Frolicking on the Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Australia
I must apologize in advance to the Aussies who asked me not to tell folks back home about Lady Elliot. My favorite spot on the Great Barrier Reef is its southern-most coral cay, Lady Elliot Island, which is reached by small Seair Pacific planes from Bundaberg or Hervey Bay. A trip here is an experience you’ll never forget. The atmosphere here is ultra laid back. Lodging ranges from permanent tents (Eco Huts) with wooden floors to small cabins. No spa. No gourmet food. No nightly entertainment. It’s all about diving, snorkeling, marine life, and the beach in this part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Lady Elliot is just one of more than 20 island resorts on the Great Barrier Reef. (Others are far more posh.) Visitors come here to keep things simple. What better way to commune with some of the most beautiful scenery and animals on the planet? Half the thrill of coming here is the knowledge that you’re having a unique experience, the other half is the exhilaration you’ll feel when encountering all that Lady Elliot has to offer.
At Lady Elliot Island, you can walk off the shore to dive and snorkel, or take a boat to sites close by. Scratch the back of a green turtle, see giant clams and reef sharks parade around coral gardens, or put your head under water and hear the call of a humpback whale. Visit the site called Anchor Bommies and see giant manta rays swimming by colorful soft and hard coral. Here you can spend all day snorkeling and diving at numerous sites where you never go below 9m (30 ft.). And, unlike up north, you won’t encounter stingers (jellyfish). Visit this island between November and January and you’ll see nesting green and loggerhead turtles just feet from your door. Hatchlings emerge in February and March. The humpback whales migrate between June and October.
If you can swing it, get to the Cod Hole on the Great Barrier Reef in June and July. You can dive and see huge Potato Cod (they’re quite comfortable around divers), and you’ll have the opportunity to snorkel with the dwarf minke whales that frequent the area during those months. Ideally, yours would be a multi-day trip to this part of the reef. But if you can’t swing that, there are plenty of places elsewhere on the reef to maximize whatever amount of time you have here. The Great Barrier Reef is without question one of the great dive and snorkeling locations in the world. It’s also the largest, covering more than 344,470 sq. km (133,000 sq. miles) and stretching almost 2,500km (1,600 miles) along the Northeast coast of Australia. In the north there are numerous cities along the Queensland coast from which you can take a day trip to the reef. Northern tourism is centered in the Whitsunday Islands and Cairns, where there are hundreds of resorts and hotels and opportunities to make day trips. (See for more on yachting in the Whitsunday Islands.) From Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef can be reached in approximately an hour by boat, and more than 300 boats depart from Cairns daily for various types of reef trips. Special dive locations, such as the Cod Hole and Ribbon reefs take longer and are better suited for multi-day trips on a live-aboard.
Lady Elliott Island Eco Resort, Runaway Bay ( 61/7/5536-3644; www.ladyelliot.com.au). Cairns Tourism, 27–29 Wharf St. ( 1300/554-636 within Australia or 617 4040 2111; www.cairns.aust.com). Whitsunday Tourism ( 1300-717-407; www.whitsundaytourism.com).
When to Go: Mar–Nov.
Cairns Airport, Whitsunday Airport, Bundaberg Airport, and Hevery Bay Airport.
$$ Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, Runaway Bay ( 61/7/5536-3644; www.ladyelliot.com.au). Contact them far in advance as lodging and the number of visitors is limited. In Cairns: $–$$ 201 Lake Street Apartments ( 61/7/5630-6637; www.201lakestreetapartments.com.au).