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"Island", "resort" and "reef" are three words that reliably stir
the senses - think turquoise waters over white sands, the smell of
coconut oil and the curious underwater sound of parrot fish pecking
But while it's easy to conjure a reef-island fantasy, visibility can be reduced when it comes to choosing the right resort. This is partly due to the scale of Queensland's tropical assets, with the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef 2600 kilometres away from its northern tip (Oslo and Rome are separated by almost the same distance). Scattered throughout this wild blue yonder are around 900 islands, of which some two dozen have resorts. Each resort offers something different - different experience, different pricing and, yes, different reef.
To further complicate decisions, Queensland's island resort scene has been shaken up in the past five years, primarily by Tropical Cyclone Yasi in 2011 and the global financial crisis. When Club Med closed its Lindeman Island property in 2012, it was the seventh resort to go belly up, with Dunk Island and Brampton Island resorts among the casualties.
New owners have arrived and further changed the landscape. Bedarra resort reopened in July after a two-year closure, offering less than half the suites available before Cyclone Yasi. In the same month Wilson Island went to a new booking model, open only to guests who exclusively book all six luxury tents. And Queensland's most famous island resort, Hayman, is now up on blocks for a multimillion-dollar makeover with an anticipated relaunch by the One & Only group in April 2014.
If this is starting to feel like a reef knot, here are seven island resorts spread across Australia's greatest natural wonder. All offer a castaway experience to stimulate your senses, suit your style and give you some reef to write home about.
In a nutshell Bedarra Island Resort, 140 kilometres south of Cairns, was once about three Cs - celebrities, Cristal and cost. Then a fourth C, Cyclone Yasi, put paid to the lot. New owner Sam Charlton reopened the resort in July after replacing diesel-thirsty generators with solar panels and reducing nightly rates for villas (by as much as half for those at the top end) for a maximum of 14 guests instead of 32.
The island Rugged and thickly forested, Bedarra can be circumnavigated by resort kayak in an hour. It's also home to a few private residences, a self-catering accommodation (East Bedarra Island Retreat), the ruins of a former resort and, bizarrely, English pheasants.
The resort The treetop suites have been reduced in number from 16 to seven and air-con has been replaced by natural airflow. The guest area is light, bright and open, with a communal dining table at its heart. The pool is cool, the gardens lush. Chef James Ward loves to gather guests, open a few bottles and show off his moves. Children under 16 are not allowed.
The vibe The blingin' thing, from the days when 32 guests each insisted on their private space, has been replaced by half that number enjoying a good-natured and very refined des-island-res.
Diversions The resort is more suited to chilling than thrilling, though there are motorised dinghies (for beach picnics, snorkelling and short fishing jaunts), island walks and a tennis court.
Reef notes Bedarra has some fringing reef with great fish diversity, but for coral colour you need to go 40 kilometres offshore to Beaver Cay Marin Sanctuary. A chartered boat trip for snorkelling costs about $1,260 per day.
Downside Bedarra has no dive hire so the scuba set will be better served at Orpheus, 100 kilometres south.
Price Villas cost from $990 per couple per night, all inclusive; minimum two-night stay.
Getting there Fly to Cairns, then either drive two hours south to Mission Beach or arrange a resort limo ($300 one way). From there ferry transfers to Bedarra cost $295 per couple return.
Bedarra Island Resort, (07) 4068 8233.
In a nutshell Closer to PNG than to Cairns, Haggerstone is one of the few privately owned islands on the Great Barrier Reef. The owners, Roy and Anna Turner, run a four-bungalow retreat that is straight out of The Swiss Family Robinson.
The island Haggerstone is 40 hectares under forest; lagoons off the beach are rich with fish and coral.
The resort Clearly a labour of love, Haggerstone Island is a collection of timber dwellings with forests to the rear and beaches to the front. It's all castaway chic, but bleached driftwood and PNG relics keep it interesting and real. The Turners serve meals in the main pavilion, with most ingredients coming from the garden and surrounding waters.
The vibe Up to 10 people go troppo in style.
Diversions Fishing is brilliant aboard the 40-foot Jojo III, but it's just as easy to catch fish off the jetty. Excursions to the uninhabited mainland allow junior castaways to enjoy some extreme sandboarding.
