YouTube vs tobogganing, iPads vs parasailing, wi-fi vs wildlife – Bryce Corbett takes his family to Tangalooma island resort in the hope they’ll like, follow, subscribe.
We’re going overseas – if only technically speaking – and after two years of COVID-19 confinement, it feels vaguely exhilarating. Just packing the suitcase these days seems strangely treasonous.
As we drive the 20 minutes from our Brisbane home to the Tangalooma ferry terminal, near the mouth of the Brisbane River, I do my best to rally the young troops – aged 13 and 12 – from their indifference, checking off the long list of activities that await us after a 75-minute boat ride across Moreton Bay. “There’ll be parasailing, sand tobogganing, quad bikes and snorkelling the wrecks,” I say enthusiastically. Catching my eye in the rear-vision mirror, my daughter, Rose, removes an AirPod from one ear and asks with a sigh, “Will there be wi-fi?”
Despite sitting only 40 kilometres off the coast of Brisbane – and pretty much level, latitudinally speaking, with the city’s main airport – Moreton Island (Mulgumpin) has for so long been a place you fly over on the way to somewhere else. But two years of international border closures have forced many Australians to look more closely at their own backyard. Which is how the four of us find ourselves skimming across Moreton Bay towards Tangalooma, the island’s only resort.
The last year was a long one. For my wife and me, this weekend away is a chance to catch our breath before diving into the mad scramble of the new year. For Rose and her older brother, Flynn, it’s a wholly unwelcome interruption to their sustained – and frankly impressive – efforts to develop a full-blown addiction to basketball videos on YouTube and re-runs of Friends on Netflix.
As the island looms up ahead and the kids’ devices start to lose wi-fi, I feel like we’re being transported to a family holiday of yesteryear. Who knows? We might even talk to each other. Distinguished in no small part by its inaccessibility, Moreton Island is practically uninhabited and can only be reached by passenger boat or car ferry. It doesn’t have sealed roads, just a patchwork of sandy 4WD tracks – it’s the world’s third-largest sand island, 44 kilometres from top to bottom. And while that gives the place a wonderful sense of isolation, the majority of visitors never venture beyond the boundaries of Tangalooma Island Resort, perched as it is on a glorious arc of yellow sandy beach on the island’s west coast.
We’re met off the ferry by Henk, the resort’s long-serving assistant manager, who is Dutch of origin and efficient of nature. If Fantasy Island’s Ricardo Montalban had a 60-something, ruddy-faced, modern-day counterpart, Henk would be it.
“I only leave the island to go to Brisbane every eight weeks or so,” he gravely informs us, walkie-talkie in hand, as he leads us to our waterfront apartment. “And only then for a haircut, a few personal items – and a McDonald’s hamburger.”
“Why would he leave?” I mutter to my wife as we’re stopped in our tracks by a perfect sunset casting a golden light across the bay, Brisbane’s high-rises silhouetted in miniature off in the distance.
Since it first opened back in the 1980s – some 20 years after the island closed as a whaling station – there have been new builds, most notably a collection of doublestorey villas and a stout modern complex called Deep Blue, with well-appointed, multi-bedroom apartments. And while the original part of the resort could do with a facelift, guests are encouraged to bring a cooler full of food with them on the ferry and use the cooking facilities in their accommodation or barbecues scattered about the lush, tropical gardens to supplement the resort’s restaurants.
Speaking of which, the food is abundant, even if the options are relatively limited. There’s a takeaway bistro, coffee shop, Chinese restaurant (its Japanese counterpart was temporarily closed when we were there due to an apparent COVID-19-related, Queensland-wide sushi chef shortage) and the more upmarket Beach BBQ, which serves steak and seafood. The flame-grilled Moreton Bay bugs with a lime beurre blanc are, unsurprisingly, a speciality not to be missed.
Typical of an island resort with a captive clientele, meal times are something of a competitor sport, from getting a pizza for the kids at dinner time to nabbing a table during the breakfast-buffet rush.
Time your attempt to order lunch just after the midday ferry has deposited its boat-load of daytrippers – as we made the mistake of doing one day – and the wait can be long. Hit the breakfast buffet at the peak hour of 8am and the scramble for the pancake-making machine or the last piece of watermelon is real. I find myself being reminded of childhood holidays with my grandmother, whose prowess at a smorgasbord is still the stuff of family legend. But the staff – though depleted in number thanks to the virus and the brake it’s put on the backpacker workforce – are invariably obliging.
