Back in the Land Down Under

Ah, Australia. A beautiful place with so many types of landscapes to be explored and adventures to be had. This time it was the Whitsunday Islands (a group of 74 mostly uninhabited islands between the northeast coast of Queensland, and the Great Barrier Reef, covered in dense rainforest, hiking trails and white sand beaches), and Port Douglas, a town on the Coral Sea in the tropical far north of Queensland.

It had officially been four months since I last saw José in New York for Tim’s wedding, and with a particularly rough summer behind us (job troubles, not seeing each other, his trip to Portugal cancelled), we were more than due for a trip to see each other. Thankfully, my boss was kind enough to let me take a few days off for this grand reunion, for which I am eternally grateful. It’s not every day you get to take a week off one month after starting a new job! I hopped on board my flight to Sydney last Saturday evening with the smile of a five-year-old at a birthday party: nothing but pure joy and excitement filling my heart. All I could think about were the happy days I had ahead of me.

We split our time between the Whitsunday Islands and Port Douglas equally (with a quick stop in Sydney on our final night), so I’ll divide the post into two parts for easier reading. Vamos!

The Whitsunday Islands

After meeting at the airport in Sydney and having our first hug in months (!!), we had about three hours to kill at the airport before boarding our flight to Hamilton Island, the airport hub of the Whitsunday Islands. We used it mainly to catch up on all the things and stories that are better to say in person. The flight was quick, about two hours, and gave us one of the coolest landing views ever (imagine landing on a tiny tarmac surrounded by nothing but deep blue sea). Once we landed on Hamilton Island, we took a 50-minute ferry ride to the place where we were staying, Airlie Beach (booked because of its better nightlife and dining options). The first big ‘wow’ of the trip came when we saw our Airbnb—a two-story property at the top of the mountain that looks out onto Airlie Beach, complete with a deck that gives us 180-degree views. Please take a moment to clap it up for José here, who found and booked the house. We spent some time enjoying the view and the fresh ocean breeze before freshening up and heading to the town around 8:30PM dinner. Something I/we always seem to forget about other parts of the world that aren’t major cities is that dinner is served early—as in, 5-7PM. Some would call this “Michael Hayden time.” We had quite a bit of trouble finding a restaurant whose kitchen was still open, but we finally found a solid spot that gave us a basic but yummy dinner of salmon and risotto. The jetlag hit José hard during dinner, so we called it an early night and were asleep by 10PM.

One thing we did while we were relaxing before dinner was book a tour for Monday—our first venture out to the Great Barrier Reef! We booked through a company called Cruise Whitsundays, which seems to own most of the tours departing from the island. We had to be at the marina at 7:30AM, so it was an early morning for us. Luckily, the crew had tea, coffee and some light pastries available on-board to help feed my caffeine addiction (I think my need for coffee in the morning became very clear to José during this particular trip, as we had quite a few early morning wakeups).

So what did we do on this tour? We took a boat out to the Outer Reef, which took a total of about three hours, to a pontoon anchored in the middle of an interesting coral area. Laying eyes on the Barrier Reef for the first time was impressive. We had seen it from above when we were flying in, but up-close-and-personal, it’s really something else. And because I like to pair entertainment and education in this blog, here are some facts about the Barrier Reef for you that I learned during this trip:

  • The reef is the largest coral reef system and living organism in the world, with over 900 islands stretching for over 2,600 kms (or 1,615 miles)
  • It is greater in size than the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined, (or half the size of Texas for all my Americano readers) and can be seen from outer space
  • Around 10 percent of the world’s total fish species can be found just within the Great Barrier Reef
  • Tourism to the reef generates approximately AU$5-6 billion per year from over two million visitors

The tour had us out on the sea from 8AM until 6PM, and we spent the day snorkeling, laying out in the sun, eating, and going on a 30-minute underwater cruise with an interesting vessel called a “semi-submerged submarine.” Basically you board and the bottom of the vessel has glass windows so you can see all the cool coral and fish, and we had a guide on board with us that gave us some interesting information about the Reef. Also, I learned that if Finding Nemohad been scientifically correct, Nemo’s father would have turned into a female after his mother dies in the beginning of the film for survival purposes as clownfish typically do, but in the words of our guide, “It’s hard to explain that to a three-year-old.”

