Friday, 22 May 2015

The Great Barrier Reef Luxury Island Resorts: Lizard Island , Bedarra Island and Qualia.

Does anyone remember when Oprah Winfrey came to Australia a few years ago? She was here to promote Australian tourism and as part of her trip she was taken to Qualia. Qualia has been named the best resort in Australia from time to time and it is nice - but I've always thought that 'best resort' is something which can't be pinned down. It is a very subjective thing. A few nights of pure heaven for one person may be absolute torture for another.

D and I are fortunate. We have been not only to Qualia but also to Lizard Island and Bedarra, two of the other luxury resorts on the Great Barrier Reef. I preface this by saying they are all very expensive but if you are thinking of visiting the reef and doing it in luxury then your choice will include these three. All of them are lovely, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses. I hope our experiences can help you choose between them.


Lizard Island


Lizard Island is a National Park of 1,013 hectares. The resort has 40 suites.  Don't expect a tropical island of the kind you may have seen in the movies. Lizard is covered in grassland. The only palm trees are those around the resort, planted to give the island a tropical flavour.

Lizard Island

Advantages - 

  • Snorkelling - If you want to snorkel, Lizard is by far the best island of the three.  It is further from the Queensland coast than Bedarra or Qualia and located directly on the Great Barrier Reef.  To find beautiful coral all you need do is step off Anchor Bay beach and swim out or walk around the headland to the magnificent Clam Gardens in Watson's Bay.
  • Diving - Lizard's position on the reef also means you can do a dive or snorkel trip without it taking the whole day. Since David is not a strong swimmer this is particularly important to us. I can swim out and snorkel in front of the resort, or take a half day snorkelling cruise without impacting too much on our time together.
  • Land Size -  Lizard Island is considerably larger than either Bedarra or the area on Hamilton Island dedicated to Qualia. This makes it a lot more fun to explore by foot.

Watson's Bay - a short walk or swim from the resort.

Highlights - 

  • The Coral.
  • Diving the Cod Hole. I don't dive, so I can't give you personal experience of this, but I'm told it is one of the world's great dives.
  • The beautiful beaches.
  • Dining in the open air restaurant and just soaking up the view. Each time we were there the food was superb.

One of the beautiful giant clams in the clam garden at Watson's Bay - trust me these are just stunning in the flesh.


Disadvantages - 

  • We have found the rooms at Lizard less luxurious than you would expect for the price, particularly the cheaper rooms. The fact that the resort has recently been re-built will go a long way to address this issue for a while. There is nothing like newness to improve the feel of an otherwise ordinary room.
  • None of the rooms had baths before the recent re-build. That does not appear to have changed. If you have in mind spending your time in long luxuriating baths then you will be disappointed.

Don't miss  - 

  • Visiting Mary Watson's Hut at Watson's Bay - The sad story of Mary Watson and her baby son is re-told near the ruins of her cottage. Twenty-one year old Mary and her husband, a bech-de-mer fisherman, were camped on the island with their four month old son and two Chinese servants. While her husband was away, a group of aborigines attacked. One servant, Ah Leung was speared to death before Mary and the other servant, Ah Sam fled the island in a cut down beche-de-mer tank. They drifted at sea for eight days before dying of thirst. Mary is buried in the cemetery at Cooktown.
  • Hiking up to Cook's Look (359m) -  Captain Cook who named the island for its population of what he thought were 'lizards' climbed the island's highest peak to find a way through the Great Barrier Reef. Today re-tracing his steps seems to be something of a  rite of passage amongst the more energetic guests at the resort. Once at the top you are rewarded with an unimpeded view of the island.
  • The Lizards -  They are in fact goannas which grow to several feet long and hang around the resort gardens and under the boardwalks looking cute. 

A Lizard Island goanna.


Which room to choose - 

  • We have always stayed in the Anchor Bay Suites. Only a few metres walk to the beach at Anchor Bay they are set back from the sand far enough to give them some privacy. 
  • Unless it has been moved in the latest re-build, be aware that room number 40 is so close to the staff bar it can be very noisy in the evenings. 

Getting there - 

  • Lizard Island is a 60 minute flight from Cairns in a light plane. On a clear day, there are spectacular views of the reef.  The first time we stayed there the watersports manager was on the same flight and he spent much of the hour describing and pointing out different features below us. It was infinitely better than a flightseeing tour.
  • If your pockets are deep enough you can fly from Cairns by helicopter.


Bedarra Island

Like Lizard Island, Bedarra was the victim of a cyclone a few years ago. In February 2011 Cyclone Yasi struck. The resort re-opened under new owners eighteen months later.

