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Cruising the Coral Sea

A dream weekend for two, snorkeling Australia's Great Barrier Reef

 

Setting sail aboard the five-star luxury yacht Marcrista provided the perfect base from which to sunbathe on unpopulated beaches and snorkel the pristine coral gardens of remote Undine Cay.

 Undine Cay shimmers like the ocean jewel it truly is: an unpretentious, utterly stunning sprinkling of sand, lapped by opalblue waters that allow eyes to penetrate deep into the rich coral gardens below. A tiny, rarely visited cay, Undine lies just off the Cape Tribulation coastline and its world-famous Daintree National Park in tropical Far North Queensland. This low-lying speck of sand all but disappears at high tide and receives very few visitors.

With snorkels by our sides and clutching flutes of chilled champagne, we stretched out in the sunshine on our private atoll of isolation. Although we were a mere half-day sail from the popular holiday haven of Port Douglas, my partner and I were blissfully alone and attempting to disprove the theory that champagne and sunshine don't mix.

 We had arrived at this remote haven in style, aboard the five-star, million-dollar charter yacht Marcrista. This decadently appointed, 52ft liveaboard offers exclusive sailing escapes anywhere in Queensland's Far North, and if freedom, seclusion, and adventure are at the top of your list, this is the way to explore the open seas.

Aboard Marcrista you can expect absolute indulgence: exceptional cuisine, comfortable sailing, and the ultimate luxury - your choice of destinations as you dive, snorkel, or simply cruise the reefs, cays, and beaches of the Coral Sea. In our case, this added up to a weekend of cozy coupledom, with carefree days spent sailing, snorkeling and sunbaking on deserted beaches from Port Douglas north to Mackay Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is the only living organism visible from outer space, and also holds the record for the world's largest World Heritage Area. It encompasses the world's largest collection of coral reefs - an estimated 2,900 individual reefs. Add to that around 300 types of coral, 1,500 fish species, 600 continental islands, and over 350 coral cays, and you've got one fantastic dive site!

 Estimated to be over 18 million years old, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for 2000km along Australia's far northern coastline. But it is only at Cape Tribulation, north of the holiday havens of Cairns and Port Douglas, that the reef extends right to the beach. Just offshore lies magical Undine Cay.

Despite being one of about 200 sand cays bereft of vegetation on the Great Barrier Reef, Undine is extremely special, and with so few visitors you are almost guaranteed of enjoying the experience alone. The quality of coral here is some of the best on the inner reef, undisturbed by years of marauding snorkelers who frequent other locations, and thereby attracting a distracting variety of colorful marine creatures.

You can spend your time here exploring the depths, or if you can bear to leave the water, Marcrista's crew will schedule a private helicopter to land on the cay and fly you over the reef and the nearby rainforested hills of Daintree National Park.

 Our idyllic escape began in the sassy, tropical village of Port Douglas, located a short, scenic drive or helicopter flight from Cairns International Airport. With its upmarket eateries, truly exclusive resorts, and a broad expanse of palm-fringed beach to laze upon, Port Douglas grants visitors the royal reef experience. Its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Park offers visitors a central base from which to explore some of Australia's wildest territory.

On boarding Marcrista, we politely declined a breakfast of coffee and croissants for the chance to take over the helm. As I turned the gleaming, giant sloop north, leaving civilization in our wake, a favorable 20-knot southeasterly hit the beam, heeling us slightly and pushing us along at an exhilarating nine knots. Off to port, the broad, muddy mouth of the Daintree River heralded the start of that pristine rainforest strip fiercely protected within the bosom of Daintree National Park.

Soon I could make out the bulbous headland of Cape Tribulation, named so by Captain James Cook during his exploratory 1770 voyage of Australia "....because here began all our troubles."

As we sailed on, I refused to relinquish the helm, but Marcrista's skipper Mark Blunden was only too happy to oblige. While Mark's charter company advertises absolute indulgence, what he really sells is freedom, and aboard his yacht I was free to take the reins.

 We arrived at Undine's paradise on day one of our all-too-brief adventure. Immobilized by the sun, we were content to merely laze beneath our umbrella, but eventually, the deep blue beckoned. Even the most ardent champagne devotees would find it hard not to dig their glasses into the sand and slip beyond the shore with snorkel and fins. Beneath the sea, a forest of gently swaying feather stars harbors a kaleidoscope of colorful wrasse and parrotfish that gnaw continuously at masses of lime and tangerine coral.

