The Fearless Travelers On Orpheus Island, Australia, 1999
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Map of Orpheus IslandGreat diving, beautiful surroundings, gourmet food, walk to the beach, fishing and water sports and no children. During the early part of 1999, Katherine had been very busy with a project in New Zealand, and had spent most of February and March down there; way down there actually. However, because late March was a popular travel time, I could get no flights to New Zealand. So, trying to find some place to meet for a little R&R, and use a little of her 550,000 frequent flyer miles, we decided to try the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. So, on Thursday morning of March 18, I call American Airlines to schedule a flight for Saturday into Cairns (pronounced Cans; the Aussies do speak funny), the stepping off place for the reef. Thursday night Kath sends me a series of websites describing places to stay and suggests I get on the stick and book a resort. Friday morning my flight clears and I pick up my tickets. Also, using the Internet and faxes, by noon, I have booked a room in Cairns and seven days on Orpheus Island. Saturday morning I'm outta Tokyo arriving in Cairns at 7 p.m. that night to meet Kath who had flown in from Wellington, New Zealand that afternoon. Don't know why anybody would need weeks, or months to book a trip.

Sunday morning we show up at the general aviation airport where the seaplane is to take us to Orpheus island. Now, I knew we would get to the island by seaplane and, so, I guess that I should have had some inkling that space would be at a premium. However, the first thing that the guy at the counter tells us is that we're 25 kilos overweight; that's a little over 50 pounds. Never having done a small resort type of thing, let alone a small island resort, we had no idea how to pack. So I brought every conceivable combination of clothes; a blazer for the evening, a coat in case it got cold, long pants, long and short-sleeved shirts, nice shoes for dinner, etc., etc. And, of course, I brought a lot of reading material; what else are you supposed to do when lounging around doing nothing?

Well, we're one bag too heavy and so, in the next 15 minutes, we shuffle all of the resort wear I packed for the two of us and Kath's business clothes to leave non-essentials in a suitcase at the terminal. Now, under normal conditions, it's enough that we don't kill each other when trying to pack to go anywhere. Re-packing everything, and deciding what of my stuff was non-essential, was major entertainment for the couple waiting in the lounge. Having said that, let me go on to explain that it never got below 75 degrees, virtually nobody wore anything but shorts, for dinner you needed only the clean shorts and the nice short-sleeve shirt, you spent half the day in a swimming suit and a cover-up; well you get the picture. We still brought one suitcase too many.

Anyway, the day we left Cairns was rainy, with a squall just off of the runway so I wasn't excited about climbing into a little plane. It was also the first time I've been a passenger in a plane where the pilot does the pre-flight safety briefing. But, 75 minutes later, we landed uneventfully at Orpheus Island International Airport, which was a float about a hundred yards off shore. It is generally true down here that you will go to a one-island, one-resort combination. You pick the resort with the amenities you want and go to that island. This particular island is about a half mile wide and maybe 2 miles long.

A lot of you have done resort vacations, and probably some where you had a cottage by the beach. We typically opt for more adventurous vacations, or at least golf resorts. So this was all new to us. Walk out the front door and go 50 feet to the beach. Not bad. Friends of ours had often described doing this and I always kind of thought it sounded neat. It is.

When we arrived there were some 25 guests but, this being the low season, there were only 10 when we left; so service was exceptional and the staff quite charming. The resort only takes 72 people maximum and no children younger than 15. Food was gourmet caliber and the chefs were always offering some interesting variation of well known dishes. Among the novel things the chef substituted for beef were ostrich and kangaroo; e.g. kangaroo Wellington. Not bad, actually. And, no, it doesn't taste like chicken.

People go to the islands for the reef diving/snorkeling and it is indeed amazing. Every day at 3 p.m. there was a snorkeling trip; about a 15 minute boat ride around the island. In 20 feet of water you're swimming with the fish. They surround you. Hundreds of them and all beautiful. For some reason they think that they are going to be fed. Tantalized by that, we signed up for the outer reef dive the next day.

For this trip they took us out on a 75 foot yacht. About an hour from Orpheus Island, apparently heading out to the open sea, you suddenly notice a bright blue-green patch of water appear on the horizon. This is one of the reefs. The snorkel dive we went on the day before had a lot of small fish in a very limited area around an old pier but not too much coral. This reef was the size of a couple of football fields. Both snorkeling and scuba were available but Kath was not real excited about scuba so we just did the snorkeling. They supplied all of the equipment and all you had to do was step into the ocean which is warmer than most swimming pools. Then you snorkeled around for as long as you wanted, came out, had lunch, and went back for a second dive.

There are so many kinds of beautiful fish and coral formations you cannot begin to keep track. Some of the divers saw reef sharks, turtles and some other novel things. I was fascinated by a school of squid I kept trying to swim with. We bought a Kodak disposable underwater camera and so I was trying to get close to them for some pictures but to no avail. Anyway, it is an experience not to be missed. If you ever do this I would strongly suggest that you get a quick scuba certification before you leave.

One other thing that became painfully obvious after the fact was getting sunburned. Mind you, we were very aware of this and I covered all of my upper body with sun tan oil. What I forgot was the backs of my legs. When you snorkel around, guess what part of your body is always in the sun? I had lotion on my back, but had not bothered to put it on the backs of my legs. That was a painful mistake. The sun in Australia is very hot.