The tour was nice and kept us busy for the day, but overall the visibility was not very good and we didn’t feel the coral Cruise Whitsundays took us to was particularly impressive—there was plenty to see, but the coral ecosystem was not as robust as some we’d see later in the week. But we were happy to have seen a bit of the Barrier Reef (what we came for), and headed home generally happy. For dinner that night, we decided we wanted to eat on our terms, so we stopped by Woolworth’s grocery store on the way home to pick up some groceries for a barbeque on our deck: peppers stuffed with eggs, pumpkin and other veggies for grilling, lamb for José, avocado/onion/tomato salad for me. I made the salad while José manned the grill, and it was a delicious dinner (and our first time cooking together!). We had also purchased some wine to go with dinner, and it was a really lovely and relaxing evening for the two of us.

The next morning was, you guessed it, another tour. We ultimately decided it might have been a better idea to visit the Whitsundays on a three-day tour rather than smaller daily ones so we could’ve gotten a bit more immersed into the Barrier Reef, but our Tuesday tour was still solid. We were at the marina at 6:30, and departed just after 7AM. This tour was also through Cruise Whitsundays, and took us out to Hamilton Island for four hours of exploration (which we spent riding around the island in a rented golf cart and hitting up the beach), plus two hours on Whitehaven Beach (supposedly Australia’s #1 beach, but the weather turned on us in the afternoon and we spent it mostly hiding from the drizzles—plus, we experienced nicer beaches in Port Douglas, so we’re not quite sure what the hype of this island is about).

We had so much food leftover from our barbeque the previous night, so we had leftovers for dinner, along with another bottle of wine, to ease into the evening after a busy day of activities. We had great sunsets both nights, even though the sun set over the mountains and we couldn’t see it dip below the horizon, our view of the water lit up by the sparkling sunset colors was gorgeous. This was our last evening in the Whitsunday Islands, and we started our dinner with a toast to the beautiful place.

Some photos from the Whitsunday Islands:

Port Douglas

The next morning (Wednesday), we had a 9:50AM flight from Hamilton Island to Cairns, a city further north on the Eastern Coast that acts as the port for many Great Barrier Reef tours. José had (rightly) heard the city itself was run down and a bit trashy, so we opted to stay in Port Douglas, an hour north of Cairns, instead (tours leave from here as well).

We decided to rent a car, and this is where Zé really thrives. There is nothing he loves more than driving around a new place on the open road, so we went to pick up the car and make him the happiest man that has ever visited a Europcar stall. We were outfitted with a sweet red Mitsubishi SUV, and we hit the road right away, with a few stops planned by José along our route before getting to Port Douglas. First one? Barron Falls, a steep tiered cascade waterfall on the Barron River where the river descends from the Atherton Tablelands to the Cairns coastal plain. A quick but pretty pitstop. 

I think no trip to Australia is complete without seeing at least one of the country’s incredibly unique animal species, and for us on this trip, it was the wallabies. Wallabies are an Australasian marsupial that is similar to, but smaller than, a kangaroo. It’s also the name of Australia’s national rugby team, fun fact. But mainly, THEY ARE SO CUTE. They run around and come up to you and ask for food and scuttle away on their cute little hind legs. Seriously, see photos below and try not to let out an ‘awwww.’ There was also a nice hike at the park where we stopped, with some nice 360-views of the surrounding nature land. Very fun and nice afternoon!

