Destinations

Underwater wonderland

Sebastian van der Zwan explores the coral reefs of Australia’s Whitsunday Islands

Trivia buffs will know the Great Barrier Reef as the largest living organism in the world. In fact, it’s so massive, it can be seen from the moon. I haven’t made it into outer space quite yet, but I’m willing to put money on it that this coral wonderland is even more impressive up close. I got my close encounter on a day trip from Hamilton Island, a tropical resort in the heart of Australia’s beautiful Whitsundays. Although a bumpy boat ride almost meant experiencing my delicious buffet breakfast a second time, the nausea was quickly forgotten in the excitement of boarding Reefworld, a huge pontoon floating above some spectacular coral formations.

First step was slipping into a “stinger suit”, a compulsory full-body lycra outfit designed to protect against jellyfish. (oy yellow one had the added advantage of being just like the one Uma Thurman wore in Kill Bill.) Then I donned flippers, mask and scuba gear for an unforgettable guided tour of this underwater Garden of Eden.

Rainbows of parrotfish and butterfly fish flitted through jungles of coral, while huge snapper and wrasses cruised past psychedelic sponges and anemones. The riot of colour reminded me of an eager toddler let loose with a box of crayons.Meanwhile, my diving instructor pointed out watermelon-sized sea cucumbers, rare sea slugs and neon-coloured giant clams that spat sand at any divers who dared get too close. There was constantly something to stare at. If my air hadn’t been in danger of running out, I would’ve stayed under the sea forever.

But even if you can’t dive and don’t want to learn – I promise it’s not as hard or scary as it looks – there’s still plenty to see. Snorkelling over the reef also resulted in some remarkable sea-life sightings and there’s a submarine that means you can enjoy the underwater action without getting wet.However, not all the fabulous fish are in the ocean. Back on dry land on Hamilton Island, there’s an Italian place called Romano’s Ristorante & Bar that does the most delicious seafood. I stuffed myself so full of calamari, yellow-fin tuna and char-grilled octopus, I wasn’t hungry for breakfast the next morning.

Which proved to be a good thing. You see, I was booked in to dine with koalas at the nearby Koala Gallery and I spent so long cuddling the creatures, there wasn’t time to eat! And it wasn’t just koalas. I also got to pat a dingo, gawk at crocodiles and shake claws with a cockatoo. The animal adventures continued a short boat ride away on Daydream Island, where they have a huge open-air coral reef, which is teeming with tropical sea life, including some scary sharks and the cute clownfish made famous by Finding Nemo. Lucky visitors like me get to pat stingrays (weird!) and feed ferocious-looking barramundi (yikes!). In fact, there’s heaps to do at Daydream Island Resort & Spa and guests are encouraged to do as little or as much as they like. For me, this would usually mean lying on the beach with a book. But that would be boring to read about, so instead I did it all.

oy first-ever jet-ski ride proved to be an exhilarating experience. So much so, it had to be followed up with a half-hour massage. And I was so impressed by the treatment at the spa, I booked myself in for a session with the naturopath.A kangaroo-filled nature trail, a game of mini-golf and a relaxing catamaran ride to exclusive Hayman Island had me convinced I’d experienced almost all of what the Whitsundays had to offer. However, my helicopter transfer to the airport soon proved me wrong.As we flew over beautiful white-sand and countless coral reefs, I realised that, really, I’d only visited three of the 74 incredible islands and there was plenty more to see should I ever return. I’m hoping my next visit is very soon!

**Fact file

**Get there Virgin Blue and Jetstar fly from Brisbane to Hamilton Island daily.Best time to go From April to November.Where to stay www.hamiltonisland.com.auwww.daydreamisland.comwww.hayman.com.au. Don’t miss Scuba diving or snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef is a must do.

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