Great Barrier Reef Hotels
Tel: 61 74 055 3000
Part of the prestigious Banyan Tree chain, this romantic beach resort ten miles north of Cairns is big with honeymooners. This isn't the place to bring a boisterous group; most guests are intent on being couple-y. Those wanting extra privacy can book the lavish Angsana Suite, with its private deck, barbecue, and pool—but the other 66 Asian-colonial-style suites are all plenty idyllic, with gargantuan lounges, wooden shutters, and wide balconies overlooking the three saltwater swimming pools. At the Far Horizons beachside restaurant, the food's elegant but the mood's relaxed—and there's a palm-shaded bar for canoodling over preprandial beers or cocktails. The spa, with its alfresco pavilions and couples' treatment areas, is staffed by gentle Thai therapists on rotation from Banyan Tree Phuket. (Massages are more relaxing than therapeutic, unless you request extra-firm pressure.) Love-bunnies who actually feel like leaving the property can book scenic flights, cruises, dive trips, or day trips to the chic shopping mecca of Palm Cove.
Cape Tribulation Road
Tel: 61 74 098 0033
Sandwiched between the Daintree Rainforest and the Barrier Reef, this eco-lodge—if you can call the sprawl of bungalows and tree houses, tangled rain-forest scrub, paved paths, and pools a lodge—is ideal for exploring both the bush and the reef. The menu of eco-friendly activities here includes horseback riding, sea-kayaking, crocodile cruises, and diving and snorkeling. Best of all, though, are the naturalist-guided mangrove and rain forest walks (the night walk at nearby Cooper Creek Wilderness, where guests can spot possums, iridescent insects, and sleeping birds, shouldn't be missed). Less strenuous pursuits, like downing tropical cocktails, and lazing on the beach or around one of the two pools, are also popular. The downside: You'll need street smarts and sensible shoes to get from your guestroom to the resort's beachside restaurant and bar, on the far side of a well-trafficked highway. Once there, however, you can dine on Mod-Oz delicacies such as barramundi, kangaroo, and crocodile. The resort's 66 air-conditioned poolside rooms are furnished with Zen-like minimalism, and have rain forest views even from the bathtubs. The 39 Rainforest Retreat tree house rooms, though similarly calming, are fan-cooled.
20 Daintree Road
Tel: 61 74 098 6100
Celebrities including Jane Fonda, Brooke Shields, and Paul Simon have unwound near-incognito at this intimate eco-lodge, on the fringe of the world's oldest rain forest. Owners Cathy and Terry Malone make sure their guests connect with the environment; many of their staff members are from Aboriginal groups indigenous to the region, and the property's 15 tree-house lodgings are set among trees and connected by elevated boardwalks. Each is outfitted with handcrafted wood furnishings, a king-size canopy bed, satellite TV, and personal touches such as traditional handmade "dilly bags" (woven from pounded tree bark); the five Spa Villas have balcony spa tubs. Guests can dine on a deck beneath a tangled canopy of trees, on dishes incorporating berries and herbs harvested from the surrounding forest. The spa provides girls-only treatments at a nearby waterfall, considered a powerful women's healing spot by the local Kuku Yalangi people. Guests not content to soak up spa therapies and pure forest air can sign up for bush walks, wildlife-spotting, indigenous art workshops, and river cruises.
Tel: 61 74 058 4000
The Barrier Reef's priciest private playground, Double Island is just ten minutes by motorized dinghy from Palm Cove Jetty (about a half-hour north of Cairns)—but, as celebs like Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, and Charlize Theron know, it's a world unto itself. The entire 46-acre island must be booked at once, and since the value is better for larger groups, bringing friends is a good idea. Up to 40 people can stay in the ten exquisitely appointed garden rooms and ten spacious apartments, all of which have private terraces and abut the 80-foot lagoon pool. Guests get unlimited access to a beachside pavilion, fully stocked bar, air-conditioned gym, and indoor cinema with a 52-inch plasma-screen TV. The island's resident housekeeper, groundskeeper, barman, and renowned chef are on call 24/7, and the food is so superb that many guests do little more than gorge themselves and lounge about. Those who need action can commandeer boats, sailboards, or kayaks, or make use of fishing or snorkeling gear. And guests with special requests (like beachside massages or a guided helicopter trips), need only ask.
Tel: 61 74 940 1234
The grand dame of Whitsunday island resorts, Hayman has a 1:1 staff-to-guest ratio, and super-attentive service that sets it apart. That dessert you can't squeeze in at dinner? Have it delivered later to your suite. Want to work out at midnight, go for a private sail, or schedule an intimate surprise supper? No problem. Hayman has been a destination ever since the 1950s and '60s, and today the sprawling resort complex has every imaginable amenity: enormous, lagoonlike swimming pools; a golf driving range; tennis courts; a day spa; four excellent restaurants; and a fleet of gleaming boats ready to whisk guests off to remote beaches, dive sites, and snorkeling spots. The 212 guest rooms and suites are opulent, but though the top-priced penthouse villas all have ocean views, private plunge pools, and round-the-clock butler service, they're relatively small at 300 square feet.
Tel: 61 74 066 8270
Australia's largest island national park, 152-square-mile Hinchinbrook has rain forest-covered mountains, mangroves and wetlands, and 11 beautiful beaches, most accessible only by boat or walking track. At the island's northernmost tip, this eco-property comprises 22 boardwalk-linked tree houses and seven simple beachfront bungalows. Though protecting the environment's paramount here (the property generates its own power and water, and takes all garbage off-island), simple comforts abound. The spacious tree houses all have polished wood floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, fridges, fans, and balconies for stargazing and bird-watching. The spartan bathrooms show signs of wear and the water supply can be erratic, but folks who don't mind rusticity (and cheap rates) will find it a small price to pay. Guests can make use of the free canoes, and fishing and snorkeling gear, or take hikes to spot dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles, and tiger sharks from shore. There's a swimming pool and a bar that's open till midnight—but most guests forgo carousing in favor of reading, board games, and quiet conversation.
