Queensland's Lizard Island is a place for A-list castaways, writes Daniel Scott.
'Guests can come up here at sunset with champagne and canapes," says my guide, Gerhardus, pointing out the view over an empty white sand beach and out to nearby Osprey Island. "It's really, ahmmm, quite nice."
When you work in guest services at one of Australia's most exclusive resorts, it clearly pays to have done your training at the European school of understatement.
Personally, having just arrived at Lizard Island, I am so excited I could hug the young, lightly perspiring Dutchman showing me around.
Just getting to this chunky continental island, 240 kilometres north of Cairns and 27 kilometres out to sea, close to the extremities of the Great Barrier Reef, has been entrancing. During the hour-long flight, my light plane was soon tracking directly over one of the undisputed wonders of the world. Everywhere I looked there were reefs, defined by frothing white waves breaking upon them. Kidney-shaped, long and stringy, some like perfect horseshoes and others encompassing tiny sand cays, they appeared like an intricate pattern engraved upon the sea.
Then there it was, rockier than expected, sloping gently to a peak, the island I have always wanted to visit. To me, Lizard has long seemed the Queensland resort island that has everything: fabulous looks; celebrity; depth (it has Aboriginal history dating back thousands of years and it played a crucial part in James Cook's 1770 passage); intelligence, with a world-renowned marine research station based here; but above all, a sense of adventure, thanks to the island's proximity to many of the Barrier Reef's top snorkelling and dive sites, as well as easy access to some of the world's best deep-sea fishing.
By the time we reach my suite, a contemporary beach house-style villa secreted behind Anchor Bay, I have learnt most elements of a stay at Lizard Island, including the complimentary home-made cookies in my mini-bar, are undeniably "quite nice". Now, as my guide and I discuss walking on the beach at night, I am also made unintentionally aware that the resort is infused with good taste.
"You must be able to see all the stars," I enthusiastically suggest.
"Oh no, sir," assures Gerhardus, "you won't see any staff out there."
It is a sultry tropical afternoon when I arrive. Cyclone Hamish is boiling up over the Coral Sea just a few hundred kilometres away and I am secretly hoping it might maroon me. Yet, if the storm is approaching, you wouldn't know it. The central, open-sided lodge housing the resort's lounge, bar and restaurant seems wrapped in a post-lunch yawn. Even the monitor lizards after which Cook named the island posing on the resort's manicured lawns are going nowhere fast.
You could easily spend your entire stay here embracing such somnolence. After a lazy late breakfast of eggs benedict and freshly brewed coffee in Ospreys Restaurant, you could retire to the day bed outside your suite before returning for an exquisite light lunch of roasted pumpkin salad or salt-and-pepper squid.
Then, after a post-prandial stroll, you could adjourn to the Azure Spa to have body knots expertly ironed out. Finally, you could gear up, with a snooze, for evening drinks and a sumptuous dinner of seared scallops and poached coral trout in smoked prawn butter back at Ospreys. By the end of a stay you might not have ventured far but the memory of a symphony of tastes drawn from modern Australian, Asian and European cuisines would linger long after leaving.
What's more, with the all-inclusive tariff featuring all of the magnificent food and most drinks there is a "Cellar Masters" list of premium wines that attract a supplement there will be no nasty surprises on the bill.
But if you've even a skerrick of curiosity in your bones, Lizard Island will entice you to explore. With the island ringed by fringing reef, the least demanding choice is to snorkel, either in front of the resort or by taking one of the resort's dinghies to one of its other 23 sandy beaches.
On my second day I take a boat out and putt-putt around a promontory to Watsons Bay. Drawing up to the deserted beach, clutching my gourmet picnic hamper containing chilled king prawns and smoked salmon, I picture myself as an A-list castaway. I also feel like a Z-category loser who should have brought his wife. No wonder the actress Kate Hudson called Lizard Island "the most romantic place on earth" after staying here during the filming of Fool's Gold.
Oddly, I'm reminded of Hollywood when I go snorkelling after lunch. It happens when I'm hovering above a giant clam in two metres of translucent sea. With its plump, wavy lips it looks like the love child of a Botox-enhanced starlet and an ageing British rock singer. Opening and clenching them closed around a velvety purple interior, it appears as if it is blowing bored smoke rings at an after-show bash.
If the clam appears to have seen it all that is possibly because it is 40 years older than even Sir Mick Jagger. It has been peacefully anchored here in Hanson Bay, along with 20 other aged clams, while we humans have conjured up two world wars, several recessions, the splitting of the atom and now, perhaps the greatest challenge to its and our existence, global warming.
