Honeymoon is over but we had a ball


GO HONEYMOON:The trip of a lifetime comes to an end for Deniseand Mark Duffield-Thomas, winners of the ‘Ultimate Job in Ireland’, as they go Down Under to their final destination

I’M AN ANTIPODEAN who gets genuinely emotional when I hear the opening words of I Still Call Australia Home, so although we always knew Queensland would be the final honeymoon testers’ assignment, nothing quite prepared me for the flood of excitement when we landed Down Under.

Queensland has it all – ancient rainforests, pristine beaches, fantastic weather, unique animals and the famous Great Barrier Reef. Within minutes of arriving at our first resort, we saw a kangaroo chilling under a tree and a beautiful white and yellow cockatoo landed on our veranda. Locals take such wonders for granted, but we were hyperventilating with excitement and snapped away with our camera, not realising that we were going to see more wildlife than you can shake a stick at during our magical time in Queensland.

Mount Tamborine is a beautiful town an hour from the state capital Brisbane, renowned for its rainforest hiking, nature watching and tours of family-run vineyards and gourmet food markets. We stayed at the Pether’s Rainforest Retreat in a forest bungalow, lulled to sleep by the sounds of frogs croaking and woken up by birds singing.

We continued our Guinness World Record attempt for Most Married Couple with a proper Aussie shindig, escorted by the famous mountain trolley bus to the Tamborine Gardens chapel for a fun ceremony with local distillery owner Michael, a flamboyant “Outback Santa” hybrid with a personality the size of Uluru.

Afterwards, we sampled Michael’s finest liqueurs, handmade with unique native ingredients such as eucalyptus, quandong and lemon myrtle. We were sent home with a bottle of Wattle Toffee, but not until after we sampled every flavour mention- ed in our alcohol-themed vows!

Our next stop was Brisbane where we met up with Brit Ben Southall, winner of Queensland’s Best Job in the World competition. For six months, he was an island caretaker in the Great Barrier Reef and now is a tourism ambassador for Queensland.

Ben’s a champ and he even participated in another wedding ceremony, this one on rollerblades at the Brisbane River. Mark fell on his bum much to the delight of the Aussie journalists who were looking to get one up on the Poms before the Ashes.

The best way to see Brisbane is from the top of the Story Bridge Climb, one of only three bridge-climbing experiences in the world, on an early morning private tour. We left with a great impression of beautiful Brissie, a very green and lively place to visit.

QUEENSLAND is probably most famous for being home to the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage site stretching more than 2,400km along the east coast of Australia. The world’s largest coral reef is a diver’s paradise, home to dolphins, turtles, dugongs and more than 1,500 species of tropical fish – oh, and the occasional shark.

We flew to the Whitsunday Islands and took a ferry out to the magical-sounding Daydream Island. Under a blue sky you’re greeted with a shell necklace and fruity cocktail to get you into the spirit. Island hopping to the exclusive and intimate Hayman Island a couple of days later was an indulgent experience of good food, water sports and the irresistible hotel pool, a jump from our private deck.

The Whitsunday Islands are without exception a verifiable paradise surrounded by the bluest water I’ve seen in real life. Outside of travel magazines, who knew such places existed without Photoshop?

Popular activities centre around the spectacular reef such as cruises, waterskiing, snorkelling and, of course, world class scuba diving. Helicopter and seaplane trips for picnics on private islands are a honeymoon must. We tried a day trip out to the Knuckle Reef floating pontoon for our first taste of the deep blue. Mark tried an introductory scuba dive while I got a massage in surely the most remote and beautiful salon in the world.

A short plane ride took us further up the coast to Cairns, the gateway to tropical North Queensland, a place of spectacular beauty and the diverse landscape of the Daintree Rainforest, home to mangroves and crocodiles. We stayed at many beautiful places around the area including Thala Beach Lodge, a popular eco oasis for celebrities where we performed a hilarious castaway themed wedding on a deserted beach; Peppers Beach Club in Port Douglas which boasts an incredible man-made beach complete with white sand and palm trees; and the Sea Temple with our own rooftop terrace in the gorgeous little seaside town of Palm Cove.

A day trip through the rainforest is an introduction to Australia’s native flora and fauna, with million-year-old trees, spiders as big as your hand and a rich array of rainbow coloured birds all within touching distance. We spotted several crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of the Daintree, a rare sighting of the very unique cassowary bird and we even licked the bum of a lemon ant. What an adventure! Just keep your arms and legs inside the boat or tour bus.

We got even closer to the cuter Aussie animals at the Wildlife Habitat in Port Douglas. For the ultimate honeymoon snap you can hug a koala, feed kangaroos and emus and, if you missed them on the river, take photos of the crocodiles safely from behind a fence.

The reef is never far away. This time we snorkelled off the shore of the tiny Low Isles, population two. Surrounded by a beautiful coral reef teeming with exotic animals and fish, my fear of sharks disappeared as we watched green turtles napping on the bottom of the reef and harmless lemon sharks serenely fly away through the crystal blue water.

Even if you’re not a fan of the open water, you can stand close to the shore, stick your face in the water and see clown fish playing in their anemone home. And yes, they look exactly like Nemo and his dad. Later that evening, we took a leisurely sunset cruise around Port Douglas bay. We have now successfully tested out the whole reef above, below and on the water itself – it’s unmissable!

OUR LAST official day as honeymoon testers was spent high above the forest canopy on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, visiting the leafy village of Kuranda and the fantastic Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park. Our record-breaking wedding ceremony number 84 was perform- ed by the local Tjapukai tribe with native dress, a special smoke ceremony and a blessing of “Go forth and be joyful”.

The park is an unbelievable celebration of Aboriginal culture. We learnt to throw boomerangs and spears, and to play the didgeridoo like Rolf Harris. The day made me proud to be an Australian seeing the rich cultural heritage of our native brothers and sisters.

Australia is the trip of a lifetime and you can’t get much better than Queensland, the Sunshine State for adventure, pristine beaches and unforgettable experiences. Ireland, I’ve been a guest in your beautiful country, so now I invite you to come and sample my Great Southern Land for yourself.

What’s next? We’ve got two weeks left in Australia, so we’re jumping on a Greyhound bus to backpack down the east coast. You can follow our adventure and catch up on our whole trip at thehoneymoontesters.com.

* Denise and Mark Duffield-Thomas were the winners of Runaway Bride and Groom’s Ultimate Job in Ireland (and probably the World) in association with The Irish Times.Their trip to Queensland was supported by Tourism Queensland, and organised by honeymoon and destination wedding experts runawaybrideand groom.com, who can help you organise your trip Down Under.