A giant clam, which is a mollusk as big as a bear, opens wide to catch the sunlight. It sits on the shallow ocean floor at the Great Barrier Reef, where famed explorer Captain Cook scraped some serious wood off the bottom of his ship, the Endeavour, trying to squeeze through the coral in 1770.
Nearby, along the coast of Queensland, Australia’s northeastern state, rain drips from the fronds of prehistoric ferns; cave drawings and paintings describe ancient birthing procedures; and in a town named for Cook, a local museum and annual reenactments celebrate the exploits of sailors from Europe nearly 250 years ago.
If you are among the many travelers from the Americas headed for cruises around Australia, consider a pre- or post-trip of at least several days to Queensland.
While a few cruise ships occasionally stop at Queensland’s small ports, chances are that yours will not. As Captain Cook learned, this part of Australia is not an easy reach if you are sailing anywhere else.
Besides, a few hours in port would not allow enough time to get you where you will want to go: snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef (to check off a giant clam from your bucket list); exploring a bit in Daintree National Park where scientists have discovered flora that they had thought was extinct; learning about Cook and taking a guided tour into the rocky hills that are sacred to indigenous people; and, if your pockets are deep enough, some R&R at the granddaddy of rich people’s retreats, Lizard Island.
Much of what is accessible to travelers in northern Queensland lies between Cairns and Cooktown. From Sydney, I flew into Cairns, then made my way north through Daintree.
• The primary reason to go to Cairns ( www.visitcairns.com.au) is to book a snorkeling or diving boat to the Great Barrier Reef. The Reef, at 1,200 miles long, is the world’s largest living organism. Getting to the outer reef and back, even from Cairns, takes a full, long day, though there are shorter snorkeling and glass-bottom boat trips to inner portions of the reef. Prices are $80 and up.
Tour operators also will arrange bungee jumping, white water rafting, and a Skyrail cable car above the canopy of a rainforest. You can do hot air ballooning ( www.hotair.com.au) to spot wild kangaroo, or hug a koala at the Cairns Zoo ( www.cairnstropicalzoo.com). You can swim in a large pool beside the ocean, built by the city because the ocean beaches are not safe from sea crocodiles that hide in the mud. Crocs do not venture ashore (local folks promise).
• Daintree National Park is a treasure. Most of it is tropical rainforest, some of which has existed continuously for more than 110 million years. It may be the oldest rainforest on Earth. Some plant and animal species have been found nowhere else on the planet.
You can book a ride (or rental car) into Daintree from Port Douglas, north of Cairns, but you won’t get through it, toward Cooktown, without a four-wheel drive vehicle, such as those operated by guides from Adventure North ( www.adventurenorthaustralia.com).
Over rutted road, through crocodile-infested streams, and across one river on a cable-drawn ferry, an Adventure North guide drove carefully along a coastal road that is impassable in the wettest season. For some travelers, the 12-hour trip may be worth it just to say you’ve been to the old mining town of Wujal Wujal; seen the mysterious Black Mountain of Aboriginal legend; and had a XXXX Beer (sometimes called Four X) at the Lion’s Den Hotel, an old bush pub dating to 1875.
• Cooktown is a somewhat sleepy seaside village that sits at the edge of the river that Captain Cook named for his ship, the Endeavour, repaired here after a damaging scrape on the reef.
Endeavour had left England in 1768, on a mission to go farther than any man had gone before. Sound familiar? “Where no man has gone before” is a phrase made popular by the original Star Trek television series. It refers to the mission of the starship Enterprise. If you visit the Captain Cook Museum in Cooktown, you will note other similarities between the two explorations.
Little did Captain Cook know that he had landed within a few miles of the sacred birthing caves of local indigenous people. The Guurrbi Tours Rainbow Serpent Tour, led by Wilfred Gordon, offers walking trips to see and understand this Aboriginal Rock Art ( www.guurrbitours.com, $125).
• Lizard Island is named for its primary inhabitants, joined, especially in Australia’s winter, by sailors, campers, and other vacationers. Most of the island is national park, which draws swimmers to secluded beaches and divers to the reefs. The island’s Cod Hole is a dive site known for a dazzling array of tropical fish and the massive Potato Cod.
Two types of accommodations are worlds apart. Overnighters must carry all their gear to the camping area, which is three-quarters of a mile from the airstrip. No supplies are available on the island ( www.nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/lizard-island/index.html).
Or, you may book a cottage at the famed Lizard Island Resort. For $1,300 a night or so, you can live like the rich, with fine meals, a well-schooled service staff, plenty of activities, and watercraft to take you to one of the island’s private beaches or to sites along the Great Barrier Reef to snorkel and dive. www.lizardisland.com.au/.
You may be satisfied to snorkel and swim next to your cottage. Where the sand ends, nature’s aquarium begins. In about 15 feet of water came my wow moment, when just below me sat the giant clam in greens and blues and some purple. I floated above my clam for at least 10 minutes before swimming away reluctantly, toward shore and my plane ride off Lizard Island.
Australia is huge, and on a pre-trip, before my cruise out of Sydney, I missed Brisbane and Melbourne, Perth and Darwin, Adelaide and the rock called Uluru. Instead, I spent a week in northern Queensland, the one part of Australia that eluded Bill Bryson as he was researching his excellent book, In a Sunburned Country.
Later, when I told Australians where I had been, to Daintree and Cooktown and Lizard Island, they were, to a person, jealous, which is a pretty good indication that I had made a wise choice.
David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com