The Great Barrier Reef Primer

The biggest reef system in the world

Where It Is
Northeast Australia, along the Queensland coast.

What It Is
The biggest reef system in the world. Neither a barrier, nor one single reef, but a 1,250-mile-long congregation of small reefs huddled in clumps, with numerous passageways to the open sea. The Great Barrier Reef is often said to consist of an Inner Reef and an Outer Reef. The latter is actually the Barrier Reef—the site of the most spectacular coral and fish and the reef you see in documentaries. The so-called Inner Reef is made up chiefly of the fringing reefs of offshore islands.

Key Geographical Fact 1
For most of its length the Barrier Reef is around 100 miles out to sea, the exception being the stretch north of the city of Cairns, where it comes to within nine miles of shore.

Key Geographical Fact 2
The Barrier Reef lies between 12 and 25 degrees south, the equivalent latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere being between Miami and Trinidad. However this is the Pacific, not the Caribbean, so even in the hot season people tend to dive and snorkel in a neoprene wetsuit.

Key Geographical Fact 3
Most coastal and island resorts describe themselves as being "on the Barrier Reef," but this is misleading. Only one top resort, Lizard Island, is actually on the reef itself. Most other hotels are on the Inner Reef, which offers good snorkeling and diving in spots. Some "Barrier Reef resorts" fly their guests to the reef in seaplanes, as it takes up to three hours to get there by speedboat.

When To Go
September through December, when the weather is dry and clear, and the average temperature is 80 degrees. January to March are the official rainy months. June, July, and August are the southern winter, so midday temperatures average only 70 degrees and the weather is variable. Deadly box jellyfish occur in the sea off Queensland from November to April, but they are a problem chiefly on the mainland beaches, not the islands offshore or the reef.

The Top Island Resorts
There are four resorts usually reckoned to be of international standard: Hayman, Bedarra, Lizard, and Orpheus. However, we found Orpheus too run-down to include in this roundup.

Hayman Island

Where It Is
The southernmost of the top resorts, it's in the Whitsunday archipelago, one of the world's great sailing grounds.

Getting There
Fly from Sydney to Proserpine via Brisbane (two and a half hours), then a small plane (20 minutes) to Hayman.

The Island
Very like a British Virgin Island—a green, knobbly bump floating in an ink-blue sea.

Distance from Outer Reef
Two hours by boat. (Good second choice: Luncheon Bay, only 30 minutes away by boat.)

Resort Character
Dallas Down Under. The biggest, glitziest, and most luxurious of the resorts (shopping mall selling everything from designer shades to pink Argyle diamonds); the best maintained (appears to have a limitless budget for upkeep and improvement); very tropical (the vegetation is best described as an artfully controlled rampage).

Number of Rooms
214.

What It Offers
A high level of comfort in a beautiful location, a laid-back Caribbean-style atmosphere, and all the amenities you would expect in a luxe resort.

Staff
Legions of them, all very friendly.

Rooms
Large, light, and airy, with big marble bathrooms. Furnishings are good but could-be-anywhere International Style.

Best Rooms
Those in the East Wing, which are more tranquil and overlook the second, smaller swimming pool.

Best Amenity
Seafood lunch by the pool: rock oysters and small local crayfish called Moreton Bay Bugs, which are delicious despite their unappetizing name.

The Food
There are six restaurants, of which Oriental, serving Asian-fusion food, is much the best. Superb fish, shellfish, and outstanding sashimi. The other restaurants can be variable, for example La Trattoria (bland antipasto, soggy pizza).

The Beach
It looks fabulous, but the sand is gritty. Plus, like many beaches on this coast, it is subject to huge tidal swings that leave a scrap yard of dead coral in their wake. This is doubtless why the resort was designed around two swimming pools, the larger of which features prominently in Hayman Island advertisements (and is an excellent place to swim laps).

Best Aspect
The watersports. Everything from scuba instruction to parasailing, all planned with exemplary efficiency. The best, in fact, of any resort I've ever been to. The fleet of powerboats, Jet Skis, and sailing yachts looks like it just came from the showroom. Spectacular nightly sunset cruises on a state-of-the-art, 46-foot racing yacht.

Rates
$336—$1,065 (all prices based on double occupancy).

Reservations
61—79-40—1767; fax 1567.
Member of Platinum Card Fine Hotels & Resorts.

Bedarra Island

Where It Is
Roughly halfway up the Barrier Reef, equidistant from Townsville and Cairns and approximately five miles offshore.