Mind you, as I snorkel amid the teeming coral gardens off Hanson Bay, the woes of the world hardly register. I'm more interested in the clams, the electric-blue starfish draped on the seabed and about 30 species of boldly coloured fish moseying about.
It is only later, when I visit the Lizard Island Research Station and meet director Lyle Vail that I fully appreciate the human impact on the Barrier Reef.
"Climate change is definitely having an effect," says Dr Vail, who has been studying the reef since 1990. "We're seeing higher ocean temperatures and increasing coral bleaching. What people often don't realise is that corals are animals and that the Barrier Reef is a living, breathing entity that can only survive in the right conditions. If those conditions change too drastically, we risk losing it altogether."
How great a tragedy that would be is underlined to me the next morning when I go diving on the Outer Barrier Reef. It is another advantage of staying on Lizard that these remote, unspoilt ribbon reefs are just a 50-minute boat journey away.
Out here, where the Australian continental shelf plunges into the deep Coral Sea, it is not just the reefs themselves that are spectacular it is the whole ecosystem that has grown up around them, including a proliferation of large pelagic fish.
Our destination today is the Cod Hole, a reef-encircled sand patch famous for its resident friendly giants. The only problem is, when we arrive, they are not home. For 15 minutes, we divers wait for them on the ocean floor like groupies hanging around the stage door.
Finally, about 20 metres to my left, a bloated shape looms into view. Our hearts skip a collective beat. Within seconds, it is coming into land among us like a subaquatic spaceship.
It's Curious George, an imperious 120-kilogram cod with a mottled complexion, bananas for lips and an insatiable appetite. Our guide Lindsay tears open the feed bucket and as she proffers a sprat, George bats his eyelids.
Before long, we are joined by four more cod and soon the divers pair off with their own fishy pal. As one diver tickles her mate beneath the jowls, I'm sure I can hear giggles of delight.
We continue our dive on the surrounding reefs where bulbous coral heads rise like massive wrinkled nuts, gorgonian fans reach out like fiery red ferns and multi-hued soft corals jiggle in the slight swell. There is an ever-present mist of elaborately decorated small fish, from minuscule neon-blue gobies to lemon-coloured angel fish. Later, in deeper, darker water, I watch seven large dusky-green humphead parrot fish forage for brunch and two sleek reef sharks gliding idly by.
Back on board the boat, we're all exhilarated by what we've just seen. I'm impressed, too, by the crew's after care. First our dive gear is seamlessly collected, then towels are handed out and, on the journey home, cookies and cut fruit offered around. It seems the impeccable manners I experienced on arrival at the resort extend all the way out to sea.
With Cyclone Hamish still loitering too far away to give me an excuse to extend my stay, I have now reached my final afternoon on Lizard. Determined to do an island walk before I leave, I set off along the four-kilometre trail to Cook's Lookout, in squally showers and utterly unsuitable treadless shoes.
But thanks to interpretive panelling along the way, my seat-of-pants trek adds geological and historical perspective to this special island, which was part of the mainland before being isolated by rising seas after the last ice age 9000 years ago. By then it was already a place of cultural significance a venue for initiations and important gatherings to the Dingaal Aborigines. Later, in August 1770, the hill I am climbing proved vital to Captain Cook. With his ship Endeavour trapped inside a maze of reefs, he came ashore on Lizard Island and made his way up the 360-metre peak to find a way out.
At the top of Cook's Lookout, I take in the panorama that would have met the explorer's eyes back then. In the foreground, Lizard spreads greenly out towards a series of bays and pale shallow waters washing over the surrounding fringing reef. To the south, an expansive turquoise lagoon sparkles between Lizard and some satellite islands. Then, discernible in the distance, are a string of thin reefs divided by intermittent swathes of royal blue sea, through which Cook would finally plot his ship's passage.
It is, I'm sure the English mariner would have agreed, "quite nice".
Daniel Scott was a guest of Voyages Resorts and Tourism Queensland.
Lizard Island is 240kilometres north of Cairns, the nearest major airport. Virgin Blue flies non-stop from Sydney ($159) and Melbourne ($169), while Jetstar charges $149 from Sydney and $169 from Melbourne and also flies non-stop. Hinterland Aviation flies to Lizard Island from Cairns from $255. All fares are one-way including tax.
Lizard Island Resort has 40 luxurious suites. A two-night package costs $3400 a room, twin share. The tariff includes accommodation, all meals, most beverages and selected activities. A special package of five nights for the price of four costs $6800 a room and is available until September 30. See lizardisland.com.au/special. Phone 82968010 or 1300134044.