Queensland: Reefs, Rainforests + Barramundi Barbecue

Queensland seaturtle
The Great Barrier Reef

As we helicopter over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I’m struggling to wrap my mind around the vastness of this marvel. Covering some 134,000 square miles, the world’s largest living organism is visible from outer space. Choppering over it 100 feet above is a surreal blend of serenity and exhilaration as you grasp the breadth of the marine habitat and the twinkling delicacy of the gin clear water.

The small beach town of Port Douglas is our HQ, bordered between two World Heritage Nature Sites along the east coast of Queensland in the northeast quadrant of Australia.

We’re here with Quicksilver Cruises who operate a large platform facility above Agincourt Reef at the gateway to the fourth Natural Wonder of the World. It’s a 90-minute transfer via a 450-passenger, hi-tech “wavepiercing catamaran.” For the next four hours, most of us snorkel and dive through a marine mob scene among the ribbons of reef in our snug lycra wetsuits. Those preferring a dry adventure can catch a view of colorful coral gardens and vibrant marine life from inside a semi-submersible vessel. Planners can also add to the experience with helicopter tours over the reef, and/or transfers to and from Port Douglas.

While most everyone knows about the Great Barrier Reef, fewer know about the stunning Daintree Rainforest National Park—the other half of Queensland’s stunning “Reef to Rainforest” World Heritage duo.

To get to Queensland, it’s a 13-hour flight from LAX to Brisbane. Kudos to the stylish V Australia team in L.A., who handle preflight in a setting more akin to a dance club than an airport thanks to the subtle lighting and mood music. From Brisbane, it’s a 2.5-hour flight up to Cairns, and then a 45-minute drive into Port Douglas.

The oldest rainforest on earth, Daintree stretches from Port Douglas into the mountains of the Great Dividing Range with cathedral-like outdoor settings for private retreats. The natural “ballroom” at the Flames of the Forest all-weather venue seats 950 for banquets and 2,000 for receptions. Hundreds of flickering flames and giant tree candelabras emphasize the lush environs.

We’re handed lighted candles to find our way along the trail to a clearing beneath the rainforest canopy opening up to reveal an outstanding Aussie barbecue feast. Fresh banana prawns, steamed barramundi, wattle seed-crusted black angus sirloin, and lemon myrtle kangaroo loin are all paired with lively local wines.

While our group dines in the forest, indigenous Australian siblings who spent their childhood in the surrounding valley perform stories told through music and song.

On a secluded stretch of Port Douglas’ spectacular Four Mile Beach, Sea Temple Resort & Spa combines ancient Asian influences with a relaxed South Sea Island lifestyle. Each of the 194 studio, condo and villa units feature either an oversized jet spa, plunge pool or access to the swim-out lagoon.

“This is a dream property for incentives since everyone gets some type of VIP experience,” says Jane O’Connor, marketing manager. “We’ve done dine-arounds on the roof decks of our penthouse units or roving dinners within our restaurants.”

Groups can tap into holistic treatments at the Sea Temple Spa or tee off at the resort’s links-style golf course where private functions are framed by the tropical rainforest. O’Connor adds that the grand lagoon is another prime gathering place with its lush landscaping illuminated with flickering flames at night.

“The one that really impresses is when we light our boardwalk to the beach with tea lights, flames and fairy lights strung into trees,” says O’Connor. “We’ll lead up to 40 down a path that feels really ethereal, before serving dinner with the waves crashing around everyone.”

About 20 minutes from Port Douglas tucked inside 80 acres of Daintree Rainforest, the boutique-style Silky Oaks Lodge & Healing Waters Spa is a vision of pure tranquility in the trees. Up to 50 couples can escape to contemporary Riverhouse rooms overlooking the Mossman River or Treehouse rooms with verandahs and spa baths overlooking the incredible canopy.

The eco-retreat brings the outside in with all of the open spaces and tall windows. A variety of spacious lounges and living areas adjoining the open-sided Treehouse restaurant overlook the surrounding rainforest and river. And etched into the leafy landscape, the world-ranked Healing Waters Spa incorporates natural elements from both the forest and ocean, like the Organic Green Tea Salt Therapy Marine Body Wrap.

During lunch along the banks of the Mossman, waiters donning scuba gear emerged from the babbling river to serve cocktails as a singer crooned from a passing boat. A few Aboriginal guides told stories while we ate, before leading us off on hiking and swimming adventures through the rainforest.

Silky Oaks Lodge
Silky Oaks Lodge

Someone came up with a fun idea for brunch. Landing back in Cairns, we head off to enjoy a late breakfast with the broods, flocks and tribes at Cairns Tropical Zoo.

This is one of three Freeman family-owned parks in Queensland. There’s also Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures just south of Port Douglas and Kuranda Koala Gardens in Kuranda. Each is chock full of wildlife exhibits striking a balance between entertainment, education and conservation. Many of the animals have been rescued from the wild and many will remain residents due to their acclimatization with people.

