Beyond beingjust another destination, the Great Barrier Reef is also the largest living organism on earth: a 2,300-kilometer-long subaqueous maze of coral gardens, more spectacular than a bursting supernova, encircled by highways of brightly colored fish. When BarackObama visited Australia for the G20 summit last November, he lamented that he didn’t have time to see it. A few days earlier. Sir David Attenborough had flown in to film a new 3-D documentary series for the BBC, describing it as the most magical thing he’s ever seen. But the Great Barrier Reef is in peril. Climate change and coastal development have created an environmental double-whammy, with unesco now threatening to declassify it as a World Heritage site unless radical new management practices are put in place. Adding to the cringe-factor are plans to build an A$8 billion mega-resort and casino for Chinese gamblers on the mainland north of Cairns.
There is every reason to hope Australia—a nation whose very identity is of the coast and of the sea—will rise to the challenge and protect this incomparable ecological marvel. Still, travelers should not tarry in 2015, for the stories and photographs one takes back home will contribute to the global movement to save the Great Barrier Reef. The biggest news for 2014 was the July opening of the One & Only Hayman Island. Set in the geographic heart of the reef, this beautifully sybaritic whole-of-island retreat leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of luxury. Stay in a one-bedroom suite with swim-out access to Australia’s largest pool or in lavish beach villas. There are seven restaurants and bars, the best of which is Fire, a haute cuisine interpretation of surf ‘n’ turf.
Lush Lizard Island, the northern-most resort on the reef, is reopening in April after a 12-month renovation. The island, a national park covering 1,013 hectares with 24 sandy beaches and a lagoon, is back to its awe-inducing natural glory, following the mayhem of Cyclone Ita’s impact last spring, and rooms in the resort are rumored to be better than ever. Travelers looking for a tried and true hotspot should head to Hamilton Island (hamiltonisIand.com.au), the most popular holiday destination on the reef. In the third week of August, it hosts Audi Hamilton Island Race Week (ham iltonislandraceweek.com. au), a fixture of the international sailing calendar with a convivial on-shore program combining fashion events, food markets, cocktail parties and yoga on the beach. Later this year (dates to be confirmed), the Australian Ballet returns to Hamilton for its annual Pas de Deux in Paradise, a water’s edge performance and black-tie dinner held at Qualia Hamilton’s small luxury resort.
Crowd shy? Demure Orpheus Island National Park offers secluded bays and beaches, fringing coral and a giant clam nursery populated by mollusks weighing up to 200 kilograms. Orpheus is one of the few islands on the reef where camping is permitted (nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks; sites A$5-75 per person per night). Orpheus is also the name of the island’s laid-back luxury lodge—14 rooms and an alfresco-style restaurant laid along a serene ribbon of sugar-white sand. The kitchen sources fresh produce from the resort’s veggie patch and from daily fishing expeditions in waters exploding with dogtooth tuna, Spanish mackerel and coral trout.
Near the northern tip of Australia, Haggerstone Island offers a bone-deep sense of quiet. Accessible only by private charter from Cairns, the island’s resort is a small collection of palm-thatch beach huts and tree houses hand-crafted by the Turner family, who’ve lived on Haggerstone for 20 years. Yet it’s the hundreds of kilometers of virtually untouched lagoons, reefs and open ocean the island’s guests can explore by speedboat or helicopter that make Haggerstone so special.
In the deep south of the reef, the facilities at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort are unpretentious but the ecosystem is among the most ostentatious on the planet. A sanctuary for more than 1,200 species of marine life, the surrounding waters have an abundance of manta rays, turtles, dolphins and migratory whales. “Lady Elliot is the best of the reef because you are living and breathing nature,” says British author Ben Southall. “The birds are on your doorstep, it’s mostly solar powered and you can walk straight fromyour room into a brilliant coral cay set right on the edge of a continental shelf and go snorkeling with giant manta rays.”