Lady Elliot Island: Great Barrier Reef's southern gateway

by oz-devon

Within easy reach of Brisbane, Lady Elliot Island offers a wonderful Great Barrier Reef experience, complete with spectacular seabirds, migrating whales, nesting turtles and awesome manta rays

Looking for a Great Barrier Reef experience with only limited time? Find yourself in southeast Queensland, away from Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands? With direct flying times of 35 minutes from Bundaberg or Hervey Bay, Lady Elliot Island could be your answer. Flights are also available from Brisbane (Redcliffe), and the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.

The area is well-known for diving, nesting turtles, whale-spotting and bird-watching. It means that no matter what time of year you go, you will usually see at least one of the iconic species. Not being a diver, I did miss the manta rays, but my wildlife moment arrived when snorkelling, as a green sea turtle swam less than two metres from me. 

With a wildlife centre on the island and a daily programme of guided walks and talks, there's plenty of opportunity to discover and learn more about this World Heritage Site. Identification charts and videos in the centre prepare you for your exploration in the water and on dry land.  Guided walks, which take about an hour, include reef walks and birdwatching walks.  The later are great for novices.  Our guide pointed out nesting birds which were well camouflaged, whilst our presence did not disturb the birds. 

Part of the experience is getting there. Flying is the only method of transport to the island and from the air, the sight of this perfect coral cay is matched only by the landing itself - dramatic! No airport queues here: you are greeted at the aircraft and guided on foot to the reception area, then on to your accommodation. It took all of 10 minutes. Leaving was even more relaxed. Given that the temperature was in the 30°s, we were grateful that the safety briefing was carried out under the wing! 

Be warned that in the bird breeding season you are surrounded by nests. A sign on our arrival said it all: "Please don't use this seat - birds nesting underneath." Even around our accommodation, the white capped noddys, red-tailed tropic birds and crested terns were everywhere. Not often do you come this close to nature - some guests were visibly shaken.

We were there in December, in time for the turtle season (November to April). Again, you did not have to walk far to see them - but then the island covers a mere 45 hectares (110 acres). Three minutes from our suite we witnessed one of those never-to-be-forgotten wildlife spectacles: a green sea turtle laying her eggs. It is worth staying up to the early hours to watch this event.

Should you tire of wildlife, a walk around the island will uncover aspects of its social history, the old lighthouse (1873), the new lighthouse (1981) and a small cemetery. In 1896, the 30 year old daughter of the lighthouse keeper died of a severe cold, However it is the grave of Susannah McKee that brings home how difficult life must have been in those early years.  It is said that in 1907, Mrs McKee simply threw herself off the jetty and drowned. 

Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort itself takes up a fraction of the island, leaving plenty of areas to explore by yourself. If you are looking for luxury, this is not the place for you. However, it is comfortable, with a range of accommodation to choose from. We stayed in an two-room Island Suite; one room, with stunning views out to the lagoon, had a double bed whilst the other, looking back into the resort, had two single beds. Drinks on the verandah at sundown added that final castaway touch. Alternative accommodation includes Reef Units and the more basic, tent-like Eco-huts with bunk beds. If your budget will stretch, I would recommend going for an Island Suite, for that extra comfort. Island Suites start at A$306 per person per night (dinner, bed & breakfast, twin/tripple sharing).  Eco-huts start at A$223 per person per night (dinner, bed & breakfast, sole occupancy, A$158 for twin/tripple sharing.)

There are several dining options from the Beachfront Cafe and the Dining Room. Not surprisingly, seafood was a popular menu choice and the relaxed atmosphere encouraged discussions of the day's adventures. For a self-service buffet, the food was above average and there were none of the scrums often associated with these arrangements. When booking, look out for special deals that may include meals. Most packages also include a glass-bottom boat trip, guided walks and use of snorkelling equipment.

Day trips to the island are possible. However, given how beautiful and interesting it is, saying goodbye after a few hours must be difficult. Happily for guests staying there, the flight capacities mean that day-trippers are few, and they do not impact on the resort's atmosphere.

Having visited a number of Barrier Reef Islands over the years, I would recommend Lady Elliot. It is what you expect a coral island to look and feel like. Don't be misled by the size of the island - you will find more than enough to keep you occupied or simply gaze in wonder at nature's work.

How to get there

We travelled from Bundaberg Airport, which is reached from Brisbane via QantasLink. QR (Queensland Rail) train services between Brisbane and Cairns, including the Tilt Train, stop at Bundaberg. Greyhound coaches also serve this route. The airport is approximately 15 minutes from the train and bus stations. Hervey Bay Airport is served by QantasLink from Brisbane in addition to direct flights from Sydney with Virgin Blue.