Lizard Island is a tiny gem on the Great Barrier Reef – try a holiday here without wi-fi to totally relax and unwind from regular life.
It’s night-time. The sensible people are sipping cocktails at the bar of the Lizard Island resort. I’m peering from the deck of a small boat with nervousness that I hope translates as excitement at the black rippling surface of the Coral Sea. So clear and friendly in the daytime, it now appears as fathomless as the diamond-studded velvet of the sky above – and I’m about to jump in. The boat, MV Nemo, has just arrived at a reef nicknamed Clam Gardens. There’s anticipation in the air – and a funny back-of-the-fish-shop smell that’s a sure sign the annual spawning of coral on the Great Barrier Reef is underway.
In my daytime explorations, I’ve already peeked into the giant iridescent-lipped smiles of centenarian clams, marvelled at porites coral the shape of a truck tyre and the colour of blackcurrant cordial and swum with green sea turtles and remoras, the ray-finned suckerfish that ride the turtles’ backs and bellies. I’ve seen sea life so peculiar that my later attempts to Google their identities result in suggestions like “How do I know if my fish has ick?” But this outing promises to be the most spectacular experience of all.
As my fellow guests and I zip up our wetsuits, Alex, the cheerful young New Zealander in charge, activates glowsticks in our snorkels so we can find one another in the dark. We get underwater torches, too. Red eyes belong to crustaceans, he tells us, green eyes to predators. My toes curl in my flippers. But don’t worry, says Alex, reef sharks aren’t interested in humans so if you see green eyes, just shine your torch on your body. I slip into the water after Alex, planning to stick to him like a remora. Any green eyes, I show them his body. We’re instantly engulfed in a snow-dome swirl of coral spawn and the shimmering swarms of tiny fish that feed on them. I’m so mesmerised that I lose Alex for a while and barely notice a passing shark.
Just a few days earlier, in Cairns, I’d checked my phone for the last time while waiting to take the hour’s flight to Lizard Island some 240 kilometres north. Then I switched my phone to flight mode. It is now just a camera – and will remain so until I get back to Cairns. I’m carrying a notebook (the paper kind), some pens and a book. No computer. The plan is for four days free of digital distractions, a goal that the island is well set up for. The resort’s villas have landlines but with the mainland 27 kilometres away, there’s no mobile service. The internet connection is poor or “relaxed”, as one staff member put it.
Once a sacred place for initiations among the Dingaal people, who call it Jiigurru, this stingray-shaped tropical island is less than 10 square kilometres in size. A tall granite ridge rises at its centre and coral reefs fringe its sparkling white beaches. One couple I meet tells me that they didn’t know about the lack of mobile reception on their first visit here about a decade ago. “Peter climbed the ridge,” Shanelle tells me. “He was up there waving his phone around trying to get reception.” They laugh at the memory. This is their fourth trip – the lack of connectivity is now part of the attraction.
Corinna and Krissy, who work at reception, are digital natives. But now, they tell me, when they return to the mainland, they’re much less attached to their smartphones. At the beach club, where I come to pick up snorkelling gear or borrow a glass-bottomed canoe, I see the diving instructors and other young resort staff hanging out and I’m struck by the fact that not one of them has a phone in their hands. With no devices competing for attention, it’s remarkably easy to strike up conversations – or simply get lost in nature. There are higher pleasures to be had than can be delivered with the ping of a notification.
Still, waking that first morning in my beachfront suite, my initial impulse is to reach for my mobile, check my email, scroll the headlines. No can do. I feel a surge of relief. Minutes later I’m swimming in clear turquoise water over one fish that looks like a length of tubing and alongside another with a head like a parquet floor. An hour later, in the open dining area overlooking the sea, I savour a breakfast of grilled halloumi, mushrooms and meltingly soft curly kale on malt toast while watching one of the yellow-spotted monitors for whom the island was named stomp along the path. A seagull prances past with half a croissant in its mouth. The waitstaff shake their heads – that one’s a serial offender. Little yellow-bellied sunbirds flit and chitter. The morning sky, framed by coconut palms, brightens with every passing minute.
I think about those fish and try not to feel sorry for the couple at the next table, spooning up their chia porridge with one hand and impatiently testing the limits of the “relaxed” wi-fi with the other. Then a flash of envy: maybe they’re searching for the names of weird fish.
The meals are exceptional. Daily menus centre on locally sourced products from sea and hinterland. An aspirational but not terribly successful vegetarian, I swoon before the gnocchi with white truffle but fall before coal roasted kangaroo with black garlic butter.
People come from all over to stay on Lizard Island and some of them, like Peter and Shanelle, visit again and again. I meet a young couple from Wollongong, retirees from the Gold Coast and environmental philanthropists from Sydney. A number are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries.
The vibe is luxe but chilled, with no children under 10 allowed. You’re welcome to have as social or solitary, adventurous or educational an experience as you wish. Join small-group diving and snorkelling expeditions or organise a private one – or hike to Cook’s Look, where Captain Cook tried, in 1770, to work out an escape path for the Endeavour through the maze of reefs. With 24 beaches and only 40 villas and suites and a staff who will pack you a picnic and give you a launch, it’s easy to find your own patch of sand.
After swimming with turtles and an indulgent lunch, I lounge on the day bed on my deck with a pot of tea and a novel, pretending I’m Robinson Crusoe. But Crusoe with a soft bathrobe, high-end amenities, a large, comfortable bed, flatscreen TV discreetly hidden behind cabinet doors, deluxe day spa, private plunge pool and the possibility of a dégustation dinner in a beachside pavilion. Please, no-one rescue me.
On my final morning, I take a tour of the Lizard Island Research Station. Owned and operated by the Australian Museum, it’s where marine scientists from around the globe come to study the reef’s unique and increasingly fragile environment.
Aboard the golf buggy making its way to the sandy airstrip where the Cessna is waiting for the return to Cairns, my phone, still on flight mode, begins to feel heavier in my pocket. Touching down on the mainland, I reconnect, this time with the world: 37 emails, 39 WeChat messages, three WhatsApps and one text trill, tumble and ping into view. I’ll answer them later. First I need to Google some fish.
Image credit: Jason Loucas.