We hadn’t eaten all day, so on the drive to Port Douglas I Googled “Best restaurants in Port Douglas,” and found this very cool-looking spot called Nautilus serving modern Australian fare that boasted “a unique outdoor dining experience” (which turned out to be tables set amongst a very cool lush, tropical outdoor space). After checking into our room at the Pullman Sea Temple, we changed into our fancy dinner clothes and headed out for our meal. At the restaurant, we opted for the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairing because we were very hungry and thirsty, and it was so rewarding to take that first bite, in such an ornate setting, after almost a full day of no eating. The menu included oyster caviar, yellow fin tuna, crab brioche, crayfish on an heirloom tomato panzanella, steamed duck dumplings for José and quinoa salad for me, a beef dish for José and a “trout” dish for me, which was ironically named, because it turned out it was cod. Still scratching my head about why the waiter didn’t tell us that (as tasty as the food was, the service was a little strange at this restaurant). The real star of the show however, was the dessert: mango soufflé. Neither of us have a big sweet tooth, but the combination of mascarpone, Kaffir lime dust and spiced grissini was heaven to taste. Eating the soufflé made us both decide we want to take a cooking course in Singapore and learn techniques like souffling. An inspiring dinner, indeed!

Thursday morning was the first day we didn’t have any obligations getting us up early in the morning, and we took full advantage. After a long and lazy breakfast at the hotel, we decided to check out the beach attached to our hotel, called Four Mile Beach for obvious reasons. The sand stretched out for what seemed like forever and, coupled with low tide, we were able to walk for ages in the water before it even got above our ankles. The air temperature was significantly warmer than it had been in the Whitsundays as we were further up the coast and closer to the Equator, and this made for one very happy Sam. We found a nice spot to sit and bounced between soaking up the sun and submerging in the water.

In the afternoon, we took an hour-long drive to Cape Tribulation, a remote headland and ecotourism destination in northeast Queensland, offering a combination of rainforest and beaches. The coolest thing about Cape Trib (as the cool kids call it) is that it’s the only place in the world where one World Heritage Site touches another—in this case, Daintree Rainforest. Daintree is the largest continuous area of tropical rainforest on the Australian continent, and made for a beautiful drive. We were lucky enough to see both, before heading back around 5PM and stopping by a pretty beach José located on Google Maps just in time for sunset. As sufferers of FOMS (Fear of Missing Sunset), this was a necessity.

We had had a fancy dinner at Nautilus the night before, didn’t feel like getting all dolled up again, and were starving by the time we reached Port Douglas that evening, so we drove right to The Mexican, a trendy but laid-back spot in the middle of town with tasty Mexican food and margaritas/michaeladas that filled our stomachs with happiness.

In the morning it was go-time: a tour booked with another group that José had found while waiting for me the day prior while I hopped into the pharmacy to get some medicine for a small cold that I was able to kick during the trip. Serendipitous, as this tour rocked. The group was access to 35 islands, and chooses three snorkel/dive sites per day, depending on visibility, weather, etc. We were there bright and early at the marina to catch the boat, with a little time to spare for coffee and breakfast at the dock. We headed out about 90 minutes to our first dive site. The guides handed out our snorkel gear and gave us a briefing on the site, and before we knew it, we were in our Lycra suits (which help protect us from the sun and help protect the coral from chemicals/sunscreen on our bodies). The coral at this site was 100x better than anything we had seen in our previous days—colorful fish and vibrant underwater plants everywhere. So many species neither of us had seen before, like a fish colored in leopard print (so on trend!), as well as a huge green, black and white striped fish. Some people even saw sea turtles floating around!

Between our first and second site visits, lunch was served (around 12PM), and we also had a mini marine class to learn more about the Barrier Reef. By the time those two were over there wasn’t much time for snorkeling left, and the sun felt so good on my skin sitting outside on the boat deck, that while José took a quick dip in the water, I relaxed and took in the ocean around me.

Our third snorkel site was a mix of free snorkeling and a tour given by one of the guides, but by that point I was so nice and warm on the boat that I didn’t want to become chilly again by diving into the “refreshing” water. Yes, the toasty waters of Southeast Asia have indeed ruined me. I took the opportunity to take some cool photos of José, which you can see below. After about an hour more of snorkeling/diving, everyone was back on the boat and we were headed back to Port Douglas (with the bumpiest sea ride EVER that left a lot of people taking advantage of the sick bags that were provided during check-in).

