It's just like a Club Med under canvas

`WE could always go camping,'' I breezily suggested. After thumbing through a dozen brochures for family-oriented Australian resorts, we had failed to find one that fell within our budget. The resorts aren't overly expensive. Rather, our savings account was undernourished. But at the mention of ``camping'' my wife's eyes froze. I'd seen the look before on my mother.

Camping isn't getting away from it all to relax, she patiently explained. It means similar chores under more difficult conditions. Shivering dawn dashes to the outhouse with a toddler, soaked sleeping bags, and dogfights with mosquito swarms which rival the Battle of Britain.

I gamely recounted a few halcyon tales of growing up around a New Hampshire campfire. But she wasn't buying it. Then, in a moment of inspiration or desperation, she recalled reading about a new resort concept: Oz-Oasis.

This isn't really camping. It's sort of Club Med under canvas.

You sleep in tents. But by trading plaster for tarpaulin, you pay less for all the facilities (included in the daily rate) of a good family resort: swimming pool, tennis courts (under lights), restaurant, sailboarding, catamarans, surf skis, video room, and table tennis, as well as staff devoted to organizing activities for children and adults. For a small additional fee, you can go horseback riding, water-skiing, scuba diving, deep-sea fishing, and bicycling.

We're not talking Army surplus pup tents, here. More like Barnum & Bailey big tops. Each has three partitioned bedrooms (one queen-size bed and two twin beds), a dining room table and chairs, stove, refrigerator, cooking utensils, electric lights, beach towels, sheets, blankets, pillows, and a grass patio with lounge chairs. And even a lock for your front door zipper.

``Europeans would probably be familiar with a similar concept in southern France, but they lack the food and beverage,'' says John Sullivan, the Oz-Oasis marketing manager.

Just 12 miles north of Mackay on the Queensland coast, Oz-Oasis rests between an enclosed water-sports lagoon, a small river, and a gorgeous white beach. It costs about $10 a night extra, but a tent fronting the beach is worth it. Lying in bed in the morning, we could watch the South Pacific islands emerge from the darkness, painted to life in the mauves of a rising sun.

For our three-year-old daughter (and all her quickly acquired new ``mates''), nothing could be better than to have a lifetime's worth of sand castle material 10 short steps away. And if that isn't enough, there's always an activity Oz-Oasis hosts for kids. For instance, there is shell and driftwood collecting in the morning, then an afternoon of making mobiles with the beach plunder. Another afternoon it was snuggling baby possums and wallabies (related to kangaroo), courtesy of the local animal shelter.

Unlike many other campgrounds, cars are prohibited. So you don't have to worry about children's safety. Baby-sitting services are available if mom and dad want a quiet moonlight stroll or a romantic dinner in town. Otherwise, the whole gang can eat at the excellent Oz-Oasis restaurant or grill. And, if you'd rather toss some seafood or beef on the ``barbie'' but can't be bothered with shopping (or fishing), the kitchen will provide the fixin's for a barbecue.

There are some drawbacks. Single adults looking for romance may be disappointed. This is a family-oriented resort. So if kids giggling their way to the shower block at the crack of dawn bothers you, don't come. The tents aren't spread out. Our neighbor felt we shouldn't miss a grunt or cheer of a televised State of Origin rugby match on the first night there.

The only other significant drawback is that, after the fabulous South Pacific sunset, you'll notice a vivid yellow light on a nearby peninsula. A lighthouse, perhaps. No. Closer inspection reveals a navigation marker of a different sort: a hotel pub sign promoting a brand of Queensland's beer.

One of the area's attractions is a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. But the weather turned windy, kicking up high waves, so we opted for a day out at the rain forest at Eungella National Park.

Eungella (pronounced ``young-ella'') is an Aboriginal word that roughly translates to ``Land of the Drifting Clouds.'' An hour out of Mackay, the park runs along a cool mountain ridge - a great escape from the hot beaches.

The drive west is through miles of lavender-tasseled sugar cane fields criss-crossed with miniature rail lines for hauling the crop to nearby mills. Cane has been grown here for 120 years, and this is Australia's biggest sugar-producing region. Once up on the ridge, you might stop at the Chalet motel and restaurant - a hang-glider hangout. A backyard ramp is a favored jumping-off point, and the Chalet offers a spectacular view of the cane farms in the Pioneer Valley.

The Broken River is a few miles past the Chalet. It's the advertised home of ``playful platypuses.'' We never spotted these aquatic tributes to Mother Nature's sense of humor. But Eungella's bush turkeys, magpies, kookaburras, and a lonely kangaroo were not as shy during our riverbank picnic.

The Dolphin Heads Oz-Oasis is the prototype. A ``new and improved'' Oz-Oasis has recently opened at Wonga Beach, 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Port Douglas (northeast tip of Queensland, Australia). Set on a 100-year-old coconut plantation, it's also a beach and riverfront resort. Prices are higher, but, according to one visitor, the setting is more lush and refined.

If you go

United States travel agents can get information and make bookings through the Australian Travel Service, in Los Angeles. Call 800-423-2880 or, from California, 800-232-2121. (When you get the recording, dial 0 for operator). Or you can write directly to Oz-Oasis Resorts, Campus Holidays Ltd., 40 Queen St., Brisbane 4000. Brisbane phone: 61-7 (country and city code from outside Australia) 221-2242. Rates at Dolphin Heads start at US$16 per person per night for two adults, (two-night minimum), or US$106 per person per week. Children (ages 4-12) US$4 per day or weekly $28. Children under age 4 are free. No pets allowed. Tents are set up for two adults, two children. Up to four children under age 10 can be accommodated with additional beds.

Meal packages are US$16 per day or $112 weekly for adults; US$10 per day or $67 weekly for children.

Wonga Beach rates average a few dollars more per day.

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