Getting to know the Great Barrier Reef

Posted on February 1, 2019

The world’s greatest living structure runs for more than 1,200 miles along the northeast coast of Australia. It’s a spectacular coral reef that’s home to great schools of colorful fish, mollusks weighing up to 400 pounds, six species of marine turtles, and myriad other types of sea life. But the Great Barrier Reef isn’t really a barrier or solid wall. Instead, the outer reef is a system of shoals and ribbon reefs, which receive constant pounding by the Pacific Ocean. The great lagoon between the outer reef and the mainland is dotted with coral cays, continental islands, and inner patch reefs. While it’s possible to explore the reef on day trips from the coast, the best way to experience this great wonder is to stay on one of the 20 or so islands that offer lodging.

Australia’s Underwater Wonders

Lizard Island Resort offers 40 suites and villas and 24 private beaches

During my years of writing Frommer’s Australia, I had the pleasure of visiting almost all of these properties, which range from very simple backpacker havens to over-the-top luxury destinations. They also differ in their proximity to the reef. Some places are surrounded by coral (think immediate access to snorkeling and diving), and others require boat transfers to good viewing. Another important factor to consider is that some island resorts welcome day-trippers, and that radically impacts the experience of overnight guests.

Lizard Island

I first visited Lizard Island Resort decades ago, and I was there again last year. It remains my favorite because it’s surrounded by a large fringing reef with lots of colorful fish and the best giant clam gardens on the GBR. Sadly, in recent years, warming water temperatures have damaged coral reefs all over the world and Lizard is no exception. While my husband, Richard, and I saw patches of bleached coral on our most recent snorkel excursions, we also saw sections of healthy coral.

Australia’s Underwater Wonders

The activity staff on the island couldn’t have been more helpful. They knew I was keen to revisit the clam gardens, so as soon as we arrived, a team member swam with us around the point at Chinaman’s Ridge, where we found dozens of the huge colorful mollusks and some beautiful soft corals. The next day, we went out on the dive boat and saw coral, lots of beautiful fish, a reef shark, a spotted ray, various kinds of sea cucumbers, and several barracudas. On the way back to the lodge, the boat captain pointed out an osprey nest on a cliff along the coast.

Great Barrier Reef

“Cod Hole” is a favorite day trip for guests at Lizard Island

We also really enjoyed going around the island in Nemo, a motorized dinghy, looking for turtles. They were super easy to spot in the clear turquoise water. Another day, Nemo’s Captain Jim took a few of us in the resort’s gorgeous cabin cruiser to sip Champagne and watch the sunset at Mermaid Beach.

We didn’t repeat the daylong excursion to see giant potato cods, but we did revisit the impressive Australian Museum Lizard Island Research Station. Here, we spent a fascinating few hours with Director Lyle Vail, an American with a PhD from Australia’s prestigious James Cook University. He brought us up to speed on the impact of cyclones and global warming in the area.

Lodging at Lizard Island Resort is both cozy and luxurious. We loved our spacious beachy-chic king suite (number 23) with a panoramic sea view and a queen daybed on the veranda. This was a divine place to start each day, when the only sound was water lapping on the beach lined with majestic palm trees.

The meals here are also wonderful and très gourmet. We enjoyed king prawn salads for one lunch and Morton Bay bugs (slipper lobsters) and oysters for another. Coral trout and barramundi, Asian sea bass, were our favorite dinner main courses.

Australia’s Underwater Wonders

Delicious Lizard Island seafood

Explore More of the GBR

Lizard Island is the most northerly resort on the Great Barrier Reef. Eight-passenger Cessnas make the flight from Cairns twice a day. At the southern end of the reef, family-friendly Heron Island is a great place to observe nesting sea turtles from October to March. The best way to arrive on Heron Island is via a memorable seaplane flight from Gladstone.

Australia’s Underwater Wonders

The seaplane to Heron Island provides spectacular Great Barrier Reef views

Orpheus Island, with room for just 28 guests, is a beautiful getaway off the coast of Townsville. In the Whitsunday region, luxurious Hayman Island Resort, damaged by a cyclone in 2017, is due to re-open in July 2019.  Qantas offers nonstop flights from LAX to Sydney and Brisbane, and Virgin Australia and Qantas serve Cairns, Gladstone, and Townsville.

Regardless of where you choose to stay, you can rest assured that underwater wonders await on Australia’s truly amazing Great Barrier Reef.   Elizabeth Hansen

Great Barrier Reef

It’s easy to spot turtles in the clear waters around Lizard Island

Giant Clam: Photo courtesy Dr. Anne Hoggett, Australia Museum, Lizard Island Research Station     Beachfront Suite & Cod Hole: Photography courtesy of Lizard Island Resort     Header image: Courtesy     All other photography courtesy of ADAMS / HANSEN STOCK PHOTOS