"No worries" is virtually the slogan of Queensland. Although to Australians it simply means "no problem," to me it sounded like a mantra--and not just because I was on a spa journey through Tropical North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. Queenslanders implicitly prize a calm state of mind and enjoy a laid-back lifestyle amid diverse natural beauty. The small tropical islands of the Great Barrier Reef have the world's best snorkeling and scuba diving. Along the coast, ancient rain forests teem with exotic foliage and wildlife. No worries indeed.
And then there are the spas, by themselves worthy of a trip around the world. Small in size and ingeniously placed inches from the ocean and the rain forest, they have not only Western and Asian therapies but Aboriginal Australian treatments not widely found elsewhere. Having traveled so far, I, like many visitors, wanted to stay at both rain forest and island spas. To do so is not an intimidating financial undertaking. The favorable exchange rate and low cost of living make Australia an affordable destination. Many spa packages cost less than a visit to the Caribbean, even with airfare. Vacationing North Americans have also discovered the country as an exciting and politically stable destination.
Getting around Australia is easy, but getting there is less so. When I arrived in Sydney after a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles, I recuperated at the Observatory Hotel before leaving for Queensland. The hotel spa, known for its pool with a twinkling celestial ceiling, also has a flotation tank. International guests are offered a complimentary float, which is said to help counter jet lag. In the dark saltwater capsule, I fell asleep, my worries already lessening.
Silky Oaks Lodge
I don't have my togs, but I want to take you for a dip in the billabong." said Deb Turnbull, the spa director and a yoga instructor at Silky Oaks Lodge. I'd just arrived at this rain forest resort, after a three-hour flight north from Sydney and then an hour's drive north from Cairns (pronounced cans) on the wild, winding two-lane Captain Cook Highway that follows the craggy coast. Young Ozzies hang glide off the cliffs and over the water, landing on an imperceptible sliver of land below. I must have looked worried, because my driver said, "We all learn to swim in school."
The billabong, I soon learned, is the runover of a river. The Mossman, which winds through Silky Oaks, was especially high, and its waterfall, swollen with rainwater, pounded down across from where we stood. I felt ripples of energy, not just from the rushing water but also from the ancient forest. The local indigenous people, the Kuku Yalanji, revere the river and the forest in this protected area. "Waterfalls are sacred places for the Aboriginal people, particularly women," Deb explained. I followed her lead and slipped off my clothes and slid into the cool, clear water. Who needs togs? We sat still and silent on smooth rocks, the waterfall rushing over us, until two resort guests approached the billabong. Fresh caught, we slid back into the water to conceal ourselves.
Later, at the Healing Waters Spa, I had a gorgeous three-hour scrub-wrap-and-massage treatment called the Dreaming. Aboriginal spirituality includes stories about spirits and animals, and the Dreaming refers to these, as well as to the time of creation and sometimes to one's personal path. Deb explained that the products and treatments come from Li'tya, a small Australian company that uses the native plants and healing traditions of the Aboriginal people and works only with spas whose philosophy and practice respect these origins.
For the Kodo massage (Kodo means "melody"), Deb lightly dragged coolamons down my back; these are wooden tools used by indigenous people for holding everything from seeds to babies. "They peel back layers and draw up the energy of a person," said Deb, who clacked them together after each stroke. As the CD (with didgeridoos) and the treatment ended, Deb opened the glass doors facing a dense knot of forest so I could hear the rain that had just begun.
The next day, Deb and I went on a guided Dreamtime Rain Forest Walk lead by Kuku Yalanji guides. Before we started, Aaron, whose Aboriginal name is Kalka Dudu, asked us to wait while he indicated to the ancestors that some white friends were coming into the rain forest--and that he'd see that we left. "You don't want to be unwelcome here," Aaron warned. "The forest protects itself."
On our walk, nearly every plant and enormous seed he pointed out provided sustenance or medicine or was used as a tool. He also shared stories about the healing properties of the local water, which comes from Mount Manjal Dimbi, the home of a benevolent spirit who ended drought. Before we left, I tried a piece of damper (a rustic Australian bread) drizzled with golden syrup and washed it down with a cup of tea. We all ate as if the gentle walk had been more of a hike.
