Chris explores some of the stunning islands of the Great Barrier Reef
Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef has long been on the list of places I’ve wanted to see. An island all to yourself with just a small luxury resort on it, surrounded by reefs off the beaches – what’s not to like? So it was with some excitement that I was picked up from Cairns airport and transferred around to the other side of it to wait for my flight over. It’s not exactly like checking in for a normal flight, first of all you realise that you’re sharing the aircraft with only about four other people, and that the check in queue consists of….well just you. The pilot comes out to meet you and then tells us we’re on our way. I love flying on small aircraft because you’re certain to get a window seat – and on this flight, you really want a window seat! It’s spectacular enough to fly along the north Queensland coast, but when we turn out to sea it gets truly amazing.
Every few moments you seem to be flying over another multi-colour reef, or another island (Snapper Island, which looks exactly like a giant crocodile, gets everyone’s attention), and so out comes the camera. It’s about an hour’s flight in all, and everyone gets excited when they start to descend and you can see Lizard Island getting nearer.
It’s actually quite a big place, and extremely green. You can see the reef fringing the island itself as you come in to land, and before you know it you’re on the ground and being met by the staff in the resort. After a transfer of about 45 seconds you are met and offered a drink and introduced to the resort by a couple of members of staff. To be honest, along with most of us arriving, I was far too busy looking around me at the sea and the beaches to pay too much attention. Fortunately they repeated things a couple of times.
I was staying in a Sunset Point Villa, and I was taken up there and told I could wander down for lunch whenever I felt like it. All food and virtually all drink is included here – they charge for the odd vintage champagne or expensive brandy, that’s about it – and so you never feel under any pressure as to when you want to eat or drink.
The food is amazing too, and there’s no menu as such here, because they change it at every meal time depending on what’s freshly in.
I was told that I could ask for anything I wanted actually, and I was very tempted to ask for something like beans on toast, just to see what they did with it. I didn’t have the nerve to in the end.
The rooms themselves are lovely. They’re quite understated without televisions. It’s a bit startling at first, but it doesn’t take you long to realise that it’s entirely deliberate, and entirely correct. Same with the lack of mobile phone coverage – you’re coming here to experience the reef like nowhere else, to be spoiled rotten by a truly amazing 5* property, and above all, to relax.
Nevertheless you’re not short on luxury. I simply had to try out the amazing hammock out on my verandah for example! In a way, it’s a bit of a shame – the rooms are wonderful, but you just don’t spend much time in them, there’s far too much to do.
One of my highlights was a half day out to the reef. I must admit I wondered about this, because there is reef about ten yards off most of the beaches (by the way, there are 24 beaches here, and only 40 rooms.
To all intents and purposes you have your own one!), and I did snorkel there. But talking to other guests who had been out I was convinced to give it a go. And I am so glad I did – I’ve been snorkelling on the Barrier Reef before, but this is unlike anything I’ve seen on previous occasions.
It’s an untouched reef, and hardly anybody goes there. So the marine life you get to see is incredible, and it’s helped by the fact that there are only a few of you on the trip, so it never feels remotely crowded.
At dinner that evening I was talking to another guest about this, and he was telling me all about Cod Hole, which is one of the dive sites at Lizard. I don’t dive and never have, but he said that he came to Lizard because it was the best diving he’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but feel I was missing out.
Even so, you’re not short of things to do, you can borrow a boat and go round to one of the beaches (they’ll even make you a packed lunch to take with you), or have a go on canoes, or just go and walk around the island and see the lizards. Oh yes, the lizards. The island is well named, they’re everywhere and can be quite large. They’re completely harmless and rather seem to enjoy their status – certainly they’re happy to pose for photographs.
All too soon my trip to Lizard Island was over. It really is an amazing experience. The resort is small, intimate, beautifully classy with incredible food and drink and gorgeous rooms.
But in a funny way none of this matters. It’s all about the island itself. It’s certainly not cheap to stay there, but if you want to treat yourself to an experience that you’ll probably never be able to repeat, this is the one.
I loved it.
I’ve always wanted to go to Heron Island. I’d been told about how incredible the wildlife there was, and so it was somewhere I was really keen to get to. I travelled out on the boat transfer from Gladstone – it’s really easy, you get picked up from the airport and taken down to the marina – and like all journeys that take just a bit of time, you get the feeling of building excitement as you get closer.
Of course, you can see islands and reefs on the way out – and occasionally, though not on my trip, very lucky people get to see humpback whales, turtles, rays and assorted other marine life. Of course, the reason for going to Heron is to see a lot of these creatures anyway, so it’s hardly disappointing if you don’t.
Heron Island appears almost out of nowhere. It’s only a small island, and low lying as befits a true coral cay, so you don’t see it until you’re quite close to it.
As the boat approaches you can see the reef either side of you, and you also pass Australia’s first ever naval warship, the HMAS Protector, sunk as a breakwater near the jetty. One of the things that strikes you when you arrive is how crystal clear the water is.
It’s astonishing to look down through dozens of feet of water and be able to see straight to the bottom, and it bodes very well for the visit.
I was staying in a Beachside Suite, and I did have wonderful views looking straight towards the reef itself, which is quite literally a few feet off the island.
The rooms have been refurbished recently, and they’ve done a wonderful job on them throughout, including all new bathroom fittings.
One thing that might surprise initially is that there are no TVs in the rooms, but don’t let that put you off – there’s so much to do on Heron that you won’t miss it – and you’ll see exactly why the very idea of putting a television in the room is such a strange one.
And you absolutely won’t get bored. Snorkling is a must, the reef here is incredible and you can go straight off the beach, whilst the dive sites are 5 minutes away and you can do three dives a day here. But if that’s not your thing, don’t worry.
There are so many free activities here, such as the escorted reef walk (this is an absolute must, you can walk out over the reef at low tide for hundreds and hundreds of yards, being introduced to the life out there, from sea cucumbers to enormous starfish), the island walk, the birdlife, the various lectures from staff at the University of Queensland research station based on the island – and that’s before you take into account the restaurant, bar and pool! And the food here is included in the price as well, it’s full board – Heron Island is remarkably good value for money.
Of course many people come especially for the turtles. Heron is one of the most important habitats for green turtles and to a lesser extent loggerhead turtles too.
If you’re fortunate enough to be there during the mating or the hatching season, you’ll see lots of them. And of course during the hatching season there’s little that’s quite as cute as seeing all the baby turtles heading to the sea for the first time.
Indeed so important to the habitat are the turtles, that the resort has joined forces with the Sea Turtle Foundation to try to help with the preservation of these amazing animals.
All in all, if I were to describe Heron Island in a sentence, it would have to be to call it the ultimate reef experience. Many visitors to Australia make a point of going out to see the Great Barrier Reef, but not everyone gets the chance to immerse themselves in it.
Here you can. I will never forget walking along the beach and seeing the stingrays, reef sharks and lemon sharks in the shallows, so close to where I was stood (these creatures are pretty harmless by the way, guests often go swimming with them), it’s just not the kind of thing you expect to experience in your life.
One day, I’m definitely going back.
For more information on any of these islands, or to book your accommodation, please contact our team on 01872 266 899.