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For about 500 million years, the Antarctic winds that buffet K.I. have been sculpting granite boulders into a stunning natural work of art now known as the Remarkable Rocks. It took only about five years much of it spent acquiring permission to develop the nearby Southern Ocean Lodge, Australia's first true superlodge, which sits amid 252 acres (102 hectares) of virgin bushland. While the building, which snakes down an escarpment, is stunning especially its massive, light-flooded great hall, sparsely furnished with distinctly "groovy" furniture that resembles a place where the Jetsons might live the emphasis here is on what's outside. Hence there are dawn walks among the sea lions (your expert guide is armed with only a broom, which may appear somewhat flimsy in the face of a sea-lion bull), while dusk is the time for "Kangaroos and Canapés," plus a few glasses of 2007 Henschke Julius Riesling, from South Australia's Eden Valley. The service is superb chatty and friendly in true Aussie style, with an all-inclusive, help-yourself bar adding to the sense that this spectacular lodge is your home away from home.
Southern Ocean Lodge is the creation of James and Hayley Baillie, a dynamic young couple who have earned their stripes as pioneers of luxury-level, nature-based tourism. Their four-property portfolio also includes Lord Howe Island's Capella Lodge and, opening in 2010, a lodge on Australia's largest island, Tasmania. James believes that, aside from some of the ritzy tropical islands in the Great Barrier Reef region, his homeland's offshore gems remain undersold. "We have great diversity, plus overall, Australia has become so much more sophisticated. We've come of age in terms of food and experiences which are special and yet really relaxed," he says. "We're not just a flop-and-drop beach destination anymore."
However, should you want to flop-and-drop in style, there's Qualia, a resort that opened earlier this year on Hamilton Island, off the coast of Queensland. Hamilton is no secret; it is Australia's Oahu, if you like. Yet Qualia, which hugs its northernmost tip, is peaceful, tropical and indulgent, from the vast daybeds for lounging and fabulous gazebos surrounding the infinity pool to your room's wide-screen TV, positioned so you can watch it from your private plunge pool. The resort is also within easy access of international airports.
The antithesis is Haggerstone Island, at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef. It takes a day and a half to reach Haggerstone from Sydney, including a two-hour flight on a six-seater plane followed by a half-hour boat ride. One recent guest said he felt like Tom Hanks in Castaway, except he had the company of affable hosts Roy and Anna Turner, who landed on the island more than 20 years ago and handcrafted the Robinson Crusoe-style structures, including a tree house hidden in the jungle. A favorite among those traveling with Wilderness Australia, which specializes in off-the-beaten-track destinations, Haggerstone is "among the more rustic experiences we offer," says Charlie Carlow, who helms the company. "But it's the ultimate marine safari." Trips from the island with Roy take guests across coral reefs, with turtles, reef sharks and other marine life easily visible in the waters below. The channels between the reefs offer spectacular fishing opportunities, with remote sand cays providing an unbeatable dining spot for the freshly cooked catch of the day. "Enchanting," says Marion von Adlerstein, one of Australia's leading travel writers, recalling with a chuckle, "I felt that I was one of the Swiss Family Robinson, yet with a glass of wine in my hand!"
As for Australia's most perfect secret isle? James Baillie nominates Wilson Island, a pristine coral cay that is both part of the Great Barrier Reef and surrounded by it, calling it a "magical place." His company does not have a property on Wilson, because none exist there just six tents and a shared washhouse, run with considerable style by the Australian resort specialist, Voyages. This tiny paradise has not only pristine natural beauty but also chilled beer, and those who have traveled to any of the continent's bleached and rugged islands that lack the latter may agree that Wilson has landed a wonderful combination, especially as they sit in awed silence watching loggerhead-turtle hatchlings dig their way out of the sand. Just don't try going to Wilson in February, because it is always booked not by humans but by the nesting birds that have exclusive use of the island for one month of the year.