July 15, 2008

Reef Encounter ; In Association With Trans Pennine Express Mary Murtagh Enjoys the Marine Lifestyle on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

By Mary Murtagh

IF I get hit by a bus tomorrow I shall die happy. A trip to the Great Barrier Reef does that to you. You feel privileged, glad to have lived and filled with awe for mother nature.

Visiting the world's largest coral reef system is like stepping into the pages of National Geographic. I kept expecting to bump in to David Attenborough filming his latest documentary.

The superlatives are all deserved.

The reef is 1,600 miles long and is in the, aptly-named, Coral Sea off the Queensland coast in northeast Australia.

It's so big it is visible from space so you just have to make your peace with the fact that whatever bit you visit it will only ever be a snapshot.

Qantas Holidays based us on Hamilton Island and for three days it was our little piece of paradise Down Under.

It is one of the 74Whitsunday Islands and is a one-stop-shop for turquoise water which is always warm enough to swim in, glorious sandy beaches, and a year round tropical climate.

Our hotel, the Reef View, was perfect.

We had a spectacular view from our balcony which we shared with cheeky snow white cockatiels that will steal your swimsuit if it's hanging out to dry.

Our transport around the island was a golf buggy and I had my reservations about driving it at first. Friend Myranda adopted her usual London style of driving and I soon got my courage up and we eventually ended up fighting over the keys.

The whole island is a resort and caters for most tastes, from family-friendly chalets to the five-star Qualia experience.

It would be easy to stay put on the island taking in blissful treatments at the beauty salon on site, hopping from one fabulous pool to another, stuffing your face at the fantastic breakfast buffets (including an amazing opportunity to eat with koalas) and touring the island in your buggy.

We certainly had fun dining al fresco at the wide range of cafes and restaurants, oohing and aahing at the countless fabulous views from the island, and doing early-morning pool crawls.

But that would be missing the point because Hamilton Island is the perfect springboard for the reef.

We hopped on board the Fantasea catamaran which sped us through clear blue water and past uninhabited desert islands to spend the day at Reef world.

For the next four hours we got up as close and personal to the reef as you can without having scaly skin and fins.

The catamaran moored alongside a pontoon out in the Coral Sea with the reef within easy snorkelling distance.

Reef world have thought of everything - from changing rooms to don yourwetsuit to helicopter rides.

Put your snorkel in the water and you find yourself in a live version of Finding Nemo.

Multi-coloured fish dart beneath you and having heard about 3ft long Queensland Groper 'George' I then swam above him for 30 seconds.

When I could tear myself away from the fish I swam over the reef itself. No brochure or video presentation really prepares you for this sheer spine-tinglingly sight.

I floated over multi-coloured coral.

Schools of fish shot past close enough to reach out and touch. I let the current take me over huge ledges of coral formations with spectacular brightly-coloured starfish and giant clams opening and closing their scalloped lips.

It was an under water wonderland and something I will remember till the day I die.

Back on the pontoon itwas up, up and away in the Helireef helicopter.

For just pounds 50we spent 20 minutes in the air getting a bird's eye view of the reef.

Taking a helicopter ride might seem very decadent and a bit 007. But, seriously, getting an aerial view of this spectacular natural phenomenon will add a whole new dimension to your trip.

Make sure you have plenty of room on your digital camera too because you will be snap happy flying directly over virgin coral and turquoise water.

The reef-fest wasn't over yet because your Reef world experience also includes lunch and a trip in a semi-submersible coral viewer which takes you up close, and at eye level, with the reef.

There are lots of fun, friendly and well-informed staff to answer all your questions and if you want to take the opportunity to dive, even as a beginner, that can be sorted out on the day.

There is even a roving cameraman capturing the highlights of everyone's day which is transformed into a DVD which passengers watch on their (reluctant) journey back to dry land.

Travel tips

Qantas Holidays can arrange a five-night holiday to Hamilton Island starting from pounds 1,709pp based on two adults sharing, valid until November 30.

Price includes: return international flights with Qantas Airways, internal flights within Australia, five nights at the four star Reef View Hotel, return transfers on Hamilton Island, daily breakfast, use of catamarans, windsurfers, paddle skis and snorkelling equipment and includes one free night.

For further information log on to www.qantas.co.uk/holidays or call 020 8222 9124.

To find out more about Hamilton Island visit www.

ham iltonisland.com.au.uk

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