Charlotte Carter gets her first taste of eco-tourism on a day trip to the idyllic Lady Elliot Island.
I'd seen photos but nothing could have prepared me for seeing Lady Elliot Island for the first time in real life.
I peered out of our charter plane window and gasped at the sight of the rich, green oasis in the middle of the Tasman, a strip of white sand leading into the aquamarine water.
Lady Elliot Island is a success story, having been rescued and revitalised by conservationists.
The island first appeared above sea level roughly 3500 years ago; seabirds landed on the bare coral cay, producing guano and bringing with them seeds necessary to establish vegetation on the island.
However, a decade of guano mining destroyed the island.
Mining began in 1863 and continued for a decade. The destructive practice of extracting the guano from the soil resulted in the removal of all the vegetation except for eight pisonia trees.
About 1m of surface soil was removed fromthe island during this period.
Peter and Julie Gash took the lease for Lady Elliot in 2005 and began their mission to reintroduce wildlife to the island and restore the island to its former glory.
They have quickly become leaders in eco-tourism, finding ways to become self-sufficient and sustainable, while offering guests a world-class holiday.
During our charter flight on Seair Pacific, pilot Chris flew low to give passengers a chance to gaze at the island from the air, and flew around it several times for good measure.
Warm, unpretentious hospitality is what Lady Elliot excels at, and we got our first taste as we came in to land on the purpose-built airstrip, a group of island staff waving at us from the ground.
We disembarked and our enthusiastic guide, Eddie, led us around the island for a quick tour.
I took my phone out to check my work emails during our tour but was quickly reminded of one of the island's selling points — no cellphone reception.
Data can be purchased and used at several spots but I put my phone away and resolved to enjoy the experience without my third arm.
Eddie is a Chinese-speaking banker who regularly takes leave to work as a tour guide on the island. His love for Lady Elliot was infectious and he hurried us into the changing area to get kitted up for a glass-bottom boat and snorkelling tour.
It was a blustery day but very sunny, and when we arrived, somewhat hot and flustered, on the white sands of the beach, we were all itching to dive into the water.
But first, the glass-bottom boat tour.
As we cruised slowly around the reef, Eddie pointed out fish, coral and turtles before we cruised over one of several shipwrecks just off the coast of the island.
At last we were able to kit up and jump into the water to explore the reef.
The island, renowned for its prime snorkelling and diving, accommodates all levels of experience.
I followed turtles and dived down deep to get a closer look at a blue octopus hiding in the coral.
Depending on the time of year, guests may see migrating humpback whales, manta rays or turtle hatchlings.
We jumped back on the boat and headed back for lunch and a cold drink. The lunch offerings were tasty and hot — a mixed grill and a range of salads and hot meats meant there was something for everyone.
After lunch we were given the opportunity to explore the eco-initiatives on the island.
The two most impressive features of the island were the hybrid power station and the desalination system.
All the food waste is recomposted and scattered around the grounds of Lady Elliot, meaning nothing goes to landfill that doesn't have to.
Accommodation is fairly basic but clean and comfortable. There are two-bedroom island suites, reef units, garden units, eco cabins and most recently added — two glamping tents.
These are right beside Sunrise Beach and boast views of the spectacular lagoon. In season, migratory birds nest in surrounding vegetation and green and loggerhead turtles come ashore to lay their eggs only metres from the tents.
The fan-cooled tents accommodate up to two people. Architecturally designed and environmentally sustainable, they each have a private bathroom and secluded balcony.
In keeping with the natural, eco-friendly practices, there are no telephones, television, radios or Wi-Fi in the rooms.
Our day trip drew to an end and we said our goodbyes to the staff and climbed back on the plane, sandy and sun-baked. We flew around the island twice more, and the green oasis shrank into the distance.
HOW TO GET THERE
Seair Pacific, Peter and Julie's own airline, flies daily to and from Lady Elliot Island from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. An adult return fare ranges from $329 to $730.
Children's fares start at $199.
Accommodation is charged per person per night and starts at $170 a night for those staying in the basic eco cabins, where bathroom facilities are shared and beds are bunked. For the more upmarket traveller, two new beachfront glamping tents have been added, available for $325 per person per night.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
The glass-bottom boat tour is a must-do. The tour is included in the overnight or day trip rate. It begins with expert commentary on the coral and marine life below, before guests snorkel for 30 minutes. Have one of the friendly guides take you for a one-on-one snorkel around the reef — they know all the secret spots. Night tours are also available.
flies daily from Auckland to Coolangatta, with return Economy Class flights starting from $770. Business Class starts from $1971.