Couples Can Celebrate The End Of DOMA On Australia’s Hamilton Island

When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision that ruled against the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) a few days back it was met with jubilation across the country. The ruling is seen as a dramatic advancement of gay rights while also providing for the equal treatment of same-sex marriages moving forward. The 5-4 decision has such far-reaching consequences in fact that even our friends Down Under have joined the celebration. The qualia Resort on Australia’s Hamilton Island have announced a couple’s retreat package that is open to any couple regardless of genders.

Australia’s qualia, which was voted the Best Resort in the World by “Conde Nast Traveler” readers in November of 2012, features 60 spectacular one-bedroom pavilions and a single luxurious beach house. The resort is located at the north-end of Hamilton Island, which is itself part of the spectacular Whitsunday Islands. Surrounded on all sides by the Great Barrier Reef, soft white sand beaches and some of the clearest ocean waters you could ever hope to see, it is an idyllic escape into paradise.The Couple’s Retreat package starts at $3000 per person and includes accommodations for seven nights in a private pavilion, daily breakfasts and full use of non-motorized water sports such as catamarans, sailboats, snorkeling gear and so on. The romantic escape will also include a sunset cruise through the tranquil waters off the coast of Hamilton Island, a poolside dinner at the Pebble Beach restaurant, chauffeured car service around the island and beach drop-offs on other nearby islands, amongst numerous other amenities. Couples can even choose to upgrade to other pavilions that include their own private plunge pools.

I haven’t been to qualia but I have visited the Whitsunday Islands in the past. It is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience and I can only imagine how romantic of an escape it would be for any couple. The beaches and ocean are simply breathtaking and it is the perfect place for a relaxed escape from the world.

Conde Nast Traveler Names Australian Resort Best In The World

For the first time ever, readers of “Conde Nast Traveler” magazine have named an Australian resort the best in the world. The 2012 edition of the magazine’s popular reader’s choice travel awards selected qualia for this distinct honor, handing out a perfect score of 100 for only the fourth time in the 25-year history of the competition.

This year’s reader’s choice awards saw more than 46,400 respondents who shared their thoughts on their favorite hotels, cities and islands from around the globe. Each of the candidates are rated on a scale from one to five in a variety of categories, with their final scores representing an average of the Excellent and Very Good ratings that they received. In the case of qualia that tabulated up to a perfect score.

Located on the privately owned Hamilton Island, qualia is surrounded by one of the most beautiful settings in the entire world – the Great Barrier Reef. The luxury hotel features 60 private pavilions with spacious accommodations, sundecks and private infinity edge pools that overlook the ocean. Two bars and restaurants, a private dining hall, a world-class spa, fitness center and library round out the a amenities that will keep guests cloaked in comfort for the entire length of their stay.

Hamilton Island is located in the Whitsunday Islands, quite possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. For those who can’t get enough time on the beach or water, it is simply paradise. If you’re adventurous enough to enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving, the Great Barrier Reef is amazing as well. I spent hours just floating along watching colorful and exotic fish by the hundreds. As someone who tends to usually favor mountains over beaches, this was still one of my favorite destinations ever.

[Photo credit: qualia]

Vagabond Tales: Snorkeling with irukandji, one of the deadliest animals on Earth

“This guy over here has been tagged three times mate.”

The dive instructor on our Whitsunday Islands cruise peels off his neoprene gloves and shows us a slight scar located just above the knuckle of his right thumb.

“Luckily every time they got me it was in the hand or the foot”, he claims. “If they’d gotten me on the bloody torso I’d be a gonner.”

As someone who has worked on charter boats for a number of years, I know that telling tall tales to tourists just comes with the job. True story or not, I know that the threat is real nonetheless. A dreamy island chain set at the southern tip of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Whitsunday Islands from November through April are home to one of the world’s deadliest creatures: the irukandji jellyfish.

Similar to a box jellyfish, the tiny irukandji measure only 2.5 centimeters across and have tentacles that pack more venom than the combined amount of 100 cobras. Although actual irukandji fatalities are rare, one Australian teen actually reported he wishes he were dead during a recent irukandji attack.

For this very reason many towns and resorts on the Queensland coast have massive salt water swimming lagoons or fresh pools which serve as refreshing watering holes (and nighttime love hideouts for inebriated backpackers) during the annual irukandji season.

