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 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.)
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 winepoached 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 campstyle 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.
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?
They're in their rooms, of which there are 16. Bedarra is all about the rooms, all of them freestanding and most bang on the water. Sell the farm, pawn your tiara, rob a bank—do whatever it takes and book one of the two cubic, nearly all glass Pavilions. Have you always fantasized about spending the night in a place designed by Frank Lloyd Wright?This may be the closest you ever get. Certainly this is where one imagines Mr. Clooney and his hottie. Divinely removed from the rest of the resort, each Pavilion has a plunge pool, plus a bedroom and sitting room linked by a partially covered deck (you actually have to go outside to get from one space to the other, an advanced lesson in indoor-outdoor living). Best of all is the way the rain forest and bush turkeys nuzzle right up against all that amazing floor-to-ceiling transparency. Lying in bed and looking out, I felt like a Discovery Channel cameraman.
Bedarra's other accommodations suffer only by comparison. They're pleasant and comfortable enough, just not as dazzling. While split-level cottages are endowed with better views, duplexes with a certain tree-house flavor are nearer the beach (the views trump nearness). Avoid Nos. 9 and 10 (they're set too far back) and 8 (too close to the pool). Superficially, the decoration throughout the resort is fine, though as everyone knows the real test of a hotel is not how it looks to you in the excitement following check-in but how it looks to you after a few days, when you've had a chance to live with the lamps and audition the sofas, and the thrill of watching boats bobbing on the bay from your bathtub has worn off a bit. Subjected to this sort of scrutiny, Bedarra's furnishings look distressingly like they fell off a high shelf at Ikea. At these prices!
If the resort's rates would also seem to guarantee room service and a reception desk that stays open beyond 5:30 in the afternoon, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The restaurant gets high marks for inviting diners off the menu and proposing to cook anything they fancy, but the Asian dishes it specialized in when I was there were thin and undisciplined. As with other aspects of the property, the kitchen would benefit from a little more rigor and a little less art direction. There's a new chef, so there's hope. But even giving these provisos their full weight, Bedarra is an extraordinary resort. Some would even say great.
800/225-9849 or 61-7/4068-8233; www.bedarraisland.com; doubles from $1,594.
Private-island resorts come in all sizes on the Great Barrier Reef, from tiny to titanic. Hayman is one of the big ones, with a feel and MO similar to certain supersized properties in Acapulco (I'm thinking of the Fairmont Princess), Maui (the Grand Wailea), and Puerto Rico (El Conquistador). Given the thousands of miles and the multiple time zones that separate Hayman from these places, not to mention the ostensible cultural differences of the countries where they operate, the similarity is a little weird. Still, there are people who collect reassuringly traditional, scripted resort experiences the way other people collect unprescribed one-of-a-kind boutique-hotel experiences: They've got to have them all.
How big is Hayman?The resort has 244 guest rooms, 500 employees (including those who run the staff village), acres of marble ﬂooring, $15 million worth of pleasure craft, tens of thousands of square feet of retail temptation, and six dining venues (Moreton Bay "bugs"—a variety of flat lobster—lashed with ginger and chiles were my gastronomic Aha! moment). Seven hundred thousand trees and shrubs have been introduced to the island; of the 1,000 palms, 22 form a glamorous avenue. The seven-times-Olympic-sized swimming pool—actually two pools, a hexagonal one set within a free-form one—loses 1,500 gallons of water in evaporation and runoff per day. (Are the pools a little splashy?Yes. Are they fun?Yes.) Billed as the world's largest cocktail, Hayman's one-quart daiquiri is served in what might just as well be a birdbath. The only thing small about Hayman is its elementary school, attended on average by eight sons and daughters of personnel.
Of all the 74 Whitsunday Islands—eight have hotels; the others are uninhabited—Hayman is the nearest to the reef. This distinction is often cited, but isn't all that meaningful, 48 miles hardly being a trip around the block. If the resort was sounding good to you until now and suddenly you're worried, you may have reason to be: the world-class water-sports center certainly makes getting out to the reef easy, but only a violent act of God could bring it closer.
Among Australians, Hayman is a once-before-I-die icon that does a brisk business in vow renewals. It is also good for conferring status: if you live in Sydney, say, and want to impress your friends, nothing does the job like a casually dropped, "I was on Hayman last weekend. Amazing place. Ever been?" And it's no accident that the island will be able to be (longingly) glimpsed from Ivana Great Barrier Reef, a mainland condo development that promises to embody the former Mrs. Trump's "style, grace, and perfection."
Hayman has been accepting paying guests since 1935. Every one of them then was a fisherman, and the accommodations were basic cabins. The next year, the American novelist Zane Grey filmed White Death on the island. A luxury resort soon replaced the cabins, capitalizing on a sensational crescent of vanilla-sand beach, and flourished for two decades before a cyclone tore it to bits in 1970.
