It doesn't matter whether or not you can dive; anyone and everyone can experience Australia's Great Barrier Reef for themselves - and it's so incredibly stunning, it will take your breath away
It’s a wondrous spectacle. The colours of the coral all around you are set off spectacularly by the seemingly endless conveyor belt of brilliantly coloured fish. Some small, some impossibly large, but all of them scuttling around the coral looking for juicy titbits to snack on. I can’t help but feel a bit of an intruder. I’ve just dived into their almost silent world and even the giant clams seem to look at me in a disdainful sort of way.
There’s no getting around it: the Great Barrier Reef is a truly awesome experience and something you have to experience in your lifetime. And the best news of all is that you can enjoy it whatever your diving abilities. More experienced divers can don their scuba gear and explore the lower depths, but you can also swim and snorkel, and even just stand up in certain shallow areas of the reef. There’s even a solution for those who prefer not to get wet at all: take one of the numerous reef cruises that have underwater viewing platforms.
Reaching the reef
The quickest way out to the reef from Queensland is from Port Douglas. The journey takes about an hour and a half and there's every possibility you’ll get a little queasy if the sea is choppy, so take a supply of seasickness remedies just in case. It’ll be worth it though, I promise you. Once you get there, your day will be taken up with visiting different areas of the reef - exactly where will depend on the tide levels, the weather and where your particular crew feel the visibility will be at its best.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world's busiest marine habitat, and sea life is abundant. The varied colours of the reef's fish and other inhabitants will astound you, with colour combinations that would be the envy of many artists. At each stop, you’re free to swim, snorkel or dive around the boat to your heart’s content, gazing on a sample of over 1,500 different species of fish, including the colourful clownfish (Disney’s Nemo), yellow-faced angel fish and red bass, to name just a few, and around 400 varieties of brilliantly vibrant living coral. There are starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, giant clams and a multitude of other strange and colourful beings.
As if looking forward to seeing the wonders of the reef wasn’t exciting enough, we were in for an added treat on our journey. Just ahead of us were two humpbacked whales; two magnificent creatures in all their natural splendour. This wasn’t Disney, this wasn’t Sea World; it was Mother Nature showing us just how amazing our planet can be. But then things got even better when they were joined by six dolphins, who decided to play and frolic with us as we continued our voyage.
At the first of our three stops, we donned our supplied fins, suits and masks and snorkelled the reef. Snorkelling is a great way of getting a scuba-like diving experience without all the fuss – you can even gracefully dive down deeper if you’re good at holding your breath.
As I returned to Port Douglas safe and sound, I had a broad smile on my face. I’d realised an ambition and brought back fantastic memories of a stunning experience.
Choose your cruise
There are a number of reef cruise operators to choose from at Port Douglas. The largest and most expensive, but not necessarily the best, is Quicksilver. They provide what I would call an impersonal, functional, mass-production line approach: large boat packed to the gills with tourists, queues to do everything, very limited swim times and a pretty sad lunch buffet.
I would avoid them and head instead for one of the smaller independent operators such as Calypso Reef Charters (www.calypsoreefcruises.com). Family-owned and run, they have boats designed to hold 125 guests but only travel with 65, to ensure maximum comfort. Included in a day's cruise is a visit to three different locations on the Outer Reef, snorkelling, snacks, lunch and an informal briefing about the reef and its geography. Scuba diving gives an added dimension to the reef and for experienced divers is an essential paid-for extra; all equipment is provided. Those not already certified can get a first scuba experience with a qualified instructor, who will literally hand-hold you all the way. Calypso also provide an experienced snorkel tour guide, who swims around with you, pointing out marine life of all shapes and sizes.
Throughout the trip, the crew’s attention to detail was highly impressive; from safety drills to the plentiful buffet lunch, everything was carried off with a smile, a laugh and a quiet confidence. To top it all, you can buy a DVD of your experience to take home, so you can impress your friends with images of you doing intrepid things. A day tour, with all snorkelling equipment and lunch, costs Aus $175. Introductory scuba dives are Aus $225; three certified dives cost Aus $235.
Back on land
An hours’ drive north of Cairns, Port Douglas is fast becoming home to some of tropical North Queensland’s most exclusive resorts, restaurants, galleries and shopping. A charming combination of sophisticated town and friendly village, ‘the Port’ has quietly transformed itself into a serious resort destination, taking full advantage of its ideal location as a major departure point to the Barrier Reef and its proximity to the Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation. Whilst the drive in to the town is lined with golf courses and high-end hotels, the two main streets and marina still have a real village feel about them, with more than enough restaurants to suit everyone’s tastes - I recommend The Beach Shack (29 Barrier Street, Four Mile Beach) and Bistro 3 (corner of Wharf and Macrossan Streets).
For a truly tropical experience, I would recommend staying just out of town at the Thala Beach Lodge. This a privately-owned five-star eco resort, with its own two-kilometre stretch of private coast and rainforest, no more than a five-minute drive from Port Douglas. You stay in luxurious bungalows spread throughout a eucalypt forest environment, each with its own veranda overlooking the spectacular canopy and abundant wildlife. The resort’s private beach is a joy to explore or you can just sit and catch the rays. The main building houses an excellent open-sided restaurant and lounge with stunning views across the Coral Sea, and you’ll be royally entertained by the many birds who pop in to visit while you sip a cocktail or two. Staying here is a great way to experience the rainforest up close and personal, and near enough to town to enjoy Douglas too. Bungalows cost from AUS $199 per night.