Despite the latest coral bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef, a holiday on one of it's idylic island resorts remains travel gold...
The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s preeminent natural wonder, a vast string of coral shallows off Queensland’s Pacific coast running 1,400 miles from north of Cairns almost to Brisbane. The mindboggling expanse is matched by magnificent marine life and stupendous coral gardens, as well as beautiful beaches and luscious low-key resorts.
However, its fragile ecosystem is threatened by man and by climate change, and recently the reef has suffered another bout of coral bleaching. This is where the coral turns a ghostly white thanks to rising sea temperatures, the growing acidification of the oceans, infestations from crown-of-thorns starfish, or damage from pollutants like fertiliser run-off.
It’s a bleak picture, as until recently Australia’s great reef was actually faring better than others around the world, partly because tourism has helped keep the reef in the public eye.
Tourism on the reef began in the 1920s when a few intrepid groups were escorted out from Cairns to enjoy the marine life and for ‘turtle riding’. It wasn’t an auspicious start: tourists would compete to stand on a turtle’s shell for the longest, holding onto a rope lassoed to a female turtle’s neck as she crawled seawards after laying her eggs.
The spectacle - from the 1930s - of tourists enjoying turtle riding on a Great Barrier Reef island
Visitors are better behaved these days and all the Great Barrier Reef hotels issue strong guidelines on turtle watching, urging no flash photography or torches, and to stand well back from the turtles. But in the huddled groups that I’ve been part of there were flashing cameras, bleeping phones and people within inches of the giant carapace.
When David Attenborough - that most beguilling of eco-warriors- made his first visit for his ground-breaking 1957 documentary Zoo Quest, getting to the reef was a huge investment in time and money, so visitor numbers were fairly low. Around 125,000 people visited in 1963. However, the boom in long haul travel, the invention of fast multi-hulled sailing vessels and the proliferation of helicopters and light aircraft, have seen visitors today soar to around two million annually.
Snorkelling practise at Heron Island. Splendidly uncrowded, but two million tourists now visit the reef annually. Photo Heron Island
The Great Barrier Reef is made up of many thousands of reefs that form a long, narrow loop that’s about the length of Italy. Its size means that choosing where to stay is the tricky part, but handily the reef comes to within 10 miles of shore in the north, before gradually veering up to 100 miles out to sea further south. Fast boats and helicopters mean getting to the reef from gateway towns like Cairns and Port Douglas in the north, Townsville and Airlie Beach in the middle, and Gladstone in the south, is easy enough. You just need to decide whether to experience the reef on a day trip by boat, a yacht cruise, or from an island resort.
My first trip out to an island resort was in 2012, when I joined three other holidaymakers in a chopper at Gladstone airport, 340 miles north of Brisbane. The young pilot, Simon, was tousle-haired and laconic, and the flight to Heron Island took about 30 minutes, but after take off, we were greeted by an ugly orange sea-slick: “There are 26 empty coal ships waiting for a berth right now,” said Simon, “and that mess is from dredging to expand the harbour.”
Finding your own Nemo (aka Clownfish) is a certainty almost anywhere on the Great Barrier Reef
Heron, at least, was as advertised. It’s a wooded 29-acre island surrounded by turquoise sea, with 109 cheery rooms connected by sandy paths. There’s super snorkelling and diving, and like several other island resorts, it runs semi-submersibles around its part of the reef. It feels like a Disney ride, but the sharks, turtles, and fabulously coloured fish are real enough – as are the excited shrieks from kids spying orange and white Clown Fish, aka the famously misplaced ‘Nemo’.
The resorts – even at the cheaper and family-oriented end of the scale like Heron – are pricey, but you can do the reef on a budget by day-tripping out to a floating platform.
I boarded a jolly-crewed catamaran in Cairns for the 90-minute journey out to the reef, then snorkelled, demolished an Aussie buffet and rode in a glass-bottomed boat. I did a try-dive too – even though getting into the water in a metal gantry beneath the pontoon felt more Poseidon Adventure than I would have liked.
