Featured image: Vlasoff Cay. Photo: Tourism Tropical North Queensland
A dreamy dollop of sand, adrift in the cerulean sea. Seriously, what could be more romantic for a beach picnic (or a just-me-and-you “I do”) than your own tiny private island, aka sand cay? Touch down by helicopter or bob in by boat, pop on a snorkel (or pop the Champagne) and soak up the castaway vibes.
But let’s back up a smidge, what is a cay exactly? The short answer: a low-lying sand island anchored by a coral reef. Formed over thousands of years from sediment deposits, cays make awesome snorkel sites thanks to their shallow fringing reefs and are heaven for marine life. Fun fact: cay and key (as in the Florida Keys) refer to the same thing and are variations of the same name — from the Spanish cayo meaning “small island”. Cay is also usually pronounced ‘key’. Right!
While cays can be found throughout the Pacific, Queensland just happens to have an impressive stable of these sandy beauties. Just remember, they can be a little camera-shy, often only visible at low tide. Head into the glorious Great Barrier Reef to get acquainted.
Going cray-cray for sand cays already? Here’s 5 of our faves
1. Vlasoff Cay
There’s something special about Vlasoff, a kind of star quality that makes it the cay of choice for both stellar proposals and ultra-exclusive elopements. Located north of Green Island on Vlasoff Reef (a scenic heli-flight from Cairns) this is one swathe of sand you won’t want to leave, especially when the toasts start flowing on your Champagne beach picnic. Planning “I do”? You’ll have Vlasoff’s immaculate aisle all to yourselves. Epic.
Go there: You’ll want a helicopter for this one. Try GBR Helicopters or Nautilus Aviation for a breathtaking flight over the reef, gourmet picnic hamper with bubbles, and plenty of time to explore, sunbathe and snorkel this magical destination.
2. Sudbury Cay
A teardrop of white in a swirling turquoise sea, Sudbury Cay is neighbour to one of our other favourite Queensland escapes, Fitzroy Island. About 40 kilometres off Cairns, Sudbury is surrounded by one of the region’s most beguiling reef systems where you can drift over gorgeous clam gardens and spot Nemo among the anemones. Pass the snorkel, please!
Go there: We love the sound of the new Outerknown Adventures on the Great Barrier Reef with Coral Expeditions. A seven-night round trip from Cairns, this nature-based, small group adventure explores some of the pristine outer reefs and lesser-known islands (including Sudbury).
3. Michaelmas Cay
Full disclosure: you won’t be the only couples making a beeline for Michaelmas Cay. This tiny isle also plays host to thousands of nesting seabirds each year! Located just over 30 kilometres off the coast, Michaelmas is a bird-watchers’ paradise but also a top spot for snorkelling, diving, and meeting the local turtles. Look out for its lovely little sister cay, Upolu, nearby.
Go there: Several cruise companies travel to Michaelmas, including Ocean Spirit Tours who offer an awesome full day tour aboard their 32-metre sailing catamaran.
4. Undine Cay
Heading north? The powdery sands of Undine Cay await in the northern reef precinct, just off Cape Tribulation National Park and accessible via Port Douglas. Turtles, starfish, fish, and giant clam gardens call this pristine islet home, making Undine a memorable addition to your Tropical North Queensland holiday.
Go there: Step aboard Sailaway’s luxury sailing catamaran and head out to the cays of Undine and Mackay with glass-bottom boat tour, snorkel gear, tropical lunch, and afternoon tea all included.
5. The islands
If you want to upsize your cay getaway into an overnighter, try Green Island. Yep, it’s a sand cay too. And the only one in the Great Barrier Reef with a rainforest growing on it! The idyllic Heron Island, 72 km off Gladstone, also ticks the cay box, with both islands offering eco resort accommodation and the chance to hang with a charming local community of seabirds, fish, turtles, rays, and even whales.