"Gidday,” Capt. Reggie Gordon says to the group that’s assembled on the deck of the Solway Lass, ignoring the fact that it is, in fact, nighttime. The very idea that this cruise through the Whitsunday Islands starts in the dark is mildly worrisome. And worse, “Cap’n” now tells us the boat is haunted by a past captain who died of fume asphyxiation in the engine room back in the 1930s. “But he’s a right friendly ghost, so no worries. We’ll be shooting through in a tick [leaving port shortly], but you need to meet the most important person on the boat first: Loz; she’s our beaut of a bartender.”
The vibe of the first few minutes tells me this will be a different kind of cruise. It is not luxe in the least, but more high-end backpacker, complete with stories fit for a campfire. The staff, of which there are five, is not here to cater to our whims or impress us with manners. They’re here more to chaperone, to make sure we don’t steal drinks, set anything on fire or fall overboard. There will be no nightly turndown, no pinkie drinkies with things stuck in them. It is exactly what I want, a cruise like in the old days — on a 127-foot, 110-year-old tall ship with a “fair dinkum” history.
“Gonna tell you a bit of a yarn about the boat,” Capt. Reggie starts out. “She’s got quite a checkered past, this ol’ girl. She seems to have a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
￼Built in Holland in 1902, the boat was seized 13 years later by the British Royal Navy and used as a decoy against German submarines during World War I. Then, when World War II broke out, the Germans seized the boat and used it as a supply ship until it hit a mine. Postwar, it made its way to the South Pacific, where it was reduced to ferrying cows and old cars. It was eventually abandoned in the mangroves of Fiji until the 1980s, when an Aussie transported it to Australia. The guy spent $1 million to turn it into a comfortable passenger ship.
We depart Queensland’s Airlie Beach and head to the heart of Australia’s famed Great Barrier Reef. We cut through the silky, indigo water in near silence. Above, the sky is a riot of stars slashed by the sharpest Milky Way I have ever seen. Now I understand why the cruise departs at night — to trigger the instinct of awe in us, the mesmerized passengers.
There are 18 of us on board, a mingling of nations — a Norwegian writer and his family, a gaggle of giggly German girls, a Dutch woman who works for Doctors Without Borders, a quiet Swede who is allergic to the sun, and a British banker who states he is recovering from an obsession with exercise.
Loz, the beaut bartender, is also our beaut bush guide, and she takes us ashore one morning on undeveloped Whitsunday Island. The island’s best-known site, Whitehaven Beach, is repeatedly voted among the loveliest strands in the world.
“What ya got here is perfection,” Loz says. We stand on a cliff above the beach, having hiked up from the other side of the island to learn about Aboriginal uses of flora and fauna. “Seven kilometers [4.3 miles] long and 98 percent pure silica sand. It squeaks when you walk.” What makes the view more visually arresting are the striations of blue in the water: turquoise, cerulean, peacock — blues for which there aren’t even names.
After descending to the beach, the other boat passengers congregate into a single cluster on the squeaky sand, spreading out towels. Loz sees me pacing apart from the group.
“If you go through the bush over there, you’ll find a hidden beach,” she says. So I make my way behind a thicket of trees, and on the other side of an ochre-colored cliff I come out on Betty’s Beach, a tiny, untrammeled cove with just one other person sunbathing on it. Walking closer, I notice it’s our chef from the Solway Lass. She’s Italian, has traveled the world on boats and, like me, has been hunting for a spot just like this — a few steps out of the spotlight and off the tourist maps.
“Everyone’s equal here,” she tells me about Australia, which also speaks to the feeling I’ve had on the boat. She pauses to sit up and put her bikini top back on. “There’s none of the hierarchy that happens on most cruises. The staff can share a drink and a joke with the guests. Plus it’s really hard to take yourself too seriously with the Aussies.”
After spreading out my own towel on the sand, I wade into water that’s as clear and bright as the sky. I think about the truth of the chef ’s words. Yesterday, Tommy, the boat’s first mate, asked five passengers to help hoist the mainsail and then fired insults at them — “Oy, ya bunch of hopeless gits.” Last night we all sipped “tinnies” (beers) together. And now I’m sharing this impeccable stretch of beach with a topless lady who will later be sauteing garlic for our pasta sauce. Right there, with nobody watching, I break into quiet laughter.