Green Island-Coral Cay Paradise

Reportedly, the local aboriginal population regarded this 6,000-year-old island as wunjami—a place haunted by spirits, to be avoided if possible. But those days are long gone: Reachable by a 45-minute catamaran ride from the mainland city of Cairns, this gorgeous, 15-hectare (37-acre) coral cay island has become a favorite destination for Aussie day-trippers, who come to enjoy the sun, sand, and flora and fauna. Located 27km (17 miles) off the coast of Queensland, Australia, in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Green Island offers natural beauty—in addition to its spectacular beaches and reefs, it’s the only one of the Great Barrier Reef’s 300 sand cays with its own rainforest—and some of the world’s best snorkeling and scuba diving right off the beach.

Green Island has always emphasized ecofriendly tourism, dating back to its designation as a national park in 1936. Today, it teems with tropical birds, more than 120 species of native plants, and all manner of marine life, from the fish that inhabit the coral gardens ringing the island to the Marineland Melanesia Aquarium, Museum and Crocodile Farm , where you can have hands-on encounters with sea turtles and the smallest of the establishment’s 30-odd crocs. Glass-bottom-boat tours are a specialty here—in fact, Green Island is thought to have been the first place on earth to employ this boating innovation— and the island also boasts the world’s oldest underwater observatory. For those inclined to immerse themselves in the surrounding sea, snorkeling and scuba gear can be rented, and diving boat trips to the nearby Great Barrier Reef itself are also available.

Insiders know that the true Green Island experience begins after the last ferry leaves the island at 4:30 each afternoon. Then, the overnight guests of Green Island Resort—the island’s sole hotel, as well as the only five-star resort in Queensland—have the little island to themselves. The resort features 46 luxury suites set in the midst of the island’s rainforest, and a stay grants access to the underwater observatory, windsurfing, canoeing and snorkeling equipment, a glass-bottom-boat tour, and a guided nighttime nature tour. Scuba instruction and certification is also offered. Guests of the resort can have a great time just exploring on their own, though, as they’re given the run of an island with a circumference that can be walked in a little under an hour. In addition to the marine life, guests give particularly high marks to the sunset, the empty stretches of beach, and the opportunity to spot offshore fish feeding at twilight—an event that sharks have been known to attend.

If you’re not staying at the resort, you can still visit the island on a day trip—a number of tour operators offer boat trips that include stops on the island. Great Adventures —owned by Quicksilver, the same company that owns Green Island Resort— runs day tours to Green Island from Cairns.

With Sydney a good 4 hours away by plane and boat, Green Island remains a bit off the beaten track. And if you’re lucky enough to claim the island for your own, you may find yourself hoping the rest of the world heeds the old aboriginal legends and keeps away—at least for a night or two.