Tel: 61 3 9413 6288
The northernmost island resort on the Reef, Lizard lies 149 miles off the coastal city of Cairns. It's worth the hour-long flight, though—especially for divers. Some of the best-known dive sites in the world are nearby, including the famous Cod Hole (where visitors can hand-feed enormous, friendly potato cod). For those who'd rather stay semi-dry, snorkeling lessons and equipment, glass-bottom boat trips, and the use of motorized dinghies are all complimentary here. And guests who want to keep soaking in sea minerals even on land can visit the excellent Pavilion Spa, where marine ingredients are used in many of the treatments. The 40 villas are simply furnished, with gleaming wood floors and private verandas with hammocks. (For complete privacy, stay in the Pavilion; it has its own plunge pool.) The meals are stupendous, with plenty of fresh fish and tropical fruit—and they're all included in the rate.
Tel: 61 74 777 7377
No room phones or TVs, no day-tripping visitors, and no kids under 15 mean that Orpheus, in the Palm Island group, is a haven for quiet types. The resort, on the western coast of the seven-mile-long island, accommodates just 42 people in 21 rooms and suites, all of which have cool tile floors, basic wood and rattan furnishings, muted color schemes, and private patios for enjoying the ocean view. The four Nautilus suites take it up a notch, with expansive lounges and double spa tubs (two have outdoor showers). Rates include all activities and equipment (including catamarans, motorized dinghies, and fishing and snorkeling gear), and—best of all—meals. The restaurant here has its own following, and justifiably: Your dinner entrée might be baked redclaw (a kind of small crayfish) with a Malay citrus and mango chutney—just one of seven elegant courses. The kitchen staff will also pack lunch for guided nature walks or picnics on the beach.
Tel: 61 74 946 9777
Just a dozen people at a time can stay at this rustic, comfy little eco-lodge, which offers the same seclusion as others in the Whitsunday Islands—minus the showiness. Low-key is the watchword here; the ten waterfront bungalows, which overlook Paradise Bay at the island's southern tip, are basic, solar-powered, and fan-cooled, and there are no phones, TVs, data ports, or children under 12. Instead, there's a common gazebo dining area where guests gather for meals (solo travelers are made especially welcome here—there's no extra charge for single occupancy), and a friendly staff that will point you toward the best hiking, kayaking, and wildlife-viewing spots. The lodge also has its own 34-foot sailboat, and rates include private yacht cruises (during which skipper Ian Stone imparts his extensive knowledge of local flora and fauna). Also included in the five-day minimum rate are snorkel equipment, helicopter transfers, and all meals and snacks. You'll have nothing to worry about…other than returning from a day of snorkeling in time to catch the sunset while you eat dinner.
Tel: 61 2 9433 3349
Tucked away on 30 acres of Hamilton Island's northernmost point, this adults-only retreat has rocked the Great Barrier Reef when it comes to island comfort. The 60 pavilionselegantly constructed in native timber, limestone, and slatehave floor-to-ceiling windows, plus (in the Windward Pavilions) infinity-edge plunge pools overlooking glorious tropical surroundings. While this resort is all about nature's beautyexemplified by abundant tropical foliage and the warm ocean watersthere's fun to be had, too. Pavilions come with an electric golf cart for tooling around the island, and room rates include non-motorized water sports, on-site meals (though not alcohol), and dining at Hamilton Island's best restaurantsperhaps wise, as Qualia's island-time service can be spotty.
Private Beach Road, Oak Beach
Tel: 61 74 098 5700
Set on a 145-acre spread of private beach, coconut groves, and forest, this nature lodge 24 miles north of Cairns is all about low-key luxury. The 84 elegantly appointed timber guesthouses, all with polished wood floors, rattan furnishings, and tropical-print fabrics, are linked by meandering, stone-lined paths. A circular communal lounge and reading room has uninterrupted sea views as far as the Barrier Reef islands; at the open-sided Osprey's restaurant, sunset cocktails and buffet breakfasts are accompanied by the calls of kookaburras, sunbirds, lorikeets, and honeyeaters. There are two pools—one split-level, with waterfalls and grottoes—plus bush-walking trails and areas for secluded sunbathing. Borrow binoculars from reception and zoom in on birds, butterflies, possums, gliders, and even the odd whale or dolphin pod from your balcony. Or take advantage of the resort's eco-friendly activities, like turtle-spotting, sea kayaking, and stargazing using the resort's state-of-the-art telescope.
Tel: 61 74 068 8233
It's a bit of a hike to get to Bedarra, a 247-acre, crescent-shaped island in the Family Islands group. You'll have to drive about an hour south of Cairns to the town of Mission Beach, then fly or take a ferry to the sister Voyages resort at Dunk Island, then transfer to another, smaller boat. But if you're feeling grouchy by the time you arrive, you won't stay that way for long; this place is a true sanctuary. The 16 villas—all clean-lined and spacious, with polished timber and giant windows—are tucked among the trees for maximum privacy. When snuggling in your two-person hammock, or surveying the ocean from your private balcony (the pricier villas have plunge pools), you'll feel like the resort's only guests. Meals are included, as is use of the self-service bar. So help yourself to a bottle of Bollinger, ask the staff to pack your meal in a basket, and stroll down to the beach for what could be the world's most romantic picnic. Fishing, snorkeling, and use of sailboats and boards are all complimentary. (Massages and off-island boat trips for fishing and diving cost a little extra). Kids aged 12 and under aren't allowed.