Away from Australia's better-known island getaways are small coral cays where you can swim with manta rays, and resorts where you can have a whole island to yourself.
By Paul Chai
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.
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.
Heron Island is a coral cay where marine turtles come to nest and is home to myriad sea birds, all of which you can learn about at the island's information centre. The Heron Island Resort is a chance to disconnect from daily life. There are no televisions, just plenty of cane daybeds and an open-plan design, so you can watch the live wildlife documentary going on at your doorstep.
Guests arrive at Orpheus Island Resort 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.
Home to a turtle rehabilitation centre, wild mangroves and clear waters, Fitzroy Island is conveniently located off the coast of Cairns, just a 45-minute ferry from the mainland. The Fitzroy Island Resort is a family-friendly getaway with apartments and beach cabins, or you can camp at one of the island's campsites, making it a popular destinations for local Queenslanders.
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.
Lady Musgrave Island
A beautiful island reserve, with a protected lagoon as its heart, Lady Musgrave Island can be explored by day trip from Bundaberg, a four-hour drive north of Brisbane. 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.
Lady Elliot Island
Swimming with manta rays is the big drawcard at Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort, the southernmost coral cay in the Great Barrier Reef, just off the coast from the town of Bundaberg. At this low-key resort the focus is on the natural surrounds. There's excellent visibility in the water and the chance of seeing turtle hatchlings digging their way out of the sand and making their way to the sea (February to May).
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.
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. 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. 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. To dive even deeper, opt for a scuba dive and explore the underwater world. If you'd rather stay dry, you can view the diverse coral from the comfort of the semi-submersible or glass-bottom boat while the crew talks you through the amazing ecosystem you see below. The tour also includes a tropical buffet lunch as well as morning and afternoon snacks.