Before you pack your bags for Ningaloo Reef, be warned: this trip may change the way you holiday forever. Partly, that is because of what lies beneath the water. No, I'm not talking about the whale sharks, although they are truly magnificent. It is more that Ningaloo's astonishingly vivid coral gardens – in some cases, accessed right off the beach, in all cases, remarkably free of other visitors – make this one of Australia's top destinations for snorkellers and divers.
That, however, is just part of the story. What lies on the land is just as noteworthy. Unlike much of Australia's coast, this stretch of Western Australia is largely undeveloped, a laid-back strip of beach and bush that is a world away from the highly organised, high-volume tourism that has taken over elsewhere.
One day soon, the secret will be out. Ningaloo will take its rightful place as one of Australia's most popular destinations, and mass tourism will make its mark. Get in before that happens, and add these experiences to your itinerary.
MEET THE MANTAS
Many travellers go to Ningaloo for the whale sharks, but leave raving about the manta rays. Ningaloo has a resident population of about 50 of these majestic creatures. Take a boat out to one of their popular haunts, and jump in the water to swim alongside them (if you can keep up: they can cruise at 40km/h or more.) If you are lucky, you may get to see them feeding: a memorable spectacle, particularly if they perform some acrobatic barrel rolls.
It has the classic holiday-town feel you remember from your childhood.Ute Junker
TAKE A HIKE
Looking at those rust-red cliffs rising from the ultra-blue water, you would think you were in the Kimberley. Actually, you are in Cape Range National Park, which stretches along the reef-fringed coast. Of all the gorges in the park, Yardie Gorge is the only one permanently filled with water, albeit salt water. Nonetheless, the area teems with life. The mangroves that rim the gorge are breeding grounds for birds, and you may spot kestrel and osprey wheeling overhead. As you follow the easy walking track, keep an eye out for the black-footed rock wallabies that also live in the area.
Visitors can choose to base themselves at Exmouth or Coral Bay, but the latter is definitely better. A smattering of shops and hotels scattered along a sandy curve of a beach, it has the classic holiday-town feel you remember from your childhood. Snorkellers are in for a treat: you can swim out from the beach and find yourself floating above striking hard coral gardens, with tropical fish darting between the outcrops. You may even spot a turtle or two.
It is the variety of fishing experiences at Ningaloo that gets anglers excited, from the shallow waters of the Exmouth Gulf contrasting with the deeper waters off the continental shelf. You can throw a line in off the beach to catch spangled emperor, whiting, bream or trevally; if you prefer fly fishing, try queenfish on the flats, or schools in the open water. Game fishers may get lucky with marlin or swordfish, yellowfin, wahoo and spanish mackerel.
These gentle giants head to Ningaloo between April and October every year, and are the area's headline attraction. Whale sharks can live to be 100 years old, although most of those that visit Ningaloo are juvenile males, usually between three and eight metres long. Most visitors who book a whale watching cruise will get the chance to swim with these giants of the deep; to be on the safe side, book the cruise for early in your stay, so you can have a second attempt if necessary. Ocean Eco is one of the best operators, offering expert insights from an on-board marine biologist as well as tasty meals.
There's not exactly a lot of nightlife around Ningaloo Reef; it's an early to bed, early to rise sort of place. That makes Bill's a particularly welcome addition to the scene. Thanks to a recent renovation, this popular Coral Bay pub has a slick look that wouldn't be out of place in the big smoke. Late-afternoon music sessions offer a good way to wind down.
FIND YOUR OWN BEACH
The most popular stretch of sand in the Cape Range National Park is probably the lovely Turquoise Bay. But who wants to share? Given that the park is scalloped with pretty beaches, drive a bit further and you will find you own perfect patch of seaside. Sandy Bay and Bloodwood Creek are good options.
See the beaches, dunes and bushlands from a different perspective on a self-drive quad bike tour. From bouncing along bush tracks to speeding over a sandy beach, this is a family adventure with a difference. Coral Bay Tours offers a range of drives, which include stops to snorkel with turtles or watch the sun set over the ocean.
Yes, it is an extravagance, but the breathtaking sight of Ningaloo from above is worth it if your budget will stretch that far. Depending on your finances, you can book a flight lasting between 15 and 60 minutes. Apart from the sheer beauty of the scene (take your camera), spotting the distinctive shapes of whale sharks or manta rays as they move through the crystal-clear waters is a thrill.
Ready to really blow your budget? Ningaloo's most luxurious lodging is also, in some ways, its most pared back. Nestled amid the sand dunes in the national park, Sal Salis consists of a clutch of safari tents kitted out with king-size beds, high-end linens and gourmet food. The biggest luxury, however, is the sense of having dropped off the end of the world, falling asleep to the sound of the waves and waking up to the sight of kangaroos hopping between the tents.
Qantas operates daily flights from Perth to Learmonth-Exmouth Airport. The flight takes about two hours. See qantas.com.
Ningaloo Reef Resort, opposite the beach at Coral Bay, offers a range of units including family accommodation. On-site facilities include a restaurant and barbecue facilities. Rates start about $180 a night. See www.ningalooreefresort.com.au
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism WA.