Bedarra is smaller than Lizard Island with an area of just 100 hectares. It is located 10 kms offshore from Mission Beach, 140 km south of Cairns. The island is covered in thick tropical rainforest.



Becoming modern day explorers in our own little dinghy was a highlight of our stay at Bedarra.

Advantages - 
  • Privacy and Seclusion - With only eight villas, each sleeping two adults, Bedarra takes privacy and seclusion very seriously. 
  • Size - The smaller size of the island makes it easy to explore from the water. D and I had a great time in the resort's motorised dinghies circumnavigating the island and calling in at deserted beaches.
  • The Villas - Unlike Lizard where most of the villas are grouped in pairs, every villa on Bedarra is set in a separate building. 


Highlights - 

  • Taking a motorised dinghy and picnic to a deserted beach and playing Robinson Crusoe for the day.
  • The level of personal service.
  •  'Bedarra cocktail hour' before dinner each evening is a great opportunity to get to know your fellow guests.
  • Climbing to the lookout, complete with chairs bolted to a rocky outcrop, at the top of the island and just taking in the wonderful view.

Disadvantages - 
  • It was disappointing to have to go to the other side of the island to find pristine sand beaches with crystal clear water.  
  • There is some lovely coral in Hernandia Bay but it is a fair way out. If you are not a confident swimmer it is probably out of your reach. If what you want is the ability to snorkel or dive right off the island then you are better off at Lizard Island.
  • Bedarra offers dive and snorkelling trips to the outer reef but because it is much further than Lizard from the main reef getting there takes a lot longer.

Playing Robinson Crusoe with a beach picnic packed by the resort.


Don't miss - 
  • A beach picnic on one of the isolated beaches away from the resort. 

Which room to choose - 

  • Our focus is for seclusion and privacy rather than being right on the beach. For that reason we like the Oceanview Terrace Villas  (Rooms 12 & 13). If you want a plunge pool then go for Villa 14. 
  • The Beach House (Villa 5) is right on the beach if you want to literally fall out of bed and hit the sand.

Late afternoon strolls were a must for us.


Getting there

  • Bedarra is half an hour by launch from Mission Beach. The launch leaves Mission Beach at 12.30 pm and takes 30 minutes. 
  • Mission Beach is two hours drive south of Cairns. There are limousine and bus services operating from Cairns, but the easiest way of getting to Mission Beach is to hire a car and drive.
  • If you have deep pockets and not much luggage, then as with Lizard, you can arrive in style by helicopter.


Qualia is situated on Hamilton Island, one of the Whitsunday Group, 16 kms from the Queensland coast at Airlie Beach. It is 500 kms further south than Bedarra and about 1000 kms further south than Lizard. This makes it cooler year-round than both Lizard and Bedarra.

Although there are many other hotels and resorts on Hamilton, Qualia has its own private little corner on the northern tip. Behind the imposing electronic gates and  'Guests only - entry by appointment' sign you will feel quite secluded.

We never actually saw anyone swim in this pool. I think it just looked too perfect to disturb the water.


Advantages -
  • Easy access - Hamilton Island has its own airport which can handle passenger jets. There are direct flights from all the mainland capital cities. You can be relaxing in the luxury surrounds within a few hours of leaving home.
  • Accommodation -  Qualia's villas are stunning. The Windward Pavillions, in particular, have magnificent views out across the Coral Sea and Whitsunday Islands. It has been a while since we stayed at Qualia but assuming the standard has been maintained I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with the villas.
The rooms are just lovely - I adore a nice long afternoon soak.


Highlights -

  • The view from the Windward side.
  • Zipping around Hamilton Island in a Qualia golf buggy. Each of the rooms comes with a two-seater buggy. We had a lot of fun exploring the rest of the island in ours. Be warned though, you need a full drivers licence. 
  • Being dropped off for a private beach picnic.

Our beach picnic.


Disadvantages -

  • Qualia is built on a cliff hillside. While this makes for great views across the water it means that some parts of the resort are quite steep. You will want to take your buggy down to Pebble Beach's restaurant and pool for example.
  • Mostly pebbles, with a short, uninspiring stretch of sand the resort beach is disappointing. 
  • There are some patches of coral at Pebble Beach but a prevailing current while we were there made the water too murky to see the colours. To snorkel the main reef you have to take a helicopter, sea-plane or day cruise. 
  • Except breakfast, meals are not included in Qualia's standard rate, nor is wine or other alcoholic drinks. There is a Gourmet Rate which includes dinner but not lunch. You will need to take the price of meals into account when working out the cost of your stay. While you might decide to eat out occasionally you are not going to want to leave the resort for every meal. 
  • With 60 pavillions, Qualia is less intimate than either Lizard or Bedarra.