On a wall of multicolored Christmas tree worms, we spotted a pair of clownfish darting in and out of the protective tendrils of a sea anemone. And as we swam on, mesmerized by the underwater world, an old, barnacled sea turtle glided silently by, ignoring us with one large, wrinkled eye. Sea turtles may be on the endangered list around the globe, but those that call the Great Barrier Reef home live safely within the largest marine protected area in the world.

Our silent, watery escape lingered on into the hazy afternoon, until the sun began to dip and we realized the rising tide would all but swallow our secluded oasis. The champagne had warmed, but our day of decadence was not over. We signaled to Marcrista and a dinghy motored out to retrieve us.

 On board, ice-cold beer awaited us on the bow deck - just as we had ordered - and we settled amongst the cushions as the immaculate monohull sailed silently north along the Cape Tribulation coastline.

At the end of the day, as the crew sailed on to our overnight anchorage at Mackay Reef, I dangled my legs over the bow, my body tranquilized by an abundance of exercise and sunshine. A warm orange sky melted into darkness and a dolphin danced beside the boat, leaving phosphorescence in its wake.

A sumptuous seafood smorgasbord under the stars was on offer aboard Marcrista, but across the water, a nearby yacht was celebrating someone's birthday. With yachties being such a friendly bunch, who could resist their invitation to party, so we promptly left luxury in our wake and motored across to join in the revelry.

Drinks gave way to dinner (which just happened to be cooked by one of Port Douglas's finest restaurateurs aboard his stunning yacht) and as the early hours approached, we reluctantly bid farewell to our new friends and headed back to a comfortable berth aboard Marcrista.

 As day broke over Mackay Reef, we revived ourselves with strong coffee and prepared for another day of snorkeling before the inevitable and too-soon return to land.

Despite our desire for an eternity spent exploring these oceans, we did manage to delay our departure from Mackay Reef until after dark. As we sailed toward Port Douglas, we stood in silence on the bow with a cool glass of vino as a full magenta moon cast beams that bounced across the ocean and shimmered like jewels. Two days at sea had left us utterly enchanted with this idyllic tropical paradise and the crowd-free experience was simply bliss!

For those with a few more days available, Marcrista offers a host of extended northern jaunts where you can spend a few days in the quirky outpost town of Cooktown or head to luxurious Lizard Island.

Packages can include helicopter reef and rainforest flights, guided dives beneath Lizard's iridescent blue waters or the choice to head to the outback by helicopter for a day of cattle mustering and barramundi fishing.

There is no doubt that luxury and adventure come at a price, but if you crave freedom, demand comfort, and yearn to explore the open seas of the tropical far north in a way seldom experienced, a luxury yacht charter aboard Marcrista offers one of the most appealing sea adventures on the coast.

Information
To charter this boat or any yacht you see in this issue of YV&C, please contact any of the recommended charter brokers listed on page 8.

 

FACT FILE
Trip

Marcrista Luxury Charters sail from Marina Mirage Port Douglas, berth C8, to any destination of your choice in Far North Queensland. There are daily flights from around the globe into Cairns International Airport.

 Take a leisurely limousine ride from Cairns Airport north along the scenic coastal strip to Port Douglas, about one hour's drive. Alternatively, take to the air for a quick helicopter trip over the reef.

Facilities
Marcrista sleeps six in three comfortable, air-conditioned rooms (one en suite). The yacht makes its own fresh water for unlimited hot and cold showers, and guest facilities include CD players, TV, DVD, washing machine and dryer, CDMA phone, satellite e-mail, and full office facilities for those who need to keep in touch.

 The yacht has its own dive compressor, tanks, weight belts, fins, masks, and snorkels; and for an additional fee, the skipper will organize personalized dive equipment and hire a local guide to lead you on your very own underwater adventure.

Cost
Exclusive yacht charters aboard Marcrista start from $2,625 per day, for up to six people, including gourmet meals to suit your palette, non-alcoholic drinks, snorkeling equipment, reef taxes, and your choice of itinerary. Helicopter flights and guided dive trips are extra.

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