Louise Southerden finds Lizard Island an ideal base from which to explore the Great Barrier Reef's northern waters.
Flying north of Cairns, the reefs below look like jigsaw pieces scattered on a turquoise tablecloth. Or a map of another world, in miniature, made up of coral continents and lagoon oceans. There are islands, too, uninhabited and hemmed on their southern edges by breakers of lace generated by the prevailing winds.
It's a short drive from the gravel airstrip to Lizard Island Resort, where the other new guests and I check in while reclining on cushioned benches, sipping champagne and snacking on fruit, chocolate dipping sauce and smoked salmon rolls. It could be a dream (perhaps I've fallen asleep at my desk, mid-deadline) until a seagull swoops in, grabs one of my salmon rolls, devours it whole and wakes me up.
"Shoo!" says general manager Robyn Pontynen, who has just wandered over to welcome us. It's a quintessential Lizard Island moment, reminding us of the resort's main natural attraction: it's on an island that's a national park surrounded by a marine park on the Great Barrier Reef.
I'm staying in one of the Anchor Bay suites, which seem modest, they could be mistaken for semi-detached beach houses from the outside. Inside, they're all style, space and sea colours. Large glass doors open to a wide timber verandah and a day bed with cushions candy-striped in turquoises and deep-sea blues. Beyond is a sandy track to the beach. There are thoughtful touches, too: a jar of chef-baked biscuits, calming music, an aromatherapy oil burner and a nightly turn-down service that includes a cup of jasmine, lavender and rose-petal T2 tea.
Of course, being an island resort, there's a spa, a pool and excellent meals. But it's the great outdoors, and the numerous ways to enjoy it, that proves irresistible. There is twilight snorkeling, sunset cruises, night dives, star-gazing sessions and six motorised dinghies guests can use to explore the island's 24 beaches (gourmet picnic hampers to take with you are included in your room rate).
On my first morning, the sea is too rough to take a dinghy out, so I join a half-day snorkelling trip to Mermaid Cove and see giant clams, butterfly fish and blue sea stars draped over staghorn coral. Later, I see many of the same creatures on a low-tide reef walk as our guide leads us carefully through a maze of coral, keeping to the sandy bits - much as Captain James Cook did in his ship, the Endeavour, in 1770. It was Cook who named Lizard Island after the monitor lizards he saw when he brought Endeavour into one of the island's protected coves for repairs (it had struck a reef offshore).
The island's highest point now bears his name; on climbing Cook's Look, 359 metres above sea level, he saw an answer to the riddle of coral that had trapped his ship. It's a steep, 2½-hour walk to the summit, but there are less strenuous walks; it's a pleasant change to be on a tropical island you can't circumnavigate in five minutes.
Back at the resort, the guests I encounter seem supremely friendly and relaxed, perhaps because Lizard Island Resort is small (there are only 40 suites and villas), unpretentious (it's less luxury resort, more tranquil retreat) and relatively isolated, which makes you feel as if you are somewhere special.
The island's specialness isn't lost on its other occupant, either, Lizard Island Research Station, which offers tours twice a week for resort guests.
One of the world's leading coral reef research stations, it was set up in 1973 to provide a counterpoint to research being gathered at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef (at Heron Island Research Station, for instance). In those days, researchers stayed in tents, says Dr Lyle Vail, who shows me around. He and his wife, Dr Anne Hoggett, both marine biologists, have lived at the research station for more than 20 years - even raising their son here, who is also a marine biologist - first as researchers, now managing the 350 students and scientists who visit from around the world every year.
What makes the research station so highly regarded is the island's location: at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, 27 kilometres from the mainland and 19 kilometres (less than an hour by boat) from the outer reefs on the edge of the continental shelf and world-famous dive and snorkelling spots such as the Cod Hole.
To make it even more inviting, the research station's state-of-the-art facilities were upgraded with the completion of a seven-year, $4.75 million refurbishment last year.
A new solar array has already reduced CO2 emissions from power generation by about 65 per cent - which is apt, given that the research station exists to study coral reefs, which are increasingly being degraded by ocean acidification and a steadily warming ocean caused by rising levels of atmospheric CO2.
With the Australian Museum estimating that 10 per cent of the world's reef systems are damaged beyond repair and another 70 per cent are threatened, Lizard Island looks like being a special place for a long time - both in providing data to inform decisions about how our oceans are managed, and as a place to enjoy the increasingly rare wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.
Getting there Lizard Island is 240 kilometres north of Cairns and 27 kilometres off the coast of Queensland. Virgin Australia and Qantas fly daily to Cairns. Hinterland Aviation flies from Cairns to Lizard Island (1hr); return flights cost $590 and can be arranged by Lizard Island Resort. Phone 1300 863 248, see lizardisland.com.au.
Staying there Lizard Island Resort has rooms and suites from $1444 a night, including all meals, wine, cocktails and gourmet picnic hampers. There's a "stay for five, pay for four nights" special for stays until March 31.
More information queenslandholidays.com.au; australianmuseum.net.au/Lizard-Island-Research-Station.