Our trans-Pacific flight was happily uneventful, and indeed, the most exciting thing that happened until our actual arrival was having dinner in LA at the wrong Mexican restaurant. We had carefully chosen our target (“Mexican Riviera Grill”), taking great pains to find it — whoever heard of an unmarked restaurant? — only to go down in flames when Alice ordered their allegedly excellent margarita and was told that they didn’t have margaritas. “But,” Alice protested, “the Yelp review said…”. “Ah,” interrupted the waitress, “you must mean the other Mexican Riviera Grill. They’re about a half mile from here; we’re not connected to them.” Oh well, at least the food at the wrong place was good.
Our flight left LA at about 10pm, and about 12 hours and 1.3 Xanaxes later I woke up as we landed in Auckland. (I will be grateful for the rest of my life to my evil assistant Angie for introducing me to that stuff.) Our layover was quite short, and after a mere 4 1/2 hour short hop (no Xanax this time) we arrived in Cairns. I will save you the trouble of looking on a map: it is in the northeast corner of Australia.
This part of Australia was explored by Capt. Cook in the early 1770’s, and Cairns itself basically got started as a gold rush town just about 100 years later. (It is named after one of the early governors and not after a pile of rocks.). Now it’s basically a resort region, for the two excellent reasons that (a) the beaches are plentiful and gorgeous, and (b) there’s lots of sunshine from about May through November (and a lot of rain the rest of the year — total annual rainfall is more than twice the amount in the DC area at home).
Our destination was actually about an hour north of Cairns, near the town of Port Douglas. The drive was spectacular, following the coast the whole way, which is basically one gigantic travel agency poster. Seriously, the coastline here will knock your eyes out: the water is turquoise, fading to dark blue further from shore, and clear enough that the turquoise is mottled by underwater outcroppings of rock and coral. The beach is narrow and sandy, going on for miles, broken by occasional rock formations and small mangrove stands. There appears to be about two people per half mile along its entire length. The driver tells us that the water temperature is about 75F at the moment, rising to the low 80’s in December. Scuba diving (tomorrow) should be reasonably comfortable. (My body still remembers the 60-degree water of our shark cage dive in South Africa.)
Port Douglas is mostly a resort area, with the coast dotted by luxurious-looking open-air hotels. But sugar cane is still part of the economy: we noticed a pair of narrow-gauge railroad tracks paralleling a section of the highway, and indeed as we drove through town we had to stop at a crossing while a cane-laden train rumbled by, about ten cars long and each one packed and overflowing with cane.
We made a left turn away from the coast to head up towards the mountains and to Silky Oaks Lodge. The road turned narrow and a tad rustic, and for one short section actually coincided with the cane train track bed. On other words, we we driving on the tracks, prompting our driver to joke, “Where are you guys taking me?” (He actually knew the place perfectly well.)
Silky Oaks is gorgeous, built into the mountain said overlooking a river. Each room is actually a cabin nestled among the trees, a rather upscale version of some of the places we stayed in Africa. Here is ours:
The room is beautifully appointed in hardwood and includes a rainfall-type shower and a two-person jacuzzi tub. So we are not suffering too badly. It also includes a little Bose CD player that was preloaded with some kind of aggressively soothing aboriginal style New Age music, kind of like what Enya would sound like if she learned to play the didgeridoo. (And for God’s sake please don’t anyone tell her I said this, or she will learn to play one.)
There is a hiking path along the river below the lodge, which we sampled briefly and will explore more fully in a day or two. A half mile or so from here is a deep billabong (I always wanted to use that word) that supposedly contains a snorkel-worthy population of fish, plus some eels and a resident platypus, so we will borrow some masks and snorkels from the front desk and go hunting for them later.
There is a network of paths through the woods connecting the cabins to the pool, the central lodge, and so forth. Here’s the pool with the lodge in the background.
There are actually two pools, one heated and a few feet above the one you see here. The water temperature is cool but comfortable.
Basically, the whole place is built around the rainforest. Everything is open air, the floors are all hardwood, the ceilings all vaulted. The restaurant juts out over the hillside overlooking the forest and the river, like in the picture below.
That’s about it for today. Tomorrow: scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.