The Southern Great Barrier Reef is these days recognised as having the best colour, diversity and accessibility for visitors wishing to experience one of Australia’s most iconic natural attractions.
Over the past decade, due to rising water temperatures, the mid and northern Great Barrier Reef regions have suffered a number of wide-spread bleaching episodes, damaging some of Queensland’s most-visited reef destinations. Whilst the reef is slowly receding in the north, research has shown it is now growing at an equal rate from its southern boundaries. Hence the newer and less visited reefs in the south display far more colour and diversity offering visitors a vastly superior experience.
Apart from the amazing visitor experience, the Southern Great Barrier Reef offers better water clarity (particularly in the storm season Dec – Apr), no deadly irikanji jellyfish (stinger suits are not necessary whilst swimming off these southern islands), and cheaper, more convenient access for visitors with limited time in Australia.
We have spent over a decade helping visitors plan the best itineraries and packages to experience Queensland’s amazing natural attractions. The Heron Island vs Lady Elliot dilemma is common, as it is very difficult to compare prices. So which island is best?! What follows is our best advice and comparison of these two amazing destinations to assist with your trip planning …
It is difficult to directly compare the cost of visiting these 2 islands as Lady Elliot has an all-inclusive rate structure, whereas Heron Island has a base accommodation tariff and charges extra for everything else … eg activities, transfers, park fees, snorkel equipment, kids club etc.
Lady Elliot Island : per person accommodation charge includes – buffet breakfast and dinner, free use of snorkel equipment, 1 x glass bottom boat and guided snorkel tour, all ranger guided tours and activities except scuba, all National Park fees.
Heron Island : per room accommodation charge includes – buffet breakfast. EXTRA charges for – National Park fees, lunch, dinner, hire of snorkel equipment, boat to snorkel on reef, Kids Club etc
Lady Elliot Island : Only accessible via plane (40 minute flight) from Hervey Bay or Bundaberg. The flight / airline is owned by the island and must be booked at the same time as accommodation. Direct flights available from Sydney and Brisbane to both Hervey Bay and Bundaberg. It is also possible to fly from Brisbane or the Gold Coast direct to Lady Elliot, however these flights are at a substantial premium. It is nearly always better to work your itinerary into departing from Hervey Bay or Bundaberg.
Heron Island : Accessible by boat (2 ½ hrs each way) or seaplane (20 minute flight) from Gladstone. The boat transfers do NOT operate on a Tuesday or Thursday. The boat and seaplane are operated by a 3rd party. Direct flights from Sydney and Brisbane to Gladstone.
Both these destinations offer a 5 star plus reef experience - the best you will get on the east coast of Australia!! These are both true coral atolls, fully enclosed by a fringing reef teeming with coral and marine life. If you are looking for a once in a lifetime snorkelling, reef and sea bird experience then these islands tick every box – bigtime! Please note, however, that these are NOT 5 star resort experiences!! Accommodations at both destinations are comfortable, adequate and environmentally responsible. Meals are buffet style and buffet quality. If you are looking for a resort experience then head to the Whitsundays! (BTW the Whitsunday Islands do NOT lie on the Great Barrier Reef – they are all sand islands.)
If you are an environmentally conscious explorer who is passionate about protecting the environment just as much as experiencing it, then Lady Elliot is miles ahead of ALL comparable destinations in Australia (and probably much of the world).
Lady Elliot produces and stores over 85% of its power requirements with a growing hybrid solar plant, and is aiming for 100% sustainability in the near future. All guests are given a comprehensive arrival briefing covering all aspects of reef and wildlife preservation and practices. There is a policy of preservation and protection that is entwined within all areas of resort management and guest experiences! Absolutely 5 Star for Sustainability!
I would love to see Heron Island, under its new ownership (Feb 2017), embrace a similar passion and commitment to sustainability and education. Historically there have been reports of inadequate guest briefings, irresponsible lighting of resort facilities during turtle hatching season, and a reliance on generated power and fossil fuels that are barged in from the mainland. A new long-term preservation plan would be fantastic for the island, the business and the reef in general. That said, the University of Queensland run a world-class research facility on the island, and run an independent tour of the research facilities and station that is well worth while.
Transfers – Boat transfers take 2 ½ hrs from Gladstone. These can be rough, and guests are often sea-sick. Boat transfers are not available on Tuesdays or Thursdays!! (Curiously you can book accommodation starting on these days and then find no way to get to the island!?! The transfers are operated by a 3rd party.)
