Reef Encounter: exploring the Great Barrier Reef’s natural wonders

Lizard Island Resort offers holistic escape among nature’s wonders

Publisher: South China Morning Post

From 2000 metres above, the aquamarine lagoons and coral cays of the Great Barrier Reef, fringed by ribbons of silky white surf, stretch out as far as the eye can see. With its divine beauty, flying over the reef is an almost spiritual experience.

I’m en route to Lizard Island Resort, one of Australia’s most isolated and luxurious holiday destinations. The journey from the mainland takes an hour, before the single-engine Cessna arcs gracefully to land on the island’s tiny airstrip.

Twenty-seven kilometres from the coast of Queensland and 250 kilometres northeast of Cairns, Lizard Island sits in a pristine marine environment, and the resort’s close relationship with the reef is the core of its profound appeal. Delivering fine luxury with breathtaking reef encounters has consistently placed the resort in the Top 10 Hotels of the World list.

But along with the chic design of its 40 suites and villas, its fine dining and exquisite creature comforts, Lizard Island Resort is not about matching its uber-luxury peers, it’s more a life-changing experience – with exploring the unique natural environment in which it sits, at the heart of the experience.

“There’s a lot of ‘bling’ out there for people who want six-star treatment,” says assistant general manager, Shaun Grant, as we stroll through the resort’s tropical bush gardens. “We match that, but without the bling. For us it’s about balancing the in-room and out-room experience. We bring those together so you get that holistic escape.

“There are very few places in the world where you can remember who you are, and disconnect from the world. That’s what we focus on.”

With no cellphone reception, the resort has restricted wi-fi internet access to one lounge, a limitation I found liberating. Due to popular demand however, Wi-Fi will be rolled out to its rooms this year. I stayed in one of the 18 Anchor Bay Suites; 936 spacious and elegant square feet of timber floors and unfussy finishes. With captivating sea views through a curtain of coconut palms, each suite has a path that leads to the beach 20 metres from your verandah.

If you want total privacy, book the most isolated villa. Beloved of British royals, the Pavilion, where Bollinger is provided on arrival and canapés at sunset, is for regal pampering. Perched on a rocky promontory, with private pool and expansive deck, the Pavilion affords a spectacular panorama of the Coral Sea. This is seriously comfortable solitude.

You’re not going to go hungry on Lizard. At Ospreys Restaurant, executive chef Anthony Healy brings an inventive light touch to new Australian cuisine, serving the freshest seafood in the southern hemisphere. Friendly, obliging wait staff add an informal touch to meal times.

Over at the Beach Club, the resort’s marine activity centre, guides suggest the best outlying beaches for coral reef snorkeling, and provide a water-taxi service for your commute. The island’s northerly location means the club offers dive trips to parts of the reef most mainland operators can’t reach.

Exploring the island on foot reveals a rich narrative of the discovery and settlement of Australia. A derelict cottage where sea cucumbers were processed in 1880 by English settler Mary Watson and two Chinese assistants – Ah Sam and Ah Leung – still stands beside the beach that bears her name.

Set upon by aboriginal tribes for trespassing on their sites, Ah Sam was speared and killed but Watson and Ah Leung escaped, using a tin bath they cooked sea cucumbers in as their boat. They died after running out of drinking water.

Head up to Cook’s Look and follow in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer James Cook, who discovered Lizard Island in 1770, when his vessel Endeavour ran aground on coral. Cook named the island after encountering one of its many reptile species. Nature makes this resort so special. Surrounded by lush tropical jungle, guests share living space with geckos, skinks, green tree frogs, and a vocal community of bush birds.

A scientific research station on the western side of Lizard hosts around 60 research projects a year – surely the world’s most inviting laboratory.
I spoke with marine biologist and station director Anne Hoggett, who in 22 years on the Island, has seen environmental threats to the reef increase. Monitoring the effect is a key part of the station’s work. “The reef is deteriorating at a small rate every year, but that rate is increasing,” says Hoggett.

“The best we can do is look after our carbon emissions; clean up our act globally. That’s not likely to happen in the near future is it?” But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Locally there’s a lot we can do,” she says. “Keep the water quality in good condition and look after our fisheries. There is hope.”

Coincidentally, Trevor Yang, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, was also a recent visitor to the station. Yang, who spent six days on the island with his wife and teenage sons, was “blown away” by the island’s management.

“It’s a great example of how commercial activity and environmental protection can work side by side. But it takes understanding on both sides, and a discerning clientele who respect the island for what it is,” says Yang. “In Hong Kong we claim to have more coral species than the Caribbean, but we don’t have fish in those corals because of over-fishing.”
What did Yang and his family enjoy? “We loved the snorkeling and the boys were ecstatic about the diving.” He plans to return.

One experience I’ll treasure above all is the resort’s “signature” activity, heading off on a sun-kissed morning in a dinghy (what’s the hurry?), to an idyllic tropical beach, all to ourselves. The sumptuous picnic hamper can wait. Mask, snorkel and fins attached, I swim to the shimmering coral; above giant clams, electric-blue starfish and alongside scuttling green turtles. Lizard Island Resort is total immersion in natural beauty, a rare, priceless gift.

Cathay Pacific flies direct to Cairns from Hong Kong three times a week.

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