Lizard Island Luxury on the Great Barrier Reef

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Giant Blue Clam 150 feet off the beach at Lizard Island
Giant Blue Clam 150 feet off the beach at Lizard Island

Five Days of Beauty Above and Below at the Lizard Island Resort

By Tab Houser
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

The Lizard Island Resort on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been on my bucket list for 30 years. It is the first resort that I am giving a six-star rating. This rating is based not just on the highest level of service, food, and accommodation, but also on being located in a prime and pristine location with so many wonderful and unique things to do.

Lizard Island Resort Tab Hauser
Seeing three beaches and “Cook’s Look” on the final approach to Lizard Island

The Lizard Island Resort sits on a 2500 acre, or six square mile granite island 150 miles north of Cairns. Getting there is easy. Guests simply arrive 45 minutes before flight time to a private terminal.

Here they get their luggage weighed and then wait in a comfortable room while watching a video about the island. During the one-hour flight, you will be treated to views of the different coral reef formations that pass underneath.

Arrival on Lizard Island is a cheery event.  Smiling staff members meets the plane and its ten passengers with golf carts. While the luggage is unloaded and brought to the suites, guests are driven three minutes to the dining room where sparkling wine and charcuterie await you.

There is no formal check-in and after chatting with a staff member you are escorted to your accommodations.

The Lizard Island Resort is the only hotel on the island which is a national park*. The reason to come here is to be up close and personal with the Great Barrier Reef.  There is world-class snorkeling just 150 feet off their beaches. It is also a short boat ride to snorkel or dive to their inner reefs. The beauty abounds under the sea in fish and coral that is in excellent condition. There is also much to see also above the surface of the island.

Lizard Island Diving Tab Hauser
Good Visibility and good coral reefs off Lizard Island

Things to Do on Lizard Island

Guests staying at Lizard Island have included access to motorized small boats, snorkel gear, beach snorkeling, kayaks, stand-up boards, tennis and hiking.

Daily activities can include a nature and historical hike, a hike and snorkel to the beach with giant clams, and yoga to name a few. You can even picnic at a beach that you will probably have to yourself. The resort prints out a weekly guide for its activities.

One highlight was lying on mats on the darkened airstrip at night. Here you are treated to the maximum number of stars visible to the naked eye. Experts say that can be up to 9000 stars and a few galaxies.

For extra fees, snorkeling and diving can be arranged at the nearby or outer reefs. There is also a well-equipped fishing yacht that can be chartered. For those curious about the reef, a visit to the research station on the island can be arranged for a fee.

Fox Bat on Lizard Island Tab Hauser
Spotting a fox bat on a nature hike

Their Essentia Day Spa is “an extension of the tranquility of the resort”. In either a private or couples room, guests can enjoy a full menu of relaxing and therapeutic treatments offered.

For hikers, arrange to have a guide take you to “Cook’s Look”.  It is here in 1770 that Captain James Cook climbed to the peak to survey the surrounding waters on how to sail out of the Great Barrier Reef safely. He gave Lizard Island its name after seeing lizards as the only animal on it.

Snorkeling

There is no better or easier place than to snorkel Lizard Island’s Watson’s Bay.  Watson’s Bay offers snorkeling in three places. We checked out the pristine reef on each side of this beautiful sandy bay on our own.

Here we saw layers of different healthy coral along with many different tropical fish.  On a few occasions, we spotted Nemo. Those are colonies of anemone fish also known as clown fish.

Lizard Island Turtle Tab Hauser Photo
Turtles are seen often at Lizard Island beaches

When here, take the narrative walk over the hill to Watson’s Bay to snorkel the middle coral reef.  This area is known for viewing giant clams. These clams can grow to as large as four feet and live to 70 years.  They are not only large but pretty. Here you will see their shells partly opened showing blue, yellow, or green colors.  The bright colors are due to algae that grow on their skin. Algae has a symbiotic relationship with the clams.

Diving

Clown Fish Lizard Island Tab Hauser
Clown Fish in the coral reef

If you are a diver or considering diving, Lizard Island is the place to be. We dove twice here during our short four-night visit.

One dive planned was to the outer reef to visit and feed the large friendly cod at Cod Hole with the following dive around Ribbon Reef 10.

As you are at the mercy of seas, our day for Cod Hole had unusually fast currents. Here the dive team took us around the corner to other excellent locations.

One dive was with a lesser current where we were dropped off at one end of the reef and picked up at another. Divers here felt like they were soaring past the pretty coral and tropic fish.

The snorkelers on the boat viewed the top areas of the reef with the current pushing them along making an easy swim. They said it was the best drift snorkeling experience ever.

A key advantage to staying at the Lizard Island Resort is that there are no day trippers. Diving and snorkeling are in small groups with one to two guides for every six guests.

Dining on Lizard Island

Wagyu steak cooked to order on Lizard Island
Wagyu Steak Cooked to order

The Salt Water Restaurant is open-air with views of the ocean and the occasional lizard that passes by during the morning. Dinner is fine dining here with a good selection of house wines included.

All meals are served ala carte by friendly and efficient servers. Dishes included fresh fish, oysters, and wagyu sirloin.  The chef is happy to work around any kind of allergies, dislikes or special requests.

Fresh coconut juice readied for a pina coloda at Lizard Island's bad
Fresh coconut juice readied for a pina coloda at Lizard Island’s bad

The resort guests have an open bar with premium brands of liquor and a few pages of craft cocktails. You can also have any frozen concoction you care to request.

