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The Great Barrier Reef
updated 11/6/2006 7:10:03 PM ET 2006-11-07T00:10:03

The Draw

• Startling blue water and pristine beaches

• World-class snorkeling and diving to see the largest coral formation in the world

• Luxurious private island resorts

The Scene
This vast area, extending approximately 187,000 square miles and including 3,000 reefs and 600 islands, is one of the natural wonders of the world. As such, it draws millions of visitors every year to admire that beauty, causing concern about damage to the reef. If you stay on one of the busier islands, such as Hamilton, you’ll be aware of the visitors, the clusters of diving boats and the potential dangers. But if you go farther afield to the more remote islands, all you’ll see are green turtles, dolphins and whales, more than 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 types of mollusks, over 200 species of birds, 1,500 types of sponge and 360 species of hard coral.

To Be Seen

Heron Island. A national park within the overall park system, this island is teeming with birdlife. Its beaches are nesting sites for sea turtles, which come ashore to lay eggs between January and March. Due to its location right on the reef, there are 20 dive sites within minutes from the beach.

Lizard Island. Also located directly on the reef, with 24 perfect beaches ringing its perimeter, this elite private island resort has one of the most spectacular locations anywhere in the reef system for diving and fishing.

Haggerstone Island. This northern island in the Barrier Reef may be one of the most unusual, untouched places in the region -- a Swiss Family Robinson experience mixed with a touch of Crocodile Hunter. Owner Roy Turner (who hunts crocs in the region) constructed simple wooden structures on this uninhabited island. He and his wife, Anna, offer a back-to-nature experience punctuated by superlative meals, based on fish he catches or crawfish he spears, and a surprisingly deep wine cellar.

For The VIP

• Rent a private yacht and cruise over to a deserted stretch of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays (an archipelago of green land masses and sandy atolls). The powdery beach is nearly four miles long, so there are plenty of isolated spots.

• Go on a heli-fishing safari to completely remote waters in the northern Barrier Reef with Dennis Wallace, aka Brazakka, owner of Cape York helicopters (www.brazakka.com.au/).

• In the southern islands, take a helicopter from GBR Helicopter Group (www.gbrhelicopters.com.au/) to a deserted beach where an alfresco brunch is served.

Overrated
Hayman Island. Long described as the most luxurious resort in the islands, this island property has its advantages -- a gorgeous location in the Whitsundays and new rooms and villas that are sleek and handsome -- but overall poor maintenance, marketing to lower-level package tours and disappointing dining are cause to set your sights on another island.

Underrated
Bedarra Island. The location is farther away from the reef, so you have to travel 30 minutes or so to dive, but this island makes up for it with exemplary food and wine and secluded villas set in a rain forest.

Don’t Miss
It’s obvious -- going underwater or at least taking in the scenery through a glass-bottom boat.

When To Go
The weather is temperate year round, so you can really go anytime. But it tends to be hotter and rainier from January to March.

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