To reach Dunk, I took a small prop plane, the first of many on this journey. Forty-five minutes from Cairns, I saw a tiny airstrip on the edge of a green island with no sign of inhabitants. A bubbly young woman greeted us with orange-mango juice, confirming the presence of civilization, and escorted us to the resort on a humid path thick with plants and unfamiliar chirps. I passed a pool but couldn't tell it had three cascading tiers until I pushed through the foliage to the deck. Someone pointed out a blue Ulysses butterfly, fluttering among fat red flowers sealing their petals for the night. Dunk is the kind of place that reveals itself slowly from behind nature's lush tangle.
At dinner that night, a squadron of kids enjoyed the outdoor grill, where chefs shook large woks over enormous flames. I sat at a table lit with torches between the beach and the pool in front of an open-air pavilion, its long orange Japanese lanterns glowing from within. Stars twinkled above, and I realized it was the first time I'd seen them from this side of the world.
On an early-morning walk, I discovered the grave of David Banfield, who lived here at the turn of the 20th century with his wife; they were the island's first white settlers. Given six months to live by his doctor, Banfield came to Dunk Island, cleared several acres, lodged in a rustic cedar hut, and ate a largely seafood and vegetarian diet. He lived 26 more years on Dunk, and his Confessions of a Beachcomber, published in 1907, helped establish the romantic notion of escaping to a tropical isle.
The Spa of Peace and Plenty (the name is a translation of the island's Aboriginal name, Coonanglebah) opened in 1998 and is one of Queensland's oldest spas. An outdoor relaxation area, where chaises sit over a bubbling man-made brook, connects wet and dry treatment rooms. For my first treatment, a Kahuna massage, my therapist, Adam, matched the massage to the rise and fall of the music, lifting my arms and legs off the table, then sending one of his arms down my back while knuckling the knots out of my neck with the other. Toward the end, he floated a long piece of fabric over my body and pulled it gently over my head. When I opened my eyes and sat up, I noticed he had put on a sweatband and his tank top was soaked with sweat.
I couldn't resist a treatment called the Ancient Arts Awakener, which like many in Australia, begins with the washing of the feet. "I like beginning this way, honoring the client," said Angela, who dipped my feet in a bowl of water and scrubbed them with salts. Next I got on the table for my first experience of energy-focused reiki and shirodhara. Having started at my feet and finished with sesame oil poured over my "third eye," the treatment left me feeling remarkably grounded and ready for sleep. In my room, I opened the glass door and listened to the tide come in.
On the hour-long flight from Cairns, I saw navy blue atolls emerge from the turquoise ocean as we flew low into Lizard, the northernmost inhabited Great Barrier Reef island. On the ground, young men in long blue linen shirts with mandarin collars swooped in with vanilla-spiked iced tea and canapes as the general manager, ý la Mr. Roarke of Fantasy Island, welcomed us to the 40-room resort. He anticipated most of our questions--no, cell phones wouldn't work here--but virtually in his shadow, on the sloping green lawn behind him, our unspoken question was answered: Yes, there are lizards. One was standing on its haunches, bobbing its head as if offering the approbation of the second in command.
My suite had high ceilings and wall-size sliding glass doors. There was a pillow menu offering seven varieties, and the platform bed was set against a bright blue wall. My deck had a shaded, pillow-strewn outdoor couch, where I read an Australian novel, lazily ate pieces of mango, and listened to the ocean just behind the trees. I was alone, except for a gardener who came to refill my foot bath, a stone bowl where I washed off the sand before coming back in from the beach. But I saw him only once. My heaven is designed like this.
While other guests took motorized dinghies with picnic hampers to some of the islands' 24 private beaches, I went to the Azure Spa. Once I was on the table, my therapist approached with beautifully arranged sushi dishes filled with products, then slathered my feet in a lemony balm and slicked my hair back with conditioner into a taut ponytail. I left it in and wore my hair to dinner like one of the women in Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" video. The fringe-like needles of casuarina pines stirred by the ocean breezes swept the air around me as I sauntered down the winding wooden boardwalk lit with tiny blue lights.