Reef notes Off-the-beach coral gardens make for easy snorkelling; the outer reef is readily accessed by boat, plus a recently discovered 1840s shipwreck in a shallow reef adds interest.
Downside The eye-watering cost of a return charter flight from Cairns and no dive hire.
Price Dwellings cost from $830 per person per night, including all meals but not alcohol.
Getting there Fly to Cairns, then take a two-hour flight by chartered light aircraft costing $1,050 per person return.
Haggerstone Island, (07) 4060 3399.
In a nutshell "Hammo" is a multi-resort island in the Whitsundays with a population that can swell to 5500. A massive cash injection by entrepreneur and owner Bob Oatley in 2003 has left it polished, personable and rather posh, in a yachtie sort of way. It's home to fleets of electric buggies - and Qualia, one of the nation's finest resorts.
The island Some five square kilometres, a busy marina and about 1300 permanent residents make this Queensland's largest resort island. Yet 70 per cent of it remains under natural bush, best seen from the impressive 239-metre Passage Peak.
The resorts There's Yacht Club Villas, Palm Bungalows, the Reef View four-star hotel, the no-kids 4.5-star Beach Club (a babymooners' favourite) and Qualia. The latter is a celebrated 120-guest resort with plunge pools for half the suites over turquoise waters and dégustation menus by chef Alastair Waddell in the Long Pavilion restaurant.
The vibe Hammo manages to be all things to all people on most budgets. Kids? They're catered for in select accommodations. The glam factor escalates during Audi Race Week in August. Direct flights to Hamilton Island (meaning no transfer costs) are a bonus.
Diversions Front Street's waterside cafés, shops and pub; bushwalks; quad bike riding; target shooting; and a stunning golf course across the passage on Dent Island.
Reef notes There's a small reef a short paddle from Hamilton's Catseye Beach. All resorts can arrange dive charters to other Whitsunday Islands for decent diving and snorkelling near good soft coral or it's a daytrip to the Reefworld pontoon at the outer reef.
Downside It's a long way from the outer reef - 283 kilometres.
Price Qualia suits cost from $975 per couple per night, including breakfast.
Getting there Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Qantas have direct flights to Hamilton Island from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns.
Qualia, 1300 780 959.
In a nutshell Heron Island, 80 kilometres north-east of Gladstone, is on a chunk of reef that attracts 900 of the 1500 fish species endemic to the Great Barrier Reef, plus 72 per cent of coral species. The resort has 109 rooms for middling budgets and is particularly loved by divers and junior naturalists.
The island This flat coral cay comprises sand, pandanus and she-oaks. It has plenty of charm and wildlife; on any of several walks you can't miss the turtle tracks and colonies of seabirds such as black noddys and shearwaters. The island's research station is well used by the resort's Junior Rangers Program.
The resort Accommodation ranges from the cute yet functional Turtle Rooms in garden and beach positions, to more isolated Point Suites with sunset views. The resort's Shearwater Restaurant, pretty pool and Baillie's Bar lend character to this island outpost. There's no television or mobile phone reception, but lots of complimentary reef action instead.
The vibe Lively, colourful and friendly.
Diversions The harmless sharks off Shark Bay beach are super-cool. For $175 a head you can escape to Wilson Island - a speck of cay with a luxe resort longhouse offering a castaway experience par excellence.
Reef notes Quality diving is accessible and reasonably priced here - from $50 a dive.
Downsides Up to 250 guests and 80 staff on 16 hectares can compromise castaway fantasies.
Price Family Turtle Rooms cost from $439, including all meals.
Getting there Fly to Gladstone, take a free transfer from the airport to Gladstone Marina, then a two-hour ferry to Heron, costing $99.50 one way for adults, $49.75 for children.
Heron Island, 1300 863 248.
In a nutshell Some 12km from Hamilton as the chopper flies, Paradise Bay Island Resort is a little slice of shoeless luxe on one of the Whitsundays' lesser-known islands.
The island Long Island (all nine kilometres of it) is lush, with dense national park forest and sandy bays. Beachy niches are occupied by two other resorts - BreakFree Long Island and Palm Bay Hideaway, but Paradise Bay is on a private sandy bay in the island's south.