Getting There
Fly from Sydney to Townsville (three hours), then a 40-minute flight (18-seat Twin Otter) to Dunk Island, then a speedboat to Bedarra (15 minutes).

The Island
Small, secluded, covered by rainforest, with magnificent views across to the mainland and the high hills (5,000 feet) of neighboring Hinchinbrook Island.

Distance from Outer Reef
One hour by boat. Private charters can be arranged, but these are not cheap—$1,040 a day on the Reel Affair II, a 40-foot game-fishing launch with diving equipment included.

Resort Character
Small is beautiful, quiet is bliss. A place to read long novels. The resort offers all the usual watersports, but they seem rather beside the point. The pool is pretty, but tiny.

Number of Rooms
16 villas.

What It Offers
Tranquillity, privacy, seclusion, pristine nature. A great place to relax.

Staff
Exceptionally pleasant and helpful.

Rooms
Like split-level treehouses, built on the side of a hill. The design is pleasing, with expanses of polished wood, but furnishings and fixtures are old-fashioned and need replacing. Units are covered by vegetation, which affords privacy but blocks sunlight and limits the view.

Best Rooms
All similar in position and facilities.

Best Amenity
Connections to Lizard Island (both resorts are owned by Qantas). Leave Bedarra midmorning, arrive on Lizard just after lunch.

The Food
Fabulous fish and seafood, with imaginative use of Asian ingredients (for example, Thai curried sauces), which is typical of modern Australian cuisine. However, this resort has only one small, slightly claustrophobic dining room.

The Beaches
There are two close to Bedarra, both of which have fine, deep, golden sand. Extremely attractive, even at low tide.

Best Aspect
Walking trails, which have spectacular views of the surrounding islands.

Rates
$952 (price includes all meals, beverages, and activities at the resort).

Reservations
61—7—4068—8233; fax 8215.

Lizard Island

Where It Is
Near the top of the Great Barrier Reef, 175 miles north of Cairns, within a marine national park. The most northerly resort island.

Getting There
Fly from Sydney to Cairns (three hours), then take a 75-minute flight in an 18-seat Twin Otter to Lizard Island.

The Island
Dry and scrubby (good for lizards), but with spectacular water and beaches.

The Beach
It looks fabulous, but the sand is gritty. Plus, like many beaches on this coast, it is subject to huge tidal swings that leave a scrap yard of dead coral in their wake. This is doubtless why the resort was designed around two swimming pools, the larger of which features prominently in Hayman Island advertisements (and is an excellent place to swim laps).

Distance from the Reef
Right on top of it.

Resort Character
Shabby chic, though right now a bit less shabby and a bit more chic would be in order. Lizard Island's public areas are presently decorated in an unmemorable, utilitarian style, with stark lighting and furniture in need of replacement.

Number of Rooms
40.

What It Offers
Megadoses of simplicity. For people who don't mind paying a lot to chill out in a tee shirt, scuba dive, and from September to November fish for black marlin (up to 1,200 pounds). The formula routinely attracts Hollywood and European nobility looking for privacy.

Staff
Well-trained, obliging, and friendly as only Australians can be.

Rooms
Spartan. The standard Anchor Bay Rooms are small and with no frills except a balcony overlooking gardens and the beach. Showers only, owing to shortage of water.

Best Rooms
The new Sunset Point Villas, which are larger and lighter, with polished wooden floors, bigger bathrooms, spacious balconies, and privacy. More expensive, but infinitely preferable.

Best Amenity
The Barrier Reef itself, right there, 15 feet off the beach.

The Food
Consistently excellent. Good wine list.

The Beaches
Close to perfection—long strips of blindingly white, finely sifted sugar—and lots of them. Access by your own small outboard motorboat, use of which is included in the rate.

Best Aspect
Diving and snorkeling under the supervision of exceptionally good instructors using top equipment. (Two-hour dive course offered.) The snorkeling right off the main beach is exceptional—giant clam gardens and huge fish (grouper up to 500 pounds). The resort dive boat takes 55 minutes to reach the extreme edge of the reef, where you can swim with 200—400-pound potato cod, spinner dolphins, reef sharks (not a threat), and sometimes humpback and minke whales. (There are no great white sharks here, but there are hammerhead.) Note: Scuba diving costs extra.

Rates
$760; $912 for a Sunset Point Villa (price includes all meals and use of resort facilities).

Reservations
61—70—603—999; fax 991.