There were meals at Osprey's I'd eat twice, although nothing made a second appearance during my stay. I detected a theme to each day's table d'hýte menu, however: something fresh, something sweet, and something to set it all alight. Main courses included seared kangaroo and medallions of crocodile tail. This was Mod Oz cuisine, defined by its local ingredients, Asian influences, and French techniques. "I've never been big on jus or sauces. It's so hot up here, the spicy flavors give guests a little kick," said chef Mark Long, who after my first meal here, revealed he'd learned my piscatorian (fish, but no meat) eating habits. "I think you'll really like the barramundi tonight. It's not cooked in duck fat."
I'd saved snorkeling for Lizard Island, since everyone had said that it's best place for it on the reef, that I'd even see wildlife right off the beach. I took a half-day snorkeling trip on the stylish 55-foot MV Serranidae dive vessel. The crew, equally stylish in matching blue and white striped shirts, paired off with divers and snorkelers when we boarded. I braced myself on the rocky trip, sipping ginger ale, sucking on a cold piece of fruit, and finding some solace in the calm expressions of a couple in their 80s who'd come along simply for the ride.
In the water, small waves flashed iridescent light, then dissolved around me. The water was sparkling on the surface and incredibly clear below. At first I thought my equipment had distorted the coral's proximity. Are objects in mask closer than they appear? But then I saw snorkelers ahead, without much clearance between them and the ocean floor. We had maybe four feet. It was startling: Just beneath me were clams the size of shopping carts, slow-moving parrot fish, and coral, coral everywhere. I was on the other side of the world, down under while Down Under, floating, observing, mesmerized.
Daintree Eco Lodge
Named by Captain James Cook, whose ship was mangled by sharp reefs. The Eco Lodge is in the Greater Daintree Wilderness Area, a lush, steamy rain forest preserve that's a UNESCO World Heritage site. The forest, which contains the genes of the earth's first flowering plants, is thought to derive from Gondwana, the 110-million-year-old supercontinent that once joined land masses in the southern hemisphere. Today, as tourists flock to the spot where the continents came apart and Cook reluctantly landed, the appellation he gave the place seems inappropriate.
"We're sorry it's raining," said the desk clerk when I checked in. "Isn't this the rain forest?" I replied. The Eco Lodge, established in 1993, was one of the first resorts to lodge guests in the rain forest (in 15 treetop-style villas, no less). By working closely with local Aboriginal people, the lodge also spurred the area's cultural tourism. I took a guided walk with Linc, a sweet guy who showed me how to distinguish wild ginger from wild garlic and a termites' nest from a nest of medicinal green ants, the sniffing of which is said to clear a stuffy nose. In other ways, the rain forest is unforgiving. The lodgings now show their age, reflecting the difficulties of maintenance in a hot, humid climate.
From my villa built on stilts, I went to the spa, where Kelda Maloney, the "director of tranquility," recommended a rainlike Vichy shower on a wooden table carved into the shape of a ylang-ylang leaf. The simultaneous spraying from several jets felt like the work of three massage therapists.
That evening I headed back into the outdoors. "Is that a log? It's probably another log that just looks like a crocodile," I said to Dan Irby, whose teeny boat carried us down the saltwater Daintree River on a twilight wildlife-spotting trip. Truth be told, I'd thought I'd signed up for the Australian wine and cheese cruise in a canopy-covered boat. Instead, I found myself in a slow-moving open-air trawler, deliberately seeking out crocodiles like Steve, the crazy crocodile hunter on Animal Planet. And then I spotted a real one. I knew so because Dan quickly backed up the boat that he'd nearly docked on the tiny beach.
He explained to his frightened passengers that crocs are generally lazy; they store up their energy for one big kill and otherwise lie in wait, ideally on a sun-warmed shore, for an unwitting animal to wander their way. And they move faster in water, which was less pleasant to learn, since that's where we were. The croc must have already eaten, though. He didn't follow us.
