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Destination: Australia

Island Frolic, Family Style

In Dunk Island's water world in the Great Barrier Reef: big fish, bigger fun

March 02, 1997|JOANNE CLEAVER | Cleaver is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill

DUNK ISLAND, Australia — Rain forested Dunk Island was just two miles across the impossibly blue water. We'd already flown 22 hours over the Pacific to Australia; two hours more by plane from Sydney to Cairns, on the coast of Queensland; then two more hours south by bumpy minivan to get to a point called Mission Beach on the continent's eastern shore.

But how were we going to manage this last leg?

The beach ribboning the shore was more like the brochures than the brochures--sand sparkling, waves gently breaking over our toes. The tropical air wrapped us like a terry-cloth robe fresh from the dryer. Our three daughters held their sundresses around their knees and skipped through the water.

The only thing missing was a dock.

Eventually the water taxi responsible for getting us to Dunk Island chugged into view. When it had drifted close to shore, a young man popped out of the rear door and--while my husband, Mark, and I watched incredulously--helped two middle-age women climb down into thigh-high water. As they waded ashore, he tossed their suitcases to another young salt, who dumped them into a cart and hauled them onto dry land.

We looked at each other and scrambled back to our own luggage--sitting under a palm tree by the nondescript office of Dowd's, the water transport company--to grab our swimsuits.

We changed into swimsuits in Dowd's bathroom and waded out to the stern, where we climbed aboard via pull-down steps. Shortly thereafter, we were walloping across the waves as our captain tried to beat the daily rainstorm that was bearing down on the coast.

Getting around Australia was turning out to be as interesting as getting to Australia.

Our Big Adventure had been a year in the making. It takes that long to coordinate the redemption of 350,000 frequent-flier miles with the school schedules of three children and the work schedules of two parents. But we were determined to make this trek while our three daughters, Samantha, 14, Stephanie, 11, and Elizabeth, 6, were old enough to take a trip halfway around the world (from our home in suburban Chicago) and yet young enough to enjoy traveling with doddering ancients like their parents.

By the time we neared Dunk Island, we'd already taken full advantage of Australia's kid-cute activities. In Melbourne, we held koalas, petted kangaroos (and recoiled in horror at the dried 'roo jerky offered at souvenir shops), visited a historic jail ("haunted" by the ghosts of famous criminals from Australia's frontier days) and witnessed the daily commute of fairy penguins as they came ashore on Philip Island. In Sydney, we'd seen museum exhibits on aboriginal culture and walked the plank at a replica of Capt. Cook's ship at the National Maritime Museum.

Sydney, in particular, received the ultimate teen stamp of approval from Sam. "I want to come back," she declared, glancing at the rest of us. "By myself."

As we discovered from our baptism-by-immersion at the hands of Dowd's, you don't bring a family to Dunk Island Resort in the Great Barrier Reef and expect to stay dry. From our watery introduction to the moment we reluctantly waded ashore back onto the mainland six days later, we were immersed in water and water activities, from reef snorkeling to floating in the three-level cascade pool shaded by mango trees and coconut palms.

Not that there aren't other things to do on Dunk Island. The resort, which accommodates about 350, has plenty of land-based activities: tennis, golf, movies, live entertainment, horseback riding, eating at the resort's four restaurants and hiking up a rain forest-tunneled trail to the top of 890-foot Mt. Kootaloo to view miles of cliff-studded Queensland shoreline.

Dunk is one of the chain of Great Barrier Reef islands that stretches 1,000 miles along Australia's northeast coast. It's part of a necklace of barely submerged coral cliffs and cays, or islands, some barely an acre big, that supports spectacular sea life. Resorts occupy some of the islands; many are national parks. Some resorts are for singles; some super-exclusive with prices to match; and some are so big that they're small towns.

We chose Dunk Island on the recommendation of friends who'd lived in Australia and because of its family-friendly reputation. We weren't disappointed. After we had waded ashore and hiked to the white stucco cottages set among palm trees and spiky palmettos, the cheerful staff welcomed us, engaged our daughters in small talk, and had plenty of patience helping us choose and get to all our activities.

*

For $500 per day for all of us, we had access to the entire island and most activities (horseback riding was extra), a kids' program, breakfast, dinner and two adjoining rooms. (Note to parents of adolescent girls: When you're changing clothes several times a day after water sports, you need two bathrooms.)

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