The resort The June opening of this multimillion-dollar incarnation saw it pared back to essentials: only nine couples are catered for, with simple pleasures served in sublime locations; predinner cocktails in the gazebo and dinner under the stars, for example.
The vibe Romance and relaxation with a capital R. And it's a capital N when it comes to internet, television, mobiles, kids with - for "none". The big alfresco table, torchlit under the stars, makes for friendship-sur-mer.
Diversions Nobody rushes too much in Paradise - walks, lazing in hammocks, maybe a spa treatment.
Reef notes The resort is in a less-frequented part of the archipelago, which means less boat activity than elsewhere. Kayaking can yield good sightings of dolphins, turtles and even dugongs. Skippered boat excursions are included in the price, taking guests to the Whitsundays' soft coral reefs. Snorkelling charters are available, as are helicopter trips out to Reefworld.
Downsides In addition to the suite cost, there's a mandatory helicopter transfer fee from Hamilton Island of $760 return per couple.
Price Suites cost $1,500 per couple per night, all inclusive, for a minimum two-night stay.
Getting there Fly to Hamilton Island, then take a 10-minute helicopter transfer - you can't access the resort any other way.
Paradise Bay Island Resort, (07) 4946 9777.
In a nutshell Lizard is one of the bigger island resorts, catering for 80 guests, but it makes a persuasive "world's-your-oyster" case with its on-reef location.
The island About 270 kilometre north-east of Cairns, Lizard is a substantial piece of rugged granite with 24 beaches and a lagoon. Guests share the national park with monitor lizards and marine scientists, the latter at a research station owned by the Australian Museum.
The resort This large contemporary resort has pretty much everything you'd find closer to the mainland, including a spa, gym and tennis court.
The vibe Well-heeled and far-flung. It's neither barefoot nor boutique (Ospreys Restaurant would look right at home on Sydney's waterfront), but the suites with private sea-view decks offer solitude.
Diversions Take a tour of the research station, climb to Cook's Outlook or take a private charter and get marooned on a beach for lunch.
Reef notes There's lots of reef and much of it right off the beach. Blue Lagoon has sheltered snorkelling and diving, and there's a clam garden in Watsons Bay. Dive-snorkel trips by boat include a visit to the famous Cod Hole, among the world's top 10 dive sites, where the large but friendly potato cod live. Dives cost from $255.
Downside "Smart casual to semi-formal" for evening meals is not everyone's idea of an island escape.
Price Suites cost from $1,519 per couple per night, all inclusive.
Getting there Fly to Cairns, then take a 60-minute plane transfer for $610 per person return.
Lizard Island, 1300 863 248.
In a nutshell Located 80 kilometres north-east of Townsville, Orpheus is a national park and one of five islands in a cluster called the Greater Palm group with fringing reef and great snorkelling right off the islands. The resort is contemporary, serene and upmarket.
The island It's a long chain of muscular ridge lines covered with thick acacia, plus 12 kilometres of gorgeous shoreline. The only other structures are a small research station and Yanks Jetty - a World War II relic.
The resort Just 28 guests enjoy white, bright chalet-style rooms (newly built after Yasi) with all mod-cons. Civilised lawns and the sunset-facing infinity pool contrast beautifully with the bush, but nice touches keep the luxe convivial, including a weekly barbecue, an open-sided restaurant where dégustation is served each evening, and Dining with the Tides, a dinner for two on the resort's private jetty.
The vibe It's refined but also a little barefoot.
Diversions Tour the research station, walk the island or visit neighbouring Fantome Island with a naturalist guide for a history of the former leper colony. Helicopter and boat charters are available to nearby Hinchinbrook Island, and the Lowanna Day Spa has opened recently.
Reef notes The reef around the resort is rich, diverse and accessible via the beach or free motorised dinghies. Beginners' dives are complimentary; reef dives at principal sites cost from $250.
Downside The clean-line suites are a little colourless.
Price From $1,100 per couple per night, all inclusive.
Getting there Fly to Townsville, then take a 30-minute helicopter transfer for $550 per person return.
Orpheus, (07) 4777 7377.
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