José was one of those lucky people that left the boat feeling a little queasy, so we got back to the hotel and hung out for a while to let his stomach settle. Once he was back up and running, we got changed and headed down to the hotel bar for a drink before dinner. We were deciding between two restaurants for our final night in Port Douglas, and decided to go with one called Salsa Bar & Grill, “the local’s favorite.” The service was wonderful but the food was nothing to blog about. Very good, but nothing super special. Ze once again saved the day by locating a cool and funky bar in town, where we stopped after dinner to have a little post-meal tipple.

On Saturday, we had half the day to spare before a 2:40PM flight to Sydney. We had breakfast at the hotel, packed up our things and got on the road around 10AM to explore Thala Beach Nature Reserve, an eco-lodge and cool beach hiking spot about 10 minutes from our hotel. We hiked, checked out the beach and the palm tree forest, and the resort itself. At a whopping $525 USD/night, it was beautiful but I felt like I couldn’t touch anything inside. Maybe one day…?

We had a one-hour drive to the airport in Cairns and about 30 minutes to kill once we arrived, so we decided to check out the Botanic Gardens (very quickly). Lots of gorgeous plants and a very nice butterfly garden as well. I think it’s the only beautiful site located in the city of Cairns itself. Before we knew it, we were boarding our flight and then landing back in Sydney.

Our last night was a quick one in Sydney. We touched down in the city at 5:30PM, and thanks to the city’s amazing public transit, were in the hotel before 7PM. Perry, a friend from Syracuse, has been living in Sydney for the last three years, and our plan was to meet her at Hacienda, a trendy bar on the harbor where I took Mom for happy hour drinks last summer when we visited Sydney. We changed quickly and headed out to the town to meet up with Perry for a drink (or three) and a quick catchup. It was great to see her and have her meet José after months of talking about him! Also, we made plans for the four of us (José, myself, Perry, and her fiancé Joel) to meet up somewhere in Asia in 2019. Given the amount of fun we had in just one hour of seeing each other, I’m already looking forward to a full-blown trip with Perry.

Dinner that evening was at The Dining Room at the Park Hyatt. I had reached out to Perry last week to get her recommendations on dinner spots on the harbor with the best view of the Tower Bridge and Opera House, because I wanted José to have the best for his first visit to the city. And Perry really came through with this recommendation—our seats were just next to the window, and we had a full view of both the bridge and the Opera House, as well as the fireworks that went off spontaneously behind it at 10PM! Our waiter told us this was a rare occurrence, so we really lucked out. As for the dinner, we did a six-course tasting menu with a wine pairing (yes, we were really splurging on the tasting menus during this trip because, why not? It was a holiday!). Tasty, tasty, tasty. The menu was diverse in both its ingredients and cooking techniques—and prepared by the chef on a whim (even the wait staff didn’t know what would be on the menu). It was a lovely dinner for our final evening together in Australia.

After dinner we headed out into the town to the Soda Factory, an American-style bar with all my favorite party music from the States playing at maximum volume (Perry took me here during my last visit and I loved it). There were met with one of Zé’s friends from home that now lives in Sydney with her boyfriend. Another nice friend catchup, even if I was distracted by the pure joy of finally hearing good hip-hop music out at a bar.

With another quick stop at a nearby bar for a nightcap for the two of us, we headed home and passed out around 2AM. This morning (yes, I am writing this on the plane ride home) we woke up, packed, had a quick breakfast and were out the door on the way to the airport by 9AM. I felt myself being distracted by the happiness of being together so many times throughout the week, to the point where I wasn’t even taking in the beauty of the Barrier Reef around me, but this morning I was glad I did. I feel so lucky to be in a relationship where, no matter where you are in the world, whatever you’re doing, you’re having fun and enjoying being alive, together. In the moments between leaving the hotel and leaving José at the airport, all I could focus on was that wonderful feeling. There’s nothing else in the world quite like it, and I feel blessed to know it well. The countdown is on for our next reunion—six weeks to go!

Some photos from Port Douglas:

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