The Barrier Reef's Orpheus Island is a perfect getaway, writes Ewan McDonald.

The helicopter scuds low and slow above the turquoise seas of the Great Barrier Reef.

Strapped into the seats next to me, Eileen and Graham chatter excitedly to one another.

It's hardly a private conversation: all our headsets are linked.


The Melbourne couple are flying to an island resort to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Appropriate: they honeymooned here. On a mission: they want to find a dive spot they went to way back when.

Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky at Orpheus Island, Queensland. Photo / Instagram, @elsapatakyconfidential
Chris Hemsworth and Elsa Pataky at Orpheus Island, Queensland. Photo / Instagram, @elsapatakyconfidential

Problem: they think it was called Iris Corner, but the pilot's never heard of it and, when we land on the island's helipad and are settling in with glasses of champagne on the seaside veranda, nor have the staff.

Graham and Eileen don't seem particularly disappointed but it would be hard to be disappointed on Orpheus Island.

In the Coral Sea 80km (or a 30-minute helicopter flight) north of Townsville, the island has been a pretty much undiscovered tropical getaway. Well, until Australia's favourite god of thunder, Chris Hemsworth, holidayed at the resort with his wife and sold the photos to a women's magazine.

The island — just 11km of sun-kissed, white tropical beaches around — is mostly national park and biological research station, set inside the reef's World Heritage-listed marine park.

Once famous for hosting Elton John, Phil Collins and Vivien Leigh, Orpheus Island Lodge had seen better days when Melbourne businessman and hotelier Chris Morris bought it for a bargain price in 2011.

Limited to 28 guests at a time, the resort has only 14 rooms and villas. My villa, set in palms a couple of metres from the beach, feels more like a bach than accommodation.

There's a cheeseboard, fruit platter and another bottle of chilling champagne on the dining table.

The villa, with a huge master bedroom, living area and island kitchen, indoor-outdoor bathroom, is refined, relaxed, expensive elegance.

A very wealthy mate's bach that you've been allowed to borrow for the weekend while they're in the Seychelles, then.

The menu for tonight's dinner — tables are set on the veranda, looking out to the jetty and the sea beyond — lies on the credenza. Four courses, beginning with kangaroo carpaccio; a pumpkin, mushroom, quinoa, fruit and vegetable salad; roasted barramundi with Jerusalem artichoke, green apple, truffle labne; a mango parfait. The resort prides itself on its kitchen and cellar. It has a lot to be proud of.

After dinner we stroll through the warm evening to the jetty, looking through clear, midnight-blue water at the reef sharks, mullet and thousands of smaller marine life jostling to be fed by the staff. They're getting fish for dinner too.

Three days, two nights of utter relaxation until the helicopter comes back. This is an island where you can do a lot of nothing. Or you can do a little of just about everything.
Snorkelling and diving: Orpheus' dive sites and coral gardens host 1100 of the reef's 1500 known species. Fishing: the waters are home to sought-after reef fish. Boating: the resort will pack a gourmet hamper and give guests the keys to a motor dinghy to picnic at the coves and fringing reefs.

Kayaks. Paddleboards. A catamaran. Cruises to neighbouring islands: the unique environment and waterfalls of Hinchinbrook, the reef's largest island, are only a few kilometres away. Sunset dinner cruises. Treatments at the resort's day spa, which aim to restore balance and wellness.

Early morning, awoken by coconuts falling on the path outside my villa, I begin to restore my balance and wellness by walking over a saddle to Picnic Bay, through the national park's bush trails, breath taken by ocean and island panoramas at every bend. I meet and walk for a while with a British couple feeling the heat although it's not yet 11am. Mad Kiwis and English folk go out in the morning sun.

Mask, snorkel, into the water, clouds of harlequin-coloured fish scattering.

Lunch. A book and a hammock slung between two palm trees on the beach. The book may not have been opened.

Time to cool off again. Togs and into the infinity pool next to the veranda-bar-dining room-social gathering place. Yes, on the beach. There is something infinitely decadent about floating in a swimming-pool on a beach, especially when the sea temperature is in the mid-20s.

My reverie is interrupted by a waiter politely inquiring if I'd like a water or … Yes. Water with hops and grain in it. That should keep me going until dinner. And that's the rhythm of life on Orpheus Island for the next couple of days. Until the helicopter comes back.

Again, I'm sitting beside Graham and Eileen, watching turtles and sharks in the blue-green world of the reef not far below us.

"Did you find Iris Corner?" I ask them. "Yes," Eileen says, "although it was on another island and it isn't called that. But we celebrated our anniversary by diving there again."




flies from Auckland to Townsville, via Brisbane, with return Economy Class flights from $777.

Orpheus Island Lodge has rooms from $A1500 a night for two people, suites from $A2000 a night for two people. Orpheus Island is open mid-March to late January.