They don't let just anyone in!


Don't miss - 
  • A private beach drop-off and picnic.

Which room to chose - 
  • We stayed in a Windward Pavillion because of their superior views. The Leeward Pavillions didn't seem to have quite the same magical feel.



Which resort should you choose?

  • Qualia - if you are time poor and want to get there and back quickly. Qualia is also the only one of the three resorts where you can play golf  nearby.
  • Lizard - if, like me, you love snorkelling or you want your own island to explore on foot.
  • Bedarra - if you want privacy, seclusion and individual attention.



Note: In the last six years David and I have been to all three of Bedarra, Qualia and Lizard Island Resorts. We stayed in the mid-priced rooms each time. We have not stayed at Lizard since its re-build. However, it appears to have been re-built to the same basic plan as it had before it was hit by the cyclones. I have written this guide drawing on our personal experience but bear in mind that your expectations and experiences may be different to ours. If you choose to go to one of the resorts I hope you have a wonderful time. If you do go, drop me a line and tell me what you thought.


60 comments:

  1. We are so lucky to have the beautiful reef here aren't we?
    These look like great places to visit!

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    1. The Reef is a fabulous place. I just love snorkelling.

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  2. Excellent account of all three and it has been a while since we have been also. Looking forward to get up there again at some stage. My friend goes to Lizard Island annually and loves it.

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    1. Lizard has been my favourite because of it's great snorkelling but D and I are headed to one of the others later in the year.

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  3. I would love to return to the Great Barrier Reef. We've only visited Cairns and then taken a day trip out to Green Island. Qualia appeals to me because the main reason why we didn't go the the Outer Reef was that I get so seasick. Flying out to Hamilton Island would avoid that. On the other hand, I do love snorkeling, so Lizard Island sounds good, too.

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    1. There is not a person in the world who gets more sea-sick than me. I find the light plane ride out to Lizard quite scary for that reason alone but if I plan ahead and take something like Kwells or Travacalm I can manage the hour's trip and actually enjoy it. We have never been to Bedarra by boat. When we were last there you flew to Dunk and took a ten minute launch over. However since Dunk was destroyed by a cyclone you now have to get a boat. I'm pretty sure it doesn't take that long though.

      If you get sea-sick I would recommend Lizard because once you are there you can snorkel the reef without having to take any more boats and if you do want to go out further it doesn't take all day.

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  4. This is one partof Aus I am always kicking myself for never visiting - just like postcards. wow.

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    1. The solution is simple. Visit again - we're not that far away - lol.

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  5. Great breakdown by adventurous activity type. I would be snorkeling, for sure. Cheers! -- JR

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    1. The snorkelling is stunning on the reef. I'm not sure I would call it adventurous though - lol.There is a lot of laying around soaking up the sunshine too.

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  6. If I had to pick one of those, I'd chose Lizard Island. It looks interesting...except I'm not so sure about the light plane....

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    1. I will admit it is a bit scary but on a clear day the view is great.

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  7. Lyn, This is a very informative post, good for comparison shopping. I must admit, I would probably not stay at any of them. When I was in Cairns, we stayed at a beautiful B&B, my preferred accommodation! Great post!

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    1. The great thing about travel is that there is something for everyone. I get terribly sea-sick and D is not a strong swimmer so the ability to snorkel off a beach is worth its weight in gold to us. Cairns is lovely, but a bit lacking in the beach department. I don't suppose you got to Cooktown when you were there. It is one of my favourite places in Australia and not a flash resort or hotel in sight.

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  8. Lovely series - thank you so much for sharing at http://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2015/05/tally-ho.html

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. I went into this article thinking I'd like Bedarra best, as its fame spreads all the way to Fiji's Coral Coast where it has a namesake hotel. However, I'm throwing my hat in for Qualia, and I'd love to disturb that pristine pool with my presence - on a floatie with a cocktail if you please. I can't imagine which one is your favorite, although I'd guess Bedarra because you mentioned specific room numbers. :)

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    1. My favourite has always been Lizard because I love snorkelling. D is not a strong swimmer and he panics when he snorkels so the ability to just walk in off the beach and swim through beautiful coral is a huge advantage for me. That said, we are headed back to Bedarra later this year.

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  10. Looks like a fantastic spot, that white sand beach looks so inviting. And the lizard it pretty cool too.

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    1. Yes, the white sand beach was lovely.There were goannas everywhere the first time we went. It was hard to get a good picture though because they kept hiding under the boardwalks.

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  11. What a beautiful place, a paradise! My hubby would love to snorkel there. Wonderful images, happy WW!