The property was immediately rebuilt, and has been tirelessly reconfigured, tweaked, and refreshed ever since. Thanks to the most recent, $23 million offensive, a popular new room category, "pool access," has been created. Terraces that project into the pool were retrofitted with gates so that you can wake up, stretch, throw your legs over the side of your bed, and slip directly and noiselessly into the water. There was nothing in the binder of material on my night table suggesting a 3 a.m. skinny dip with my sweetie, but obviously that's the idea. Hokey?Yes. Fun?Yes.
Perhaps the most important thing to note about Hayman is the absence of anything tongue-in-cheek. The Italian and French restaurants look like send-ups of their genres, but no joke is intended. It takes a little while getting used to the lack of irony, but once you do it feels kind of good, even welcome. Imagine, a courtyard with a giant stone column capital that's nothing more or less than a plant stand. A marble foo dog that's a marble foo dog. No hidden or double meanings. How refreshing is that?
800/745-8883 or 61-7/4940-1234; www.hayman.com.au; doubles from $470.
ORPHEUS ISLAND RESORT
Orpheus is as unpretentious as Hayman is flash, and as old-fashioned (in the best possible sense) as Bedarra is vain. The resort is attitude-free. The interest staffers take in guests' happiness and well-being is natural (that, or they're very good actors), not empty or obsequious. The good will and good energy are palpable. Personnel and hotel achieve an uncommonly high level of synergy. The property is laid out without fanfare in a broken line on a long ribbon of beach, the most spellbindingly serene of the 50 (or was it 500?) I visited in my 10 days on the reef. All construction—none of it higher than a single story—is tucked discreetly below the tree line and veiled in luxuriant vegetation, from spider orchids and acacias to tamarinds and weeping bottlebrushes. Most of the 21 guest rooms are in cottages of two and three; for irritating people like me who are really only happy (and only feel as if they're getting their money's worth) in a freestanding accommodation, there are two: Nos. 9 and 10. Blessed with lovely porches and in some cases beds with water views, rooms are located on one side of the sprawling restaurant and Quiet Lounge. Both are open gorgeously to the sea. Bare quarry-tile floors and chunky, rectilinear cane furniture keep the look elegant but uncomplicated. The cottages are a lot less exciting from a design perspective, but extremely functional.
One of the rare Reef resorts that is privately owned, Orpheus is untainted by corporate culture. And if it proves one thing, it's that there's nothing wrong with bromides as long as they're the right ones: swooningly romantic arrival by seaplane, hammocks strung over the sand between arching coconut palms, sunset sippies (cocktails) on the beach while feeding a colony of silvery diamond-scaled mullet, docile as puppies. A single candlelit table laid with a beautifully starched cloth and set out on a jetty may be a postcard, but it's a postcard I want to live. The food, which is not just fancy but Fancy, would be ridiculous if the chefs who dream it up weren't so earnest. I think I must have had preserved lemonand-garlic-grilled scampi nestled on a rosé wineand-oyster-scented rice-noodle salad with wok-tossed enoki mushrooms and slivered asparagus before. But never in my bare feet, and never while blacktip sharks cleaved the water inches away. Did that just cause you to lose your appetite?No worries, the sharks are harmless.
Orpheus' principal diving and snorkeling site is home to 1,100 of the 1,500 species of fish on the reef, 340 of the 359 varieties of hard corals, and one of the region's largest collections of soft corals, which lack the limestone exoskeleton of their cousins. The giant-clam garden, in a lagoon just off the resort, is populated by 100 of the mollusks, offering a singular snorkeling experience. All the copper-banded butterfly fish and red-throated emperors in the Coral Sea are nothing, I promise you, to a 35-year-old, three-foot-wide, 220-pound clam with ruffled chinchilla lips.
61-7/4777-7377; www.orpheus.com.au; doubles from $1,106.
christopher petkanas is a special correspondent for Travel + Leisure.
Travel time from the mainland: 30 minutes by helicopter, or two hours by boat from Gladstone to Heron Island, then 40 minutes by boat to Wilson Island
Circumference: 2,000 feet
Number of Wilson Islands that would fit into New York City's Central Park: 65
Accommodations: Six guest tents
Travel time to diving and snorkeling sites: None—you're there
Travel time from the mainland: 45 minutes by plane from Cairns to Dunk Island,
then 20 minutes by boat to Bedarra Island
Circumference: 4 miles
Number of Bedarra Islands that would fit into Central Park: 1.5
Accommodations: 16 guest rooms
Travel time to diving and snorkeling sites: 90 minutes
ORPHEUS ISLANDTravel time from the mainland: 30 minutes from Townsville, or an hour from Cairns by seaplane
Circumference: 19 miles
Number of Central Parks that would fit onto Orpheus Island: 4
Accommodations: 21 guest rooms
Travel time to diving and snorkeling sites: Clam garden, 10 minutes; fish and coral, 20 minutes
HAYMAN ISLANDTravel time from the mainland: 2 1/4 hours by plane from Sydney to Hamilton Island, three from Melbourne, or 1 1/4 from Brisbane, then 55 minutes by boat from Hamilton to Hayman Island.
Circumference: 5 miles
Number of Hayman Islands could fit into Central Park: 1
Accommodations: 244 guest rooms
Travel time to diving and snorkeling sites: 1 hour
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