Chasing the sun, scanning the glittering expanse of sapphire sea surrounding the remote islands of the southern hemisphere, our writer cruises from Perth to Cairns, taking in the unrivalled beauty of the Australian coastline.
Only the bow, under the night sky, the water is almost black, with the Perth cityscape of skyscrapers glimmering to port. Stretching along the Indian Ocean, Western Australia’s capital – once thought of as the world’s most isolated city – has transformed into a vibrant mineral-rich boomtown crowded with slick waterfront bistros and bars. Just 11 miles offshore from this shimmering vista is Rottnest Island – a remote wildlife-filled preserve that’s quaint, craggy and home to the quokka, a friendly chubby-cheeked marsupial not found anywhere else. With no cars allowed on the island, visitors can cycle around saltbush-scented trails to hidden coves, lighthouses, bays and beaches. Perth’s rich mix of sleek, sophisticated city that kisses the coastline and rugged, island adventure zone teeming with weird and wonderful wildlife, neatly sums up Australia’s vast, expansive and frankly hypnotic appeal. It’s a land of extremes, at the edge of the earth, yet right in the middle of things. And I’ve just set sail to explore its outer reaches, and inner beauty, from West to East.
Though often overshadowed by shiny, showy Sydney, Melbourne has its own homegrown charms and has quietly become the coolest city in the southern hemisphere. A sun-dappled, soulful haven of creativity, its elegant Gothic buildings and leafy boulevards are packed with colourful cafés, rooftop bars, speakeasies, wineries, and a vibrant arts scene. Every corner of this city is full of marvels: intriguing courtyards blazing with street art and eucalyptus-fringed lanes buzzing with Parisian-style bistros. The European on Spring Street offers old-world cuisine with a cosmopolitan crowd, while Pastuso Peruvian Bar & Grill is famed for its inventive small plates and pisco sours. For those keen to get a taste of life in ‘the most liveable city in the world’, Melbourne has a thriving hotel culture. The Como, a Melbourne institution, is the starriest crash pad in town with its fairytale Japanese gardens. Meanwhile, the Adelphi Hotel, with its rooftop glass pool overhanging the edge of the building giving swimmers a glimpse of the people below, is a one-of-a-kind boutique establishment.
Nestling 150 miles off the southeastern coast lies Tasmania, an enchanting place of primitive landscapes and strange animals. Australia’s southernmost state is the last great frontier, but a new sophistication and a serious food-and-wine scene is blossoming. The capital, Hobart, is a beautiful colonial town. One of its unique highlights is the newish and wonderfully quirky Museum of Old and New Art that mixes international contemporary art with atmospheric bars, lounge areas and a winery that has already drawn millions of visitors. But the allure of this faraway island is its stark, lovely wilderness and coastline.
Outside of Hobart, the super-sleek eco-lodge Saffire Freycinet is a design marvel, with 20 timber-panelled cabins spilling over Coles Bay. Its glass-walled restaurant Palate serves fancied-up Aussie classics, with views stretching to the sweep of sea below and the Hazard Mountains beyond. There are bird-watching trips to Pelican Bay, wine tastings at Freycinet Vineyard and nightly marsupial walkabouts in hopes of spotting a wallaby or the elusive Tasmanian devil.
Once thought of as the world’s most isolated city, Perth has transformed into a vibrant mineral-rich boomtown crowded with slick waterfront bistros and bars
With fewer wild, uncultivated places left in the world, Pumphouse Point lodge in Tasmania’s World Heritage wilderness has been topping magazine hotlists since opening last year. At the end of a long, slender jetty, the converted three-storey Art Deco hydro station on Lake St Clair is a dream of a place, offering luxury and seclusion. Everyone staying at the waterside retreat shares communal meals and conversation surrounded by the silence of the mountains.
Of course, Australia is home to the largest living thing on earth: The Great Barrier Reef. Our journey to the 2,300km-long ecosystem starts at the Gladstone Yacht Club, an old-fashioned yachties hub in the port town of Gladstone in Queensland. Over a cocktail lunch, I chat to our Australian host who talks wistfully of summer holidays and bushwalks on Heron Island.
