Sunday, July 20, 2008

port douglas (day 1 of 5)

As I’d mentioned, my parents are visiting on their annual trip from the States. They’ve been here almost a month now, and as a special treat took the four of us (me, Erika, and them) up to the coast of the northeastern corner of Australia, Queensland, for a vacation. Going on vacation to Queensland is the Australian equivalent of going to Florida, at least as far as warmth and beaches and the like goes. Queensland is much less populated (by humans) and more creatively hazardous than Florida (vicious crocodiles that put alligators to shame, jellyfish more deadly than man-o-wars, a host of other surprises), and has a pejorative reputation of being a bit of a rural backwater. As a reference point, this was the home turf of Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter.

Our flight to Queensland was remarkably pleasant, a quality I attribute to two key factors:
1) The absence of stress and anxiety in the airport security procedures. I kept my shoes on, and none of us even had to show identification until we went to pick up the rental car at the end of the flight. It was an incredibly refreshing experience, and one that reinforced for me how dehumanising and unpleasant the airline security process is at home.
2) The presence of unexpected quantities of chocolate ice cream in transit. Thanks, Qantas!

Queensland’s winter weather is a tropical dream-come-true after grey and windy Melbourne. The heat and sunshine hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. I could feel my spirits rising with the humidity. My hair swiftly followed, and has now achieved a level of curliness it is unlikely to reach again unless assisted by copious amounts of product.

Queensland so far seems full of delightful – and occasionally scary – animals. We’d scarcely arrived when we passed a mob of wild kangaroos monopolizing a cattle field. Fortunately the cows and kangaroos seem inclined to ignore each other. A bit farther along I spotted an absolutely enormous crocodile snoozing on the bank of a creek. Kookaburras are in abundant evidence, as are a smallish breed of wild fowl* we’ve christened “jungle chicken.” Possums don’t so much go bump as scratch and snuffle in the night, and the raucous screeches from the flocks of flying foxes (i.e. giant bats) echo throughout our neighbourhood. The bats are adorable. They’re nursing their young at the moment, and if you catch them at the right time, you can see the baby bats crawling around in the flowering gum trees, nibbling the blossoms.

From Melbourne we flew to Cairns (pronounced “cans,” like tinned products), which we passed quickly through in favour of more remote destinations. The road wound north past tiny towns, scattered businesses, tourist attractions, resort condominiums and holiday compounds. Despite notably increasing development, however, Queensland remains markedly empty. Mountains coated with rainforests bound seemingly endless sugar cane fields. The cane fields dominate the view as they have historically dominated the economy, though the areas large and growing tourism industry is gaining ground. The road never stays far from the coast, hugging the shore with occasionally unnerving proximity (think Great Ocean Road) and winding past pristine white beaches with turquoise waves and palm trees. Due to the convenient proximity of mountains and beach, this whole area is popular with hang-gliders, paragliders, and the like. We were tickled by the wonderful yellow road signs warning of the dangers that Box Jellyfish (“Marine Stingers”) pose to bathers who venture out of the designated swimming areas at the wrong time of year.

Port Douglas – our destination – is long and skinny. Although only the tip of it is actually strictly peninsular, the whole town feels finger-like because it stretches along the aptly named four-mile beach. The town is full of shops, great restaurants, and quasi-gated resort/spa compounds. Fortunately, the town is big enough that you can sense the existence of people, events, and a community unrelated to (or at least coexistent with) tourism: there is substance to Port Douglas beyond the tourists and the institutions that manage us.

Our holiday apartment was perfect: a fully furnished two-bedroom with a kitchen (so we could cook and avoid eating out every day), tile floors (great for sandy feet!) and a lovely patio. After checking in and getting settled, my parents, Erika, and I headed into town for the tail end of the Sunday market. There was a vendor selling coin purses and wallets made out of cane toad pelts. I kid you not. They were…bizarre. Eyes and legs and all. We also saw a man with two enormous and immaculately white Cockatoos on his head wandering the main street.

We finished off the day with a delicious dinner at a restaurant whose setting is so breathtaking that it’s difficult to describe. To reach Nautilus from the main street, you walk up a steep torch-lined trail through tall, lush rainforest plants and trees. The restaurant itself sits on a series of wide and open wooden platforms framed by more trees and plants. They describe themselves as “the ultimate outdoor dining experience,” and they are. We watched a possum scamper along a palm branch on the edge of the floodlit area while enjoying our perfectly cooked and creatively prepared meal. A capital culmination of our first day on vacation.

Note: the restaurant depicted here is not Nautilis, but another delicious venue, The Living Room, where we celebrated Mum’s birthday on Friday. Also pictured are a few shots of Palm Cove, a town down the coast a bit towards Cairns.

* Our Jungle Chicken is actually called Orange Footed Scrub Fowl, “Megapodius Reinwart”.

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