Location: Fitzroy Island is a 45 minute ferry ride from Cairns, North Queensland.
Price range: $129- $378 per night and upwards.
Once you start adding up the costs of a reef trip per person for a family ($100+per person) and the amount of time it takes to travel out to the reef from Cairns (2.5 hours each way), spending a little extra to stay out on a reef-fringed island and waking each day in paradise makes good sense
Why we chose it: When we told our kids we were going to the Great Barrier Reef, our youngest child was really nervous. He was super excited to find Nemo, but all the brochures of outer reef experiences – with or without kid-friendly pontoons – were freaking him right out. Night after night he was having nightmares about being lost at sea, Open Water style.
I decided to try and find a place were he could still see the reef by snorkeling at depths he was comfortable with right out from a land base. Besides, once you start adding up the costs of a reef trip per person for a family ($100+per person) and the amount of time it take from Cairns to travel out to the reef (2.5 hours each way), and spending a little extra to stay out on the reef and waking each day in paradise makes good sense in more ways than one.
Many of the islands that allow overnight stays on the Great Barrier Reef and are accessible from Cairns are either prohibitively expensive (Bedara Island), prohibit children (Lizard Island), or are rugged camping sites that would require copious amounts of gear (Russell Island, Dunk Island) – as we were neither rich, child free or able to get away with enough luggage in our flight allowance to camp, our options were narrowed. Finding Fitzroy Island was like a eureka moment – it has it’s own fringing reef that allows you to snorkel right off the beach, and is also home to a turtle rehabilitation centre (a big drawcard for our turtle-mad eldest), a dive shop, water sports hire and enough hiking trails and hidden beaches to keep the kids actively exploring in and out of the water the entire stay. As an added bonus, two outer reef tours operators can pick you up from the island, so others in our group could still go experience deeper water snorkeling/diving. Did we mention it’s also 4.5 star?
The space: A tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef region large enough to have bush walks/lookouts/rainforest/hidden coral beaches, but small enough to explore in just a couple of days. The island is 339 hectares in size, 324 of which is protected as Fitzroy Island National Park. The waters here are protected too – it’s part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. While you’ll feel miles away from anything, Fitzroy Island is on the continental shelf and within sight of the mainland; in fact the island is actually the peak of a submerged mountain that once formed part of the chain that runs south of Cairns. Aside from the resort there’s also a council campsite on the island.
The room: One Bedroom Suite.
These one bedroom holiday suites feature a generous balcony (some with ocean views through the trees, which luckily ours had), kitchen facilities, lounge and dining area and a very luxe marble-tiled ensuite bathroom. The rooms were gorgeously appointed, and the furnishings and overall layout were what you’d expect from a four star resort – we were pleasantly surprised given how reasonable the rates were (by digging around online we found a family four night stay package for $900 plus transfers).
The island is popular and we weren’t able to book a larger ‘family’ room or cabin on the dates we were after, but our one bedroom apartment was quite spacious compared to a standard hotel room and easily able to accommodate the four of us. The sofa was a pullout, so our kids took up the lounge area by night and we’d just pack it away for more space in the day.
(When we booked, children under 12 were able to stay using existing bedding or the sofa pullout, but if you wanted to get them a proper rollaway it’s an extra cost. They had baby cots for hire too)
Aside from the snorkeling, Fitzroy Island offers a wide range of water sports, both free and paid. The island has all the family classics: glass-bottom boat trips, a massive ocean trampoline, a giant infinity edge pool with swim up bar and Bali-style pool huts, plus SUP and kayak hire.
There’s a few dining/bar options on the island. There’s the pool bar, which is open during the day offering drinks and snacks. Then there’s Zephyr, open for breakfast and dinner. It’s got a gorgeous terrace that overlooks the water, but book ahead – the best seats book out quickly apparently. It’s the priciest option (meals circa $35 pp upwards). Have to admit I was a little disappointed by Zephyr – service was fine and the food was passable, but despite booking well ahead and asking for an outdoor table we were seated inside right next to the busy entrance. I’m thinking it’s because we had kids in tow, so they decided to spare any couples quietly wining and dining outside by segregating us!
Down the beach away from the resort a little, Foxy’s Bar is a bit more relaxed and affordable. It offers casual meals and drinks, and has a kid’s menu. It’s got a deck with great ocean views for a cocktail. Nothing fancy and a bit rough around the edges, but at least you won’t get relegated to the worst table because you brought kids. There’s also a little general store adjacent to Foxy’s where you can buy snacks and a limited range of supplies.
There’s also a mini cinema and games room, but we barely glanced at these as the weather was so gorgeous during our stay.
Other things to do:
- Visit the turtle rehabilitation centre – set times daily, book through reception. It’s only a small enclosure, but the guide explains lots about turtles facts and conservation. This (and then later snorkeling just metres off the island with giant turtles) was one of the highlights of the trip for our nine year old. But our five year old? Lots of talking, so the thrill of seeing turtles soon wore off.
- Great Barrier Reef day tour with Cairns Dive Centre or Sunlover Reef Cruises, both of which do pick-ups and drop-offs right from the island.
- Cairns Dive Centre have a shop near the foyer where you can book tours, as well as pick up anything you forget to bring – from coral booties to wetsuits. It also runs a dive school on the island, and offers introductory and certified diving. I did my very first dive here; prices were really good and included all training in a dive pool on the island first, then equipment, boat ride and a dive guide to explore the reef on the outer edge of the island’s reef. Because you’re already out the island, costs are lower than those I saw advertised elsewhere – under $100 per person.
- Bush walking circuit trails leads tourists to the best viewing spots of the island. There are the Lighthouse and Summit walks (around two hours) that lead visitors to the inactive lighthouse on the North West point where Little Fitzroy Island can be seen, while the peak offers magnificent 360 views of the island, reef, and beyond. For littler legs or a more leisurely stroll, the southern walking trail leads through the rainforest to Nudey Beach and Secret Garden – unlike the resort side of the island these beaches actually have sand, and offer good snorkeling away from the day trippers.
Pros: It’s got the best of both worlds – resort comforts with big outdoor adventures just waiting on your doorstep. There’s enough free activities around the island to keep youngsters occupied, and with self-catering rooms your hip pocket will thank you. We brought a couple of cooler bags full of fresh fruit and supplies over from Cairns, which allowed us to keep the kids eating healthy too.
Cons: The back beaches are sandy, but the main beach near the resort is made up entirely of sharp coral – be sure to bring reef booties or sandshoes to get in and out of the water, especially for your children. The island is popular with day trippers, so the beaches and water trampoline get busy at times – although it never really got too crowded during our stay, peak season would be hectic. Also, unlike big resorts on the southern end of the reef there’s no ‘kids club’ as such – not a big deal for us, but this would be a deal-breaker for some families.
The verdict: As far as island escapes on the Great Barrier Reef go, this is an affordable yet still pretty classy option that your family will adore – and want to come back for more.