Named by Thomas Cook after the many lizards he found, Lizard Island is located about an hour’s flight south of Cairns in the middle of The Great Barrier Reef and it is one of the least explored parts of the reef and only private yachts and some dive boards make trip, although we barely saw any, despite this part of is popular with Australian liveaboards.
First built in 1974, the resort of the same name was refurbished in 2012 after several cyclones damaged the property and the surrounding islands and reefs and is a favourite of Australian actors Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman and was even rumoured to be the honeymoon destination of the Duke and Duchesse of Cambridge before the Seychelles were confirmed. With prices starting at AUD1,800 per night, this uber luxury resort may be the most expensive place I have ever stayed at except for the Maldives and Bora Bora, especially when considering all the exclusions. Did it live up to its expectations as a celebrity hideout and luxury getaway destination? I review Lizard Island Resort with this frame of mind.
Arrival and check-in
Arrival at Lizard Island can only be organised by the resort on one of East Air light aircrafts from Cairns. There are two, sometimes three, flights a day that depart in the morning at 11am and 2pm and return from Lizard at 12,30pm and 3,30pm for the one hour scenic flight. Planning well your arrival times in Cairns, if at all possible, will ensure you do not waste time waiting around. The flights cost AUD650 per person return and cannot be avoided. If you are in a large group or family, the resort may be able to organise a private separate flight. A representative from the airline will pick you up from arrivals in Cairns and take you to the separate private terminal.
The light Caravan or Cessna flight is not as stable as the larger planes and does not fly as high either. It can get really hot before take off and after landing when the sun is shining as there is no AC inside the aircraft.
The flight over The Great Barrier Reef is a treat and you will be glued to the window. Although expensive and restrictive in timings, this is a fabulous way to arrive and puts your right into tropical mood.
The resort has a few different room options including The Pavilion and The Villa for larger groups and prices starting at AUD5,000. Regular rooms can either face the main beach or the sunset and some are nested in the gardens. For the price, I was expecting the rooms to have some wow factor but they did not, in fact, they were sub-par for the rate paid and could have perfectly fit a modest 4 star hotel anywhere in the world.
The room was compact with a small lounge area next to the bed and a rather small bathroom with only a shower, no bathtub. The decor was simple, in white washed colours reminiscent of the sea that were very appropriate to the location. The minibar was complimentary and re-stocked daily. The bed was plush and comfortable. However, there were several things that I found unacceptable for the price.
Firstly, the rooms were not positioned, designed or structured in any way to provide privacy. The windows on all sides opened up to common paths where other guests and staff were walking at all times and the walls and windows were not properly isolated for sound so I could perfectly hear neighbouring guests. They were also set incredibly close together. As a result, you had to be very careful when having a shower or getting changed and pull down all the curtains making you feel as if you were camping. I have stayed at many stand alone villa/room island resorts of similar aspirations, equal or lower price and comparable environmental limitations, like Six Senses in Oman, Thailand’s Soneva Kiri, Vietnam’s Banyan Tree LangCo, Malaysia’s Batu Batu and one of the management’s main focus areas is always to provide guests with adequate privacy. Lizard Island resort has not put any thought into that, it almost feels as if they tried to make all rooms exposed. I heard other guests complaining that they could not shower without pulling down the curtains in their bathroom which is even more unacceptable. Our room’s bathroom was at least private with only a high window well above height level. Given the large size of the island and the very high prices with most rooms charged at AUD2,000 (USD1,500) or above privacy is expected and should be provided.
Secondly, the housekeeping was erratic. We used one of the wine glasses during the first day and that was never replaced. The rooms were cleaned but just the bare minimum, without any tidying around of our things and the turn down service included just literally turning down the bed and leaving some chocolates on it. The minibar was full, but the food choices were limited and given that alcohol is only included during meals and that there are no snacks offered outside of meal times, it would have been nice to have more options.
Thirdly, the bathroom did not warrant such prices. It was small and did not have a bathtub to unwind or relax after a long day. The temperature in our shower was impossible to manage always either steaming ur or leaving us with cold water and making it very unpleasant to shower. It seemed we were not the only ones as I overheard other guests complaining about the same. The rooms had mosquito spray but not repellent or other plug-in options to keep them away, essential given how infested the island was with them.
Choosing the right type of villa is key. It is not justified in any way to pay for the sunset villas. They are indeed facing the sunset but they are located high up above the beach so you only see the very horizon with the sun setting among vegetation. It is much better to simply walk down to the beach and see the sun set from there. As the small outdoor verandah is most likely visible to your neighbours and those walking by, it is not a very private place either. On the other hand, the villas closest to the restaurant on Anchor beach also offer no privacy as anyone walking by the beach has direct view, but at least you can see the sea from your bed. I would not pay the premium for the public view as I am unlikely to enjoy it while others are walking by a few meters away. Consider booking the most affordable villas as you are unlikely to spend any time there anyway and inside, with the exception of the Pavilion and Villa, the rest of the rooms are the same. If you want to splurge, the Ocean view pool villas are probably the best as the main pool area is uninviting.
