Rhapsody in blue and white

The grande dame of reef retreats doesn't stop at sand and snorkelling for Susan Gough Henly.

WE SOAR in a small plane above cobalt seas streaked with mottled celadon reefs that look like ancient treasure maps on the journey to Lizard Island, smack on the northern Great Barrier Reef, 240kilometres north of Cairns and 27kilometres from the mainland.

Not a skerrick of human presence is visible as far as the wide, watery horizon. As we come to land, wispy clouds part and Lizard Island appears: a huge, swooping granite outcrop in the shape not of a lizard but a giant stingray, the Dingaal Aborigines’ creation ancestor. An arc of fringing reefs encloses an aquamarine lagoon and scoop after scoop of scalloped white beaches are fringed by casuarinas and coconut palms.

The name Lizard Island was coined by Captain James Cook in 1770, who climbed to Lizard’s highest point to look for a safe passage for his vessel, away from the treacherous reefs. He saw so many lizards he named the island after them. Today, those reefs offer myriad adventures for resort guests.

So, Lizard has geography and history but what about current affairs? The resort’s new owner, Delaware North Australia, has completed a $3million refurbishment, so sparkling new bathrooms, linens and couches offer a fresh face over the fine bones of what has regularly been voted one of the world’s best island hideaways.

Since it opened  in 1975, Lizard’s list of well-heeled celebrity visitors is almost as long as the reef itself. But how does this grande dame of Australian resorts measure up against a new clutch of high-end properties such as Qualia, Southern Ocean Lodge and Saffire?  There’s only one way to find out.

We arrive in time for lunch at the Ospreys Restaurant. It is a delightful, airy, semicircular verandah space framed by white columns that overlooks a lawn meandering between palm trees to the powdery sand of Anchor Bay.

Relaxing over a chilled Peroni beer, I survey the scene. The atmosphere is almost colonial, in a familiar, at-ease-with-itself  kind of way. A ship’s model evokes the maritime theme; the bar and back wall sport turquoise and royal blue tiles reflecting  the colours of the lazy sea out front; bright blue and white pillows accent wicker dining chairs and banquettes;  fans whirr quietly.

I savour a delightful panzanella salad of vine-ripened tomatoes, goat’s cheese, fresh basil, sourdough croutons and olives in a balsamic vinaigrette and follow it with an affogato with Kahlua, vanilla ice cream, espresso and biscotti. Perfection for a lunch in the tropics. Executive chef Mark Jensen delivers his signature fusion cuisine with a light touch. After four years spent working in leading restaurants in London and Paris learning his craft from the likes of Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing, Jensen comes to Lizard with two-star status from Spicers Peak Lodge in Queensland’s Granite Belt.

I love the pillow-top king-size bed and expansive couches in the open-plan living area of my Anchor Bay suite. Glass doors lead to a large wooden deck with double-size day bed overlooking the lawns to the beach. There is plenty of room for a hammock, which would have been nice, but they grace only the Sunset Point villa decks. My suite’s bathroom-changing area has a terrific design, with a spacious new Spanish stone shower, two basins, each with windows into tiny courtyard gardens, and lots of space for bags, plus lovely wicker drawers to hold odds and ends.

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Other amenities include a spa offering Li’Tya indigenous products, massages, a pool, tennis court, guest lounge with television, DVD player and computers with internet. However, Lizard is fundamentally not about the built environment. It is all about location, location, location.

I wander down to the beach and paddle one of the resort’s glass-bottom surf skis across Anchor Bay, gliding easily over a crayon box of colourful fish darting around coral gardens.

Next morning, after tropical fruit, pastries and eggs Benedict, I enjoy a snorkelling tour of the Blue Lagoon with guide Ross Penegar, whose sage explanations add a new dimension to my appreciation of this teeming underwater world. I learn that the effervescent bubbles rising from soft elephant ear coral means it is  mid-feeding frenzy and how the ubiquitous parrotfish (the males flash more colours than women  at Fashions on the Field) spend their days chewing on coral algae, excreting it as the powdery sand that rims Lizard’s shores.  

