FROM 2,745 METRES, the aquamarine lagoons and coral cays of the Great Barrier Reef, fringed by ribbons of silky white surf, stretch out as far as the eye can see. With its divine beauty, flying over the reef is an almost spiritual experience.

I'm en route to Lizard Island Resort, one of Australia's isolated luxury holiday destinations. The journey from the mainland takes 60 minutes, before the single-engine Cessna arcs gracefully to land on the island's tiny airstrip.

Twenty-seven kilometres from the coast of Queensland and 250 kilometres northeast of Cairns, Lizard Island sits in a pristine area of the Great Barrier Reef. The resort's symbiotic relationship with the reef is the core of its profound appeal.

Delivering understated luxury with a breathtaking reef encounter has consistently placed the resort in the Top 10 Hotels of the World list.

But despite the chic design of its 40 suites and villas, fine dining and exquisite creature comforts, Lizard Island Resort is not about matching its uber-luxury peers. It's a life- and nature- altering experience instead.

"There's a lot of 'bling' out there for people who want that six-star experience," says assistant general manager, Shaun Grant, as we stroll through the tropical bush. "We match that but without the bling. For us it's about balancing the in-room and outroom experience. We bring those together so you get that holistic escape.

"There are very few places in the world where you can remember who you are, and disconnect from the world. That's what we focus on."

With no cellphone reception, the resort has restricted Wi-Fi internet access to one lounge, a limitation I found liberating. Due to popular demand however, Wi-Fi will be rolled out to its rooms this year.

I stayed in one of the 18 Anchor Bay Suites; 936 spacious and elegant square feet of timber floors and unfussy finishes. With captivating sea views through a curtain of coconut palms, each suite has a path that leads to the beach 20 metres from your verandah.

If you want total privacy, book the most isolated villa. Beloved of British royals, the Pavilion, where Bollinger is provided on arrival and canapés at sunset, is for regal pampering.

Perched on a rocky promontory, with private pool and expansive deck, the Pavilion affords a spectacular panorama of the Coral Sea. This is seriously comfortable solitude.

You're not going to go hungry on Lizard. At Ospreys restaurant, executive chef Anthony Healy brings an inventive light touch to new Australian cuisine, serving the freshest seafood in the southern hemisphere. Friendly, obliging wait staff add an informal touch to meal times.

Over at the Beach Club, the resort's marine activity centre, guides suggest the best outlying beaches for coral reef snorkeling, and provide a water-taxi service for your commute.
The island's northerly location means the club offers dive trips to parts of the reef most mainland operators can't reach.

Exploring the island on foot reveals a rich narrative of the discovery and settlement of Australia. A derelict cottage where sea cucumbers were processed in 1880 by English settler Mary Watson and two Chinese assistants - Ah Sam and Ah Leung - still stands beside the beach that bears her name.

Set upon by aboriginal tribes for trespassing on their sites, Ah Sam was speared and killed but Watson and Ah Leung escaped, using a tin bath they cooked sea cucumbers in as their boat. They died after running out of drinking water.

Head up to Cook's Look and follow in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer James Cook, who discovered Lizard Island in 1770, when his vessel Endeavour ran aground on coral. Cook named the island after encountering one of its many reptile species.

Nature makes this resort so special. Surrounded by lush tropical jungle, guests share living space with geckos, skinks, green tree frogs, and a vocal community of bush birds, one of which, the pheasant coucal, sounds more simian than avian with its monkey- like mating call.

A scientific research station on the western side of Lizard hosts around 60 research projects a year - surely the world's most inviting laboratory.

I spoke with marine biologist and station director Anne Hoggett, who in 22 years on Lizard, has seen environmental threats to the reef increase. Monitoring the effect is a key part of the station's work. "The reef is deteriorating at a small rate every year, but that rate is increasing," says Hoggett.

"The best we can do is look after our carbon emissions; clean up our act globally. That's not likely to happen in the near future is it?" But it's not all doom and gloom.
"Locally there's a lot we can do," she says. "Keep the water quality in good condition and look after our fisheries. There is hope."

Coincidentally, Trevor Yang, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, was also a recent visitor to the station. Yang, who spent six days on the island with his wife and teenage sons, was "blown away" by the island's management.

"It's a great example of how commercial activity and environmental protection can work side by side. But it takes understanding on both sides, and a discerning clientele who respect the island for what it is," says Yang. "In Hong Kong we claim to have more coral species than the Caribbean, but we don't have fish in those corals because of over-fishing."

What did Yang and his family enjoy? "We loved the snorkeling and the boys were ecstatic about the diving." He plans to return.

One experience I'll treasure above all is the resort's "signature" activity, heading off on a sun-kissed morning in a dinghy (what's the hurry?), to an idyllic tropical beach, all to ourselves.

The sumptuous picnic hamper can wait. Mask, snorkel and fins attached, I swim to the shimmering coral; above giant clams, electric-blue starfish and alongside scuttling green turtles. Lizard Island Resort is total immersion in natural beauty, a rare, priceless gift.

Cathay Pacific flies direct to Cairns from Hong Kong three times a week.



Visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on the planet, the 2,300-kilometre reef home to about 1,800 marine species and more than 400 types of coral. Threatened by global warming, when reef waters increase in temperature, corals sicken (bleach) resulting in disease and often death. Any increase above two degrees Celsius in average global temperatures exceeds corals' thermal tolerance. Coral reefs affected by pollution, agricultural run-off and sediment make them vulnerable to much smaller shifts in temperature.

Rolling mass bleaching events, unknown to science before 1979, are increasing in frequency and severity. In 1998 more than half the Great Barrier Reef experienced bleaching, and between five and 10 per cent of its corals died. Worldwide almost a quarter of the world's coral reefs were destroyed.

Mapping the reef - Google and the Catlin Seaview Survey:

An underwater mapping project to raise awareness of coral ecosystems and the threats they face began last month at Lizard Island and 19 other sites across the Great Barrier Reef. The expedition hopes to draw the world's attention to the issues affecting coral reefs in a new and remarkable way. Using new technologies developed for the survey by Australian non-profit organisation Underwater Earth in partnership with Google, is the game-changer, its creators say.

At each site, the expedition team will use a specially developed camera to capture thousands of 360-degree underwater panoramas, that when combined together and uploaded to Google's servers, will allow users to choose a location, dip underwater and go for a virtual dive of Verne-esque proportions.

An underwater version of Google's Street View, with a swipe of your trackpad you'll navigate through the world's greatest aquarium. The survey's results are expected to surface on Google next year.