I enjoyed a pina colada using coconut water cracked opened in front of me. Snacks and drinks are replenished daily in your suite at no charge too.

The Marlin Bar directly on the beach is open two days a week serving big juicy burgers or a good pizza. This is a place to meet the visiting boaters that anchor in the bay.

It is also where the staff unwinds and a place to thank them with a round of drinks. People tend to congregate here to watch the big sunsets and bright orange afterglow that happens nightly.

Lizard Island Accommodations

Lizard Island airplane Tab Hauser
No long check-in or security delays when flying to Lizard Island

Lizard Island Resort is a boutique property with room for about 80 guests.

The Villa is ultimate in privacy. It is a large airy house with a rooftop lounging area having a commanding view across Sunset Beach and the Coral Sea.

The Villa includes a guest house, a chef, a vehicle, and private staff. Rock stars have been known to stay here.

The Pavilion villa is a moderate size house that sits high above the Coral Sea having a spectacular 270-degree panorama view.

The Beachfront Suites on Anchor Bay have easy access to the main lodge and restaurant. They all offer sea views along with a private path leading directly to the beach. (Disabled access rooms are available.)

Great Barrier Reef near Lizard Island
One of the many views of the Great Barrier Reef flying to Lizard Island

The Ocean View Villas (where we upgraded) sits above Sunset Bay. We chose the private plunge pool suite overlooking the ocean. We found this little pool to be the perfect place to enjoy their complimentary Tasmanian sparkling bottle of wine and a snack at the day’s end.

Lizard of LIzard Island Tab Hauser
One of the LIzards of LIzard Island

The Garden View Rooms are the lowest-priced accommodations. While located in a tropical garden setting, guests staying there are only a three-minute walk to the beach.

Complimentary Wi-Fi is available in all accommodations and most of the resort. There is no mobile phone coverage on Lizard Island.

The Cairns Connection 

To get to Lizard Island, you need to go through Cairns. I recommend a couple of nights here. Cairns in a lively waterside city. It is a good place to sort out your jet lag when visiting from overseas.

Cairns is known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Rainforest.  From Cairns, you can catch a fast boat to floating platforms on the reef or to the nearby islands.  Going north of the Cairns takes you to the tropical rainforests and a few beach towns.

After getting to Cairns walk off some of that jet lag on their esplanade. This waterfront walkway goes along the water. Here you will see pelicans and other seabirds, art, and will be adjacent to restaurants and the night market.

A Fun Way to See the Ancient Rainforest

Skyrail Rainforest Cableway Cairns
The Skyrail Rainforest Cableway s a unique way to see the ancient rainforest

If you are in Cairns for a day and are looking for a non-reef adventure on your own, I recommend visiting the world’s oldest rainforest.  An enjoyable way to do this is to take the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway one way and return via the Kuranda Scenic Railway.

The easiest way to arrange this is to book a combination ticket on Skyrail’s website.  I recommend taking the gondola to Kuranda and then the train back.

For an inexpensive splurge, consider the AUD$25 diamond upgrade on your cable car with a glass floor. Looking down is really cool! This upgrade has a separate line and you will probably have the gondola to yourself.

For the return train ride Consider upgrading to the “Gold Class” ticket. For AUD$45 you get individual comfortable seats in a restored 100-year-old carriage. It includes early boarding with wine, beer, soda, local coffee, and tea. During the ride back a dedicated attendant refills your glass and serves you a local cheese platter.  More information on the Kuranda Scenic Railway. 

Kuranda Scenic Railway Cairns Tab Hauser
Trains slow down to take in the view on the Kuranda Scenic Railway

To get to Skyrail’s Smithfield Terminal take an Uber or taxi for AUD$25. If you are a military enthusiast, the terminal is located adjacent to the Australian Armour and Artillery Museum.

I recommend getting to the terminal no earlier than 10:30 AM.  Following this schedule will give you plenty of time in Kuranda and be able to catch the 3:30 return train.

Before boarding the sky rail car it is important you download their app. The app gives you a narrative of what you are seeing below.  The Skyrail offers two stops.  The first one is at Red Peak where you can get a 20-minute ranger-led tour.  We learned a lot about this 125 million-year-old rainforest while walking on an easy boardwalk. The next stop is Barron Falls.  After departing the gondola stroll down the path to catch the view of this magnificent 1000-foot multitier waterfall.

Kuranda is a small village and the terminal for the Skyrail and Kuranda Scenic Railway. There is a main street lined with shops, cafes, and aboriginal art stores.  Walk to the market at the end of the street and enjoy the organic tropical fruit smoothies from Fruibies. For those not into shopping or lunch, there are trails along the river. While here consider the 45-minute slow riverboat ride with Kuranda Riverboat. Here we viewed a few crocodiles, birds, turtles, and fish.

Cairns Lodging

Cairns Tab Hauser
The City of Cairns with the Shangri-la Hotel and Marina on the left

 The Shangri-la Hotel and Marina is a five-star hotel in the perfect location. It is at the start of the esplanade, adjacent to the man-made swimming lagoon, close to restaurants and attached to the marina.  The hotel has a small swimming pool and a well-equipped gym.  We elected to upgrade to the 602-square-foot Horizon Club Room with an oversize balcony viewing of the marina. Horizon club floor guests get breakfast, evening appetizers, and drinks. https://www.shangri-la.com/en/cairns/shangrila/

Lizard Island Sky Tab Hauser
After-glow skies appear almost nightly on Lizard Island

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