Today I’m happy to share a dream from one of my online friends Rachel. Many of you may remember her wonderful post about Melbourne, Australia, where she currently lives and writes and mothers and travels. Sometimes I feel like she’s my mirror reflection on the other side of the globe; I’m convinced that if I started digging a hole behind my house, I’d end up in her backyard.
I love this post because to me it reflects the essence of what traveling with children teaches you about patience, expectations, and yes, even your own dreams for what a trip will be. Certainly it is one of my dreams to see the Great Barrier Reef before it vanishes – perhaps if I’m lucky I’ll get to do it in Rachel’s (and her daughters’) very good company.
Cairns: A family paradise
It’s been almost exactly a year since we went to far North Queensland, on the northeastern coast of Australia, for a holiday. We went for many reasons – a trip to balmy tropical climes, and a celebration of a momentous piece of news for us – I was pregnant with our second child, our daughter Lily, who is now nearly five months old.
I’ll say from the outset that Cairns and its environs – our home-away-from-home for the week we were there – are a touring family’s paradise. Australians are good travelers, and they also make very professional hosts in return. Infrastructure is geared for making people of all ages happy. No town is too small for a park with picnic benches and coin-operated gas-barbeques, and most places you book are more than willing and able to welcome even the most energetic children.
On this special trip, we decided to splurge on our accommodation and ended up in Palm Cove, an upscale resort town about 20 minutes outside of Cairns’ airport. We went for a serviced apartment at the Angsana Hotel (now the Alamanda Palm Cove); the photo above was taken from our room there. Suffice it to say that it was luxe (three pools! Free family cocktail hour!) without getting into a full laundry list of how and why it differed from the seven or so years of backpacking travel experience my husband and I had before having children.
North Queensland is probably most famous for the Great Barrier Reef, that archipelago of coral reefs so beautiful as to make you think you were dreaming. I’d never seen it before, and, if climate change experts are correct, there may not be much time left to see it. Due to warming oceans and increasingly acid waters, the reefs are dying and may be bleached out boneyards by the middle of the century. Selah.
In planning this trip to Nirvana-with-an-Aussie-accent, we had naturally assumed that we would take a cruise to the Great Barrier Reef and indulge in some snorkeling. To make this experience the best we could make it, we decided to bring our own snorkel gear as most of us were already accustomed to how they worked. It would give us more time to explore. It was a reasonable presumption – we all love swimming; we also tried snorkeling in our local pool just to familiarize the then-three-year-old Jessica with how the tube works, and she took to it, well, yes, like a fish to water. And she’s healthily obsessed with Finding Nemo. It should have been a recipe for success.
There’s just one detail I must mention: my family lives in Melbourne, the least-beach-y capital city in Australia. Melbourne is many things – fashion and food, culture and the Melbourne Cup (the country’s equivalent of the Kentucky Derby) but it is not – repeat not – an iconic beach-going city. We live in the northern suburbs as well. As a result, we don’t spend much time in the ocean. This small fact has critical implications to this adventure.
Planning a Great Barrier Reef expedition with a child
There are a plethora of possibilities if you want to snorkel or dive the Great Barrier Reef – full-day, half-day, various destinations, various packages. My gut instinct was that a half-day expedition was going to be enough, a supposition confirmed by the very helpful concierge at our hotel, who told us that visitors with young children usually found a half-day package sufficient. We opted for the Big Cat Green Island Cruise, which is a 45-minute voyage from Cairns’ reef terminal.
I’d like to tell you about the beauty of Zee Deep, replete with Jacques Cousteau accent and prose. I’d love to tell you that our daughter became an adept snorkeler and swam around the reefs with skill, joy and acumen. But I can’t. Because once we stepped off the boat and onto the beach, masks, snorkels, flippers in hand, my daughter waded up to her knees, braced herself as the warm and gentle waves lapped up over her stomach, looked at the horizon, turned back to me and said, levelly:
“Mummy, I’m not gonna do it. This pool is far too big.”
So Jess and I sat on the shore and let the waves lap our feet. She used her flippers to dig a hole and build a castle, decorated with shells and twigs. My husband started out, hoping that if he went out, Jess would be inspired to follow. Ten minutes later, he came back, reporting that he’d seen a nurse shark right under his feet.
Jess looked up from building her castle and said “There’s definitely no way I’m swimming in that pool.”
Who’s going to argue with that? So in the end, we went on the semi-submersible boat and saw Nemo and his friends from behind a thick screen of glass. And it was beautiful. Magical. I had tears in my eyes in mingled awe and misery, thinking that this precious ecosystem may not exist when Jess is old enough to bring her children here. Jessica squealed with delight, and proceeded to sleep through the second half of the tour. It was enough, and it was perfect.
Family travel tip
Cairns is a city that has put a lot of thought into how to best attract and please all sorts of travelers. For the outdoors-loving family, the parks are a.) free and b.) not to be missed. Two in particular were a real hit: Muddy’s Playground and the Esplanade Lagoon, an artificial beach with salt water about 2 feet deep, overlooking the ocean. Being mindful of the dangers of too much sun exposure, both of these parks feature generous shading, park benches and tables. I think we visited the playgrounds on three separate days.
Rachel Alembakis is an expat American living in Melbourne with her husband and two daughters. She’s not sure whether she’s a cautionary or celebratory tale about what happens when you go to a bar and meet an Australian man.