The food and drinks
Lizard Island is an all-inclusive resort and you have no other place to eat than what the resort offers. The rates include three meals served at the main restaurant at the end of Anchor Bay. The bar is adjacent to the main restaurant and, three times a week, another bar and restaurant at the other end of the beach is opened to guests and outside yatchies visiting Lizard Island.
Breakfast includes a selection of cold buffet options with cheese and cold cuts, cereals and fruits and a menu of made to order hot dishes with pancakes, eggs any style and other usual suspects. The food is fresh, local and seasonal and, as a huge fan of Australian food, I enjoy the beauty of simple dishes.
Lunch is to be chosen from a choice of three dishes that change daily and always include fish, meat and a salad. A dessert menu is also offered with a selection of ice creams, sorbets, cheeses and one other dessert dish. It was only on the last day that we realised that we could order more than one dish so we spent the first three meals wondering why we were given so little food. I blame the service for not telling us on the first day.
Dinner is a more formal affair and the resort recommends guests to dress up for the occasion. The menu is set and changes daily. There are seafood, Italian and fine dining evenings and otherwise a three course meal to choose from with two to three options per dish and a dessert menu similar to the one at lunch.
Meals are accompanied by a choice of a white or red wine pairing and the resort’s Australian beer list. If you want have a wine that is not the one suggested by the chef then you need to pay. Cocktails are not included in the meals either and charged at a hefty $20 price. Sunset drinks at an all-inclusive island resort should be included.
The food was good and the dishes beautifully presented but the service, choice and wine limitations were unexpected and a let down. Again going back to the price, I was expecting much more for the rate. When they indicate that drinks are included, they do not mention that they only during meal service, that you are only given two options and that cocktails are not included. All all-inclusive high-end resorts are indeed all inclusive, Lizard was not. Although the options given were acceptable, they were limited. On some evenings we were simply offered mass-market supermarket choices. They were good, but they did not seem to match the cache of the resort. The dessert menu was very limited too as three out of the four options (ice cream, sorbet and cheese) were always the same.
Lastly, perhaps the lowest point was the service. All the staff were very friendly and eager but they were also very young and appeared inexperienced and unpolished. They would forget requests, not refill your glass, take very long to bring the food (one morning we waited for 30min for eggs), mix things up and not be clear about what was and was not included.
It was worth noting that the restaurant was the worst place for mosquitoes on the island. It was impossible to come to any meal and not be bitten several times. The staff’s legs looked like colanders with dozens of bites. The resort did not offer mosquito coils, repellent or any other help on that regard. We were told that, for environmental reasons, the resort was not able to spray yet there are many environmentally obsessed properties around the world who control the population of mosquitoes or at least provide some respite by lighting coils under guests’ tables or providing free mosquito repellent. At Lizard Island we had to buy it from the shop and spray ourselves profusely at all meal times. It was unpleasant and unnecessary.
Coming to Lizard Island straight from nine days in Bhutan staying at all time favourite Amankora for a similar price, I had the same expectations and perhaps this influenced my views on Lizard Island. The resort was just not at the same level in food service, choice and inclusions. Mentions to remoteness and the difficulties that this brings were made through the trip. Although this was true, Lizard Island is connected to mainland twice or three times a day at least so produce can be brought regularly. Places like safari lodges in Africa are much more remote and smaller and yet able to prepare creative and varied meals. It is also worth considering that the resort was at full capacity when we were there and so the 40 villas were full with over 100 guests providing enough audience to a larger variety of food options.
Lastly, the resort does not offer room service of any kind. Drinks or food are not delivered to the rooms but you can get an ice bucket for the drinks.
The facilities and activities
Lizard Island itself was the main attraction when coming here. The beauty of the clearest waters and the white sand beaches around the resort or the island were of Great Barrier Reef standing and this was the best part of the trip. Although Lizard Island is a protected national and marine park and not a private island, very few visitors make it all the way here and you are likely to find them at the larger beaches and farther away from the shore because of low tides. It is this remoteness and the stunning waters around the island that justify a visit, knowing of all the other considerations mentioned above. Sharks can be seen just off the shore, like we did on our way back from the diving trip.
The resort offered free drop off at the many empty beaches that surrounded the resort. The drop off service also included a picnic basket which you could order the night before. You could spend the entire day being picked up and dropped off at the various beaches depending on tides. We got our snorkel gear and a stingers suit from the Beach Center, and were all set for a day in the sun and sea. Do check with the staff if the beaches they will drop you off at offer any shade. The Australian sun is strongest and more damaging than in any other location and so it is important that you protect yourself. Spending long times under the blaring sun is not wise and can end up in sun stroke and sunburn so plan the day’s island hopping accordingly. Some of the nicest beaches we enjoyed were actually walking distance from the resort. Watson’s Bay, at the other side of a small ridge, is a white crescent of fluffiness. Often frequented by larger yachts thanks to its protected bay, the beach is pretty and easily accessible on a twenty minute walk that ends on a boardwalk over mangroves. There are trees and even a couple of tables for a picnic lunch. At the other end of the island, across from the resort and towards the Research Station, the Blue Lagoon was a lovely beach with a shallow lagoon. At low tide the water recedes and the few yachts that visit will be anchored far from the shore. The walk from the resort to the Blue Lagoon involved an easy but incredibly hot sand path so closed footgear was a must. Once on the beach, there was no shade or trees so we could not spend too long there.
