Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vacation birds of paradise

Winging it among a feast of feathers in the Great Barrier Reef

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I handed the clerk our reservation forms and in exchange, boarding cards and an assortment of anti-nausea medications were firmly pressed into the palm of my hand. So far, it was just as the brochure had promised: A picture-perfect day, glass-like aquamarine water and our sleek, modern, and ultrafast catamaran was docked and ready to whisk us away.

I was near-heady with the romantic anticipation of travelling at high speed in luxury while gazing out over the expansive Coral Sea, visions of playful dolphins racing alongside as we made our way to Heron Island. Lost in this constructed utopian thought, I clutched the small pills that should have been my clue as to the real adventure that was about to unfold.

Once past the shelter of the harbour, the Reef Voyager accelerated dramatically with exhilarating speed. Mere minutes into our journey, we discovered that a catamaran can actually become airborne as it hurdled and bounced itself like a bucking bronco over the waves.

The Reef Voyager was claiming the stomachs of more than a few passengers. The captain's announcement of our imminent arrival felt like near-spiritual salvation.

When you're green in the gills, your body's natural response when stepping onto land is to draw in a deep cleansing breath of air to calm the demons in your belly. This would work if you weren't greeted with the overwhelming stench of bird guano powerful enough to give your nostrils a full Brazilian at no extra charge.

When the brochure stated that Heron Island was rich with bird life, they failed to mention that 100,000 black noddy terns migrate during December to this small 17-hectare coral cay island paradise. Note to self -- never look up with your mouth open.

Directly outside our room was a small tree that was home to about 50 of these nesting terns. Luckily, the two sliding doors off the patio offered an ocean breeze that gave us some reprieve from the astringent smell of bird guano.

In fact, it gave us a unique opportunity to observe these sleek black birds and to appreciate their docile behaviour without needing to carry an umbrella or plug our noses.

Perhaps things were looking up for us and we could venture out and explore the rest of the resort and beaches.

The resort is laid out as a series of buildings, each offering stunning vistas of the ocean. They're connected by a boardwalk and series of groomed dirt pathways.

The lounge is contemporary, and the glass walls completely open up towards the ocean. I envisioned relaxing in the comfy deep-seated chairs with a cold beverage after a long day of snorkelling.

The kids fell in love with the pool that overlooked the turquoise ocean. Off to the side of the boardwalk was a crystal-clear, natural tidal pool where, during the early evening hours when the tide has come in, you can spot all sorts of marine life such as stingrays, wrasse and even the occasional shark.

It felt surreal knowing tomorrow morning, with my husband as our guide and teacher, the kids and I would attempt our first snorkelling dive in this magnificent setting.

Being an insomniac at the best and worst of times, (much to my amazement), I found my eyes closing the second my head made contact with the pillow. It was one of the best night sleeps I'd had in a very long time. I woke feeling rejuvenated and even found myself whistling along with those black noddy terns outside.

I could barely wait for the Marine Centre to open so we could get ourselves outfitted with snorkelling gear.

Our wetsuits and gear made us feel like a pack of seals. I seriously hoped a shark wouldn't mistake us for a tasty meal.

We submerged our masked faces into the warm, clear water and swam out along the jetty where we discovered the real beauty of this island lies below the ocean surface.

It's an underwater universe with coral gardens and flourishing marine life both big and small, in an abundance of colour far beyond my wildest imagination. I now understand why Jacques Cousteau named one of the dive sites here, the Heron Bommie, as being one of his Top 10 favourite dive locations.

Heading back towards shore, with a child in either hand, we floated over a smooth bank of white sand and a mere six feet below us was a pod of a dozen or more stingrays hovering in the ocean's gentle current.

The vision was an expansion of consciousness, and the rare opportunity to share it with my children brought tears to my goggled eyes. I wished we could stay there forever.

The next three days were exactly as I had envisioned our trip to Heron Island.

We observed giant loggerhead turtles coming to shore to lay their eggs in the moonlight. We spent hours snorkelling, and when the tide was low, we went on long reef walks where small sharks, sea cucumbers and a host of other marine life was easily spotted among the anemones and coral. It was ecotourism at its finest.

Sadly, the final day came and the staff kindly reminded us not to forget our anti-nausea medication before departing for the voyage home.

We waited in the queue for the clerk behind the counter who doled out the small pills. We popped them into our mouths and hoped they would do a better job this time.

Somehow the impending voyage felt like a small price to pay for having experienced one of the best and most memorable vacations of my life.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2013 D3

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