The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s best-known natural wonder – a vast string of coral shallows off Queensland’s Pacific coast, running 1,600 miles from Cairns to Brisbane. The mind-boggling expanse is matched by magnificent marine life and stupendous coral gardens, as well as beautiful beaches and low-key resorts.
Its fragile ecosystem is threatened by man and by climate change, which partly explains why David Attenborough chose to return to it in his latest series. The reef has suffered coral bleaching, infestations from crown-of-thorns starfish and damage from pollutants.
Tourism to the region began in the 1930s when a few groups were escorted out from Cairns for “turtle riding”. Today, rigid guidelines ensure that tourists keep their distance but, since Attenborough made his first trip for his BBC series Zoo Quest in 1957, the boom in long-haul travel, fast sailing vessels and the proliferation of helicopters and light aircraft have seen visitor numbers soar to two million annually.
Top 10 Great Barrier Reef resorts
The Great Barrier Reef is made up of thousands of reefs that form a narrow loop that’s about the length of Italy. Choosing where to stay is the tricky part, but the reef comes to within ten miles of shore in the north, before veering up to 100 miles out to sea further south. Fast boats and helicopters mean getting out to the coral is easy enough from gateway towns Cairns and Port Douglas in the north, Townsville and Airlie Beach in the middle, and Gladstone in the south.
On my first trip in 2012, I took the 30-minute helicopter journey to the resort of Heron Island from Gladstone airport, 287 miles north of Brisbane. It’s a wooded 40-acre island, with 109 rooms connected by sandy paths. There’s super snorkelling and diving, and semi-submersibles run here. It feels like a Disney ride, but the sharks, turtles, and coloured fish are real enough – as are the excited shrieks from children spying orange and white clown fish, as though they’ve just found Nemo.
You can do the reef on a budget by day-tripping out to a floating platform. I boarded a catamaran in Cairns for the 90-minute journey, then snorkelled and rode in a glass-bottomed boat. A turn on a bright yellow “submarine scooter” Scuba Doo was also an option.
David Attenborough in the Triton submersible with sub-pilot Mark ‘Buck’ Taylor
If you crave coral gardens right off your luxury suite, then you’ll need to splash out on an upmarket island resort. I stayed four nights on Orpheus Island and was very reluctant to leave. Here, dives on the reef were made from a motor launch rather than a pontoon.
The 74 islands of the Whitsunday group are about halfway between Cairns and Brisbane and 40 miles from the outer reef. They’re famous for yachting and the relatively developed resort island called Hamilton. Cruise Whitsundays boats leave here for the ReefWorld pontoon – a viewing and diving platform. It’s where I enjoyed a unique reef experience called a Reef Sleep.
Up to nine guests a night are allowed to sleepover. I swam and snorkelled, watched the sunset and ate a marvellous meal of seafood chowder and steak, before bedding down in an Aussie “swag” – a canvas sleeping bag, in this case with a mattress, crisp sheets and fluffy pillows.
RT Travel Offer: cruise taking in the Great Barrier Reef, the Sydney Opera House and much more
Helicoptering to the outer reef is big with the Whitsundays’ jet set, and the most wildly popular patch of reef to fly over is Heart Reef. I cooed along with the honeymooners when the extraordinary heart-shaped coral came into view.
Most southerly of the reef resorts is Lady Elliot Island, which is reached by light aircraft from the mainland town of Bundaberg. It has the feel of a research institute, though with a buffet restaurant and tiny pool. Soon after landing, I was treated to a hearty dinner of lamb stew, then invited to go turtle watching. Before long I was lying in the warm sand to watch a female turtle digging her egg chamber.