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God save the Queen...

It was a scene straight out of Finding Nemo. Snorkelling, badly, in the Great Barrier Reef, a whole new world opened up to me. Corals of all sizes and colours. Crystal clear warm water. A kaleidoscope of reds, yellows -- you name it, it had it.

It was a scene straight out of Finding Nemo. Snorkelling, badly, in the Great Barrier Reef, a whole new world opened up to me. Corals of all sizes and colours. Crystal clear warm water. A kaleidoscope of reds, yellows — you name it, it had it.

Then, the Nemo moment as a gracefully gliding giant turtle, oblivious to the mini whale beside him, headed into the depths of the South Pacific.

Luckily, I didn’t encounter any of the other creatures in these parts. Although it was weeks before jellyfish season (the sting of the box variety can kill — painfully), I was dressed head to toe in protective clothing.

Attractions

And one local warned: “Watch out for the old saltie (man-eating crocodile), he likes to sunbathe around these parts.” They love to wind you up here, and I hoped he was kidding.

That’s part of the attraction of Queensland, Australia’s sunshine state. Mother Nature’s all around here, and she’s a bitch. Deadly trees, snakes, killer shellfish, the lethal octopus — you name it, it’s got it.

Lately, Queensland has been in the news for the wrong reasons — floods, cyclones, storms, annoying Irish backpackers, but the area around the Whitsunday Islands escaped lightly.

It’s not easy to get to these parts, and cheap isn’t an option (tough luck, backpackers), but those azure seas and white sandy beaches just beg to be explored, jellyfish or not.

If you want to see one place before you croak, head to Hayman Island, a private playground straight out of a glossy magazine shoot. Even getting here’s an adventure. You have to connect from the likes of Brisbane into Great Barrier Reef Airport (on neighbouring Hamilton Island). From there, it’s a private yacht, champagne and all, that takes you to Hayman, where you’ll be greeted, in Fantasy Island fashion, by the staff at the wharf.

Opulence

No lager louts, no day trippers — this is an island for guests of the hotel. Seafood restaurants, Italian, Asian, you’re spoiled for choice. And once you’ve had your rashers and sausages on the beach overlooking the coral sea, breakfast at home will always be a letdown.

My normal room had a stunning view of the main pool and the gardens, filled with tropical birds. If you’re honeymooning, the beach house has a butler service, a refreshment bar and media room with Apple iPad and Apple TV, a balcony onto the beach, and, for the ultimate in opulence, your own private infinity pool.

And if you want something funky, the beachfront villas each have their own pool — in its own room, with a bed beside it.

Back on dry land, a short flight up the coast will bring you to bustling Cairns — the centre of the backpacking universe. Filled with cheap bars, hotels and restaurants the oncesleepy town has been transformed.

The beachfront, with its terraced restaurants, has a Florida-like feeling to it. For fresh seafood, and great people watching (we met an ex-MP who was uncannily like Sir Les Patterson), head to Splash Restaurant (103 Esplanade). But to escape the madness that is Ireland-on-Sea, drive about 20 minutes out of town to Kewarra Beach Resort. Eco-friendly and posh, it’s even got its own superexclusive private isle, Double Island.

Keanu Reeves booked it for a New Year’s Eve party, while Brad Pitt (pre Angelina) and Jennifer Aniston used it as a romantic bolthole.

Amid rainforest trees on the resort, I stayed in a terraced bungalow (think safari lodge meets beach lodge) with all mod cons. By day I lazed by the pool, by night, I dined on the beach on prawns and kangaroo — I’ll admit, Skippy tastes better than he acts.

Service was exceptionally friendly and, although Cairns is just down the road, this felt like I’m a Celebrity . . . territory — except with five-star food and pampering.

It’s a long way to go, and who knows, you might never want to go home.


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