We packed up the car in early May 2021 for a short road trip to Queensland, and ended up staying for almost six months as coronavirus-related lockdowns engulfed New South Wales and Victoria. With international borders shut and Queensland off-limits to most of the southern states, we decided in October (just before stinger season) that it would be a great opportunity to re-visit the Great Barrier Reef.
Our first ever visit was to the popular Agincourt Reefs off the coast of Port Douglas around the same time of year in 2015 and we were quite disappointed by poor visibility underwater and the amount of bleached white coral rubble. But with all the recent positive reports about rebounding coral health, we decided to have another look and boy, were we pleasantly surprised!
Our destination this time: Orpheus Island Lodge in the tiny Palm Island Group, about 30 minutes by helicopter north of Townsville.
So we flew from Brisbane to Townsville in the morning, and were met by Nautilus Aviation at the terminal just past noon. The sleek red chopper trip took us over the scenic Bowle River floodplains and a number of idyllic-looking islets. Our pilot told us that he had seen whales and dugongs earlier in the day so I kept my eyes peeled, but nada.
Pro tip #1: I say this for heli trips every time, but pack super light (like less than 15kg light) and put everything into a soft-sided duffel as it has to be stuffed into the compact bowels of the helicopter. You’ll find virtually everything you need from sunscreen and insect repellent to beautiful bath amenities at this Orpheus Island resort.
Once the helicopter doors opened, we were blasted by hot air and oppressive humidity, but the heat was tempered somewhat by the sight of the resort’s stunning infinity pool and smiling management team, bearing slim flutes of sparkling wine and iced water in chilled glasses lined with delicate ribbons of cool cucumber.
Our north-facing room was minimalist in style and equally crisp – kept that way by a powerful air-conditioner – and a glistening champagne bottle nestled in a bucket of ice. So far, so good.
The resort faces the Australian mainland, and a tree-shaded trail runs behind it up along a ridge so you can take in views of the other side of the island, whose waters are mostly off-limits to guest watercraft due to strong currents.
The path itself is quite steep and rocky at times but do-able in thongs and well-marked. If you’re a generous blood donor like me, then I’d recommend applying insect repellent liberally.
Dinner starts at 7pm nightly at Orpheus and this is the part I didn’t expect – the food is exceptional. This is an all-inclusive resort apart from premium bevvies. Perhaps the biggest hint that the dining was going to be good was the number of questions they put to us about our personal dietary preferences prior to arrival – expect to eat and drink very well indeed!
We also partook in the romantic Dining with the Tides experience on our final night – which involves six courses instead of the usual four. Served on the pier, under which well-fed juvenile blacktip sharks prowl, this involves an even higher standard in gastronomy and the personal attentions of a sommelier.
All other meals – yes I’m still talking about the food – were lavish and just scrumptious. You will not go hungry! Breakfast is a la carte, and you can order any kind of barista-style coffee you like. Yet we never did get to try anything off the morning menu as every morning cuppa comes with a large tasting board bearing a selection of fresh fruit, baked goods and two mini smoothies.
Lunch was themed – we had Thai, Middle Eastern, mod Australian and American (in that order I think – no two days were the same) – and the resort can also pack a gourmet picnic basket should you prefer to take a small motorboat, kayak or stand up paddleboard out to explore on your own. Points of interest nearby include Yanks Jetty, Sandy Beach and a giant clam garden. All aforementioned modes of transport are included during your stay.
While we did love the throngs of colourful fish that hung out under the wooden jetty – which is very hot to walk barefoot on by the way (bring ya thongs!) – it was the clam garden that most impressed us. I don’t think I have ever seen so many healthy iridescent giant clams in one place before.
Pro tip #2: You don’t need a marine license to drive the 6hp boats Orpheus Island Resort offers, but the channel into the resort is quite narrow and the water gets really shallow at low tide so go slow! Also, the giant clams are best seen while snorkelling close to low tide.
We also chartered the lodge’s private boat to dive the Outer Reef and our first dive was in an enchantingly colourful coral garden on and around a bommie in the Bramble Reef. Almost instantly, our guide Olivia pointed out a large cuttlefish, who proceeded to blend into its surroundings as soon as it saw us looking.
Realising we could still see it, the cuttlefish propelled itself away and at that very same moment, a huge shark swam right up behind us. As soon as I noticed it, my heart leapt into my mouth and the shark must have been equally unnerved because it flicked its big tail and swam back out into the blue.
My heart must have been going a million miles an hour. To conserve oxygen, I reminded myself a few times that reef sharks were harmless. Mostly. And wasn’t it only around Hamilton Island where they had acquired a taste for human?
When we surfaced, our dive guide Olivia told us it was a bull shark. Needless to say, I was pretty quick getting back onto the boat and not nearly so enthused about doing a second dive in the same spot.
During the hottest part of the day, we relaxed in the resort’s hammocks, played pool and I got repeatedly caned at chess. Almost all cold drinks at the resort are free – you just help yourself/order from the well-stocked bar fridge in the lounge or get stuck into your own minibar. There are also unlimited snacks – from Kit Kats and Red Rock chips in your room to freshly baked choc chip cookies (and trail mix if you are so inclined) at the poolside bar. Orpheus was my idea of heaven!
Every evening, we hung around in the giant infinity pool watching the sun sink below the horizon. With only 20 or so guests on the island at any given time, there was plenty of space for everyone to make new friends or maintain a modicum of privacy or enjoy the best of both worlds.
Before we knew it, the week was up and it was time to leave.
Pro tip #3: Orpheus Island Lodge is perfect for honeymooners and couples. As it is small and intimate, I’d imagine the resort would also be ideal for an extended family celebration such as a significant birthday.
As we were due to arrive late afternoon in Townsville, we decided to stay a night and check the city out.
The CBD section of Townsville is about 10 minutes by taxi from the airport, and is an interesting collection of British colonial buildings interspersed with nondescript office blocks. Along the waterfront were lots of new apartments, while higher up in the hills, there were many recent signs of growing affluence, from sprawling contemporary mansions to lovingly restored Queenslanders.
The city centre at 5pm on Thursday evening, had a deserted feel. A few backpacker places looked boarded up. A short walk past the marina and along The Strand was where we found all the townsfolk congregated for icy cold drinks and dinner at atmospherically lit restaurants. The paved promenade was also evidently very popular at dusk for a walk or run, as the blazing temperatures had subsided.
The following morning, we got up at 6am hoping to beat the heat as we walked up the goat track to the top of Castle Hill. A distinctive monolith overlooking Magnetic Island and the Coral Sea, Castle Hill boasts a well-maintained track with proper steps. But by 7am, it was already so humid and hot I had to step aside to let a couple of very acclimatised 90 year olds overtake.
But the view was spectacular and besides, we needed to shed some of the Orpheus Island Lodge kilos before we hopped on the plane home.