Much of the coral is in water that’s shallow enough for snorkelling. And even if you don’t swim, you can sit on a scooter-like contraption called a Scuba Doo. (Presumably fashioned by Q during his apprenticeship with Fisher Price, it’s a bright yellow ‘submarine scooter’ with an upside down goldfish bowl on top supplied with air.)
If you crave coral gardens right off your luxury suite, then you’ll need to splash out on an upmarket island resort. I stayed four nights on Orpheus Island and was very reluctant to leave. The five square miles of forested National Park are deserted save for one luxe resort with a manicured lawn, swanky infinity pool, perfectly pitched service and outstanding food.
Here, dives on the reef were made from a snazzy motor launch rather than a pontoon, and instead of being hectored to put my wetsuit in the right storage box, I was greeted after diving with, “Would you care for a chocolate muffin and a cold beer?”
A deserted sandy inlet in the Whitsunday Islands
The 74 islands of the Whitsunday group are about half way between Cairns and Brisbane and 40 miles from the outer reef. They’re famous for yachting and the relatively developed resort island called Hamilton. Cruise Whitsundays boats leave here for the large ReefWorld pontoon - a viewing and diving platform about the size of two tennis courts.
It’s where I enjoyed a unique reef experience called a ReefSleep.
After the day-trippers had finished with their snorkelling, I waved them off on their homeward journey. It was 3pm, and I suddenly had the pontoon to myself, except for a couple of crew divers and a host. Up to nine guests a night are allowed to sleepover, so I swam and snorkelled some more, watched the sunset and ate a marvellous meal of seafood chowder and steak in the surreal surroundings of a deserted pontoon. Then I bedded down on the top deck in an Aussie ‘swag’ - a canvas sleeping bag, in this case with a mattress, linen sheets and fluffy pillows.
Helicoptering to the outer reef is big with the Whitsundays’ jetset, and the most wildly popular patch of reef to fly over is ‘Heart Reef’. Even I cooed along with the honeymooners when the extraordinary heart-shaped coral came into view.
Most southerly of the reef resorts is Lady Elliot Island, which is reached by light aircraft from the mainland town of Bundaberg. It has the look and feel of a research institute, though with a buffet restaurant and tiny pool. Soon after landing I was treated to a hearty dinner of lamb stew, then invited to go turtle watching. Before long I was lying in the warm sand - I confess a lot closer than I should have been - to watch a female turtle digging her egg chamber. Then out popped dozens of eggs like squidgy Ping-Pong balls.
To witness this fragile wonder and the rich marine life that supports it you should visit now, while it’s still glorious. The threats are mounting, and as David Attenborough warns in the third episode of his 2015 swansong documentary, ‘These [changes] are going to happen in five years or 10 years… it’s the severity of the changes and the swiftness of these changes which [are] going to be catastrophic.’
Choosing a Barrier Reef Island resort
There are thirty Great Barrier Reef island resorts and choosing the right one is a giant conundrum. Incredibly, the reef is as long as Italy, and the resorts all have different atmospheres, styles and costs. Luckily, divine turquoise water, abundant marine life and gorgeous white sand beaches come as standard, but which is the best resort for you?
Best for families: Heron Island
Sandy paths connect simple but cheery accommodation in this 109-room island resort. The family friendly vibe is terrific, plus there’s a cute little swimming pool, decent bar, buffet meals and chipper staff. Budding naturalists spy Nemo’s from the semi submersible and the Junior Rangers programme covers themed walks, presentations and snorkeling lessons.
Aerial shot of Heron Island and its lagoon. Photo Heron Island
There’s no TV or mobile signal on the 39 acre coral cay, but lots of free reef fun, and dive rates are affordable - from just £40. Details, B&B Family Rooms sleeping four are from £207 per night, with free transfers from Gladstone airport to the marina, then it’s two-hours by ferry for £53pp return. See Heron Island
Best for sybarites: Orpheus Island Resort
Orpheus Island is rugged National Park land covered in dense acacia, surrounded by reef and edged by seven kilometers of shoreline. The low-key luxe resort is by a west-facing beach and has 21 rooms in crisp white décor, a manicured lawn and large infinity pool. Service is perfectly pitched, and weekly BBQ’s keep things convivial -or you can enjoy a romantic dinner a deux, ‘Dining with the Tides’, on the jetty.