And besides, five-star dining and 1000-thread-count sheets have never been part of the deal at Tangalooma. It’s all about the activities, with a firm focus on family fun. And in that department, it more than delivers. For the adventurous, there’s Moreton’s main attraction: snorkelling the famous Tangalooma Wrecks, a cluster of ships scuttled to create a man-made reef and home to a stunning array of coral and marine life. Opting for the Sea Scooter Safari, the four of us cling to underwater propulsion devices – the type you might see in a James Bond film – and cut a swathe through a school of blue-green fish as they perform their iridescent underwater ballet. The ear-to-ear grin on Flynn’s face as he glides through the rusted hulk of an old steamship says it all.
A helicopter joy ride across the island’s interior and down low above the wrecks only serves to underscore the natural beauty of the island: its rich green interior and towering sand dunes gloriously encircled by the clearest, most turquoise of waters. And not for the first or last time, I find myself thinking, “How can this have sat unnoticed on my doorstep all this time?”
An offer to try tandem parasailing gives rise to a moment of pure family joy. Both dad-and-daughter and mother-and-son duos lift gently in turn above the glassy waters of Moreton Bay to hover in blissful silence, mesmerised by the hulking outline of the Glass House Mountains in the distance. Afterwards, a wide-eyed Rose will tell me as she comes in for a hug that it was the “best thing I have ever done. Like. Ever”.
Scattered throughout the day, there’s kookaburra- and pelican-feeding sessions – performed by Josh the bird man (one part surfer dude, three parts twitcher). And for those wanting to hurl themselves head-first down a massive sand dune atop a tiny piece of masonite, the Desert Safari includes an adrenaline-charged session of sand tobogganing. Our guide, Mark, is a weather-beaten man of few words – and those he utters come mostly from one imperceptibly moving corner of his mouth. “Keep ya mouth shut as yez are comin’ down the hill,” is about the extent of his safety briefing. But the man can effortlessly wrangle a fully laden 4WD bus on a hilly sand track.
With dusk comes the dolphin feeding for which the resort is renowned. Each night for the past 30 years, wild dolphins have been coming to the shallows of Tangalooma beach to be hand-fed by guests.
Visitors travel from all over the world for the experience. And while it sounds like the sort of activity that might rightly attract the ire of conservationists, the resort is clearly aware that this is – to borrow a cold commercial term – its USP (unique selling proposition) so is careful to ensure all wild animal protocols are strictly observed.
The dolphins start assembling just off-shore as the sun casts its last rays over Tangalooma. They frolic as resort guests form orderly queues before wading into knee-deep water and proffering a fish. For a brief moment as we stand together in the shallows, dolphins darting about our legs, the lights from the jetty playing on the water, my pre-teen daughter is transformed. Her mask of carefully cultivated adolescent indifference drops and in the look of pure delight that replaces it, I glimpse the little girl I thought I’d lost long ago.
This is the true beauty of a Moreton Island getaway: the enforced family time, the quiet moments unimpeded by iPads or hectic daily schedules. A little snatch of time.
As the light fades on our final day, we grab a bottle of wine and head out for a beach picnic. Behind us, the resort starts to hum as the dinner procession begins and the sunset cocktail bar fills. In front of us, all is calm. To watch the sunset over water is such a novel experience for us eastern seaboarders and we’re struck by its beauty. In the distance, the lights of Brisbane twinkle and I have the strange sensation of being home but still a million miles away.
SEE ALSO: How to Spend a Day at Tangalooma
Four more island getaways near Brisbane
North Stradbroke Island
Brisbane’s second-best-kept secret (after Moreton) is a playground for outdoorsy city dwellers and is serviced by water taxis as well as car and passenger ferries. Wildlife abounds – from turtles, stingrays, dolphins and whales to kangaroos aplenty on land. The townships of Dunwich and Point Lookout provide a bit of modern history while there’s a rich connection to its First Nations history, too, courtesy of the Quandamooka peoples.
South Stradbroke Island
Less accessible than its northern sibling, South Straddie – as the locals call it – is mostly visited by boat owners or really determined daytrippers. A ferry runs from Jacobs Well or Runaway Bay Shopping Village to Tipplers Licensed Café and nearby camping ground. Go for glorious beaches and bushwalks.
Accessible only by private boat, you’ll need to befriend a yachtie if you want to experience the tranquility of Horseshoe Bay on the southern side. Remarkably, Peel Island was a functioning leper colony until 1959 – and hints of that chequered history remain.
Easily the sleepiest of the islands near Brisbane, Bribie is connected to the mainland by a two-lane car bridge, giving it the feel of a satellite suburb of the capital. Locals are fiercely territorial and justly proud of their excellent beaches, such as Sylvan, Banksia and Woorim.
Image credit: Kyle Hunter and Hayley Andersen