Day One on Hamilton Island in the state of Queensland and already I’m using words like paradise – and we haven’t even been to the Reef yet. Shedding our flip flops, we meander down the low-tide beach, where tiny hermit crabs have left their delicate trail of spaghetti mud to be crushed beneath our feet. The children rush ahead to hunt for crabs, who scuttle to escape, frantic little claws digging the wet sand, making more spaghetti. Some don’t make it in time and are held in the hands of their brave freckle-faced captors: “I’ve got one!”
We walk back to our hotel, the Reef View, through the beachfront resort. Cockatoos on café tables flare their yellow manes to my ‘Hello’. There are coconut-laden palms, perfectly manicured lawns and golf buggies, the only vehicles allowed. This a highly managed environment – there’s no smoking on the beaches, no litter anywhere, no commerce or restaurants apart from those owned by the resort. In a way, it’s a little too perfect.
But I remind myself that this is what Australia prides itself on – utmost respect and care for its great outdoors and a tourism philosophy that reflects this ethos. Also, it’s worth noting that this development only represents a small fraction of the island, with more than 70% of it natural bushland, and the Australian bush is a far from manageable entity – something wild, lethal, spectacular, its very air pregnant with spiritual antiquity and teeming with possibility.
The view from our room is beyond expectation – uninterrupted to the shore, with a meandering inlet like a dropped ribbon, framed now by a red setting sun and the silhouettes of palms. As the kids jump from one king-size bed to another, I stand on the balcony and it’s as if I’m suddenly part of the über-rich crowd, bubbled by beauty, slipping into my white jeans for dinner, shedding my drizzly parka days in Manchester like they never happened.
Part of our package is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Winter here is high season, as the temperature is a perfect 23° – summers can be unbearable, according to locals. Our boat is full of families and young couples. A barbeque is set up on deck, and we chug chug chug through the blue waters past pristine islands of ochre rock and bush.
There are many options for what to do once at the Reef – scuba-diving, submarine trips, helicopter flights or simply donning a wettie and swimming solo. We decide to take advantage of the free childcare, Club Seahorse, which offers games and movies on the boat under the supervision of a registered child worker, so we can snorkel. After that we will do a private guided snorkel as a family. Our guide Bunitj says the guided tour is a great option for nervous swimmers and children as we will be going out holding on to a ring, meaning that even our 4-year-old, River, will get to snorkel.
We make it to Reefworld, the floating pontoon from where we will explore the waters. Both children have fallen asleep in their seats, so the childminder encourages us to get into our wetsuits and have some fun, assuring us she will keep an eye out for them. As soon as I put my head under the water, I see a million rainbow-coloured parrot fish, tiny blue ones, big yellow-tailed ones, midnight blue corals and giant clams, and anemones waving at me. My husband Gareth and I wave at each other too, with huge grins, then duck back under to this amazing world that has been there all along.
But soon my mother radar gets me back to the boat to check on the kids, who have woken up, and kit them out in wetsuits, masks and snorkels. River shivers with nerves at first, but once we get into the water and he takes his first look under the surface he calms down. Meanwhile, Phoebe, normally super-confident and up for anything, struggles and is jittery and unable to enjoy herself, fiddling with her mask until finally she takes it off. I don’t really hear much of what Bunitj is saying about the biology because of the kids, but it doesn’t matter – it’s about being out here, in this wondrous place, surrounded by myriad, kaleidoscopic life. In any case, River is thrilled by his experience, and once we get back to the pontoon, Phoebe finds her solution by asking her dad to take her back out on his back.
We return to Hamilton Island that afternoon delighted, transformed, exultant, and spend the rest of our five days there in a state of happiness and serenity. Phoebe and her dad kayak from the beach every morning, spotting a giant turtle once, and I do dawn yoga on the shore with the resort instructor. We take another Fantasea cruise to Whitehaven Beach, nominated one of the top ten in the world, and find that its sand really is as soft and white as bleached flour, its water turquoise as any postcard of paradise.
My aunt and uncle join us from Melbourne and take the kids to the Koala Park while Gareth and I take one of the bush-walking trails – not for the faint-hearted and too much for little legs. We randomly follow a path, each step taking me more and more out of my head as we travel through ancient bush. It leads us to a beach where we are alone, with just the echo of our ‘cooeys’ resounding through the trees. We strip off and run naked into the velvety water. This is life, I think: unaltered, bare and breathing, feeling, being.
For more suggestions for family-friendly places to stay at the Great Barrier Reef and in Queensland, see our feature Green Places to Stay: Australasia and the Pacific.