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    1. Thank you. Next time I go I'm going to try to get better underwater photos, although it isn't easy when you don't have any idea what you are doing - lol.

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  12. I've been to the Great Barrier Reef, but we did a three-day dive boat trip, which was wonderful! I would so love to go again, and I'd certainly choose the Lizard for the snorkeling!

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    1. The dive boat trips sound fantastic. Something I would love to do - not so sure D would enjoy it though.

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  13. Gosh, what beautiful photos, so much natural beautiful and bright colours :) Looks like a real paradise!
    - Marcella

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    1. It is easy to take good photos in that part of Queensland, the sun is out almost all the time and everything is so lovely.

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  14. Wow! They all look great. Nice to see the disadvantages too - sometimes you feel tricked by the photos so it's really just getting your expectations in line...

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    1. I was prompted to write this post by some Americans I met in Sydney who had a disappointing stay on another luxury island. I wanted to let people know what to expect, particularly in relation to viewing coral.

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  15. That looks wonderful. Love the tips on the places too! Having both sides is always something people need to see! And that bathtub to come back to looks heavenly!

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  16. It has been many many years since I was in Queensland, I loved my time there and visiting the Great Barrier Reef (a real bucket list must). All these resort look spectacular, which are the family friendly ones?

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    1. Sorry Sally, none of the three I have written about are family friendly. There are however many other resorts in Nth Queensland which pitch themselves at families with children. We went to a few when our children were young and had lots of fun. Now we leave the twenty-somethings at home to look after the house, which they do very badly, and feed the cat, which they seem to manage.

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  17. I've always wanted to stay at Qualia, but it would need to be a very special occasion with their prices. But oh, what a luxurious and relaxing experience it would be!

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    1. I did say none of them were cheap!

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  18. The accommodation at Qualia looks just divine! That bath!! Heavenly. But I love the sound of the beaches on Lizard Island. That would be closer to my idea of an island getaway I think. Love this post and will share.

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    1. Thanks. It's a tough choice isn't it - lol.

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  19. A friend of mine stayed on Lizard Island a few months ago and said it was the highlight of her trip to Australia. She wnet for the snorkeling. I don't snorkel, so I think I would choose one of the other islands. Pampering sounds good!

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    1. I know what you mean about pampering!

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  20. They all look wonderful. I have stayed on Fitzroy Island which is a mid-priced resort but we were very impressed

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    1. I have never been to Fitzroy but nice to know you enjoyed it.

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  21. Super! I hate to admit that I always seem to fly over Australia (not by design!). You remind me that I really am overdue for a stop there. :)

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    1. We did that with New Zealand for many years before we realised what a fantastic place it is to visit.

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  22. Thanks for such a balanced presentation. I, too, wonder when I read that something is the "best." It's usually a way of attracting readers.

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    1. They are all great resorts. Which one you choose really depends on what you want. Coral is such a big drawcard for me it balances out other drawbacks. D has this thing about large rooms. He's happy in a hovell as long as it is large.

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  23. Fascinating - I'd never heard of these places. Your post is quite informative as a guide to where a traveler might want to go.
    I hope you'll com elink up at http://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2015/05/tally-ho.html

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    1. Thanks and I have linked the post now.

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  24. This looks like absolute bliss to me

    Mollyxxx

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    1. Bliss is a good word for all three resorts.

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  25. How lucky that you have had the opportunity to stay at all three of these amazing resorts! I think I'd choose Lizard. I like the idea of being able to easily snorkel and get out and about to stretch the legs and explore.
    Thanks for joining in #wednesdaywanderlust

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  26. This is a really thorough and helpful review! It's great to hear from someone with first hand experience. I think if I had to pick, I'd go for Lizard. Direct access to coral sounds heavenly.

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    1. I haven't actually counted but so far I think Lizard is ahead on votes - lol.

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  27. I do remember when Oprah visited Australia! I'd be happy at any of those resorts, but I'd really be happy with that bathtub at Qualia.

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    1. The pity of it is that I seem to remember Oprah only spent one night there - not really enough time to lay back and relax.

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  28. Fantastic!! I would so love to visit this paradise! Your article and photos certainly painted a perfect picture!!!

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    1. Thanks. Paradise is a good word for all the resorts.

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  29. Wow, what a wonderfully in-depth review! All three of these locations look amazing, but I admit that I would have to choose Lizard Island-- the snorkeling there sounds fantastic!

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    1. Lizard is by far the best for snorkelling which makes it my favourite as well.

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  30. I'm a diver and have longed to visit the barrier reef. So, your post is being bookmarked. Thanks for the great information.

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    1. If you are a diver then you should consider doing a dive boat cruise. I have never done one but I understand they are a great way to see the reef.

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