Top 10 Great Barrier Reef resorts

From boutique villas to eco-cabins to family-friendly B&Bs, Queensland's Pacific coast caters for all budgets and tastes

Over half a century after he first explored the coral shallows off Queensland’s Pacific Coast, David Attenborough returns to the Great Barrier Reef in a new BBC1 series.

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Back when he made his first trip in the 50s, few were privileged to see Australia’s natural wonder up close. Nowadays visitors can choose whether they’d rather explore it by glass-bottom boat or submarine scooter, by scuba-diving or submersible (as Attenborough does). There are also resorts to suit all predilections and budgets. Here’s our top 10.

Lizard Island Resort

The northernmost resort is a swanky affair just 17 miles out to sea. Its rugged island home has 24 white sand beaches and a dreamily blue lagoon. There are 40 airy rooms, a spa, gym and tennis court, and superb diving right off the beach. Boat trips head to nearby Cod Hole for swimming and diving with giant gawping groupers. All-inclusive doubles are from £800 per night and the 60-minute light aircraft transfers from Cairns are £300pp. Website: lizardisland.com.au

Thala Beach Nature Reserve

A 45-minute drive north from Cairns – on the way to the mellow-vibed coastal town of Port Douglas – is the great nature-focused and good value lodge at Thala Beach. It sits on 143 acres of forested land with good walking trails and a private beach, and there’s a good chance of spotting a wallaby on the walk to breakfast. Bungalows here have dark wooden floors, large verandas and are well spaced out. Stays include complimentary ranger led walks, presentations and stargazing. Room only doubles are from £122. Website: thalabeach.com.au

Reef surrounding Heron Island

Gilligan’s

This backpacking institution is located at the heart of Cairns and delivers an extraordinary (if at times rather boisterous) craic. Features include a giant faux lagoon-style swimming pool, complete with sandy beach and large waterfall, a gigantic outdoor restaurant and bar, a nightclub and a travel office. Perhaps unsurprisingly there’s a basket of earplugs in every room too. Dorm beds are from £10. Website: gilligans.com.au


For more information or to book your dream trip to the Great Barrier Reef, call Tropical Australia on 01342 886839 and quote “Radio Times”


Bedarra Island Resort

Cyclone Yasi destroyed the country’s first super-luxury boutique resort in 2011, but it has reopened in pared down form, now with just seven wooden-decked villas. It has a sublime pool, lush gardens, and a no children under 16 policy. It’s possible to kayak around the island in 20 minutes or so, or more swiftly in motorised dinghies that are included in the room rate. Suites are from £599, all-inclusive, and the 30-minute ferry transfers from Mission Beach (86 miles south of Cairns) are £189 per couple return. Website: bedarra.com.au

Hill Inlet, The Whitsundays

Orpheus Island Resort

This densely forested island is 50 miles north of Townsend and has four miles of shoreline edged by reefs. Its 23 large rooms have white designer décor and sunset-facing patios. Weekly BBQs keep things convivial and a candle-lit dinner à deux on the jetty is included in the price. The reef is off the beach, or guests can venture further in free motorised dinghies. All-inclusive doubles are from £575 a night (minimum two night stay) and the 30-minute chopper flight from Townsville is £300pp return. Website: orpheus.com.au

One & Only Hayman Island

A multi-million dollar renovation has seen this much-loved resort open as Australia’s sole One & Only property. The 160 rooms are contemporarily styled with floor to ceiling windows and light wood furnishings. Choice is the resort’s buzzword, with three large pool areas, five restaurants and a suitably exhaustive pillow menu. B&B doubles are from £383 and yacht transfers from Great Barrier Reef Airport are £186pp return.Website: hayman.oneandonlyresorts.com


For more information or to book your dream trip to the Great Barrier Reef, call Tropical Australia on 01342 886839 and quote “Radio Times”


Coral Sea Resort

Set on the peaceful Paradise Point headland, the 78-room Coral Sea Resort is very good value. It’s a short walk from both the centre of Airlie Beach and the Abel Point Marina (for boat trips out to the reef), and a fine base from which to explore the Whitsunday coast and reefs. Décor is bright and breezy with a nautical influence, plus there’s an elegant poolside restaurant and cosy bar. B&B doubles are from £81. Website: coralsearesort.com

Orange-lined triggerfish on the Great Barrier Reef

Hamilton Island

The most developed of the Queensland coast islands, Hamilton has its own airport (Great Barrier Reef Airport, with flights from Sydney, Cairns and others) and an 18-hole golf course. In the Marina Village, there’s a yacht club, a nightclub, and numerous bars and restaurants. Several resorts occupy the island, with the uber-luxurious Qualia the most expensive at about £500 a night B&B, with warmly furnished ‘pavilions’, private infinity pools and all the trimmings. Or the 20-story Reef View Hotel is great for families and right by the marina, with rooms from £378 a night for a family of four. Website: hamiltonisland.com.au

Heron Island

The family-friendly vibe at this no-nonsense 109-room resort is tremendous. Semi-submersible rides leave from the jetty and there’s a Junior Rangers programme that includes themed walks, presentations and snorkelling lessons – all led by enthusiastic staff. Dive rates are affordable too, from about £40. B&B family rooms sleeping four are from £160 per night and the two-hour ferry from Gladstone is £57pp return. Website: heronisland.com

Lady Elliot

This resort is the most southerly of the island hotels – a modest 225-mile drive north of Brisbane. The 41 rooms are basic and fan-cooled, and there is a small swimming pool. Staff are passionate environmentalists and expert at explaining all about the spectacular marine life around the island. Twin eco cabins from £162 per night half board, and light aircraft flights from Bundaberg are £136pp return. Website: ladyelliot.com.au


For more information or to book your dream trip to the Great Barrier Reef, call Tropical Australia on 01342 886839 and quote “Radio Times”


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Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough begins on Wednesday 30th December on BBC1 at 9pm 

Read more: David Attenborough on the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef – and his record-breaking submarine dive