A boutique cruise's guests enjoy a journey of discovery, writes Tiana Templeman.
Travellers always hope for stunning blue skies, crystal-clear waters, wonderful company and a holiday experience of a lifetime but this doesn't always happen. However, when it does, it's magic. We didn't want to get our hopes up but we couldn't help it. Expectations were high as we boarded Coral Expeditions II in Cairns for a four-night sailing around the Great Barrier Reef.
The boutique expedition ship is designed to explore the shallow reefs and unique destinations dotted along the north Queensland coast and caters for a maximum of 44 guests. Our cruise had just 22 passengers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, which made for a personal and convivial experience. The Great Barrier Reef itinerary runs year round and solo travellers do not have to pay a single supplement, which makes it a popular choice for those travelling alone.
Our itinerary was set to begin with an overnight sail to Cooktown followed by a night anchored at Lizard Island, then two days cruising down the coast with visits to some of Queensland's most spectacular reefs. However, with grey skies and strong winds forecast, we wondered how our much-anticipated trip was going to pan out. While it is impossible to control the weather, we were hoping Mother Nature would be kind.
Life on board Coral Expeditions II follows a schedule for meals and activities which can take some getting used to, particularly for travellers such as us, who are used to large cruise ships with a "go as you please" vibe. However, this arrangement has many advantages. You never miss out on anything by being caught out with the timing, whether it is lunch or a snorkelling trip, and it is easy to make the most of your time on board and ashore.
The itinerary is subject to change and so it was for us as we were due in Cooktown on Anzac Day. Coral Expeditions II usually stops in Cooktown for the morning so passengers can visit the museum and other attractions but instead we arrived before dawn to attend the Anzac Day Dawn Service. We strolled through Cooktown in the dark, following our tour leader's bobbing torch to the park where the service was being held. Cooktown has about 3000 residents and many of them attended the low-key yet poignant service, which was followed by breakfast at the local RSL. As all the usual attractions were closed for the public holiday, we stayed just long enough for a quick look around town then reboarded the ship for the three-hour journey to Lizard Island.
As we approached the island the weather began to clear and we arrived to clear skies and stunning views, eager to catch the glass bottom boat to shore and get in the water. We watched as the first-time divers on our cruise prepared for their free introductory dive at one of the Great Barrier Reef's most famous islands. It was a far cry from most learn-to-dive classes, which usually take place in a resort swimming pool. The afternoon was devoted to relaxing on the sand and exploring underwater as fish cruised around the jewel-bright giant clams for which this particular reef is famous. Some passengers stayed to soak up the sun while others headed back to the ship for a shower before the (complimentary) cocktail hour on the beach. Champagne corks popped and the drinks flowed as freely as the conversation while people gathered to chat and enjoy the sunset. In the Anzac tradition, a lively game of two-up was started by the crew and everyone won (and lost) a few dollars.
The morning saw some keen passengers up early for a three-hour round trip walk to Cook's Look on top of Lizard Island. For the rest of us there was more snorkelling and scuba diving off the beach, this time on a different reef, before our departure to Ribbon Reef #9. This would be our first off-shore snorkelling experience and everyone was excited to see what it would be like. Coral Expeditions' open bridge policy meant we could spend time talking to the captain and crew and keeping a lookout for dolphins.
We didn't have any luck in the morning but other passengers spotted a pod later that afternoon. Our only regret was we had arrived too early for whale season as the crew told us sightings were almost guaranteed.
With a glass bottom boat and snorkelling and diving platform on board, there was a reef exploration activity to suit every passenger. Those who preferred to stay dry (or who wanted to learn more about the reef) could stroll on to the glass bottom boat from Deck 2 with the ship's marine biologist before the boat was lowered into the water for an educational trip around the reef. Coral Expeditions has exclusive mooring rights on many of the reefs the ship visits so there is no overcrowding or damage done by too many visitors.
What followed had everyone in awe of the stunning beauty of the Great Barrier Reef.
Visibility was more than 10m every time we stopped, with huge groupers and humphead wrasse shimmering in the water below. Coral popped with colour in the sunlight as we flitted from one pristine coral bommie to another, marvelling at thriving colonies of clown fish, clouds of electric blue neon tetras and parrot fish in every colour of the rainbow. Over the next two days we also visited Ribbon Reef #3 and Escape Reef, unable to believe how each stop managed to be even better than the one before.
On the final afternoon, as we were making our way back to Cairns, the captain made an announcement.
"You're probably not going to believe me but there is a minke whale alongside us." Given whale season hadn't even started yet, I couldn't help but wonder if this 'minke whale' was the same species as the rubber stingray that found its way into the onboard touch tank.
However, as passengers crowded the decks, the graceful arc of a whale's back emerged alongside the ship. Just when it seemed our trip couldn't get any better, one final (seemingly impossible) wish had come true.