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Destination: Australia

Heron calls, and Lady Elliot beckons

On these quiet specks of cay at the south end of the Great Barrier Reef, abundant wildlife swirls across the sky and through the sea.

January 19, 2003|Clark Mason | Special to The Times

Heron Island, Australia — I raced a turtle, and it won. Of course, it was 25 feet underwater, and I had on a scuba tank and weight belt.

The 4-foot-long green turtle seemed to toy with me, staying just ahead of the camera frame as I struggled to swim alongside and have my fellow diver get the shot. The turtle indulged us briefly before gliding over creamy-white staghorn coral and heading toward sunny shallower waters.

Being a turtle here is easier these days than it was in the 1920s, when the island was the site of a turtle soup factory. Fortunately for the turtles, the soup company was short lived, and the old canning factory was replaced by the nature-sensitive Heron Island Resort.

Heron Island, 45 miles off the mainland, is an appealing alternative to the crowded dive sites and jammed boats that ply the waters off Cairns and Port Douglas to the north. Instead of being ferried out to a distant reef with hundreds of other tourists, my girlfriend, Virginia, and I chose to stay four days and nights at this newly refurbished vacation spot that's just 42 acres and barely a mile around.

P&O Australian Resorts, the owner/operator, spent about $3 million in 2001 to spruce up the facilities, including replacing cottages that dated to the 1930s, when Heron Island catered to commercial fishermen.

Today this idyllic cay on the Great Barrier Reef is also a national park and part of a marine sanctuary where turtles and other creatures are protected. The island, nearly bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn, is surrounded by a huge turquoise lagoon, perfect for exploring at low tide. On the edge of the outer reef, colorful sea creatures and coral abound.

The term "Great Barrier Reef" is a bit misleading. It is not a solid wall, as its name suggests, but a system of various reefs -- fringe reefs that grow along the mainland and around islands, ribbon reefs and platform reefs that emerge from the continental shelf.

The reef system is a boon for divers, but it wasn't for early seamen. English navigator Matthew Flinders, who in 1803 became the first known explorer to circumnavigate Australia, compared getting through the reef to threading a needle. Long before he became a captain, Lt. James Cook nearly sank the Endeavour after striking the reef.

The first recorded visit to Heron Island was in 1843 during a survey of the reef system to mark safe passage. A geologist on board mistook the large number of egrets for reef herons and named the place Heron Island.

Heron reopens for business

For the second time in as many years, Virginia and I journeyed to this island group at the southern end of the 1,200-mile-long reef system for scuba diving and relaxation. Both of us have logged scores of dives at various spots in the Caribbean and Pacific, but my first time underwater with a scuba tank was at the Great Barrier Reef years before. It opened up a magical world.

An expatriate American friend living in Queensland had recommended the southern Great Barrier Reef a couple of years ago as an affordable, low-key getaway. Heron Island, our first choice, was closed because of the remodeling, so we went elsewhere.

But the wait for Heron was worth it.

The evening of our arrival, we were treated to a stunning sunset as the sky turned shades of chalky purple, mauve and pink, while the moon rose on the opposite side. We took a leisurely walk around tiny Heron and got acquainted with the soft sand beaches.

Regardless of how you arrive at Heron -- we drove from Brisbane in a rental car and took a catamaran, while others helicopter in -- you must be careful where you tread. Along some paths, mutton birds live in burrows in the sand, but wooden boards with warning signs are placed over nests to keep them safe.

The 30,000 people who visit Heron Island annually seem to coexist peacefully with the wildlife and birds -- black noddies, brown boobies and frigate birds that migrate from as far as Siberia and western Alaska. Half the island is covered by a dense forest of Pisonia trees, which grow up to 60 feet and are laden with ramshackle nests. There are a couple of walking trails through the forest, but it was eerily quiet when we were there, many of the birds having departed after their noisy nesting season.

The resort's 109 rooms and suites are clustered on the other side of the island in fourplex buildings linked by a network of sandy paths. None of the structures is more than two stories high.

We booked a one-room reef suite for $110 per person per day, including food, but were inexplicably upgraded to a two-room ocean-facing suite. (I did not mention I was a journalist.) It was spacious and furnished with new wicker chairs and tables, colorful bedspreads and curtains. We had a sitting room, small refrigerator, ceiling fan, private balcony and plenty of soft, plush towels.

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