As dusk fell, drama gave way to calm, as we appreciated the river's simple beauty: Mangroves and their aerial roots were mirrored with astonishing clarity in reflections along the water's edge. More than a dozen mullet fish, excited by our spotlight, sprang out of the water, splashing us and once knocking into our boat, causing another woman and me to grab onto each other for dear life.
We saw flying foxes (fruit bats) sail over our heads to feed, and after dark we spotted several sleeping fairy warblers, each tiny beak tucked into a fluffy wing. One after another was balanced on the edge of a flimsy branch; should a predator approach, I learned, the bird will detect its weight and make a getaway. Our guide also pointed out a white-tail rat, a nocturnal and endangered forest creature, and a tiny white-lipped tree frog. Although they weren't kangaroos or ostriches, I felt I'd seen what Dan could: Australia's overlooked and underrated wild creatures.
Angsana Resort & Spa
According to the stickybeaks (Australian slang for nosy people), Bill Clinton has purchased one of the 69 suites at Angsana in Palm Cove, a half-hour drive north of Cairns. This is only a rumor as far as I could tell, but I did read in a Sydney newspaper that he's a frequent visitor to the upscale resort area. Having just missed Al Gore at Lizard Island, I felt I was on the flip side of political journalism, trailing Democrats who've wandered off the campaign trail from spa to spa.
The trail that leads to Angsana is a palm-lined waterfront esplanade, with small shops and restaurants. It's the only Queensland spa I visited whose setting approximates an urban one, and yet it's the only Palm Cove resort on the beach. My beachfront suite's balcony overlooked a tiny wedding chapel, and from my perch, I saw the sea breezes interfering with the perfectly placed tendrils of a young Japanese bride's coiffure. Her wedding consultants, dressed in uniforms like flight attendants', buzzed around her so the photographer could complete his task.
Angsana, named for a tree that blossoms unexpectedly, is Australia's most Eastern-influenced spa, with modern Asian decor and a Thai staff. It's also the largest spa I visited, with eight treatment rooms, four of which are rooftop. The tented treatment platforms, each hidden in a capacious outdoor rock garden and surrounded by a fence, overlook their own private pools. You can also see the ocean beyond and hear the waves rolling in.
Since I'd already experienced several Australian treatments, at Angsana I selected Thai ones. The tamarind-and-watermelon-juice scrub made a delicious if slightly sticky exfoliant but was gentle enough for Tip, my tall Thai therapist, to rub it between my toes. I rinsed off at an outdoor shower that resembled a rock sculpture.
Next, Tip handed me Thai fisherman's clothes, my outfit for my first Thai massage. (I had never encountered the one-size-fits-all pants before and required some help getting them wrapped.) Once I was dressed and on the table, I was surprised when Tip climbed up, too. She gracefully perched between my calves and padded up the backs of my legs like a cat across a newspaper. Lying facedown, I couldn't picture what contorted shape I was in and where she was exactly. When I turned onto my back, I couldn't resist a peek and pulled away the eye pillow to find Tip dangling off the end of the table, counterbalancing herself by pulling my ankle and pushing her foot into the back of my thigh. If I hadn't been completely and blissfully unwound, I would have laughed.
On my next day, I took a ride along the 4.7-mile Skyrail Rain Forest Cableway over the rain forest and the Barron Gorge. From the gondola, I had a bird's-eye view of the birds. Gliding over a sea of every possible green, I easily spotted the white cockatoos preening in pairs. The canopy is so dense that it's impossible to see the forest floor, which is perhaps for the best. To clear these enormous trees, the cableway is about 100 feet up. When it carried me over the Barron River, I closed my eyes, but only for a moment. When I returned to Angsana, I fell onto my sofa's shiny silk pillows and ordered room service: bug (Australian lobster) ravioli, the perfect comfort food.
