Travellers always hope for the likes of 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, which made for a personal and convivial cruise experience. The Great Barrier Reef itinerary runs throughout the year and, even if the ship only has a handful of bookings, the trip still goes ahead.
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 could not help but wonder 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 onboard Coral Expeditions II follows a set schedule for meals and activities which can take some getting used to, particularly for travellers like 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 an activity because you are waiting for things to be ready, whether it’s lunch or a snorkelling trip, and it is easy to make the most of your time onboard and ashore. The crew run Coral Expeditions II like a well-oiled machine, ensuring everything starts on time and passengers are never left waiting.
It was 6pm and time for predinner drinks according to the Daily Schedule placed on our bed, so we headed upstairs to the bar. Well-priced drinks are available at pub prices, including an interesting choice of locally brewed beers with some top drops from nearby Cairns. While the bar is only staffed during the cocktail hour, you can order a drink anytime you like by letting the crew know. Drinks can be enjoyed in the air-conditioned lounge or on the back deck where you can watch the scenery pass by.
Dinner was a seafood smorgasbord piled high with oysters, prawns and Moreton Bay bugs and accompanied by gourmets salads, with cheesecake for dessert. Dietary requirements are handled with aplomb. Our ‘no seafood’ request when we booked was noted and we were offered a juicy steak which was equally superb. After dinner we rolled back to our cabin – literally and figuratively – as the swell had picked up. Coral Discoverer II does move around more than a larger ship but this isn’t a problem, provided you have some medication if you are prone to seasickness.
Accommodation is in roomy wood panelled cabins with a choice of either double or twin beds, and an ensuite with a surprisingly large shower and plenty of hot water. Our cabin was on the top deck but we discovered that we would have been equally happy with one of the (cheaper) cabins on Deck 2. On a trip like this you are seldom in your room and there are plenty of lovely spots to relax around the ship if you want to curl up with a book.
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 we arrived before dawn to attend the Anzac Day Dawn Service instead. Coral Discoverer II docked at a jetty in town and we strolled through Cooktown in the dark, following our Coral Expeditions’ Tour Leader Bec to the park where the service would be held. Cooktown has just over 3,000 residents and many of them attended the low-key yet poignant service. 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.
During this time, Bec conducted a snorkelling briefing and we were fitted with (top quality) hire gear to use while we were on the ship. First-time divers would enjoy a free introductory dive at Lizard Island which is a far cry from regular learn-to-dive classes which usually take place in a swimming pool. We arrived to clear skies and stunning views, eager to catch the glass bottom boat to shore and get in the water. Lizard Island is home to a hideaway for the rich and famous with a 40 room luxury resort on the western end of the island. We anchored in Watson’s Bay for an overnight stay and began preparing for our first underwater adventures of the trip.
As the crew swung into action it became clear this was a highly experienced and professional team, with the whole operation running with good cheer and military precision. It was 2pm on the dot when our boat left with the first snorkelling group and refreshments on board. The afternoon was devoted to relaxing on the pristine beach and exploring underwater where tropical fish cruised around the colourful, giant clams for which this particular reef is famous. While some cyclone damage is visible it was heartening to see how well and how quickly this beautiful reef is recovering. Some passengers stayed to continue enjoying the beach while others headed back to the ship for a shower before the upcoming (complimentary) cocktail hour on the beach.
Champagne corks popped and the drinks flowed as freely as the conversation as people gathered in groups to chat and enjoy the view as the sun began to set. In the ANZAC tradition, a game of two up was started by the crew and we stopped chatting to join the fun and win (and lose) a few dollars. Just one night at the resort on Lizard Island costs more than our entire four night cruise. I think everyone on our trip definitely got the best deal. Dinner was a barbeque on the top deck cooked by Captain Gary. After dinner entertainment provided by one of Lizard Island’s 1.5 metre long resident groupers which Bec threw fish to off the back of the ship.
The morning saw some keen (and fit) passengers up early for a three hour return walk to Cook’s Look on top of Lizard Island. For the rest of us there was more snorkelling and 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 them later that afternoon. Our only regret was we had arrived too early for whale season as the crew told us sightings were pretty much guaranteed.
With a state-of-the-art glass bottom boat and snorkelling and diving platform onboard, 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 onto the glass bottom boat from Deck 2 before the boat was lowered – complete with passengers and a marine biologist onboard – into the water. In fact, everything was easy as the snorkelling platform had steps and could be raised and lowered to suit passenger requirements.
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 at the stunning beauty of the Great Barrier Reef. Visibility was over 10 metres at every outer reef we stopped at, with huge groupers and hump head wrasse shimmering in the water far below. Coral popped with jewel-bright colours in the sunlight as we flitted from one pristine 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, with all of unable to believe how each stop managed to be even better than the one before. All of the three outer reefs we visited had new wonders to discover and just when we thought we had seen it all, some new underwater delight appeared to dazzle us. On the final afternoon, as we were making our way back to Cairns, Captain Gary 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 the trip couldn’t get any better, one final (seemingly impossible) wish had come true.
Disclosure: The writer travelled as a guest of Coral Expeditions. More information about the current Great Barrier Reef sailing schedule is available here.
If would like to know more about visiting the Great Barrier Reef, we also have tips for visiting Heron Island, Orpheus Island, the Whitsundays, and Cairns which is one of the popular jumping off points for the Great Barrier Reef.