Diving and snorkelling
Its location on one of the world’s richest marine backdrops, The Great Barrier Reef, makes Lizard Island a great place to go diving but you will need to plan well ahead. The resort organises inner and outer reef dives on alternate days and has a strict 24h no diving rule before or after flying therefore, if you are spending only two nights there you will not be able to dive, to dive you must book at least three nights and make sure that the middle day falls on an outer reef diving day. We were not lucky so we could not dive the outer reef as our “middle day” was a half diving day so we stayed in the inner reef and went for one dive.
Full day diving to the outer reef usually includes a visit to famous Cod Hole where massive Potato Cods swim freely.
Diving is done in the resort’s purpose-built high-end yacht and you are guaranteed to have a staff to guest ratio of 1:1 and pay for it accordingly at AUD320 for one dive and twice as much for two. The boat is beautiful and the proximity to the inner Great Barrier Reef sites means that this is a quick and easy trip.
Snorkelling trips are also on offer daily. Given our experience diving, unless you are going to one of the special dive sites, you could almost go snorkelling and see the same or even more. The waters are so crystalline and clear that visibility is perfect.
If the pre-scheduled half and full day inner/outer reef trips do not match your schedule or you prefer a private trip, you can charter the resort’s private yacht for your party but expect to pay upwards of AUD3,000 for half a day rent to be used for diving, fishing, snorkelling or simply island hopping.
The resort offers complimentary water activities like kayaking on a glass bottom kayak or taking one of the resort’s dinghi if you have the permit to drive it. You can stand up paddle as well. Fishing is a popular activity at Lizard Island too. Water activities are organised at the Beach Center which closes at 4pm so you will have to stop all activities and return the equipment by then.
If you prefer to walk, the island has a couple of hiking trails you can follow but bear in mind it is very hot during most of the months with temperatures reaching well above 35 degrees Celsius during many months so it is best done in the early morning or late afternoon. There was also complimentary yoga on mornings or evenings every other day.
The staff at Lizard Island was no doubt friendly and happy to help but they did not seem as polished and experienced as one would expect of such high standard property. I had the feeling some of the staff were there only temporarily, for the high season, and were on rotation every year. It was also rather strange that, for a property of this size and price, the GM or at least a Manager would not come to greet us upon arrival, during the stay or upon departure.
What bothered me the most was perhaps the fact that the resort did not feel like the type of flexible, “anything is possible just ask” type of place but rather a property with lot of rules to be considered. Diving can only be done on certain days and destinations; water sports equipment needs to be returned by 4pm. Meals must be taken at the restaurant and from the set menu; Wines are chosen from a choice of two; There is no room service or any service at the pool or the beach; Picnics need to be ordered the night before; It was as if you had to plan everything ahead of time taking away all the relaxation and disconnection you may be looking for in a vacation. It seemed that the resort was adamant in making sure we did not feel spoiled.
As a last consideration, the resort and island as a whole, do not have phone connectivity and the WiFi internet provided at the dining area was incredibly slow and not even good for social media. We felt disconnected. At first we thought this might be because of the remoteness of the location, but we later realised the Beach Center had internet, which was the means through which they checked we had the proper PADI certifications. Although the resort cannot do anything to resolve the phone coverage packing, providing internet was more of a choice. I am all for disconnection but I would have liked to have had the option of getting online for urgent and important matters.
Lizard Island is a stunningly beautiful location that takes your breath away. The resort is a perfectly nice place with lots on offer, good food and friendly service. The basics are right and nothing went wrong or needed complaining so I can understand why most of the reviews on TripAdvisor are 5 stars.
However, I could not help but constantly remind myself that we were paying USD1,500 a night for it and that was when I felt uncomfortable. For this price I expected to be spoiled the same way Aman, Six Senses or Soneva spoil their guests. I may have been expecting a lot, but then again, this is what places of similar price and cache provide, so why would Lizard Island not do the same? The value for money equation was just off for me and this is one of those cases where I would not recommend the resort unless money really is no issue and you never check the bill. In that case, you probably can truly spoil yourself with off-menu Cellar List wines, private diving charters, a stay at The Pavilion or the Villa and private beach dinners every night.
If you are not that kind of person, I can think of several uber-luxury properties across Asia and the Pacific that offer much better value with the same beauty of Lizard Island at lower or equal price. Properties like Saffire Freycinet in Tasmania’s Wineglass Bay, Soneva Kiri in Thailand (here is my review Soneva Kiri), Six Senses in any of their Asian destinations like the Maldives, Aman resorts anywhere in the region from Sri Lanka to Beijing, Nihiwatu on Sumba Island (see my full review here), Qualia on Hamilton Island, and fantastic honeymoon destinations in Asia like Song Saa or Iniala in Phuket.