The all-new Lizard Island resort

First there was Ita, then there was Nathan. Two cyclones and nearly $50 million later, the all-new resort on Lizard Island has opened.
A pavilion on the sand at Lizard Island resort for private dining

A pavilion on the sand at Lizard Island resort for private dining

Jason Loucas

Check out more pictures from the Lizard Island renovation

Ita was in no hurry to leave when she visited Lizard Island. Before checking in about 6.30pm on 11 April last year, she’d been forecast as a ferocious category-five tropical cyclone, and with winds up to 158 kilometres per hour she hung around for 12 hours. The worst possible guest.

The island had been evacuated a couple of days earlier, and staff returned in Ita’s wake to find the luxury resort destroyed, trees uprooted and the lush greenery stripped. An 18-metre catamaran blew into the camping ground. The two remaining walls of Watson’s Cottage, standing since the 1880s, collapsed.

At the height of the clean-up and feverish rebuilding project that followed, 250 construction workers lived in tents on the island. Just shy of a year later, and a week before the resort was due to reopen, Nathan arrived. Residents of far north Queensland braced; resort staff on Lizard Island were evacuated again. But the cyclone passed the island, approached the mainland with less fuss than expected and headed back to sea.

Staff had returned to Lizard Island and were cleaning up when Nathan changed direction and, on 20 March, returned as a category four cyclone, circling the island with winds up to 180 kilometres per hour, destroying whatever vegetation remained or had regrown after Ita. Built to withstand category five cyclones, the new resort buildings withstood the gale (the older and most exposed hilltop pavilion blew down), but paintwork and floors were sandblasted and debris was everywhere. And so the clean-up and restoration began again.

Two cyclones, 15 months and nearly $50 million later, the all-new Lizard Island has opened. The resort’s 40 weatherboard villas arranged in pairs are as dazzlingly white as the sand they sit above, some facing the gentle curve of Anchor Bay, others perched above boulder-strewn Sunset Beach. The ocean views are particularly lovely in the late afternoon as a sunburn-red sun lingers above the horizon, then drops like a stone. This is the time of day to retire to daybeds or beanbags on villa verandas – or the plunge pools in six of the Sunset Point Villas and the two-bedroom Villa – or wander to the dress-circle central pavilion for sundowners.

Bought from Voyages in 2009, Lizard Island has been the Australian jewel in the crown of US-based hospitality giant Delaware North. Its properties include El Questro Wilderness Park, Kings Canyon Resort, Wilson and Heron islands – though it placed Lizard, Heron and Wilson islands on the market in September, just as the resort on Lizard was fully reopened. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” says Delaware North’s Australian Parks and Resorts executive director, Greg Magi, of the twin natural disasters. “Though it’s been hard work for everyone, the bones of the property were good and this was an opportunity to build something contemporary, eclectic and relevant for our market.”

Much of the global appeal of Lizard and its reputation as an occasional hideaway for royals and Hollywood A-listers remains its pricey exclusivity, tropical remoteness – 240 kilometres north of Cairns, a 60-minute charter flight – and its priceless location on the Great Barrier Reef’s most accessible coral gardens and dive holes. It’s a luxury to be able to wade from beach to reef. Although coral around the island also suffered cyclone damage, the snorkelling off any of the island’s 24 sandy beaches is special; around the eastern tip of Anchor Bay, within easy walking distance of the resort, is a remarkable giant-clam garden. Diving spots within an hour’s radius by boat are spectacular; the Cod Hole – home to diver-sized potato cod – is considered among the world’s best dives, and there are plenty of other evocatively named options: Snake Pit, No Name Reef, Big Vicky’s.

On land, everything has been rebuilt within the resort’s existing footprint, and the results generally show restraint and good judgement. Melbourne studio Hecker Guthrie has designed the interiors with a breezy, relaxed, beach-house feel, evoked by a serene palette of white, sand and seagull grey (mercifully, not a tropical bright in sight), with tongue-and-groove walls and spotted-gum floors, softened by the textures of cotton-rope baskets, brushed-linen sofas and twine-strung armchairs. Low tables appear as glazed ceramic cubes and sawn-off tree trunks, and there’s an interesting collection of lights throughout – lacy shades, blown glass, pottery pendants. TVs are concealed within wall-mounted cases. Tropical ginger plants and bromeliads look nursery-fresh in white washable paper bags.

Snorkelling over the giant clam garden

The theme and details are echoed in the spa and in the dining-lounging pavilion, open to the bay. The prevailing sense of understatement means nothing inside competes with the sea, sand and sunshine outside. That includes modern telecommunication. Given the high-tech, high-end clientele, this policy is puzzling; there’s no mobile-phone coverage and WiFi can be accessed only beside the pool and near reception.

