As we fly over the Whitsunday Islands to the Great Barrier Reef, elongated trails of coral spawn dissect the impossibly blue water with its mosaic of jewel-like reefs, islands, coral cays and atolls.
The glassy surface of the sea and horizon merge and for a surreal moment it's as if we're flying through the ocean itself.
Once the outer reef looms into sight, passengers fall reverently silent as we behold one of the seven wonders of the natural world. Our aerial outlook gives some perspective to the world's largest coral reef system - the only living organism visible from space - and one of Australia's biggest tourist drawcards.
Richard Fitzpatrick, Emmy Award-winning underwater cinematographer, marine biologist and producer of acclaimed BBC series Great Barrier Reef, says the recently flagged loss of the reef's world heritage status would be devastating.
"No longer could we compete with the prestige of other world heritage sites. It would also highlight the failure of government in protecting this global icon."
Peter Gash, eco-warrior, pilot and owner of Lady Elliot Island, says while there are many other iconic places worldwide with unique beauty, Australians should visit the reef at least once in their lifetime.
"There is more marine life found per square inch on the Great Barrier Reef than anywhere else on the planet."
While considered one of the world's best-managed reefs, its fragile ecosystem faces threats from coastal development, water quality, cyclones, crown-of-thorns, ship groundings and climate change. Shipping and port development have recently emerged as issues - threatening not just the reef itself, but the A$5.7 billion (NZ$6.17 billion) tourism industry it supports.
Despite this, the Great Barrier Reef's islands, towns and resorts that stretch almost 2600 kilometres along the North Queensland coast are being reborn, not unlike the vast summer spawning of corals, fish and other marine life that recolonise its 2900-plus reefs, as this guide shows.
One of the Whitsundays' most iconic resorts will be relaunched as One&Only Hayman in April following a A$50 million (NZ$54 million) makeover. If One&Only's other luxury resorts in the Maldives and Bahamas are anything to go by, the new-look Hayman should give six-star Qualia on nearby Hamilton Island a run for its money.
Hayman's rebirth, in partnership with DBI Design, will see the redevelopment of the resort's pool wing. Chic new rooms and suites with ocean and lagoon views will be on offer, some with direct pool access from private terraces. Luxurious cabanas and day beds will be added to Hayman's famous pool, while a One&Only Health Spa with adjacent beauty salon will open. New guest experiences, culinary options and services will also be offered.
"This will take Australian resorts to the next level," says Anna Guillan, executive general manager sales and marketing for Hayman and Mulpha Hotels.
Mulpha Australia will also continue the staged rollout of the ultra-luxury Hayman Private Residences and Hayman Marina Residences, offering private ownership for clients and guests.
In other Whitsunday Island news, approval has been granted for a $600 million resort on Great Keppel including 750 resort villas, 300 apartments, a hotel, marina and 18-hole golf course. Lindeman Island, formerly Club Med's only Australian resort, sold to Chinese investors for A$12 million (NZ$12.98 million) last year and is slated for a A$200 million (NZ$216.4 million)makeover.
Over on the Whitsundays' largest, most inhabited island, the billionaire winemaking Oatley family has received approval to develop a new 100-room hotel and 200-home site on Dent Island, home to the Hamilton Island Golf Club. Basic infrastructure has already been built, however the Oatleys are awaiting a more buoyant economic climate before embarking on construction. Individual houses will be sold to private owners and put into a real estate letting pool.
The Oatley family is also exploring the development of a world-class luxury resort on Hamilton Island. Unlike the existing 60-pavilion Qualia Resort, developed for A$120 million (NZ$129.84 million) and opened in 2007, the new resort would allow families. Options being explored are a two or three-bedroom luxury apartment complex such as Qualia.
Qualia offers a beach house with a double room and larger pool, and the new resort might be developed along similar lines.
Hamilton Island's boutique Beach Club Resort will meanwhile undergo a multimillion-dollar makeover this year. All 57 guest rooms and public areas will be overhauled by September, conceptualised by Australian interior designers Hare & Klein, responsible for the recent A$4 million (NZ$4.33) makeover of the island's 49 Palm bungalows.
Located in the Family Island Group off the coastal town of Mission Beach, Bedarra has reopened following devastating Cyclone Yasi. Gone is the lavish excess synonymous with the old Bedarra in favour of a more ecologically sound model. The number of villas has been reduced from 16 to seven, the renovated resort has converted to solar power and water is sourced from a filtered natural spring and rainwater.
The property will close over the wet season. The new owner, Brisbane hotelier Sam Charlton, said given the island was situated on the Great Barrier Reef it was worth protecting. Across from Bedarra, Dunk Island has reopened for day-trippers, with walking trails cleared and new boat moorings in place. bedarra.com.au.
This boutique five-star resort in the little known Palm Island Group off Townsville reopened last year after a $5 million revamp, which included a new 26-metre infinity pool and the refurbished North Beachfront Villas, now decked out in neutral tones with blonde timbers. The resort's south wing is slated for refurbishment down the track, while a new day spa has just opened, offering a signature "massage with the tides" experience. orpheus.com.au.