Yet, for some reason, I decided it was still a good idea to go snorkeling. In the ocean. In the Whitsunday Islands. In the peak of irukandji season.

A bit sketchy? Yes. But is it really that dangerous? Not really. Although the safest way to keep from being stung by a massively poisonous jellyfish is to abstain from the ocean completely, for those still harboring fantasies of gliding above a giant purple clam or catching a rare sighting of a giant Napoleon wrasse, the easiest thing thing to do is to simply don a stinger suit.

Wait. A stinger suit? What’s a stinger suit?Basically, a stinger suit is your worst fashion nightmare on land, and your best possible protection when you’re in the Northern Australia waters. A one piece lycra unitard that’s as sexy as it is form-fitting, a stinger suit essentially covers you from head to toe and prevents any rogue irukandji tentacles from brushing alongside and sending you on an impromptu helicopter ride.

That being said, the only thing more disconcerting than catching a glimpse of yourself in a stinger suit is catching an actual glimpse of an irukandji itself.

As I dove off of the crowded catamaran, snorkel gear in hand, the water was slightly cool for mid-April. After a sun drenched boat ride out to the reef from nearby Airlie Beach, I finally was immersed in the calming silence of the sea. Free diving beneath a grotto of human legs to a more tranquil world of vibrant corals and mutant looking parrotfish, the only sounds were the gentle crackling of reef fish feeding on coral heads and the occasional drone of a distant boat motor shuttling tourists from the beach to the reef and eventually the bar.

For the first time in a while, I finally was alone.

Noticing one of his boat passengers languishing gently in a sand channel between the reef, one of the instructors from the boat dove the four meters down to the sea floor to pay a casual visit to my hidden aquatic chamber.

Not more than two seconds after reaching the bottom, however, his eyes excitedly bulged and appeared to double in size as seen through the fog of his mask. Slowly, he raised a focused finger at something apparently located behind me.

For anyone who hasn’t spent much time underwater, regardless of how comfortable you are in the ocean, you never, ever, want to see someone with wide eyes pointing directly behind you. Music starts playing, drums start thumping, and you can almost feel the teeth sinking into the nape of your neck.

Fully expecting to see a toothy visitor, I instead saw…well…nothing. There was nothing there at all. The instructor was actually just pointing at the open blue.

Then, just as my lungs were starting to yearn for another shot of oxygen, the slightest flicker of motion and a narrowing of his pointing drew my attention to a miniscule speck drifting lazily in the sea.

According to our instructor–who would late re-confirm with me back on board–the drifting life form in front of us was none other than the feared and fabled irukandji, the 100 cobra knockout, and the most remarkably passive predator I had ever seen in my life.

For as surreal an experience as floating amidst the reefs of Australia already is, it’s amplified tenfold by staring directly into the face of a creature the size of your fingernail that could actually kill you right there. Like a mesmerizing orb, for some unknown reason you simply want to reach out and touch it, but the stinger suit says no.

“Captain, you said there was a bar on board right?”

I’d just looked death in it’s microscopic Australian eye, and somehow escaped unscathed. It was time for a drink, a pause, a moment of reflection, and a toast to a gentle reminder that even the smallest of creatures on the planet can still make a world of difference.

Want more stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales here

Stinger suit photo: Flickr; eyeintim

Work and play in Queenland, Australia: Whitsunday Islands

Whether you’re on a working holiday while backpacking or on a more tradition vacation, if you’re in Australia, you’ll want to make your way to the Great Barrier Reef. Being that it’s massive, there are several locations where you can go to explore the GBR, but perhaps the most beautiful is the Whitsunday Islands. Home to 74 islands, crystal clear waters and some of the best sailing, snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world, the Whitsundays alone may be reason enough to include Queensland on your itinerary in Oz.

Typically, upon hearing about SCUBA diving and, in particular, sailing, many people fear that they will be priced out of a destination. The Whitsundays, however, cater to everyone from the extravagantly wealthy boat owners to the backpackers looking to spend a few days at sea. A natural wonder like the Great Barrier Reef is often the great equalizer when it comes to prices, as businesses will seek to accommodate anyone looking to explore an environment this unique. That means that there is something for everyone in this beautiful corner of the world.



