Right wavelength

Heron Island ticks the boxes on Belinda Jackson's family wish-list.

"INFANTS are just hand luggage," a travel veteran told me before the arrival of a Jackson jnr. "Take them to all the posh restaurants before they can walk, and travel."

"Families should stick to holidays in Queensland and stop inflicting their kids on the rest of us during long-distance flights," sniped a chorus of online travellers. Snipers, we took your advice. So, wary of the many evil eyes cast by business travellers on a red-eye up to Brisbane and onward to Gladstone, the first family holiday is to that bastion of family holidays, north of the border.

Heron Island is a coral cay 72kilometres off the coast of Gladstone. It's a two-hour ferry journey or, if you're flush, half an hour in a chopper. The massive catamaran is a slick blue-and-white affair, with a bar and chairs and tables fixed to the floor, decorated neatly with slip-proof mats, a box of tissues and a daunting stack of white paper sick bags. The baby change table in the loo has a belt on it so you can strap your babe in when the going gets rough but our journey to the island is as smooth as glass, so we tune in to the marine video playing as we plough through the open waters.

If the baby could comprehend more than nonsensical monosyllables, I'd have to put my hands over her ears. The commentator waxes enthusiastically about fish sex: there are hermaphrodite fish, 16-arm octopuses' embraces followed by blissful death, animals that spawn from their foreheads and crabs with sex organs in their sides. It just makes you want to throw your wetsuit-clad self in among it all, doesn't it?

According to a dive instructor on the ferry, the cooler months are the best time to head below the surface: the water is clearer and water temperatures fluctuate only a degree or two; it's the land temperature that shifts around.

Take today - the water is 23 degrees, while it's just 21 on the land. Coming from the southern cities, where anything out of the teens has us cheering, I'm feeling optimistic and Heron is home to one of French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau's top-10 dive spots, the Heron Bommie.

Most of Heron's rooms have had a much-needed refurbishment and our Beachside suite is fresh and sunny, perched on the edge of shallow waters. There's no TV or radio, while phone reception has a big question mark over it. "I heard that you could get reception if you had Telstra regional and stood at the jetty on low tide between 6.15am and 6.17am during a full moon ..." says one staffer. So, basically, no.

Heron Island scores two big ticks of approval: there's no gym and there's no self-catering. Why go on holidays to sweat and do yet more washing up? Breakfast and lunch are buffet affairs on Heron Island but what a buffet.


"We don't fill our plates up with salad first, because then all the meat is gone," my carnivore husband instructs on buffet etiquette. He's almost right: there's plenty of meat to go round but chef Vanessa Grace's divine little custard slices are whipped off the buffet along with the entrees by canny eaters who have twigged to her feather-light pastry hand.

Every Saturday night, the restaurant goes mad with a seafood extravaganza: platters of prawns, crabs, Moreton Bay bugs and a whole snapper that we hack into in a bizarre scene reminiscent of Lord of the Flies.

Oh yeah, it's all about the fish. Each morning, the island's little quasi-submarine pootles through clouds of fish hovering, like grey ghosts, black-eyed and unthinking. We spy green and loggerhead turtles, eagle rays and even a few whales playing in the turquoise waters off the island.

The shallow waters of the island are a veritable nursery, as children and baby sharks splash merrily. I hold off on dunking the three-month-old in: sharks is sharks, in my book, no matter how toothless or playful the staff tell me they are.

We play God one dawn, scaring off scavenging seabirds to allow two tiny, deeply unseasonal baby turtles to make a dash from the nest to the sea, drawn instinctively to the light of the rising sun. Their tiny bodies are buffeted by the softest wave: how could these fragile little creatures, no bigger than the palm of my hand, survive to become one of the free-wheeling beauties we watch from the sub's windows? The odds are truly miserable and their plight tugs at my newly minted mummy's heart, which gets another workout when I read that the island housed a turtle canning factory in the 1920s.

You can go hard on Heron, night diving and game fishing, but most of us are immersed in gentler pursuits: early-morning walks, night-sky photography, a light snooze after a big lunch.

If you wanted more than a post-prandial tummy rub, there is a tiny spa hidden like a lost oasis among the strangler figs, palms and scratched-up mutton birds' nests.

Leaving the husband and baby to play beneath the shade of a sarong on the beach, I slip into the spa to be worked over with coconut oil in a Hawaiian-style massage by visiting therapist, the impossibly Zen Michael. Just a few days on the island and we're talking more slowly and walking more slowly: I wish we could say the same for eating.

In terms of island getaways, Heron does exactly what it says on the tin. Plenty of beach snorkelling, totally family-friendly, with the reef's signature turquoise waters and white-sand beaches. Perfect for baby steps. But then, as an old reef hand once told me: "It's not called the Good Barrier Reef, is it?"

The writer was a guest of Gladstone Area Promotion & Development Ltd and Tourism Queensland.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas, Strategic Airlines and Virgin Blue fly Brisbane-Gladstone. The Heron Island ferry leaves Gladstone marina at 11am daily, $199 return for adults, $99.50 for children.

Staying there

From $399 a room for a two-night stay, including all meals. Children under 12 stay and eat free when using existing bedding. The turtle-hatching season runs November-March. 1300 863 241, heronisland.com.

More information

Gladstone Visitor Information Centre, (07) 4972 9000, gladstoneregion.info.

Three for the kids

  1. Snorkel lessons, 15 minutes, free.

  2. Semi-submarine trips, infant-friendly, great for kids too young for snorkelling, $45 for adults, $30 for kids.

  3. Guided beachcomber walks, most afternoons, free.

Three for the parents

  1. Ka Huna 90-minute massage, $145, Aqua Soul Spa.

  2. Beach picnic, hampers from $19 for two.

  3. Happy hour at Baillie’s Bar, 4.30pm-6.30pm every day.