Sick of Sydney? Visit These Islands on the Great Barrier Reef (Photos)

The big cities of Australia’s Gold Coast may be tempting, but they’re also crowded. Avoid the same old tourist destinations and try the islands on the Great Barrier Reef instead.

Robin Smith/Getty

Robin Smith/Getty

For many visitors to Australia, vacation simply ends at the Gold Coast, if they even get that far. While the big cities offer the tempting attractions of fine dining, shopping, and maybe a walk along the beach, the country’s real showstopper is north of the New South Wales border. For those over Melbourne, tired of Adelaide, and sick of Sydney, the best way to see more of the Land Down Under is to experience the Great Barrier Reef on one of these five islands.

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Heron Island

For travelers who need to take baby steps to leave the more conventional Gold Coast, Heron Island is the perfect solution. As the most southern island on the Great Barrier Reef, Heron is famous for its diving and turtle nesting. Every year from November to March the Heron Island Resort holds a Turtle Season Escape, where guests can visit the island for three days and watch baby turtles hatch and scamper down the beach to the clear, tropical water. If baby turtles aren’t wild enough for you, diving and snorkeling are generally possible year-round, barring cyclones. The island is accessible via helicopter or ferry from the nearest port in Gladstone, a one-hour flight from Brisbane.


Bedarra Island

Located halfway up the Queensland coast, Bedarra Island looks like a movie set. It has the azure blue water of the Seychelles, the dramatic landscape of Hawaii, and all the luxury of St. Barth’s. With no shortage of infinity pools, alfresco dining, and hidden coves, the Bedarra Island Resort does not disappoint. But to spend some time in this paradise, you’ll have to book in advance, as the island’s boutique resort only has seven rooms and a 14-guest capacity. Bederra is accessible by heli-transfer from the city Cairns, a two-hour flight from Brisbane.

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Hamilton Island

The Qualia Resort on Hamilton Island is the go-to spot for an active adventure. Guests can swim with sea turtles, play with dolphins, and discover hundred-year-old coral formations. As the most eastern island in the Whitsunday group, it is also hosts plenty of sailing and boating. If you pull a muscle kayaking or simply get tired of looking at the white sand beaches and untouched rainforest, the resort also has a luxury spa and award-winning chef, Alastair Waddell, to keep you entertained. Qualia Resort and the other resorts on Hamilton Island are accessible by air from most major cities in Australia and by ferry from Shute Harbor or Airlie Beach.


Editor's Note: This slide has been updated to reflect that Hamilton Beach is accessible via ferry from the mainland or by air from major cities such as Cairns.

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Lizard Island

First put on the map by explorer Captain Cook in 1770, Lizard Island and its namesake resort are now a must-stop for foodies. Visitors can take their pick of the miles of uninterrupted beaches—or better yet, rent a boat and cruise to a remote key—for a gourmet picnic lunch provided by the restaurant. The island offers similar water activities (snorkeling, diving, and sailing) as others in the area, but also provides golf, hiking, and some pretty good fishing. If you’re lucky enough to land a marlin, chef Mark Jensen will prepare and grill your catch. If seafood isn’t your style, a seven-course, Sunset Beach Degustation dinner on the beach may be a better fit. Lizard Island is accessible via air charter from Cairns.

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Hayman Island

Hayman Island is the most northern of the Whitsunday Islands and also the most awarded. Touted as the luxury honeymoon destination in the Great Barrier Reef, the island’s premiere resort, the One&Only Hayman is currently undergoing renovations and will reopen on April 1st 2014. Despite the lagoon, swimming pools, cabanas, spa, and seven gourmet restaurants, Hayman’s main attraction is still the Great Barrier Reef. Offering a full spectrum of reef experiences—from private diving charters and group snorkeling expeditions to seaplane and helicopter tours—guests can get as close to the marine life as they would like. The island also offers on-site PADI dive certifications, in case there wasn’t enough time to get licensed before vacation. Private air and yacht transfers leave daily from Cairns.