While in the Whitsundays, I was treated to a three-day/two-night sail in the Whitsundays on a catamaran named Whitsunday Getaway, which is operated by Islandive. Sailing out of Abel Point Marina in Airlie Beach, Islandive specializes in sailing and diving packages that allow visitors to explore the Great Barrier Reef and the beauty of the Whitsunday Islands while also getting in the water for some of the best snorkeling and SCUBA diving in the world.

The sleeping quarters on board may be small (as is the nature of any boat that is not a yacht or a luxury cruise ship), but the overall accommodations aboard the Whitsunday Getaway were stellar. We were served prawns, steak, chicken, tea and snacks throughout the excursion. Most of the boats in the Whitsundays are BYO, and Islandive’s vessels are no exception. So, if you want alcohol on your trip, grab some goon or cans of beer (glass is a bad idea on boats) before heading to the marina. You’ll find that, once you’ve finished a day of snorkeling and the sun is beginning to set, everyone will agree that it’s “beer o’clock.” (Aussies are fond of that phrase, and far be it from me to disagree with their nomenclature or logic.)

If you’re backpacking through Australia and want to save a bit of money while still treating yourself to a sail, you don’t need to compromise too much. In fact, you can hop aboard a former championship sailboat and feel the wind in your hair for a few days while not blowing your budget.

Through Explore Whitsundays, you can book various types of sailing packages, including many that are geared towards backpackers in both price and accommodations. One such boat, the Boomerang, was sailing while I was was on Whitsunday Getaway. While the sleeping accommodations were more open and shared by a larger group of people, the guests on board spoke highly of their time on the Boomerang, whose top speed far exceeded that of my catamaran. For a true sailing experience, a boat like the Boomerang can’t be beat. Passengers had ample opportunities to snorkel and see the reef while the boat had its sails down. The menu may be more limited, but if you’re looking to either save some money or simply enjoy the company of other backpackers and young travelers, this experience is the one for you.

Whitehaven Beach

One of the most iconic and oft-visited areas of the Whitsundays is Whitehaven Beach, which features some of the softest, most pristine sand of any beach in the world. As I spent a morning walking along the shore amongst the cliffs and breaking waves, I felt as if I was placing my feet into baby powder with each step. The scenic overlooks at Whitehaven Beach provide breathtaking views of the nearby islands and the changes in water color created by the reef below. It is nearly impossible to take a disappointing photograph in the Whitsundays, as the view in any direction appears as if its been created for the sole purpose of one day becoming a postcard image.

Most sailing companies include Whitehaven Beach in their packages, yet they manage to keep it from ever becoming over-crowded. As such, you can enjoy the soft sand, crashing waves and gorgeous views without bumping into too many fanny-packed travelers (or bum-bagged travelers, as the Aussies call them).

Know before you go

A trip to the Whitsundays does not require an extended stay. Airlie Beach provides a host of accommodations, but most people only spend a night before or after their sailing adventure. However, it’s definitely worth the trip to Queensland and the Whitsundays for the Great Barrier Reef alone. The experience of seeing the reef, the aquatic life and the seemingly boundless sky above makes it one of the most exquisite places in the world to sail, dive and snorkel. Even in the winter, this region of Australia stays relatively mild and comfortable. The rainy season (October through May – Australian summer) can make for some unpleasant sailing, so it’s often best to plan around that.

If you’re not certified to SCUBA, many companies will offer training dives that allow you dive down to 10 meters with a certified instructor. Training is handled on the boat and you’ll never be more than a few feet from your instructor once you’re in the water. If you are certified, be sure to bring your paperwork with you.

Don’t let the glamorous reputation of the Whitsundays convince you that you cannot afford it. It may be a vacation hot spot for Australia’s rich and famous, but it’s egalitarian when it comes to who can enjoy the seas. Whether you’re on a budget or looking to film an extravagant rap video, you can get yourself on a boat and close to the Great Barrier Reef. If you’ve traveled all the way to Australia, you owe it to yourself to make the trip up to the Whitsundays.

Mike Barish spent a week in Queensland, Australia on a trip sponsored by Backpacking Queensland to see how backpackers find employment and entertain themselves down under. He’ll be sharing what he learned about the logistics of working in Australia’s Sunshine State and the myriad activities that young travelers have at their disposal. Read other entries in his series HERE.