Huge spotted barramundi cod meander around mauve brain coral, electric blue staghorn and lime-green lettuce coral, seemingly oblivious to our presence.

Ross describes how the slingjaw wrasse can throw out its bottom jaw to catch fish and points out pineapple and leopard sea cucumbers and Moorish idol fish with their long, trailing dorsal fins.

He shows me several symbiotic relationships including orange-striped clown fish darting amid  anemones, demure damselfish swimming around giant clams with their gaudy dance-hall smiles and electric blue cleaner wrasse skimming algae off giant sweetlips.

I am buzzing with excitement at the colour and drama of it all and see Ross is just as enthused and determined to find the names of a couple of fish he hasn’t seen before.

Indeed, all the Lizard Island staff appear to revel in working here. They are passionate, knowledgable and extremely professional yet exude a relaxed, easygoing style that fits perfectly with the remote tropical ambience.

Ross takes me on a tour of some of Lizard’s 24 secluded white-sand beaches. We head first to Mermaid Cove, named after the dugongs sometimes seen in the seagrass, then around a massive headland of granite slabs to Turtle beach, where just last week he saw  turtle hatchlings making their mad dash. As we cruise above a giant 100-year-old clam garden off Watson’s beach, Ross tells me about Mary Watson and her husband, Bob, who with their Chinese staff hunted sea cucumbers in these parts in the 1880s. In a tragic clash of cultures, Aborigines visiting the island for initiation ceremonies killed one servant and Mary took her baby and floated in half a water tank to a nearby island, only to die of thirst. The ruins of the Watsons’ stone house remain.

We continue on past Chinaman’s Ridge to Anchor Bay and then to the aptly and evocatively named Sunset, Pebbly and Hibiscus beaches and the long sweep of Casuarina beach.

For dinner, I choose a king prawn bisque with asparagus tips and pan-fried spangled emperor with sauteed crab, corn and carrots in a spicy Nahm Jim sauce, which my waiter expertly pairs with several boutique Australian white wines, all included in the tariff. The next day, I join a diving trip on Lizard’s 16-metre luxury cruiser to the world-famous Cod Hole, a reef-encircled sand patch on the edge of the Australian continental shelf that is perfect for resort guests because it offers adventures for beginner divers as well as experts.

The highlight is feeding Delicious, the enormous, friendly Maori wrasse, as well as Cuddles and Grumpy, two huge potato cod. And whoever said you can’t bring the fun home was wrong, because the whole experience is filmed, with guests the stars of their own underwater drama.

After three days of snorkelling and diving, catamaran sailing and swimming, wining and dining and doing nothing much at all, what’s my verdict?

I can’t think of another resort that better delivers the tropical island fantasy: creamy sand beaches and balmy waters teeming with vibrant coral gardens just a few steps from gin and tonics on the deck.

Even more remarkably, there is  practically a beach for every couple. Lizard gives guests dinghies and  gourmet picnic baskets and tells them to go and live their romantic dreams. Add some of the world’s best dive sites, big-game fishing and a protected national park status and Lizard really does check every box.  

It’s no show pony but a classy, low-key place that invites real relaxation.

Three other things to do

1. Enjoy a beachside degustation dinner for two with matching wines. Tell the chef your favourite foods and he will devise your menu for the night.

2. Visit the world-renowned Lizard Island Research Station to find out about the latest Great Barrier Reef studies.

3. Enjoy the best black marlin fishing in the world, between August and November.

Trip notes

Getting there Jetstar flies non-stop from Sydney to Cairns, as does Virgin Blue. jetstar.com.au, virginaustralia.com. Hinterland Aviation flies to Lizard Island from Cairns for $275 each way. www.hinter landaviation.com.au.

Staying there Lizard Island Resort has 40 rooms and suites. Rooms from $1444 a night, twin share. Includes meals, selected alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and non-motorised water sports. 1300 863 248, lizardisland.com.au.

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