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Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The payoff for the happy few who make it to Wilson is the most natural, unvarnished, unreconstructed experience in the region. I counted 22 paces from the lip of my tent (khaki canvas, steel frame, raised wooden platform) to where the water broke on the shore, and that was at low tide. I didn't report to an activities center when I wanted to go snorkeling. There is no activities center. I rolled out of bed, stepped onto the reef, and snorkeled. My nearest fellow explorer as I plumbed a bommie, a huge deep-water coral outcrop gorged with fish and plant life, was 1,000 feet away; on Wilson, anything less is considered an invasion of personal space.

The skies above the resort are famously big and clear, and at night, with the aid of a sweet little book from the Longhouse library, I could almost have told you what time it was just by looking at the stars. Nesting green turtles weighing 450 pounds hauled themselves epically up the beach in the moonlight so regularly, I became almost blasé. Choosing spots above the high-tide mark, they use their flippers to scrape out body pits, then smaller egg chambers. The sand flies. The turtles lay an average of 120 eggs per clutch. They look like Ping-Pong balls.

Not all of the wildlife on Wilson is so picturesque. Muttonbirds are the island's dirty secret. Have you ever been hit in the head by a creature the size of small chicken trying to land? A stay at the resort carries this danger. Muttonbirds have a disproportionately large wingspan that makes it impossible for them to alter course once committed. They crash into trees, shelves of wine glasses in Longhouse—anything that gets in their way. In December and January their numbers climb to 14,000. The smell is... I won't say. The sound just as you are about to go to sleep is the sound of 14,000 babies being strangled. Between the muttons and terns and buff-banded rails and bar-shouldered doves, you never for a moment feel that you're not a guest on Wilson: it's their island. Two pairs of rotating hosts in their twenties have a grab bag of talents. This is just as well, for as the entire staff they do everything: cook, clean, lead interpretative walks through the pandanus grove and pisonia forest, and change the topic when dinner conversation descends to cricket ("brown stains on the crease"). As a system it works well. The dishes they coax out of two six-burner gas barbecues are as accomplished as anything you'd get at a Sydney bistro-of-the-moment: beautiful fans of red wine–poached pear slices partnered with goat cheese; roast fillet of pork with apples and ginger; expertly frenched, perfectly charred rack of lamb with pea and pepper salad; chocolate and orange mousse. Wilson does not hold back. All of the above, plus three vegetables, comprised a single meal.

Because of the logistics of getting people on and off the island, to stay on it you must also stay on neighboring Heron. The five-night package begins and ends on Heron, with three nights on Wilson. Although Heron's activities—including diving, which is unavailable on Wilson—are unbeatable, the property itself has an institutional quality that is less than fetching.

As for the bathrooms on Wilson, they're massed in one block. Each tent gets its own shower, but there are only three toilets and three sinks—one in a stall and two lined up boot camp–style without a partition.

You always wanted to see a longfin batfish. On the other hand, maybe you're just too much of a princess.

800/225-9849 or 61-7/4972-9055; www.wilsonisland.com; doubles from $605.

BEDARRA ISLAND

If I read tomorrow in Life & Style or In Touch that George Clooney spent a long weekend at Bedarra applying baby oil to his new chérie's bottom, I wouldn't be surprised. It's that kind of place: exclusive, private, and very expensive.

Bedarra offers all the water sports you expect from a Reef resort, but sports are not what it excels at and not what you come for. (For those you go to Lizard Island, a sister property and well-loved Reef classic.) Lacking the necessary licenses, Bedarra farms out many activities to external operators, and the dive center is annoyingly located on the mainland.

No, you don't come to Bedarra to spend energy, I discovered. Rather, you come to read, nap; eat, nap; drink, nap; listen to music, nap; wander in the rain forest, nap; canoodle, nap; admire the towering wedgelike rock formations, nap; and so on. Buttering toast, flicking sand with my toes, loading the CD changer, and refilling the essence burner was as strenuous as it ever got for me. A sultrier, more languorous resort experience is impossible to imagine.

The non-wilderness portion of Bedarra occupies a fraction of its host island, which has eight far-off vacation homes that you are barely but nonetheless aware of (this technically should disallow Bedarra from calling itself a private-island resort, but it does so anyway). Indeed, the property is so compact, you can walk between its outlying buildings in five minutes, with time to spare. Except at meals, don't count on running into anyone. People keep to themselves at Bedarra. But if they're not out on the reef, and not curled up on a lounge on the spotted-gum terrace overlooking Hernandia Bay, and not on the beach (which is only okay, and rather messy), where is everyone?

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