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The largest, grandest coral reef in the world.

The largest, grandest coral reef in the world

The Great Barrier Reef is Australia's unequalled marine treasure. Like the red rock outback and furry marsupials, it is unduplicated anywhere else. If you love the ocean, its creatures, warm water, birding, and solitude, a visit here is the trip of a lifetime.

The reef stretches for 1,250 miles-- roughly the length of our West Coast. The outer, less visited part is the preserve of serious divers and anglers with the means to get out there--though closer to shore the waters can be equally rewarding.

Protected since 1975 as a 133,170-square-mile marine park, the Great Barrier Reef is safeguarded from the overuse many tropical shores endure. In fact, the most discussed threat is the crown of thorns, a 12-legged starfish that can ingest a 50-square-foot area of living coral tissue each year. This predator appears in cycles and currently seems to have abated.

Reef exploring in northern Queensland

Nowhere is the reef within swimming distance of the mainland, but its closest point is in northern Queensland. Here, near the equator, are clustered some of the most highly regarded resorts. Out of 600 islands, only 20 have resorts, 7 of them in north Queensland. These seven total 300 rooms, cabins, and units, 150 of them on just one island, Dunk.

For three years, Qantas has flown from Honolulu to Cairns (Aussies pronounce it "cans'). The town has no beaches, but it's a convenient base for a short stay.

An hour up the coast and only 8 miles from the outer reef is Port Douglas, a picturesque, quickly growing town next to a wide beach. The 300-room Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas Hotel opened this fall, and Hovercraft service from the airport in Cairns to Port Douglas is scheduled to begin. Also new, the Four Seasons Barrier Reef (not related to the North American hotels) has an expensive floating 200-room resort 45 miles offshore with service from Cairns and Townsville.

Spring and fall are the favored seasons to visit. From roughly December through March, "the Wet' descends on Queensland. About the same time, mainland (not island) beaches are invaded by jellyfish.

Day trips to Green and Fitzroy islands . . . and to reeftop barges

If you have time for only one day on the reef, you can arrange on the spot to embark from Cairns for an island trip.

Green Island, a coral cay 45 minutes and $18 away by catamaran, gets more visitors than any other reef stop. (We give all prices in U.S. currency.)

We preferred steep-sloped Fitzroy Island's quieter atmosphere, its smooth-bouldered shore, and snorkeling in its offshore coral. Rustic cottages there rent for $60 a night; a new hostel opened just last year. Passage costs $16; for $25 you can land at both the islands in one whirlwind day.

Day trips from Cairns and Port Douglas take you to barges and platforms moored atop the reef--the best bet for anyone short on time but eager to snorkel and swim. Some carry scuba gear that you can reserve a day ahead. Including a meal and snorkel equipment, cost is about $40.

Dive boat vacations

Trips for beginning or experienced scuba divers also leave from Cairns and Port Douglas. First-timers usually take three days on land, then two days of ocean dives, for about $175. Certified diverse get six days at sea for around $650. Weights, air, and food are provided. Snorkelers can usually go on either type of voyage.

For a list of boat operators, write to Queensland Tourist and Travel Corp., 611 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles 90004, or call (213) 465-8418.

Chartered fishing trips

Champion black marlin come from the reef's northern waters. The largest range up to a thousand pounds--and seeing one of them dancing on its tail atop the water at the end of your line is one of the great sights in sport. When brought alongside, the marlin is often tagged and released.

Typically, boats go out for six days, fishing by day beyond the reef, anchoring at night in protected inside waters. Expect to pay between $1,000 to $1,500 a day for a group. Specialized anglers' magazines often carry charter information.

Spending some time on the islands

While most of the islands are publicly owned and held as nature preserves, the resorts are privately run. Lizard, Dunk, and Bedarra resorts are airline owned and well publicized; less well-known are Orpheus and Hinchinbrook.

At all price levels, the resorts reflect the informal, friendly manner found throughout Australia. These are retreats where people go to enjoy the out-of-doors and to relax. Most will pack a picnic hamper and send you off for the day in a dinghy to a secluded beach.

Prices are per person, double occupancy, with meals. For each, add the cost of launch or air fare to the island, from Cairns and/or Townsville. Townsville has fewer flights to and from the U.S.--but many to Cairns.

For more information, check with the Queensland office listed above.

Lizard. Considered by many to be the top resort in region: great diving in the coral just offshore, good dive program, famous trophy marlin waters (September to December), 10 miles to outer reef. About 65 guests, $175 to $210. Fifty-minute flight from Cairns.

Dunk. Lots to do in big resort with well-kept grounds, daily children's schedule (coconut dehusking contest to Vegemite painting). Six-hole golf course, indoor cricket; not especially reef oriented. Some 300 guests; $90 to $125. Convenient air service from Cairns.

Bedarra. Two luxurious, passive resorts; few activities are scheduled, but the staff can arrange them on request, making you feel like a guest on a private estate. Both resorts opened last year; each accommodates 32 guests; $250 (open bar included in rate). Reached by launch from Dunk.

Orpheus. Exclusive and elegant, with silver tea service at 11 and 4, shallow sloping beaches, beautiful coral just offshore. Does not cater to children. Resort opened in 1981, houses 50 people; $160 a day. Amphibious plane from Townsville and Cairns.

Hinchinbrook. Resort is on world's largest national park island: tropical rain forest, beautiful beach, wallabies. Casual, no organized activities; emphasizes island habitat, not diving. Thirty guests; $90 to $120 a day. Seaplane comes via Orpheus and from Townsville and Cairns.

The most comprehensive guidebook is The Green Barrier Reef, by Arne and Ruth Werchick (Wide World Publishing, Box 476, San Carlos, Calif. 94070; $9.95). It has useful advice and gives addresses and telephone numbers. Its black-and-white photography should be improved in a new edition due out next year.

Photo: Snorkeler splashes off platform above outer reef. Day trip from Cairns costs about $50 U.S., including gear, lunch, island stop

Photo: Sweet lip emperors and coral bring noses to the glass of submersible viewing compartment on Hayles catamaran tour from Cairns to Hastings Reef

Photo: You know it's remote when Cairns, with 70,000 people, is the largest city in 225 miles

Photo: Office is billboard at Cairns wharf. Most ads tout day trips to reef. More complicated arrangements should be booked well in advance, especially during school breaks--April, September, and December

Photo: Buffet appeared on calm return to Lizard. (Windward trip to dive at the reef was a wet, pounding passage.) At right, 'roo begs last bite before boat leaves Fitzroy Island for Cairns

Photo: He's fighting a black marlin hooked on 30-pound-test live bait line. After 2 hours, lead snappead as 400-pounder was being tagged

Photo: Tucked into rain forest, expensive resort on Bedarra offers restful, nature-oriented type of vacation found throughout the islands
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Title Annotation:The Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Date:Nov 1, 1987
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