Baited! Wooed by the hyper coloured posters and the gently swaying palm trees, you’ve booked a ticket to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. Underwater action in pristine waters is a given. But where do you base yourself, especially when you want to sleep island style?
Here’s the definitive list of 5 island resorts off the coast of Cairns, starting from the financially friendly to the over-the-top, big-ticket island experience.
DUNK ISLAND – FOR THE ADVENTURER
Confession session. Back in the 1990s when Dunk Island was in its heyday, I worked there as guest liaison officer. I was like Julie McCoy from TV’s The Love Boat and my goal was to make sure guests were happy. That usually meant a healthy dose of Harvey Wallbangers and Pina Coladas, especially for the VIPs.
Even without the resort (closed four years ago after being pounded by a cyclone), there is so much to love about Dunk. It’s a quintessential tropical island and a delicious mix of rainforest and reef. I adored my time walking up the steep track to Mt Kootaloo, past the remnants of a World War II radio station, and along the nine-kilometre trail through ancient fern forests and ironbark groves. And I loved learning about EJ Banfield, the original beachcomber who spent 25 years on Dunk Island island following a nervous breakdown as a journalist in the early 1900s.
Today, the campgrounds, the sunset bar and the jetty are open and welcome travellers at a cost that’s less than the price of a big city sandwich. So if you don’t mind the “do-it-yourself” style of island stay like our story here, this is the one for you.
How to get there: Drive 140km south of Cairns to Wongaling Beach near Mission Beach where regular water taxis will ferry campers to Dunk Island for $35 return. Otherwise, check the Greyhound Bus timetable and take public transport from Cairns to Mission Beach.
FITZROY ISLAND – FOR THE FAMILY
It’s not that this island has been a secret. It’s just that it never crossed my radar until recently. Just one visit this year and Fitzroy Island Resort is firmly on my family favourite list.
First up, the 99-room resort overlooks a crunchy white beach from where you can slip underwater and into the Great Barrier Reef. Sure, the fringing reef may not be as dense as it is on the outer reef (and that’s another 60-minute boat ride east), but the one-kilometre snorkel trail is nothing short of spectacular.
Exactly one hour after leaving Cairns, I found Nemo… as well as angelfish, parrotfish, butterfly fish, sea anemones, hard corals, soft corals, and brilliantly hued clams. I even tickled my first giant green turtle – who was just as curious about me as I was about him.
Fitzroy has all the family classics: double kayak tours, a massive ocean trampoline, and glass-bottom boat trips. That’s not me. I opted for the action agenda and woke early to conquer the arduous two-hour rainforest trail to the peak.
Fitzroy is pretty friendly on the hip pocket too. Overnight stays are on par with those on the mainland and rooms come with a fully-equipped kitchenette. What’s not so friendly is the price of the restaurant. So if you can’t afford the $35 main meals every single night (who can?), mix it up with pub fare from the beachfront bistro or bring your own groceries (you can buy the basics at the island supermarket), cook up a hearty meal and kick back on your resort room balcony to dine.
On a budget? Then raid the piggy bank and stay at the well-kitted council campground run by the resort, and all just footsteps from the resort.
Insider Tip: Choose an ocean facing room on the second or third floor of the resort and wake up to a million-dollar beach view. Ground floor cabanas can obstruct the views from the first floor.
How to get there: Three fast cat services depart daily from the Cairns Marlin Wharf at Berth 20, and cost $75 return for adults.
GREEN ISLAND – FOR EVERYONE
Green Island has always held a special place in the heart of Australians. Perhaps it’s because a young Queen Elizabeth visited back in the 1970s or maybe because it put Cairns on the map when it launched the world’s first underwater observatory. Whatever it is, this resort punches above the weight of its 46 rainforest suites.
Just like all the other islands listed, this one comes with sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and abundant marine life. What sets Green Island apart is that it’s a rainforest island on a coral cay. It’s also home to a crocodile farm with the world’s oldest crocodile called Cassius, it has some funky underwater motorised bicycles for those who want to play George Jetson, and there’s Gavin, the friendly buck-toothed Parrotfish known to photobomb the helmet dive tours.
The resort is priced higher than Fitzroy Island and targets families (from $640 a night for two adults and two kids, inclusive of breakfast and transfers), couples and anyone who doesn’t mind sharing their time with hundreds of day trippers. Here, the emphasis is on activities rather than the food, which can be expensive.
How to get there: Three ferries a day launch from Cairns.
BEDARRA ISLAND – FOR THE MODERN-DAY BEACHCOMBER
Bedarra Island may be the little sister to Dunk, but it’s always played big brother when it comes to the celebrity guest list. Elton John rocked up here, Sarah Ferguson (a Princess back then) squirreled herself away from the media spotlight, and superfish Kieren Perkins booked out the entire island for his secret wedding.
Today the resort focuses on barefoot luxury and with just eight rainforest villas at around $1350 per room per night (all inclusive), it puts you closer to the ranks of a beachcomber than any other resort off Cairns.
Count on waking up to beach views, chilling under the rainforest canopy, tapping into the legendary bar (the cellarmaster list offers a rollercoaster of tastes), and really enjoying a menu tinkered to suit your palate.
So who’s it for? Romantics, celebrationists, burnt-out corporates, and adults wanting to, well, just escape and breathe.
How to get there: Take a private boat launch from Mission Beach, or a 45-minute spectacular helicopter flight direct from Cairns to the resort’s own landing pad.
LIZARD ISLAND – FOR THE FORTUNATE FEW
If Bedarra Island owns rainforest relaxation, then Lizard Island holds the record for reef repose. Entry level villas start at around $2000 per night (and these don’t come with an ocean view), making this the island for the fortunate few.
Lizard is one of only three true coral cay resorts along the entire Queensland coastline, which means you can simply walk from the beach and begin snorkelling the outer reef. But, who would stick to the beaches when the world’s best dive sites are just minutes away?
There’s the famous Cod Hole – known for fish the size of Mike Tyson, The Lighthouse – a bombie best known for cute little sea anemones and seven-metre long minke whales, and Steve’s Bombie – a towering apartment-sized reef that thunders with the oddest shaped sea life.
If underwater adventure is not your thing, guests are welcome to check out the reef research station, hike to the Cook’s Look in the footsteps of Captain Cook, dine six star under a million stars, and sidestep the curious metre-long monitor lizards that look like miniature dinosaurs.
Want some solitude? Easy. Lizard Island Resort may have 40 divine villas but it also has 24 pristine beaches. You do the math. With some guests out on diving trips and others cocooning in the spa, that almost means one beach per couple. Want more guarantees of peace? This resort is not for children under 10 years.
How to get there: Sitting 240km north-east of Cairns, the only way is a spectacular 50-minute flight.
Feel the need for an island escape? We’ve got you covered.
GOT ANOTHER ISLAND RESORT OFF CAIRNS? TELL US ABOUT IT!
Originally published on Hello, Sunshine, the Offical Blog of Queensland, Australia