Barbara Thomson, business development manager, shows me the ropes of Tropical North Queensland’s largest and most diverse wildlife attraction.

“We believe that by educating our visitors and providing opportunities to have up-close experiences with wildlife, they leave with a greater understanding of why conservation is so critical for the future,” she says. I’m first in line to mug it up with Kai, a furry marsupial who munches on eucalyptus leaves during the four hours she’s awake each day.

For night functions, the venue has an entirely different vibe.

“We’ll set up bars and food stations in different exhibit areas, then break up groups up to 700 for spotlight tours,” says Thomson.

With some of the best surfing and hippest nightlife in Australia, the Gold Coast is a city of a half million people just south of Brisbane. It has gained trendy notoriety with the ongoing evolution of Australia’s beach culture, complemented by the many natural wonders of the outlying countryside, affectionately dubbed the “Hinterland.”

My orientation takes place from the back of a gleaming Harley Davidson motorcycle, hanging onto Mac Swift of Wildlife Tours as he cruises through this sundrenched playground. We ride along the coastal strip past Main Beach, Surfer’s Paradise and Broad Beach. Not typically a motorcycle fan, I get so giddy on this trek that I don’t want it to end. Hosting up to 250 riders at a time, Wildlife Tours can provide transfers via Harleys, hot rods and vintage cars.

“We’ll have groups in full Harley gear thunder into conference centers and hotel foyers,” says Swift. He also arranges anything from treks into the Outback for “Wild Hogs” excursions to shopping trips at the local mall. “We can then bring everyone back together at the Q1 Skytower for a reception and dinner on the observation deck. It’s a great element to add to meetings because it’s so exciting, unique and flexible.”

That’s where he drops me off. The world’s tallest residential tower, the 1,060-ft Q1 delivers spectacular 360º Gold Coast views from the surf to the Hinterlands and beyond. A private function room caters up to 180 pax for cocktails, while the observation deck handles large events for 400.

At the Gold Coast’s “Broadwater”—an expansive intracoastal waterway dotted with islands filled with palatial mansions—we catch our Gold Coast Helitours flight to Mount Tamborine. This emerging wine region in the Hinterlands is home to boutique wineries growing Verdelho, Chambourcin, Semillon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Chardonnay grapes. This is an absolute must during any trip to Queensland.

At Eagle Heights Mountain Resort, I meet Victoria Corner of Tamborine Mountain Tours. Her company does a little bit of everything for groups, from bushwalking in the rainforest to appetizer and wine pairings at the Witches Falls Winery, where we’ve come to sample some of their good stuff.

Affable winemaker Jon Heslop walks us through his extensive selections. He began his winemaking career as a cellar hand before working in the world famous Hunter Valley, where his winemaking talents were influenced by a who’s who of legendary Aussie vintners.

Corner explains that groups of 30 can taste the different wines and then pick their favorites for picnics on the landscaped grounds outside the tasting room.

Near Witches Falls, chef Terry Taylor operates a professional cooking school out of her lovely home. She invites us to help her prepare dinner, so as a group we start chopping, mincing, slicing, simmering and stuffing produce and herbs, which she plucked from her garden and nearby farmer’s market earlier in the day.

“My philosophy is to cook delicious food using traditional techniques but in a lighter style with the best fresh produce,” says Taylor. The fact that courses are accompanied by Witches Falls wines makes the experience even more palatable.

Our menu is to die for: prawn and fennel filo tartlets, beetroot tart with goat cheese mousse, lemon myrtle chicken, orange and radicchio salad, rhubarb cake, and macadamia and herb crusted barramundi. This version of barramundi—the signature catch of the region—exceeds all of the other versions I indulge in during my stay, and I loved all of the other versions.

Back on the Gold Coast, we take in the Australian Outback Spectacular 2 show, “Heroes of the Light Horse”—an Aussie barbecue and interactive show bursting at the seams with Outback music, drama and action.

In a 1,000-seat arena, the daring spirit of the Australian landscape explodes with horses racing like the wind, stampeding cattle, racing bush vehicles and a heady display of precision horsemanship that brings the crowd to their feet.

Staring at the intimate portraits of Bon Jovi, Grace Slick, Elton John and other celeb buddies of Donatella and the late Gianni Versace, I am further blown away that Palazzo Versace actually surpasses the ultra elegant level I had anticipated. The fashionable hotel includes 200 guestrooms, 72 condos, five restaurant/bars, a spa and a Versace boutique, naturally.

“Groups take things to a higher level with corporate couture sessions, Iron Chef sushi challenges and cocktail classes in a poolside cabana,” says Stephanie Manning, marketing manager.

Here, I feel a world away from the reef and rainforest up north. After decades as a professional travel journalist, I’m not sure if I’ve ever visited a destination with such a varied inventory of scintillating experiences.