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Lizard Island: Extreme luxury on the Great Barrier Reef

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On the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef sits a small island populated largely by long-tailed reptiles. It’s named – perhaps unsurprisingly – Lizard Island and is home to a research centre, a fairly sizeable turtle population and one of the most luxurious retreats in Australia, Lizard Island Resort.

Over the past decade, Australia has begun to make a name for itself in the realm of luxury travel. Sumptuous properties have sprung up around the country, including Saffire in Tasmania and Qualia on Hamilton Island in Queensland, but until relatively recently, many resorts relied on their setting as much as the quality of their hospitality, food and experiences to entice travellers.

This is not the case on Lizard Island, though. Indeed, the luxe experience begins before you even set foot on the palm-fringed property…

Arriving in style

While the island is accessible by boat, the fastest transfers come via twice-daily flights, with the hour-long trip from Cairns offering a perfect view of the Great Barrier Reef’s opalescent waters dotted with colourful cays, ultimately giving way to Lizard Island itself, sitting proud above the reef.

“You won’t see sharks from this height,” says our pilot, James, “but in the right season, you can see whales from up here.”

On arrival, we are transferred by golf buggy to the resort’s main pavilion, where an afternoon tea of exotic fruits, dainty ambrosial sandwiches and sparkling wine await. The view is strikingly picturesque, while tiny skink lizards bring nature up close as they scurry across the decks.

A long-tail history

Lizard Island was known as Dyiigurra to the Dingaal Aboriginal people who hunted in the region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Captain Cook. The famed English explorer and colonist landed on the island in 1778, planning to scale its uppermost peak in an attempt to navigate his ship through the treacherous waters of the reef. Noting the preponderance of lizards, Cook gave the island a new name. 

Two hundred years later, the exclusive site, which has just 40 suites and villas, is the resort of choice for Aussie actors such as Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. It’s not hard to see why – the main lodge is perched on a perfect powder-white sandy beach, crested on each side by rugged rocky outcrops. Suites sit along the edge of the beach, set back from a line of trees to offer a little seclusion. 

After the delicious tea, we make our way to our room, a tasteful spectrum of cool greys and whites, take a beer from the complimentary mini-bar and head straight down to the beach.

Two other guests are lying on recliners in the distance. This proves to be as crowded as the beach ever gets during our entire stay on Lizard Island. But we aren’t here for lounging around – the gently lapping waves are calling to us.

Under the sea

On the western end of the main beach is the resort’s beach club, where we pick up flippers, snorkelling gear and stinger suits (jellyfish come to the Great Barrier Reef between November and February). You can also arrange scuba diving, boat hire, fishing trips or the loan of a glass-bottomed kayak. 

A short boat ride away sits Cod Hole dive site on Ribbon Reef 10, where Lizard Island’s eponymous gentle giants wallow, offering a fascinating if slightly disconcerting diving experience.

Even more impressive, though, is the marine life that can be found immediately off the resort’s main beach. As we dive in to the water, long thin trumpet fish drift with the currents, pointing the way to huge banks of coral, which house gaudily coloured soldierfish, chilled-out triggerfish, tiny striped cardinal fish and everyone’s favourite stars of Finding Nemo, clown fish.

On top of this, you will almost certainly see stingrays – we saw two during our stay – plus anemones, giant clams and, brilliantly, turtles. On our final day, one sailed serenely past our goggles and out to sea.

Serious luxury

As well as access to the natural wonder of the Great Barrier Reef, Lizard Island Resort also provides some very serious pampering courtesy of its Essentia Day Spa. Alongside an array of treatments, the spa also offers the ultimate in pampering – the Hibiscus Beach Massage: a full body massage on a private beach with just you, your masseuse and the sound of the wind and the occasional bird call, followed, naturally, by a picnic lunch and champagne. Because why not?

The ultimate picnic

We also hired one of the small boats available to guests and, with a picnic prepared that morning by the resort’s chefs, sailed off to one of the 24 beaches that encircle the island.

There we enjoyed lunch surrounded by clear blue water, while a shoal of fish found a welcoming shade beneath our dingy. The only sound was the lapping of the water against the hull as we tucked into giant prawns, fresh sushi, chicken skewers and ice-cold sparkling wine.

Food with a view

From the UK, the trip to Lizard Island involves a 24-hour flight, an internal transfer and then a small plane ride to the resort itself – a 36-hour door-to-door trip that is worth it for the resort’s breakfast alone. The meal we were served on our first morning – poached egg with sweet baby tomatoes, cod roe, smashed avocado and sweetcorn fritters – easily made into my list of top five breakfasts anywhere in the world.

Dinner, which is also complimentary, is the work of head chef Mark Jensen, whose menus combine his love of Australian ingredients with a broad palette of Asian and Mediterranean flavours.

One particularly memorable night saw us enjoy Tasmanian oyster served with soy pearls and mirin, followed by unctuous sticky pork bao buns, before I had Junee lamb loin with a rosemary jus while my partner opted for seared coral trout with caramelised cauliflower and flourettes. Each course was expertly cooked and beautifully presented.

Another night’s delights featured an Italian menu beginning with a perfectly executed fettuccine marinara starring giant king prawns and followed by slow-roasted lamb shoulder with soft polenta and cannellini beans. 

There was only one downside to our trip to Lizard Island – after we left, the outside world seemed dull in comparison. Nothing could match the Technicolor spectrum of marine life playing in the coral and there was no masseuse on hand all hours, no correctly matched wine to accompany our meals, and no reptilian guard of honour darting out of our way as we pass. 

It is a downside I will happily suffer again for this taste of paradise.

Portfolio travelled to the Cairns & Great Barrier Reef in Queensland with Tourism and Events Queensland (queensland.com).

Lizard Island (lizardisland.com.au) offers island accommodation starting from £1,100 per night for a Gardenview Room, sleeping two people. Price includes a range of island activities, all meals and selected alcoholic drinks.

Business Class flights to Australia with Emirates (emirates.com/uk) cost £3,545. 

Transfers to Lizard Island with East Air (eastair.net.au) cost £405 per person return.

If you are diving, InsureandGo (insureandgo.com) offers single trip insurance from £15 for scuba up to 98ft (30m), or an extra £20 for up to 164ft (50m) for 15 days.

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