Bedarra Island Resort, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland © Tourism and Events Queensland
Secret islands of the Great Barrier Reef
Away from the Great Barrier Reef's better-known getaways are uninhabited lush islands, small coral cays and resorts where you can have a whole island to yourself.
By Paul Chai & Amy Fraser
There are many islands to explore in the Great Barrier Reef: wild, natural cays teeming with birdlife, private islands surrounded by shipwrecks and islands so undiscovered it can feel like you are a real castaway. Whether you want to camp, day trip or kick back at a resort, we've found the best island secrets on the Great Barrier Reef.
Lizard Island is a natural paradise with 24 white sand beaches and a hidden lagoon, all of which can be explored from Australia's northernmost island resort. The island takes its name from the wild goannas (local lizards) that roam its 1,000-hectare (2500-acre) national park. There are also tropical birds and a sea full of marine life. Secluded amid palm trees, Lizard Island Resort allows guests to enjoy the island with sunset picnics on private beaches before returning to one of 40 luxe suites.
Long Island, the most secluded island in the Whitsundays, is a barefoot paradise home to two charming resorts, Elysian Retreat and Palm Bay Resort. At the chic Elysian Retreat, you'll arrive via helicopter before checking into your beautifully decorated bohemian chic cabin, perched just footsteps away from the reef. First up on the menu is a dip in the resort’s magnesium pool, followed by organic spa treatments, aquatic reef experiences and locally sourced fare to fuel your relaxation.
- How to experience it: take a 20-minute scenic helicopter flight from Hamilton Island or Cairns.
A private island in the north of the Great Barrier Reef is home to a self-sustaining luxury eco resort and plenty of island trails to explore. The surrounding waters contain shipwrecks, World War II artefacts and the stunning marine life for which the reef is famous. Haggerstone Island Resort keeps its guest numbers low, often below 10, and visitors stay in a collection of high-end huts clustered around the main house, a communal structure made of driftwood, timber and grass roofing from Bali.
- How to experience it: book a two-hour private charter flight from Cairns or Weipa.
The exclusive private island retreat, Orpheus Island Resort, accommodates just 28 people. Guests arrive via helicopter to a warm welcome and some of the most amazing fringing reef diving on the reef. Thousands of tropical fish species make their home just steps from where you sleep. You can explore the area by taking one of the island's small boats, and a packed lunch, to one of the many secluded bays. Accommodation includes beachfront villas decorated in natural tones with private terraces looking onto the Coral Sea.
- How to experience it: take a 30-minute private helicopter flight from Townsville.
Float around in the Coral Sea with just humpback whales for company, indulge in a spot of beach yoga, or watch the sun set along the Capricorn Coast in north Queensland. There are just seven cabins at the self-catering Pumpkin Island Eco Resort, some of which come with their own private beach. This is one Great Barrier Reef island you can book out and have exclusively with family and friends.
- How to experience it: take the 30-minute Pumpkin Island ferry from Yeppoon's Keppel Bay Marina, or book a scenic helicopter flight from Rockhampton Airport.
Lady Musgrave Island
A beautiful island reserve, with a protected lagoon as its heart, Lady Musgrave Island makes for the ultimate day trip. This is an island for bird watchers: more than 70 per cent of the reef’s birdlife resides in the Capricorn Bunker Group of islands, of which Musgrave is a part. You can also dive with giant clams, tropical fish and sea turtles.
- How to experience it: Lady Musgrave Island can be explored by day trip from Bundaberg, a four-hour drive north of Brisbane.
North West Island
Year-round camping draws the adventurous to North West Island, the closest you will come to feeling like a true island castaway, with just some canvas between you and the wonders of the reef. The largest coral cay in the region, North West Island is part of the Capricornia Cays National Park and offers campers tropical forest walks, nesting sea birds and all the diving you could ask for.
- How to experience it: North West Island can be accessed via private boat or ferry from Gladstone. You can visit on a day trip or camping permits are available for overnight experiences.
The remote beauty of Bedarra makes it one of the best examples of luxury island stays on the reef. Bedarra offers just nine villas that are hidden away in 45 hectares (110 acres) of tropical rainforest and beautifully appointed with private plunge pools, enormous viewing decks overlooking the ocean and indoor-outdoor bathrooms. This all-inclusive resort has all you could dream of on-site but also organises charters to take guests onto the reef for snorkelling or diving trips.
- How to experience it: take a scenic flight from Mission Beach or Cairns, or a 30-minute boat transfer from Mission Beach.
Time seems to stand still on some islands in the Great Barrier Reef, and that's certainly the case on Frankland Islands. The islands are entirely uninhabited, covered in lush vegetation and surrounded by rich coral reefs. When you arrive, you can snorkel straight from the beach to view colourful coral reefs and a variety of tropical fish. Follow turtles as they glide through the water and, if the season is right, you might even spot a manta ray or whale.
- How to experience it: you can visit the Frankland Islands on a day tour with Frankland Islands Reef Cruises, which begins and ends with a cruise down the forest-lined Mulgrave River.
If you’ve ever dreamt of holidaying on your own private island, here is your opportunity. Camp Island Lodge is located on the second most northerly island in the Whitsundays and only three kilometres (1.9 miles) from Abbot Bay. The private resort accommodates up to eight guests and is yours to do as you please, be it water sports, fishing, a game of tennis or, better yet, call on the private chef to cook up a feast of local produce.
- How to experience it: Camp Island Lodge offers complimentary 20-minute boat transfers from Elliott River in Guthalungra (a two-hour drive from Townsville Airport). Private boat, seaplane and helicopter transfers can also be arranged.