Back into the blue

Jane E. Fraser takes a trip to the tropics and falls in love all over again.

I've put my hand inside a giant clam on the seabed of the Great Barrier Reef, fingertips gliding over its silky and voluptuous flesh. It feels strangely intimate, like something I shouldn't be touching, but the dive instructor at my side is a marine biologist and he encouraged me to connect with this magnificent creature.

The clam, which is more than a metre in length, quickly closed when it felt our touch but it has stayed open long enough to leave some of its deep-purple insides on display - and thankfully to let us slide our hands back out.

No matter how many times I visit the Great Barrier Reef, I am always impressed anew. The water is always a stronger colour than my memory believes possible and there is always something to discover.

Yesterday, I saw the reef from a different angle, on a seaplane flight from Cairns, flying low over reefs and coral cays, fascinated by the changing colours of the water, which makes sudden transformations from the deepest blue to the lightest aqua. Unfortunately, no turtles or other large sea creatures were on show but there is no doubt we would have seen them had they been there, such was the clarity of the water.

Looking out through the open window of the small plane down to the small section of the great reef, I was looking at one of the most beautiful things in the world.

Now underneath that clear water, we gently manoeuvre around a small section of the coral reef, the gentle whooshing of our breathing regulators the only sound. We encounter a great variety of fish, bright-blue, eye-catching yellow and every colour of the rainbow, but it is the clams and soft, swaying coral that hold my attention.

We arrive back at the boat, an elegant 16-metre schooner, exhilarated and in time for lunch.

Later in the afternoon, when we have had our fill of diving and snorkelling, we up-anchor and unfurl sails, quickly picking up speed as we head back towards Cairns. The Ocean Free lives up to its name, flying across the water as the sun warms our backs and we chat to the lively and likeable crew. It is not long before we see humpback whales breaching in the distance, throwing themselves out of the water with tremendous force.

Then a dolphin with a baby by its side picks up our bow wave and joins us for a ride, much to the delight of everyone on board.

Even the crew members, who have made this trip countless times, are keen to watch the silvery creatures swimming alongside.

The final wildlife sighting of the day comes as we are motoring back into Cairns Harbour, where the water turns to a milky-coffee colour and the skipper spots some pale river dolphins playing up ahead.

To top off the day, we head to the far end of the marina to one of Cairns's grooviest eateries, Salt House. It's only early but the large, open-sided bar and restaurant are already full of people, listening to live music and enjoying the views across the water.

We have colourful cocktails and local seafood and sit there until the activities of the day catch up with us and our eyelids start to droop.

This is doing north Queensland in style, far from the backpacker image often associated with the region. I used to think Cairns was a grotty place but it now offers a relaxed sophistication in its waterfront areas, while further north, Port Douglas offers a combination of class and charm.

We flew up in business class, which was a reminder that domestic air travel can actually be really pleasant, and have spent a few days sampling the best of the area's accommodation, restaurants and attractions.

First stop Port Douglas, from which we make a day trip to Mossman Gorge and take an early morning hot-air balloon flight over the tablelands surrounding Mareeba, about an hour inland of Port Douglas.

We lift off quietly from a misty field just before dawn and float gently above farms and bushland, with a full moon on one side, a rising sun on the other and wallabies hopping below.

The Port Douglas area also serves up its share of high-quality and atmospheric dining, with plenty of seafood and local produce, including tropical fruits, local ice-cream and Daintree chocolate.

The popular waterfront restaurant On the Inlet produces excellent seafood dishes, including a variety of oysters and a fragrant fish curry, with views of bobbing boats and sunset-tinted water.

A local farmer is kind enough to throw in a cane-field blaze on the far shore, making this a truly Queensland experience.

A particularly memorable meal is had at Flames of the Forest, an outdoor dining experience on private land just outside the town. Picked up from our accommodation, we arrive to find flames lighting the sides of the path to the "restaurant".

Pre-dinner drinks are enjoyed among hundreds of candles, with subtle lighting showcasing the giant trees surrounding the clearing.

We then go through to a large outdoor marquee where yet more candles and millions of tiny LED lights make the forest glow.

Weeknights offer Aboriginal music and storytelling while weekends are for romantic dinners, which not surprisingly provide the setting for many marriage proposals.

At our dinner, the charismatic Aboriginal performer turns out all artificial lighting and asks us to sit in silence for a minute, to just "feel" the surrounding forest. It is a lovely moment, punctuated by a pretty little bandicoot making its way across the clearing.

Port Douglas also comes up with the goods on accommodation, at the Sea Temple Resort & Spa. With its water theme and set around a huge pool, it is one of the most appealing holiday resorts I have encountered in Australia.

It usually takes me a while to settle into holiday mode but my room here says "start now". The two-bedroom apartment opens out to a large deck that in turn leads into the pool, which twists and turns its way through the whole resort. There isn't even a step; the water laps at the ankles of my own private sun lounge, to which I retire for a dose of vitamin D before heading to the resort's large and stylish Mii Spa.

I opt for a warm-bamboo massage, which is similar to a hot-stone one, but gets deeper into your muscles. The bamboo cylinders glide over my skin, leaving molten muscles in their wake, and it's done so smoothly it's hard to tell the difference between hands and bamboo.

The unhurried visit finishes with sorbet and tea in the relaxation lounge, followed by an overwhelming desire for an afternoon nap.

The writer travelled courtesy of Qantas, Accor Hotels and Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas operates a two-class service to Cairns, with three to four flights a day from Sydney and direct daily flights from Melbourne. qantas.com.au.

Staying there

The Sea Temple Resort & Spa in Port Douglas has spa studios to three-bedroom villas. 1800 833 762, seatempleresortportdouglas.com.au.
In Cairns, the Pullman Cairns Reef Casino is within strolling distance of the waterfront. 1300 656 565, accorhotels.com.

Eating there

Salt House, (07) 4041 7733, salthouse.com.au.
On the Inlet, (07) 4099 5255, ontheinlet.com.
Flames of the Forest, (07) 4099 5983, flamesoftheforest.com.au.

See + do

Ocean Free reef tours, (07) 4052 1111, oceanfree.com.au.
Cairns Seaplanes, (07) 4031 4307, cairnsseaplanes.com.
Mossman Gorge, (07) 4099 7000, mossmangorge.com.au.
Hot-air balloon flights, (07) 4030 7900, ballooning.com.au.
Mii Spa, (07) 4084 3515, seatempleresortportdouglas.com.au.

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