colony of Australian pelicans. This is one of the world’s most significant, city-based marine sanctuaries and paddling is the perfect way to explore. 

Capricorn Sea Kayaking runs day-long guided adventures to Penguin and Seal Islands, which are well suited to amateur paddlers. Trips stop at the Penguin Experience Island Discovery Centre for feeding time, and the price includes lunch and all the gear. 

MAKE IT YOURS: Penguin Island lies off Rockingham, 45km south of Perth. Paddling trips cost $180/adult and $162/child, from September to June (capricornseakayaking.com.au). Elsewhere in Australia: Seakayak with sea lions at Baird Bay (SA), paddle with dugongs off Hinchinbrook Island and spot dolphins while paddling Adelaide’s Port River.


Glamp in Style

Red Bluff, WA

The headland swell that peels off Red Bluff has magnetised West Coast surfers for decades, drawn to this remote beach camp at the southern tip of Ningaloo Reef.  Red Bluff’s appeal stretches well beyond its world-famous waves and it’s the lofty safari tents nestled against the cliffs that will excite adventurous travellers to this one-in-a-million surf Mecca. 

The endless arc of sand that disappears north lures beach walkers far from camp, who return to rest their sandy feet on the deck of Red Bluff Store and sip lattes, gazing out to sea. There are coral reefs and wreck sites to dive and snorkel, great beach fishing, and the best blowholes on the West Coast — all within easy reach of this remarkable wilderness camp. Drive to neighbouring Gnaraloo Station to watch nesting loggerhead turtles. 

MAKE IT YOURS: Red Bluff is located 138km northwest of Carnarvon (4WD vehicles recommended). Retreat safari tents cost $220/night (two-night minimum, quobba.com.au). Elsewhere in Australia:  Glamp it up at Karijini Eco Retreat (Pilbara, WA), Eco Beach (one hour south of Broome, WA), Nightfall in Lamington National Park (QLD) or Tanja Lagoon (NSW). 


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features travel australia destinations

Photographer

David Bristow