Hayman Island Resort
Walking past the bevy of high-end shops and through the lobby that resembles an art gallery with Asian sculpture and Persian rugs, I felt like I might be at The Plaza in New York City instead of this remote resort. Such urbane touches stand out on a 900-acre tropical island. I was surprised that cell phones worked and some guests were actually using them. You're in paradise, I wanted to whisper to them.
Hayman's beautiful main beach is lined with catamaran sailboats arranged by the color of their sails. (At high tide, the water-sports staff carries them into the water.) The winds here at the Whitsunday Passage make it a popular sailing destination, and windsurfing, kayaking, and paddle skiing are also offered. An impressive fleet of sea and air vessels (including a helicopter) whisks guests off the island on ocean safaris to tour, snorkel, or dive around the reef.
In fact, I'd been transported here from the nearest airport, on Hamilton Island, by the resort's own seaplane, virtually a flying SUV. I rode in the copilot's seat for the ten-minute water-skimming trip, seeing coral through the water's surface. As the plane became a boat and we steered toward shore, the pilot popped open the windows and a light breeze without a trace of saltiness filled the plane.
Despite the litany of water activities, I chose to be a landlubber here: doing yoga, lying by the pool, and resting up for the Chef's Table, an evening-long event hosted in the kitchen. To prepare, I had a facial at the spa. Secluded from the outdoors at The Retreat, I felt I'd entered a hallowed sphere, where like Gigi I'd be quietly remade into a lady. This feeling was likely accentuated by the Hayman facial I was having, which used French Guerlain products and included eyebrow and eyelash tinting. Later, I told a woman from Adelaide (who had brought her newborn to Hayman) that the treatment is about 50 percent massage, making what looks like a pricey facial more like a package of services. She looked at her husband with eyes that said "babysitter" and sipped from her sparkling water.
That evening at the Chef's Table, a specially arranged menu was paired with top Australian wines, brought up from the resort's cellar. (A love for a Clare Valley Riesling and a Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir has followed me home.) The dozen Australian guests--I was the only foreigner--were amazingly friendly. "When I was here last," whispered a woman from Melbourne who was dressed in an assemblage of pinks, "there was a prince of some country visiting with his entourage of about 18. No one in Australia is that fancy."
My main course was a nicely cooked piece of fish (the others had duck), but it didn't compare to the painstakingly presented small dishes (which are confusingly called entrýes in Australia): Morton Bay bug tails in tempura corn batter, a Jerusalem artichoke soup dotted with avruga caviar, and a ricotta-and-roasted-pepper rotolo with seared scallops. The caramel-pear dessert came in its own ginger-pastry cage, which hypnotized us all. Afterward, we were shuffled off for a kitchen and wine cellar tour, with a stop in another room under lock and key, the chocolate room. At this late hour, our appetites so clearly sated, we nevertheless moved in for one last petit four, what Hayman calls a "sweet ending."
Tropical Australia : The Basics
The state of Queensland, in northeast Australia, borders the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. Tropical North Queensland begins at Cairns, the area's transportation hub. To get to the coastal spas, it's easiest to take a car service (Cairns Limousines, 011-61-7-4032-1599). Palm Cove is about a half hour from Cairns, Mossman is one hour, and Daintree is an hour and a half.
Cairns Airport serves Dunk, Lizard, and Hayman Islands via Macair Airlines (011-61-7-4035-9722). Visitors to Hayman fly to Hamilton Island, where Hayman provides a boat or seaplane transfer; flights to Dunk and Lizard Islands are direct. Many international carriers fly to Sydney, including Qantas (qantas.com.au), which also has domestic service to Cairns.
Dunk Island 800-225-9849, dunk-island.com Silky Oaks Lodge, Mossman, 800-225-9849, silkyoakslodge.com.au Lizard Island 800-225-9849, lizardisland.com.au Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa, Daintree, 011-61-7-4098-6100, daintree-ecolodge.com.au Angsana Resort & Spa, Palm Cove, 011-61-7-4055-3000, angsana.com Hayman Island Resort, 011-61-2-9268-1888, hayman.com.au
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