LADY ELLIOT AND HERON ISLANDS
North of Bundaberg, Lady Elliot Island continues to reduce its carbon footprint with the installation of additional solar panels, and new wind generators will be introduced. It often competes with Heron Island, for which Qantaslink introduced new direct flights last year from Sydney to Gladstone - the jump-off point to Heron.
From Gladstone you could take the seaplane service (A$291 one way) to Heron at the southernmost tip of the reef, or the resort has helicopter transfers. Meanwhile at Agnes Water Beach Caravan Park, on Queensland's northernmost surf beach, there are swish new safari-type tents, so plenty to choose from. ladyelliot.com.au, heronisland.com, agneswaterfirstpoint.com.au
Long known as the Whitsundays' party central, a A$20 million (NZ$21.6 million) facelift has given Airlie Beach a new lease of life. Young backpackers from across the globe still gravitate to Airlie, but there are plenty of families and couples too, splashing about the man-made lagoon on the seafront and browsing the Airlie Beach Market.
A new and contemporary streetscape has just been unveiled, rejuvenating what had become an unloved and neglected main strip. Many restaurants, cafes and retailers have spruced themselves up , with al fresco dining options spilling out onto the street creating a tropical vibe. I stroll the main street with a Bowen mango sorbet to see the changes, later tucking into tapas of haloumi with rocket at the funky Mr Bones, looking out across the cerulean sea framed by coconut palms.
Peppers Coral Coast Resort has recently rebranded to Peppers Airlie Beach to better reflect its Whitsundays location. The 102-room, five-star apartment resort is sporting a fresh new look after relocating the resort's on-site endota spa, and adding a chic relaxation lounge and shaded deck.
In town, busy drinking hole Capers has had a revamp too, with an open-air dining option across the road from the beach. Nearby, work is under way on stage two of the Port of Airlie, where Hawaiian property group Outrigger opened the Boathouse Apartments in 2011.
The port will include a second resort, a marina that can cater to super yachts, oceanfront homes, a public boardwalk, and a retail and dining precinct as well as an integrated ferry, cruise and bus terminal. Underneath the Boathouse Apartments, Denman Cellars, with its menu of 700 local and international beers and ciders, is a terrific spot to reflect on the changes to the town. peppers.com.au; discoverairliebeach.com.au.
The 23-room beachfront Palm Bay Resort, previously under Peppers management, will relaunch as a boutique wellness, event and sole use retreat this month. Located on a pretty curved inlet on Long Island, the closest island to Airlie's Shute Harbour, the resort will cater for up to 40 people.
"Its beautiful setting really lends itself to being a secluded, intimate resort," Palm Bay marketing manager Jessica Goozee tells me over a fresh seafood platter. The resort will work with wedding, catering, event and wellness specialists, as well as contracting local dive and tour operators.
"Palm Bay is essentially your quintessential Balinese-inspired wellness retreat, but in our own beautiful backyard," Goozee says .
Also on the island, the Mantra Group has added the popular Long Island Resort to its BreakFree brand portfolio - its first island location. palmbayresort.com.au.
The writer was a guest of Whitsundays Development and Marketing and GSL Aviation.
You can access the Great Barrier Reef by flying from Sydney or Melbourne (via Brisbane) to Proserpine (Whitsunday Coast Airport) and Bundaberg. Direct flights are available to Hamilton Island as well as Cairns, Townsville and Mackay (all major departure points for the Reef). See qantas.com; jetstar.com and virginaustralia.com. Book at least a few months ahead of travel during peak season and up to six months for school holiday periods.
The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef is between May and October (the dry season), when the weather is pleasant, with less humidity, and visibility is generally good. Northern Queensland's wet season is from November to April, with oppressive heat, humidity and heavy rainfall. The marine stinger season falls between November and March and stinger suits need to be worn during this time, particularly when swimming off mainland beaches.
NO BARRIERS - SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
YOUNG REEF Stay three nights at BreakFree Long Island Resort from $319 a person, including twin-share accommodation in a beachfront room with views of Happy Bay, until March 31. studentflights.com.au.
ADVENTURE REEF Australia's largest island national park with magnificent beaches and jungle-clad mountains, Hinchinbrook Island is for serious trekkers and intrepid sea explorers. nprsr.qld.gov.au.
FAMILY REEF Watch hatchlings make their way to the water during the upcoming turtle season on Heron Island, which features its own junior ranger school holiday program, reef walks, stargazing and more. From $356 a person including three nights' quad-share accommodation in a Turtle Family Room, all meals and resort activities between January 10 and March 8. escapetravel.com.au or heronisland.com.
ROMANTIC REEF Experience the reef at its luxurious best in one of just 40 villas and suites at Lizard Island, famously referred to by actor Kate Hudson as "the most romantic place on earth". lizardisland.com.au.
ECO REEF Famed for its diving and resident manta rays, the unpretentious Lady Elliot Island, one of only three island resorts on the Great Barrier Reef, continually strives for a carbon-neutral model. ladyelliot.com.au.