Above the Coral

The Great Barrier Reef islands are full of choices

By: Roger Allnutt

CANBERRA, Australia No visit to Australia is complete without a swim in the pristine waters of one of the natural wonders of the world, the Great Barrier Reef.

Stretching over 1,200 miles along the coast of Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world, with an area about half the size of Texas. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

The reef is a living animal, and a finely balanced ecosystem; the tiny polyps that have been “building” for thousands of years require a water temperature of about 64 degrees Fahrenheit and water less than 100 feet deep. A mecca for divers and snorkelers, the reef truly feels alive when swimming among the brightly colored fish, dolphins, starfish, turtles and sea anemones.

The reef is made up of over 3,000 individual reefs, 300 coral cays and 2,600 islands. Of the 600 or so islands close to the coast, fewer than 30 have been developed for tourism. These resorts (and in most cases there is only one on an island) all have their own character and price range.

At the top end of the market are luxury resorts, such as Hayman Island and Lizard Island, rated among the best in the world.

Hamilton Island is a much larger-scale development, while Bedarra Island and Orpheus Island and the Whitsunday Wilderness Lodge on Long Island are small, intimate operations popular with couples seeking a relaxing break.

Other resorts like Daydream Island and South Molle Island are popular with families. There are a number of ecotourism resorts and even a Club Med on Lindeman Island.

Another option is to charter yachts (with or without a crew) to explore the reef for a few days. The Whitsunday Islands group is a great place for this activity because the bays in the rugged islands make for comfortable anchorages. For a totally different perspective of the reef, a helicopter or small-plane flight is highly recommended.