For those seeking further retreat, Lizard’s Essentia day spa has been expanded with more space, an exclusive Australian appearance of spa and in-room products by the Parisian apothecary La Biosthetique – we like the diagnostic skin test before a particularly effective facial – and a range of innovative wellness consultations, including iridology, instant blood typing and naturopathy. There’s a tennis court, pool and gym, though the best exercise is on the water – stand-up paddleboarding or paddling clear kayaks over coral gardens – or one of several scenic hikes. This is when you’re likely to spy a yellow-spotted monitor, the lizard that inspired an anxious Captain Cook when he named the island in 1770. Surrounded by a maze of reefs, he climbed to the island’s peak, now named Cook’s Look, to chart his escape.

The natural environment hasn’t fared as well as the built. Though the resort has been revegetated with 135,000 shrubs and 480 trees, the cyclone damage is apparent from arrival. The short drive from the airstrip to the resort passes a stripped landscape and a tented construction camp, and staff quarters that were once hidden by thick vegetation are in full view from parts of the resort. Things grow quickly in the tropics, but it will be some time before tropical lushness and full privacy are restored. An eyesore that’s harder to screen is the fortnightly arrival of a barge and the half-day unloading of provisions on the beach almost directly in front of the dining pavilion – necessary but intrusive.

Most of the time the only vessels moored in Anchor Bay are the resort’s 17-metre dive boat, a 15-metre Riviera flybridge cruiser for game-fishing charters – this is serious black marlin territory – and a flotilla of runabouts used to ferry guests around the island. Marine staff are a sunny, confident bunch of Australian and New Zealand sailors, swimmers and surfers, unflappable and energetic. It’s a big island – a national park just over 1,000 hectares – and, apart from scientists at a research station on the other side of the island, yachties moored in Watson’s Bay and campers at a public campground, there’s no one else here. This means the runabouts are used most often for picnic commutes to deserted beaches, dropping off guests and Eskies filled with bento boxes of sushi, prawns and tropical fruit.

As you’d hope, seafood is the highlight at Salt Water, the restaurant overseen by executive chef Mark Jensen. Born in Cairns, Jensen is on his third stint at Lizard via London, where he worked with Ed Baines, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, Maxim’s in Paris and Circa in Brisbane. His mainly reef seafood is flown in daily from Cairns; the likes of red emperor, saddletail snapper and, my favourite, coral trout. There’s a South East Asian thread running through daily changing menus, and liberal use of local tropical fruit and sorbets. Dinner dégustations can be booked at one of two lantern-lit pavilions in the sand. The best dishes are the simplest: a slab of seared black kingfish, caught close to the island, with seafood congee and dashi; coral trout in a pine nut crust, beside saffron-spiced truss tomatoes.

Melbourne-based wine critic and author Jeremy Oliver is overseeing the cellar and staff training, with a brief to write a list that will be both familiar to guests and, he says, “the fun bit – with plenty of surprises as well”. Wines on the all-inclusive list feature familiar premium labels and plenty of seafood-friendly matches; the new Cellar Master list, not included in the tariff, is studded with Australian heavyweights in classic vintages – Penfolds Grange, Mount Mary, Giaconda, Wendouree and Bass Phillip – and a growing collection of serious Château Margaux, Château Y’quem, individual vineyard Hermitage from Chapoutier and vintage Champagne.

For me, the sybaritic deserted-island vibe is made more meaningful by the presence of the research station, operating since 1973 and part of the Australian Museum. Co-director Dr Lyle Vail takes highly recommended 90-minute tours and his description of the work by teams of international researchers pursuing more than 100 projects each year is fascinating and far from esoteric. With field research just offshore and in a series of aquariums fed 10,000 litres of seawater an hour, researchers are studying the effects of climate change on marine life and outbreaks of the native crown-of-thorns starfish. Vail pulls one from an aquarium with a pair of tongs – venomous thorns on top, rows of evil-looking suckers underneath. Chopped-up starfish appears in plastic containers, part of the research into their miraculous ability to regenerate. Fatal injections of ox bile are used to control the coral-hungry starfish around touristed reefs, but their fecundity – females can produce up to 60 million eggs a year – means the task is enormous.

One morning Captain Dave and crew zip across to Horseshoe Reef and we snorkel above gardens filled with staghorns and humbugs, pulsating anenomes and corals that remind me of Melbourne Cup hats. We pass Casuarina Beach, a turtle corridor where yesterday I swam in the wake of a green turtle. An hour later we scoot around to Watson’s Bay and float over giant clams, their lips a shocking ecclesiastical purple. I’m happy as a clam.

When we pull into Anchor Bay, close enough to see lunch on the table, a shadow sidles up beside us. Huge. “Hey, Simon!” says Dave to the friendly 300-kilo Queensland grouper who hangs out in the bay. Simon circles and lingers. Like us, he’s ready for lunch.

Related stories