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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

So many resorts, so little time—and such a wide margin for error. That's the dilemma on the Great Barrier Reef, a 1,240-mile sweep of spectacular biodiversity off the northeastern coast of Queensland, Australia (and, before we forget to mention it, one of the seven natural wonders of the world). Literally dozens of private-island resorts hold out the sun-soaked promise of a once-in-a-lifetime tropical holiday of diving and reef walking, birding and boating, snorkeling and chilling, stargazing and giant-green-turtle midwifing (less scary than you think: you are only called on to watch). But which ones really deliver?Certainly the antipodes are a long way to go to make a mistake.

Bewildered?Relax. We've done the heavy lifting for you, short-listing four top places that offer rich, vastly different reef experiences. Choose from among a very Survivor-ish true coral cay the size of a bottle cap, with just a handful of luxury tents; a sexy camera-ready hideaway where paparazzi may be lurking in the rain forest; a national park where homeliness and quietude are their own reward; and a full-bore megaresort with the spit, polish, and service of a great city hotel.

When weighing where to go, ask yourself how many connections from the mainland you can handle, and of what length; what size of island and property makes you happiest; and what kind of reef access you want. Traveling time ranges from zero on cays that are wispy products of the reef itself to as much as 90 minutes from islands that were once part of the continent. Before I visited the Great Barrier Reef, everything I'd read had led me to picture it as one continuous, massive living structure; in fact, it's thousands of reefs, with coral and fish populations that are by no means equal.

Last year, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site measuring 135,000 square miles, was dramatically and triumphantly rezoned by the Australian federal government. The proportion of closely monitored green zones—marine sanctuaries where fishing and other "acquisitional" or "extractive" activities are prohibited—shot from a mere 4.5 to 33 percent of the entire park. Snorkelers, divers, yachties, greenies, rejoice.

WILSON ISLAND

Wilson is the castaway option on the Great Barrier Reef. The six guest rooms, or rather guest tents, have no electricity (only battery-powered Coleman lamps with charming night-light settings), no closets, not even mirrors. Closets would in any case be redundant, since luggage is restricted to one small bag. Sadly, this automatically eliminates as potential clients that decorative detachment of high-fashion beachcombers who can't get through the day without nine changes of sun hat, six of pareu, and a Goyard trunk full of unguents. Actually, there's something even graver that makes the island out of the question for them, and that's the toilet situation. You don't get one of your own. On the other hand, at least there is a toilet. More on the toilet situation later.

I hope I haven't given the impression that because Wilson has so few conventional amenities it's inexpensive, or unstylish, or uncomfortable. It isn't. Actually, the resort (a big word to describe such a small enterprise) is quite extravagant—especially given the daunting limitations imposed by the location—with good sheets and a sleek, sober aesthetic. Wilson is superprotected, designed to have virtually zero impact on the environment. Everything is micromanaged, even the sand. Let's say some is needed to top off the floor in the open kitchen, which sits directly on the ground in an enormous pavilion, called Longhouse, with a timber roof, soft sides that roll up and down, wraparound banquettes for lounging, and a 15-foot-long communal dining table. For permission to move the sand, management is first required to write to the Queensland Park and Wildlife Service. If permission is granted, the sand must be dug by hand, with a shovel, and then only in the presence of a ranger. Wilson Island closes in February in deference to nesting seabirds, but if at any other time roseate terns, say, start collecting shells and dried grass for the simple depressions they build on the coral shingle high on the beach, the authorities think nothing of spontaneously shutting the place down. It seems like a crazy way to run a business, but the owner, Voyages Hotels & Resorts, employs some very seasoned number (and date) crunchers.

Every day's a dice throw. If it's not nesting terns, it's a heaving sea thwarting the delivery of clean towels and baby lettuce.

"Wilson and Heron are not like some of those Whitsunday Islands that claim they're on the reef when they're merely in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park," says Brendan Brady, general manager of both properties. "Ours are authentic coral cays, low islands formed entirely from the reef on which they stand. They've never been part of the mainland or the continental shelf, and they weren't produced by volcanoes." (The only other coral cays with accommodations are Green, Lady Musgrave, and Lady Elliot. Lizard and Haggerstone have walk-off-the-beach reef access, but they are not coral cays.)

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