The spectacularly cerulean water of the Great Barrier Reef, a vast sweep of coral that unfurls from Australia’s northeastern coast, teems with sea life—baleen whales, leatherback turtles, giant clams, and 400-odd other species. Above the surface, it’s a menagerie of a different kind: a collection of oceanfront hotels and island resorts, each with its own appeal. Staying on the mainland in northern Queensland—at the 69-room Reef House Resort & Spa, for example—means you can be within a snorkel’s throw of the coral hours after arriving down under. Foodies and anglers alike head the extra mile to exclusive Lizard Island, where chef Mark Jensen will grill the fish you just caught or serve up a torchlit seven-course dinner on the beach. Farther south, a 2 1/2-hour flight from Sydney, is Hamilton Island, where the swish new four-bedroom villas at the Hamilton Island Yacht Club house Top-sider-wearing families. Jet-setters will recognize the polished austerity of the beachfront villas at the just-reopened Hayman Great Barrier Reef resort—they were designed by Kerry Hill of Amanresorts fame—but the crystal-clear cove of Hayman Beach is the main attraction.
Great Barrier Reef Family Tip: Underwater newbies will love the half-day “snorkel safari” led by certified guides from Hamilton Island Marina’s H20Sportz. 61-7/4946-9888; dives from $80.
Great Barrier Reef: World’s Best Scorecard
No. 5 island overall
No. 1 island in Australia, New Zealand + South Pacific
Reef House Resort & Spa (formerly Sebel Reef House) Palm Cove 85.07
Hamilton Island Yacht Club Villas 61-7/4946-9999; hamiltonisland.com.au; doubles from $1,422.
Hayman Great Barrier Reef 800/745-8883 or 61-7/4940-1838; lhw.com; doubles from $630.
Lizard Island 61-3/9426-7550; lizardisland.com.au; doubles from $1,544.
Reef House Resort & Spa 99 Williams Esplanade, Palm Cove; 61-7/4055-3633; reefhouse.com.au; doubles from $320.