Rays and child's play

A decade on, Daniel Scott finds his place in the sun and access for all ages on the dunes of North Stradbroke Island.

It is like being on the stage of an underwater ballet. Anchored to a jumble of rocks, I see what looks like three giant magician's capes wafting and billowing in the current above my head. Black on top, creamy beneath and each spanning at least three metres, the manta rays travel in synchronous slow motion, the tips of their huge wings curling upwards like a smile.

This is our second dive this morning at Manta Bommie, one of a dozen sites just a short boat ride from Point Lookout on North Stradbroke Island. On the first foray, my buddy and I were so excited by the large marine life visiting this rocky, 12-metre-deep reef, we pursued every passing ray, turtle and bizarre-looking guitar shark.

On this dive, we barely move for 50 minutes and are rewarded by the sight of rays entering from stage right, stage left and out of nowhere. When we look behind us, we find the previously empty sand patch occupied by a large, ornately spotted leopard shark. As we kneel beside it, it looks like a faithful hound reposing by a fire.

Then, towards the end of the dive, Darth Vader looms into view. Pitch-black from the tip of its rapier-like tail to the flaps extending on either side of its broad mouth, this ray is an unforgettably eerie vision.

It has been 10 years since I was last on Straddie, as locals call this 37-kilometre-long sand island in Moreton Bay off Brisbane, and diving is the perfect reintroduction to its natural wonders. On previous visits, I've paddled an ocean kayak along its shoreline and sandboarded down some of its mountainous dunes.

This time, with two small children in tow, a more sedate family holiday is required. In this respect, our base – a three-bedroom apartment at the Stradbroke Island Beach Hotel – could not be better. We're swimming in stylish, air-conditioned space, with two bathrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, washing machine, drier, barbecue and dinner table on the deck.

If we tire of domestic chores, we can amble upstairs to the bistro. But, best of all, with Cylinder Beach on the doorstep and an in-ground pool within splashing distance, we have no trouble entertaining the toddlers.

Luxurious and convenient though this complex of 21 apartments and 12 hotel rooms is, it feels strange to be bedding down here. The new hotel is built on the site of the old Straddie pub, a delightfully unpretentious watering hole at which I spent many balmy evenings in the past.


Still, Stradbroke is so gorgeous, the locals were never going to keep it a secret. Originally a home to the Nunukul, Goenpul and Ngugi people, who lived off the island's plentiful supply of seafood, including the much-sought-after dugong, the first recorded contact with Europeans was in 1803. Matthew Flinders anchored the cutter, Hope, at Point Lookout – named by James Cook as he sailed by in 1770 – to look for fresh water. He noted "20 Indians" on shore, who seemed "to be peaceably disposed, amusing us with dances in imitation of the kangaroo". The island later took its name from the Earl of Stradbroke, the captain of a ship carrying Governor Ralph Darling to the Moreton Bay convict settlement in 1827.

When Moreton Bay was opened to free settlers in 1850, a quarantine station was set up on Stradbroke at the town of Dunwich to prevent illness spreading from new arrivals to Brisbane and the mainland. Later, between 1866 and 1945, the same compound housed a "benevolent asylum" for the old and infirm. The site is now home to North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum, named Australia's best regional museum in last year's ABC Radio National awards. It has displays on Aboriginal and pioneer history and the skeleton of a sperm whale.

Dunwich, which has the feel of a small country town, is the first of three island settlements a traveller encounters when arriving by ferry from Cleveland on the mainland. Over the years, Dunwich and nearby Amity Point developed as small fishing communities. Amity is little changed. In the 1950s, sandmining began to play a prominent role on Stradbroke and tourism has gradually developed as a second mainstay of the local economy. This is largely centred on Stradbroke's third and ritziest village, Point Lookout, where we are staying, with its resorts, holiday homes, cafes and boutiques.