Hours later, we’re flying across the reef, a sweep of 900-plus coral islands off the eastern coast. Skimming low, the pilot tilts the plane so we can peer into the gem-coloured shallows. “Look at that beauty down there,” he says of a giant manta ray sashaying like a showgirl through the water. Another unexpected thrill is jumping into the water out of a seaplane. Lying 45 miles off Queensland’s Capricorn Coast at the southern end of the reef, Heron Island, a tiny coral cay once housing a turtle soup factory, now serves as a sanctuary to nesting turtles and migrating birds. As soon as I walk the pathways to my room, it’s evident the birds rule the roost. The trees and lawns are abuzz with terns, shearwaters, gulls and herons.
The charm of this island is its simplicity and raw loveliness. Everything about it is low-key, from motel-style rooms and beachside chalets to the activities: bird-watching, reef-walking, stand-up paddle boarding, night diving among shipwrecks and super-size fish, and exploring the bottom of the ocean in a Jules-Verne-style semi-submarine vessel. As we floated through this dreamlike water world, our skipper Steve, who doubles as a diving instructor, pointed out its jewel-bright inhabitants teeming beneath the surface. At low tide, taking a reef walk with a marine biologist, you can walk directly from the beach to the edge of the reef. Baby lemon sharks glide by and giant green turtles munch on sea grasses amid the vivid coral gardens. Aside from a single pay phone, there are no televisions nor Wi-Fi. It’s precisely this isolation and wildness that makes Heron so unique.
The next stop is Hamilton Island, the summer playground of Australia’s well-heeled elite. Fringed by rainforests, the waterfront beside the yacht-filled marina is lined with quaint cafés, boutiques and pubs. Since Australian tycoon Robert Oatley bought the island in 2003, it has been transformed into a high-end escape in the middle of the reef.
Everywhere you look there are sky-scraping palms and yellow-crested cockatoos – charming grifters who are so friendly they take food out of your hand. There’s a whole rainforest to explore, with sunrise bushwalks up Passage Peak through blue-gum forests when the wallabies and tree kangaroos venture out. You can have breakfast with koalas at WILD LIFE Hamilton, Island, where these cute little bears hang out in the eucalyptus trees among the diners.
Hamilton Island is the perfect base for exploring the reef – you can travel to a pontoon moored on the outer reef and sleep under the stars, surrounded by the ocean. One morning, we chartered a small sailboat to a beach on an uninhabited island, where we spent the day roaming among the acacias and mangroves.
Afterwards, the captain let me steer the boat back to Hamilton just in time to watch the sun melt into the horizon at the bar-cum-lookout at One Tree Hill, the high point named after the lonely old fig that clings to it. We watched as great flocks of flying foxes and fruit bats the size of cats swooped across the skies at twilight.
A couple of days later, we head on to Hayman Island, giddy with anticipation. A tropical idyll of coconut groves, sugar-white sands and turquoise waters, One&Only Hayman Island resort is wildly and abundantly luxurious. After an effortless check-in, we whisked around to the beautiful Blue Pearl Bay for a sunset picnic in a deserted cove. With the sea breezes and Champagne flowing, it felt like a tiny secret kingdom by the Coral Sea. Hayman has become known as a hideaway for Hollywood A-listers thanks to its exclusivity and extravagant indulgences – everything from helicopter rides to fire-lit feasts and cocktail parties on the shore or a desolate cliff. The newly spruced-up retreat has a huge variety of lodgings, from poolside suites and villas to penthouses, all with plush minimalist interiors and postcard-worthy views. For those keen on exploring the reef and nearby islands, Hayman’s marina offers a selection of marine adventure excursions, including snorkelling and around-the-clock deep-sea diving. Just drifting around the bay across psychedelic corals is enough to lull you into another world.
A brief stop to moor up at the Cairns Yacht Club in north Queensland allows just enough time for a refreshing Martini at Salt House, a glass-lantern-lit bar on the marina, before hopping on board to our final destination. Reachable only via private charter plane from Cairns, Lizard Island is exclusive, environmentally conscious and has been luring movie stars and high fliers for decades.
After being destroyed by two cyclones, the island has made an incredible comeback. Both laid-back and lavish, the 40 clapboard villas, all strung along a sliver of coast, have been completely refurbished with dazzling white interiors, polished wood floors and private sun decks. Fringed by dune grasslands and mangroves in a 2,500-acre national park, it’s a refuge for the yellow-spotted monitor lizards that give the island its name, loggerhead sea turtles and countless exotic creatures. You could easily spend days exploring its pristine shores and grassy bluffs, or lounging in a hammock watching sunbathing lizards. Sitting in the open-air restaurant Salt Water in the glow of tiki torches, with a drink in hand, I can’t imagine wanting to be any place else.