Boat transfers leave the mainland at 2pm and arrive on the island at 4:30pm. Return transfers leave the island at 10am and arrive on the mainland at 12:30pm. So your first and last days are virtually wasted. (It would be far better for guests if the transfers were run the other way around.)
Seaplane transfers are available (20 minutes), but are extremely expensive ($349pp 1 way). If you take the seaplane you will need to wade ashore in knee deep water.
Snorkelling off the beach is a little underwhelming, so you will want to take the boat out to the drop-off each day for the good snorkelling (extra charges – I have included this in my comparison). Snorkelling in the harbour is quite good, but it is closed from 8:00am to 5:30pm due to boat and seaplane traffic.
Bird life is more intense and varied than Lady Elliot.
Reef Fishing trips available – ($235 for 2). No fishing Lady Elliot.
Snorkelling – take your own gear!! You will save $20pp / day!
Heron has recently changed owners (Feb 2017) and is now owned by a Canadian company. Reservations and issues are handled by an offshore reservations and call centre.
Transfers – only by plane. For 1 and 2 night stays you can fly across on the 8:10am flight and back on the 4:00pm flight. So you get a full day for your arrival and departure days. For 3 nights or more flights across depart at 10:30am or 1:00pm, with flights back at 9:30am or 11:30am.
Snorkelling is available in the lagoon 3 hrs either side of high tide every day (excellent!). The fringing reef drop-off on the lighthouse side of the island can be accessed straight from the beach at all times of day (ie no boat transfers required).
Glass bottom boat tour is included in your tariff (on Heron the glass bottom sub is $50pp).
Lady Elliot (because of all the above) is a HUGELY popular destination at present. You will need to book at least 4 months in advance if you are planning anything other than a single night stay.
Day Tours are available (fly over / back … $375pp all inclusive) giving you 7 hrs on the island to snorkel and explore. If you are short on time this is a great value option to tick the box on your Great Barrier Reef experience.
Divers should note that you cannot dive / fly on the same day, so you will need a minimum of 2 nights on the island to dive.
VERY family-friendly – kids are well catered for.
Locally owned and operated with a focus on education, experience and the preservation of our reef environment.
If you are going to visit Heron Island you should plan for a 3 to 5 night stay, as the transfer times result in you losing your arrival and departure days (ie with a 3 day / 2 night stay you really only get 1 day to do anything).
Snorkelling and reef quality at both islands are superb! Accessibility to the best quality reef is much easier at Lady Elliot (step off the beach).
Without doubt, if you are planning on visiting the Southern Great Barrier Reef, then the BEST VALUE is for a 3 Day / 2 night stay on Lady Elliot, where you can be on the island at 9am on the day of arrival, and depart at 4pm on your last day, so you get 3 full days to explore and experience!! So the marginally more expensive price for a 2 night stay is hugely returned in time available to explore and participate in activities. Alternatively, if you are divers then look at the Stay 5, Pay 4 specials for 5 nights which will allow you plenty of time to fit in all activities and some good dives as well!
If you are planning an itinerary as an international visitor, Lady Elliot affords less lost time in transfers and travel days. Travelling through Hervey Bay also opens up the opportunity to visit World Heritage Listed Fraser Island which is a totally different, but amazing National Park experience. If you are lucky enough to be travelling between July and October Hervey Bay is also the best place in the world to experience Humpback whales up close and personal.
Disclosure : We are Lady Elliot’s biggest domestic agent. We are passionate about the reef, nature, our natural environment and the preservation of our dwindling natural spaces. Through helping people experience the best of our amazing World Heritage Listed destinations we hope so many more people will recognise the importance of preserving these amazing habitats for our future generations.
We have put together some fantastic packages and itineraries which highlight the best of our region, including Lady Elliot Island Packages, and Fraser Island Packages. Please visit our website for all the details, prices and availability.
If you are just looking to visit Lady Elliot or want some more information, availability, tips or prices, feel free to email Yong directly or call any time +61 (0)7 4124 5500. We are regional experts for all tours, restaurants, activities and anything else to do with Hervey Bay, Lady Elliot, Fraser Island and the Fraser Coast, and would be thrilled to help you plan the best itinerary for your visit to our "naturally" blessed region!