Yet, given its proximity to the urban centre of Brisbane, the island remains unspoilt and laid-back; so much so, you have to adjust your watch to "Straddie time" on arrival. Both qualities are in evidence on a four-wheel-drive island tour run by Dave Thelander, which we join on our second day. The tour is taken at a relaxed pace, with breaks for cuppas and a barbecue lunch on Flinders Beach.

"Straddie is the world's second-largest sand island after Fraser," Thelander tells us as we drive along 32-kilometre Main Beach on the exposed east coast. Strong ocean winds have sculpted that sand into magnificent, sweeping dunes; behind them is a surprisingly hilly interior.

Fresh water is scattered all over the island in the form of creeks, lagoons, wetlands and, like Fraser Island, coloured lakes. We don't have time to do the 90-minute return hike to Blue Lake but we do stop for a paddle in Brown Lake, near Dunwich, which gets its colour from reeds and surrounding tea-trees.

My family has never seen a koala in the wild and Thelander vows to find us one. In no time, he locates two sleepy bears, one in a tree above a grave in Dunwich's old cemetery and the other across the road from Amity Point's fish shop. We take an indecent number of pictures and my eldest daughter doesn't stop talking about the koalas for the rest of our visit.

After lunch, we return to Point Lookout, Queensland's most easterly tip, to follow the North Gorge Headlands walk. This track forms a horseshoe around a narrow chasm, which looks as if it has been sliced out of the tall cliffs with a huge butcher's knife. It provides spectacular views along the coast and, from June to about November, it's a reliable spot from which to see humpback whales. Dolphins sometimes surf into the gorge and rays and sharks have been seen here, too. But the sight of the frothing ocean rolling up and down the confines of the ravine, sending spray hissing high above the cliffs, is thrilling enough.

For the remainder of our time on Straddie, we settle in for a typical family holiday. We build sandcastles and fossick in rock pools on Cylinder Beach. Behind Deadmans Beach, we roll and tumble down steep, soft sandhills. We leave the hotel just once for dinner, at Look Cafe, where we tuck into spicy, fried soft-shell crab with wakame salad and prawn and chorizo risotto.

On our final morning, our eldest is still chattering about the koalas we saw two days ago, so, on the way to the ferry, we stop again at Dunwich cemetery to see whether we can spot another. Scanning the branches above the grave of George Mitchell, a ship's doctor who died in a typhoid epidemic in 1850, it takes no time to find what we're looking for. In fact, judging by its beady eyes and familiar cream patch on its chest, this is the same animal we saw earlier, still ensconced in the tree cleft where we left it. It seems even the wildlife is on "Straddie time".

Getting there North Stradbroke is reached by regular car and passenger ferry or water taxi from the Brisbane suburb of Cleveland. A one-way fare costs from$64.50 for a standard vehicle, including all passengers, on Sea Stradbroke (seastradbroke.com) and from $135 return for a vehicle and all passengers on Stradbroke Ferries (stradbrokeferries.com.au).
Staying there Stradbroke Island Beach Hotel has 12 hotel rooms and 21 three- and four-bedroom apartments, with views over Cylinder Beach. Hotel rooms cost from $165 a night (minimum two nights Friday and Saturday) and three-bedroom oceanview apartments from $980 for three nights. At East Coast Road, Point Lookout. Phone (07) 3409 8188, see stradbrokeislandbeachhotel.com.au.
Eating there Look Cafe Bar is open for breakfast and lunch every day and dinner Thursday-Saturday 6-9pm. At the corner of Mintee Street and Mooloomba Road, Point Lookout. Phone (07) 3415 3390, see lookcafebar.com.
Touring there Manta Lodge arranges double dives with all gear for $185 a person, or $115 without gear; see www.mantalodge.com.au. Straddie Kingfisher Tours has six-hour four-wheel-drive tours for adults $75, children $55. Phone (07) 3409 9502, see straddiekingfishertours.com.au. North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-2pm, entry $3.60. At 15-17 Welsby Street, Dunwich. Phone (07) 3409 9699, see stradbroke museum.com.au. For further information, see visitbrisbane.com.au.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland, Brisbane Marketing and Stradbroke Island Beach Hotel.