After a flurry of sales and makeovers, Queensland's islands of the north beckon anew, writes Belinda Jackson.
IT'S just on lunchtime and Cheong Liew, aka "the father of Australian fusion food", is poking around the sea shore, hunting for oysters for my dinner. Oh yeah, baby, we've landed in paradise on Earth.
And it's in Queensland.
Orpheus Island is a hilly dot 80 kilometres off the coast of Townsville, in the Palm Islands group. Lashed by Yasi's cyclonic winds last year, the resort recently reopened and, if it plays its cards right, will be one of those hideaways where sneaky celebs have no need for wearing wigs or bad '80s fashion.
It's not like there are many crowds. Orpheus used to be described as exclusive, taking just 34 lucky guests, but during its post-cyclone renovations it accommodates just 16 people, which makes us even more special.
After the devastation left by last year's cyclone season, several islands and resorts have refreshed and changed hands, including Orpheus, Lizard and Dunk islands, Fitzroy Island Resort and the celebrity haunt Bedarra Island Resort, which was reportedly sold for just $6 million.
Six million dollars seems to be the magic number, as Orpheus's new owner has also just snapped up a tropical island for about the same small change. The only way to the resort is via the skies in the teensiest little helicopter, an egg beater that skims over uninhabited islands, lonely atolls, the ruins of a former leper colony and busy Palm Island, with a population of between 2000 and 3000 indigenous folk. Orpheus's new owner knows which side his bread is buttered on: he also owns The Botanical in Melbourne's dress circle, South Yarra, and has lured Cheong Liew out of retirement to set the tone for the resort's kitchens with his protege, Arie Prabowo.
Cheong and Arie have gone primal - hunters and gatherers during the day, world-class chefs by night. They've speared coral trout, fished mangrove jacks, picked oysters and squished sea cucumbers. See it, hunt it, eat it: they're on a mission and we're the hungry benefactors.
In between epic four-hourly food adventures, we loll in hammocks, swim in the bath-warm waters of the Coral Sea, climb to the island's little peak. At low tide, while the chefs comb the sand flats, the swimming continues in the glamorous new $½ million infinity pool beside the bar and restaurant.
The characters are wilder and the tales more bizarre in lovely far north Queensland, to wit the adventures of managers Rob and Kylie, who spent six years running the marine research station around the other side of the island. Privately, I dub Rob "the boy who lived", after his stories of being bitten by the usually deadly cone shellfish and other spicy tales of vindictive fish, extreme weather and giant clams. Just like those below our boat.
"Go on, jump in," he urges, explaining how best to peer inside them. "You really want me to stick my hand inside a giant clam?" The man is clearly insane. "Just tickle their mantle and they'll relax," he assures me. So here I am, tickling a giant clam. It seems to like it.
Orpheus's newly renovated suites are almost spartan in their simplicity: blond wood and soft spring green fabrics. There are just two other guests at the resort: an American couple who disappear early in the morning on Rob's boat, to return way past dark, brandishing exotic fish for Cheong and increasing hues of sunburn. They are in heaven.
If you were looking for kids' clubs and compulsory group fun, you'd be disappointed. "Orpheus is totally unscripted and personalised," Rob says. Yet there is still phone reception and wi-fi and chilled lounge music wafts through the gardens.
Barman Dave perfects his lychee martini and one night, his bar is turned into an open kitchen as the chefs start a lavish feast of small plates, which they plonk on the bar, where we're all perched. The dinner continues late into the night, just a handful of happy people on a tropical island, shoes off, eating the best food in the world: black-lipped oysters from the bay, cheese and Jersey cream from the Atherton Tableland, house-made bread. "It's an Asian approach with the freshest indigenous product," Arie says.
It's hard to leave paradise. Now I understand how Eve felt after she ate the apple. But she didn't leave in a chopper. The next morning, instead of chef Arie's freshly caught spicy snapper and rice for a classic Asian breakfast, it's a Ned Kelly pie (bacon, egg, cheese and mince) from Nelly Bay's Bells Harbour Bakery on Magnetic Island.
Magnetic Island ("Maggie" to its many mates) is just 20 minutes by boat from Townsville and a world away from Orpheus. Instead of foot trails through the soft grass, Maggie has paved roads, shops and residents. But slowly, its personality starts to emerge. The main forms of transport are candy-pink Mokes full of squealing girls and a bus careens north to south at all hours of the day, tearing around corners, doors flapping like it's possessed.
Sheltered by the outer islands, lucky Maggie was almost unscathed in last season's cyclones, suffering just a smashed jetty and a few shops smothered by sand at the northern end of the island, including Blue Reef Seafood Bar and Grill, recently taken over by chef Troy Dibben.