Roughing it not required at the Orpheus Resort. Photo Orpheus Resort
The reef is rich and accessible right off the island, or there are free motorised dinghies. Details, pool ‘try dives’ are free, reef dives are £160. All-inclusive doubles are from £749 per night, and the 30-minute chopper flight from Townsville is £294pp return. Orpheus
Best for ecologists: Lady Elliot
This is the most southerly of the island resorts: handy if you are driving up from Brisbane – 226 miles away. Its 41 rooms include basic eco cabins through to private Island Suites. The resort staff are passionate environmentalists, as is owner Peter Gash, who’s installed solar panels and a desalination plant and made the resort carbon neutral.
Swimming with turtles is a cinch on Lady Elliot Island. Photo Lady Elliot Island
Marine life is spectacular, with coral gardens easily reachable snorkeling straight off the beach. There’s a dive centre and small swimming pool, but no TV’s or radios, and rooms are fan cooled. Details, boat dives are from £59, twin eco cabins from £176 per night half board, and light aircraft flights from Bundaberg are £147pp return. Lady Elliot
Best for divers: Lizard Island Resort
Cyclone Ita walloped the island in July 2014, which after extensive rebuilding is due to reopen in March 2015. The island is four square miles of hilly granite, with 24 beaches and a dreamily blue lagoon. It’s 150 miles northeast of Cairns too - far from pollution sources. The plans is for a super contemporary resort with a spa, gym and tennis court, but the diving here is unsurpassed, with teaming reefs right off the beaches.
Another Day, another private beach at the Lizard Island Resort. Photo Lizard Island Resort
There are also boat trips to the famous Cod Hole where you can swim/dive amongst the big gawping groupers. Details, dives cost from £94pp, double rooms will be from about £100% per night, all-inclusive. Sixty-minute light aircraft transfers from Cairns are £337pp return. Lizard Island
Best for castaways: Haggerston Island
Roy and Anna Turner run a Swiss Family Robinson style retreat that’s actually closer to Papua New Guinea than Cairns – though light aircraft transfers leave from the latter. The 100-acre island caters for just 15 guests, has lagoons off the beach rich with fish and coral, and thatched timber huts among the forests. Ingredients for dining in the Main Pavilion come from the garden and surrounding waters. You can catch fish off the jetty, or aboard the 40-foot Jojo III.
Hang out with a Robinson Crusoe crowd at Haggeston Island. Photos Haggerston Island
Off-the-beach coral gardens make for fabulous snorkeling, or on the outer reef there’s a shallow water shipwreck from the 1840s. Details, double huts are £444pp per night, all-inclusive except alcohol. There’s no dive centre, and it’s an equally eye-popping £615pp return for the two-hour transfer from Cairns. Haggerstone Island
Best for exclusivity: Bedarra Island Resort
Australia’s first super-luxe boutique resort played host to Elton John, Cameron Diaz and Princess Stephanie, and then Cyclone Yasi ended the fairytale. The excess has been pared down to create a less ostentatious tropical haven, with only seven villas (formerly sixteen). Each is wooden-decked and wonderful, nestled amongst the treetops with tremendous ocean views.
Not your average bedroom, at Bedarra. Photo Bedarra Island Resort
The island is rugged and thickly forested, but you can kayak around it in about 20 minutes, or take a gourmet picnic in a motorized dinghy (included in the rate). The pool is sublime; the gardens lush, and there are no kids under 16. Details, suites are from £583, all-inclusive. Thirty-minute ferry transfers leave from Mission Beach, 86 miles south of Cairns, for £211 per couple return. www.bedarra.com.au