With Australia closed to international tourism, but most state borders now “usually” open, there have been some great holiday package deals on offer, especially to Cairns in Queensland which is highly dependent on income from visitors. Some many weeks back Bill and I were tempted into booking one. Of course, Murphy’s Law, we then had two Sydney people contract COVID-19 and that had all the other states eyeing us suspiciously. It was very concerning, as genome testing showed that patient zero was a person returning from the USA who was in fourteen day hotel quarantine, but this couple had no form of contact. So there was, and still is, a missing link, but the contagion period has passed with no further incident. It’s pretty neat that our infection rates are so low, and contact tracing is so evolved, that an investigation involving such finite detail can even take place, but one of the reasons for this is our strict quarantine and control measures.
So for every day of the week leading to departure I checked the Queensland Government website for their latest regulation, and it was with some trepidation that I set off for the airport last Saturday 15 May. I can’t remember the last time I travelled by plane, but it was certainly well before COVID-19. We set out extra early in case there were any disruptions to our once-an-hour train service, donned the mandatory mask for the trip, and arrived at the airport a good two hours before departure. On arrival everything went smoothly with contact reduced to the minimum: self-service check-in, self-service bag tagging and drop, and spacing through security. On board, the flight appeared about two-thirds full, nobody seated beside strangers as far as I saw, masks on all the way, except for when they served a beverage and biscuit instead of a meal, and no entertainment screen or magazines. Flight time was a little over two-and-half hours, although with the taxi before take-off taking so long that Bill quipped we were driving to Cairns, we were on the aircraft for well over three hours. At Cairns we were greeted by police who directed us to health authorities. Now came the moment I was dreading, but all we had to do was read a large placard bearing the addresses of all the places the infected couple had visited and verbally declare we had not been there. I already knew these by heart! I offered to sign something, but it was not required – and then we were “free to go” and enjoy our holiday.
The package accommodation is the 5-star Pullman International and as soon as we walked in we were reminded of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. To give you some idea of the tropicality of Far North Queensland, Cairns is -16′ latitude, and our home, Wollongong, is -35′, so we are a long way up in the geographic zone that counts its seasons as wet or dry. A few days before departure we had been advised that the hotel would be undergoing refurbishment and we should expect some noise between 10am and 4pm, and I did read some reviews that the rooms are “getting tired”, but I do hope they will not change too much. While I’ll acknowledge the room decor and slightly-battered furniture dates to the 1980s, the first thing that came to my mind on seeing ours was, how spacious! As well we have a harbourfront view with balcony, and – best of all – a bathroom with strong shower pressure, plenty of vanity space and some mysterious ventilation that ensures the part of the mirror above the washbasin does not fog up! The only oddity there is the cistern is single-flush, something that was phased out in water conscious Australia decades ago, so again, that shows how long the hotel has stood the test of time. Bathrobes and slippers are no longer left as a matter of course, but available on request – which I did, naturally. So despite any potential disruption, I am a contented camper for our six-night stay.
The package includes discount vouchers to a number of restaurants but Cairns was hopping on a Saturday night so they were all booked out. We wandered along the waterfront esplanade boardwalk as night fell with tropical swiftness, until we came to Vitalia’s Italian Restaurant. We struck gold with this choice. Such cheerful staff, bouncy atmosphere and great food. The pizza oven was going gangbusters and they looked very authentic. I started with a refreshing spritzer of gin, limoncello, and soda water. Bill and I shared an eggplant parmigiana, and then both chose a seafood “cup” of reef fish, squid, prawns and scallop. One of the great things about this choice was that it was coated in gluten free flour, so Bill could enjoy it fried. (That’s seafood sauce in the scallop shell. The actual scallop was in the cup).
A side-note about another effect of COVID-19. All the staff appeared to be travellers from Italy and South America (under thirty year old’s can have a one-year visa and work) and it seems they got stuck here when WHO declared the pandemic. If these backpackers return to their home country, they cannot re-enter Australia until we re-open our borders, which may be another twelve to eighteen months away according to some projections. I imagine there is some special exemption to their visas, as hopefully our government would not force them to return to countries that are struggling with outbreaks. Despite what must be a great concern and also separation from family, they were all upbeat and enthusiastic.
We wandered back to our hotel via a park that contains The Lagoon. This is a public access salt water swimming facility positioned on the foreshore. Such a facility is necessary because much of the foreshore is mud-flat, and for many months of the year it is not possible to swim in the ocean because of stinging jellyfish (and crocodiles 🙂 ). It was so lovely to see family groups picnicking and swimming under lights, making the most of the balmy evening until it would close at 9pm.
We are no longer late-night people (Bill never was to be honest) and after our early start, we were happy to return to the hotel for our (also-included) free nightcap. Red wine was our drink of choice. Then off to bed with my latest book choice. Ursula’s Story, by fellow Society of Women Writers NSW self-published author Vivien Wilson, tells the remarkable story of her mother, born in Berlin to a Jewish father and Lutheran mother, who works as a translator at the Berlin Olympics (“I could have shot Hitler that day”, the story begins), but then makes her way to England before war breaks out, via work as a nanny, and as a translator with an English circus! – then after a brief romance marries an Englishman who is a friend of a friend, and goes on to rescue her mother and father to safety as well. “Safety” entails the London blitz, and sadly, the death of her newborn daughter during an air raid. The marriage endures despite its unpropitious origin, and when their other two daughters move to Australia as young women, the by then widowed Ursula decides to make Sydney her home. Ursula packed a lot of living and reinvention into her ninety-three years!
As a writer, how other writers tackle bringing family history to life is always interesting to me. At a recent talk Vivien explained how it took twenty years and many different structural approaches before she finally published, and how there were times of despair and near-abandonment along the way. This gives me heart. My attempt has been underway for a good many years now, has been split into two books, and has been told in various structures and from different points of view along the way. Now I am alternating chapters between my voice and background research information; and novelised chapters told mostly from my grandmother’s point of view, and sometimes from my great-aunt’s. The story is all there – just how to make it a page-turner!