Among the other diversions offered by the island was unlimited use of motor boats to travel around the island or to go fishing. We did both. A major excursion was to have them pack a lunch and then the two of you can go to one of several secluded beaches for a picnic. The food basket, the same as the welcome basket, was packed in an ice chest and included cheeses, rock lobster, oysters, chicken, prawns, kangaroo pastrami, and fruits in quantities suitable for a small family. We took the boat into a small beach and had ourselves a peaceful time. However, this wasn't is simple as it sounds.

First, the island gets tides of up to 10 feet so you had to watch the times of low and high tides. The biggest problem the resort has is rescuing people who go into a beach at high tide and then can't get out when the tide goes out. Going into the beach about an hour before low tide required me to row in over a reef and then pull the boat in around the coral for the next 50 feet. Then we had to haul the food the last 50 feet up onto the beach. By the way, did I mention the stingrays and the poisonous stone fish?

The day before this excursion, we had gone over to a university research facility just around the island from the resort where they give you a rundown on the local fauna. They made it very clear that stepping on a stingray was to be avoided. Were there rays, you ask? Stingrays were everywhere. And they have a habit of burying themselves in the sand so you can't see them. Actually, one of the fun things that we did at high tide was to walk along the beach and check all the rays who come right in to the shore. And, then the researcher also felt obligated to point out the presence of the stone fish. The point that he wanted to make was that if you step on a stone fish, which looks just like a rock, you will probably die within minutes. So now, back to walking into shore from the boat. It's difficult to walk with an ice chest while shuffling your feet so as not to step down on anything. Anyway, the lunch was a neat thing. We couldn't leave for two hours one way or the other until the boat refloated. But walking around the tidal pools was really interesting.

Another highlight of the research trip was a dive among the giant clams. Giant is a little misleading but they are big. About the size of a tire on a pick-up truck but looking just like you would envision a giant clam. Clams, actually, were very beautiful, particularly the small ones. Their mouths, which open to feed, were all variety of colors, but the most noteworthy were a kind of iridescent blue or green. Well, in the tidal pools around the beach where we had lunch you could walk right up to both small and giant clams and actually touch them.

Besides a desire to do nothing but relax, Kath actually had two secondary objectives. One, to get a tan and two, to go fishing. The tan part was easy. In seven days we went through most of two tubes of sun tan lotion, starting with a UV index of 8 and quickly progressing to one with a 30. Actually, Kath, despite my pleas to take the sun slowly, loves to get burned so she will tan quickly. Did I mention that the sun was hot. By the second day she had a terrible burn. The manager felt so sorry for her she gave her a leaf from an Aloe plant to rub on the burn. It did help.

The fishing consisted of bait fishing from the boat while you motored around the island. Actually, I'm not really interested in wasting hours hoping that some poor innocent little fish will get stuck on a hook. When I want to waste that much time, and be frustrated as well, golf works fine for me. Anyway, we did the fishing thing on two different days. We caught half a dozen fish, which we released, and a couple of pounds of coral, which we also returned. Kath was a little disappointed because she had visions of 'the woman and the sea,' kind of thing.

I found it particularly intriguing to walk around a place where all the house plants I could never keep alive grow like weeds. I now know where so many of those cute plants you see in stores come from; rain forests. So all that you have to do to make them happy is recreate that environment in your living room. We also had a number of lizards and geckos that kept us company. And, of course, there were all kinds of frogs from thimble sized to some the size of your fist, large spiders, bandicoots-a large, hopping rodent-and noisy birds, particularly the cockatoos. The cockatoos were big; bigger than your average parrot, and really screeched. And the birds never seemed to sleep.

There were some other noteworthy experiences. One of your dinners, weather and space permitting, was served on the pier, a deux, with candles, a red carpet and two torches (i.e. flashlights) so you could peruse the waters for unusual fish. It was a real nice touch. During daylight at high tide, the fish congregated around the pier because they know they would be fed. A fun experience was to wade out about waist deep and then start feeding the fish. Within minutes you would have 50 or so fish, most in the 12 to 16 inch range (where were they when we were fishing?), swimming around you and through your legs looking for food; it was kind of neat. The guests were from around the world and included two other couples from the U.S., a Norwegian couple, a Swiss couple, several couples from Australia, and several from Britain.

When we arrived on the island I was concerned with what I was going to do for seven days. On leaving seven days later we were just getting used to the idea of doing basically nothing. We landed back at Cairns and Kath had 45 minutes to re-sort the luggage and then catch a plane back to Wellington. My flight wasn't for two days, so I kind of bummed around Cairns. And, I took a 4WD tour of a rain forest along with seven Japanese ladies. Our guide spoke Japanese and told them I was from Tokyo so they all expected me to be able to understand them. I can count, guide a taxi, and order beers but that didn't offer me much help in conversation. But it was entertaining.

A visit to the Great Barrier Reef is one of those must do experiences. And we thoroughly enjoyed the island experience. Indeed, there are a number of islands, each with a different focus. Some, like Orpheus, are strictly for adults. Some are oriented towards families. You can find out about each of them on the Internet. Also, we have talked to a number of people who have stayed in Port Douglas, a coastal city just north of Cairns, but their experiences were not nearly so interesting as ours. There is also a problem with jelly fish along the coast. An invasion can completely close a beach. Make sure you check this out if you chose a coastal resort.