Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
It goes without saying that not all travel destinations are created equal. Conventional wisdom says that places like New Zealand and Bhutan, for example, are best suited for adventure travelers, while China and Japan would favor history buffs or those in search of a more cultural experience. On the flipside, adventure seekers can find plenty to do in Asia, while Maori traditions and Himalayan Buddhism would appeal to anyone interested in cultural enrichment. But what happens when you travel in a group where some people are into one thing, while others prefer something completely different? Welcome to the world of family travel!
Before the kids were born, Carol and I took a vacation to Australia, and like many of its visitors, planned the trip around diving the Great Barrier Reef. While researching the area around Cairns, where most scuba excursions originate, we learned about the town of Port Douglas and the Daintree Rainforest, which offered romantic and adventurous side-trips well worth investigating. While actually there, we discovered some terrific restaurants and atmospheric pubs that only the laidback Australian vibe could supply. We also did our live-aboard scuba trip, which allowed us to immerse ourselves in the marine world with eleven consecutive dives over the course of three days and nights, all in the company of a dozen other underwater enthusiasts.
Other than the fact that the minimum age for taking up scuba diving is twelve, even our pre-teen boys wouldn’t want to be subjected to hanging around on a dive boat in the middle of the ocean for more than a few hours. And since swanky eateries and outback bars wouldn’t be too appropriate either, we kept Cairns and northern Queensland off the itinerary, opting instead for the more kid-friendly southern part of the state. So while I enviously bypassed the dazzling dive sites offered throughout the country, we set our sites on the Whitsundays Islands and the Sunshine Coast for aquatic pursuits.
After a 90-minute flight from Brisbane, we landed in the middle of what looked like one of those dreamy tropical island postcards. Hamilton Island, surrounded by the clear blue-green waters of a marine park within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, is run almost exclusively by Hamilton Island Resorts. At first I was a little weary of spending time in the most heavily developed island within the Whitsunday chain, especially when there were less traveled and expensive options to choose from. But after a hectic month touring New Zealand, a little R&R to launch our month in Australia, no matter how commercialized, just might be what we were looking for.
To my pleasant surprise, the island didn’t have as much of that resort-town feel as I expected (maybe because we were there before the post-Christmas rush) and our need for marine activities where well catered for. The fact that the island was divided into two halves, the east with the accommodations and the west with the marina, restaurants, and commerce, all within an easy walk or golf-cart ride away, made you feel like you weren’t confined to just a single property. The sun-drenched 85-degree weather also cooperated quite nicely, making our time by one of their three pools most welcoming.
In between the rest and relaxation of my R&R came the Adrenaline Rush, one of the only operators in Australia offering the opportunity to get out on the trapeze of a cruising sailboat. Our skipper, Rod, in addition to getting Carol and the kids to overcome the trepidation of hanging their entire bodies “overboard” a racing catamaran, gave us a tour around the rest of the island and surrounding atolls of the archipelago.
But the real draw for us staying 35 miles offshore was not the hotel room with the stunning view or golden sandy beach. It was to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Albeit not for serious divers who have better options for seeing the dazzling marine life that earned this area its reputation, a ride out on the FantaSea to Reef World, a permanent floating pontoon and underwater observatory, is perfect for those who want a brief first-hand taste of one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As enjoyable as this day trip was, which offered a chance to experience the reef through a window in a semi-sub, snorkeling, and even scuba diving for both certified and first-time divers, it was by far not the highlight. We opted for the Reef Sleep, which basically kept us on Reef World for another 24-hours after the FantaSea returned to Hamilton, with just our guide and a few staff members. This allowed us to continue exploring the area without anyone else around, including a private scuba dive for Carol and I and a family snorkel with the boys. After the sun set, we enjoyed a memorable surf and turf dinner under the brilliant night sky and retired to the only two guest quarters available. The following morning, the boys continued their private immersion into life on a coral reef, including watching the feeding of the local 9-foot-long Queensland grouper named George. We returned back to the resort with the next group of day-trippers who showed up at 10:30 a.m.. Their arrival didn’t dampen our experience, it accentuated just how special it actually was.
To complete our nine days in Queensland, we headed for the Sunshine Coast, specifically to the Aboriginal-named town of Mooloolaba, which I didn’t learn to pronounce correctly until the day we left. At first, Carol and I thought we landed in Ft. Lauderdale, just with an Australian accent. But without offending our South Florida friends, it didn’t take long to realize that this beach town was so much more laid back and less developed than what you typically find in the U.S. Besides, you won’t find kids playing rugby or cricket on an American beach and instead of dining on lobsters and hamburgers, crayfish and meat pies are the local specialties. While Carol spent the morning home schooling, I went off to one of the hottest new dive sites in Australia, the wreck of the HMS Brisbane, an old warship deliberately sunk off the coast of Mooloolaba. This artificial reef has not only attracted an abundance of marine life, but divers like myself, who have never swam through a submerged control room or galley before. Of the 80-plus dives I’ve logged, this could easily have been the most memorable.
Like the more aggressively built-up southern beaches of the Gold Coast, which offer a host of theme parks like Wet n’ Wild and Sea World, this area is also known for being family friendly, which isn’t surprising when you consider that it was Steve Irwin’s home turf. The ultra eco-friendly Australia Zoo, which he founded, is an almost mandatory stopover, one that we eagerly anticipated before flying down to Tasmania where we would spend Christmas. I’ll cover our visit there when I report on the wilder side of Australia in my next post.
Photos: Rainer Jenss