"It was my first cyclone and I slept through it but we had to dig our restaurant out," he recalls, although I'm transfixed by the bucket of Moreton Bay bugs that have just been dropped onto the table. Split in two, they taste as though they've just leapt from the warm Queensland waters and at $25 are an absolute bargain. For my money, Blue Reef is the best meal on the island. That's not to say the others are bad: French chef Marc Palun charms us with his accent, risotto and open-air restaurant, Le Paradis, named because "I own a restaurant on a tropical island. I am living the dream". And the ambience is not bad at Bungalow Bay Koala Village, where bacon and eggs come served with teen koala Noah, Barbie the saltwater crocodile and a python named Samson.
While the island is a tropical haven for Townsville folk and European backpackers, it also offers a steady stream of luxury houses for the taking. Our luxe beach house in Picnic Bay could comfortably sleep a house party, though our little group enjoys the lap pool and walks along the quiet beach and my hotel radar starts to ping when I hear of a sparkling new couples villa that's recently opened in Horseshoe Bay.
After just a few days, the mainland seems like another country but it's onward and upward to Cairns to explore further afield. In the general fire sale of islands that has taken place in the past 12 months, little Fitzroy, 29 kilometres south-east of Cairns, was recently sold for just $8 million after changing hands for $18 million in 2006. The failed entrepreneur, who sunk $100 million into the resort, is now rumoured to be selling furniture in Hong Kong but his mark remains: all the furnishings are monogrammed in his own initials.
There they are, woven into the curtains, the carpets, even the hinges on the doors. The man had one thing right: the swim-up bar in the resort pool.
Happily for us, the former owner was aiming for rock-star clientele but the new owners are chasing four stars, with prices to match, so the luxuriously appointed rooms are actually reasonable.
A word, though: opt for a suite looking out to the sea, rather than the inward-facing studios, which resemble motel rooms, though they are a handy place to farm the kids out as the suites and studios are interconnected.
The resort takes up one corner of the island, the rest is national park, with tracks leading in to the interior and up to the lighthouse, for spectacular views.
The half-hour trek to Nudey Beach gets its fair share of walkers. Stripping off is optional, though, as the beach is actually named after nudibranchs, little molluscs that live in the bay, glowing vivid purple, orange and every other colour of the rainbow.
"The above-water world is so ugly," divemaster Renaldo van der Westhuizen says. "Look at it! All brown and green. None of the colours we see below the water." Renaldo is being mean: the sky is a brilliant blue, the beaches are white and aquamarine waters squelch over shores of crushed coral, sending it tinkling. At night, the new chef plays with king salmon and herbs from the kitchen's garden and we gossip about the island's diving, underwater aqua jets and 6-million-year-old coral over dinner beneath the stars.
On our final morning in the north, I take a farewell look as we pull away from the island.
But it's our heavily tattooed boat driver who gets a second look.
And a third and with the threat of being busted perving, I make out a picture of Ned Kelly and the writing on his leg, which is surely the mantra of tropical Queensland: "Living the dream."
The writer was a guest of Tourism Queensland and the Hilton Cairns.
Getting there Thirty minutes by chopper from Townsville. The resort reopens on March 3.
Staying there From $1400 a night per room, includes all meals, water and activities. orpheus.com.au.
Getting there Forty minutes by Sealink ferry from Townsville, $29 adult, $14.50 child return, sealinkqld.com.au. Tropical Topless car rentals. Topless cars $84 day and Moke $104 day, inc fuel. (07) 4758 1111.
Staying there Beached on Magnetic beach house from $450 a night, Essence villa from $300 a night. (07) 4778 5955, bestofmagnetic.com.
Getting there One hour by boat from Cairns, $65 adult, $30 child.
Staying there Studios from $130, self-catering Ocean suites from $250, meals extra. There is also a camping ground and a few beach bungalows. (07) 4044 6700 fitzroyisland.com.
Five things to do
1 Grab a takeaway bento from iconic Thai/Malay/Indian fusion restaurant Hanuman in the Hilton Cairns. (07) 4052 6786, www.hanuman.com.au.
2 Take a sunset sail from Magnetic Island on the 62-foot Providence V schooner, $65 a person, 0427 882 062, providencesailing.com.au.
3 If you can't stay the night, take a day trip to Fitzroy Island and get snapped with lion fish on a PADI introductory dive, $100/daytrippers, $65 resort guests. (07) 4041 0440.
4 Take your horse for a swim during a morning trek at Horseshoe Bay Ranch, Magnetic Island, $100 for two hours. (07) 4778 5109, horseshoebayranch .com.au.
5 Visit the Orpheus Island research station, www.jcu.edu.au/oirs.