Get set for a pulse-quickening, eyes-agog escape. Melissa Rimac plunges in to find the regions’ most extraordinary, most romantic, aquatic wonders.
Personifying an oriental watercolour, El Nido is a fairytale seascape: satin-smooth sea studded with hundreds of karst islands, each showcasing distinctive seascapes; sorbet-coloured coral gardens, bulbous coral outcrops resembling gargantuan mushrooms and cabbages, crenulated snorkel-through caves and tunnels.
The springy bamboo pontoons are lovely to lie on for a break.
In this hauntingly beautiful tropical fiordland, curtains of rock cascade into indigo depths lassoed by pulsing schools of neon-bright fish. You’re likely to see giant trevally swarming through schools of smaller fish or dense whirlwinds of tropical fish the moment you step off the jetty.
For castaway romance, get dropped off at your own private island–it makes for an unforgettable champagne breakfast or candlelit dinner. Simply point out a desired haven and an awaiting boat will whisk you there.
El Nido’s eco-chic resorts are embraced by a jungle ringing with hornbill and kingfisher calls. There’s no need to torment yourself with thoughts of restraint at the scrumptious Asian and fusion buffets. Instead, work it off by walking through the jungle to isolated beaches or kayaking to nearby islands or lake-like lagoons encased by painterly limestone bluffs.
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Within moments of putting your head underwater at Sipadan Island, it’s almost assured that you’ll see at least several massive green turtles gliding towards the surface. When you find yourself gazing down upon stampeding wrasse or encased within a swirling ‘tornado’ of barracuda, it feels as if you’ve swum into an Imax version of a Jacques Cousteau documentary.
Home to over 3,000 fish species and acclaimed for its rich profusion of pelagics, it’s not surprising that Sipadan’s enduring diversity and abundance of marine life has bolstered its reputation as one of the world’s top dive sites. What is unexpected is that the big ticket attractions are easily accessible to snorkellers, thanks to the shore-hugging 600-metre drop off.
Whale sharks visit Lankayan between March and May. On this private island, sandy beaches segue straight from tactile timber bungalows and just a few strokes from shore, coral gardens unfurl to infinity.
The historic city of Sandakan–gateway to Lankayan–is fascinating for its colonial and WWII reminders, picturesque timber houses, colourful market and aromatic eateries. Nearby wildlife encounters, such as the orangutans at Sepilok Nature Reserve and the riverine jungles at Sukau, shouldn’t be missed.
The flamboyantly lush island of Taveuni presents almost too many shades of green and blue for the eyes to process in a single vision. The sensory saturation continues underwater, with dive bibles referring to this region as the soft coral capital of the world. Names like Rainbow Reef hint at what’s in store and electrifyingly colourful, eye-bogglingly intricate corals are only part of the picture. Dramatic underwater topography and a cacophony of fish species–manta rays, barracudas, butterfly fish and leopard sharks, for starters–ensure an adrenaline rush each time you get wet.
Rainforested mountains nudge a narrow coastal fringe on Taveuni, the setting for Blue Lagoon 2. This patchwork of coconut plantations, candy-coloured cottages enveloped by tropical orchards and sleepy timber villages is perfect for romantically random exploration by mountain bike.
Just metres from the mesmerising corals lie beaches overarched by rainforest trees and palms, where children bring horses for afternoon swims. Walking trails thread this emerald landscape, taking in waterfall-fed swimming holes, empty beaches and Fiji’s only World Heritage area, a powerhouse of rare tropical flora and exotic birds. Nurturing comforts, such as the spontaneous appearance of homemade cookies are a fixture at Taveuni’s resorts, whether they’re earthy bungalows or ultra-luxe villas surrounded by acres of Eden-like grounds.
Snorkelling through channels of coral-encrusted lava is intensely exhilarating. By the time you emerge at a deep violet drop-off, chances are you’re feeling deliciously detached from reality. Although there’s so much that’s otherworldly about the island of Tanna, travellers are just starting to venture beyond the ash fields and into the aquarium like ‘blue holes’ which dot the encircling pristine reefs.
Little known Epi Island offers extraordinary diversity: coral uplifts, caves and crevasses in the south around Valesdir; endless fields of coral around Lamen Bay and Lamen Island; a fantasy of mysterious soft corals in the Nikuara Marine Protected Area on the eastern shore.
These islands are quintessential ‘old Pacific’. It seems not much has changed on Jurassic-looking Tanna since Captain Cook marvelled at the raw beauty of Port Resolution: think grass skirts worn as everyday garb, ceremonies that bring to mind antiquated National Geographic’s and forests of towering fern trees. Mt. Yassur’s accessible volatility adds a thrilling frisson to this time-frozen island.
On Epi, public transport consists of hopping on the back of a ute. For an unforgettable evening, watch the vermilion outbursts from volcanoes on neighbouring islands from Lamen Bay.
There are more than 74 islands sprinkled about these bolt-bright turquoise waters–some little more than rock clusters, others rambling and lush–each fringed by harlequin-hued reefs. Merely metres from shore, the sudden explosion of fuchsia, violet and tangerine quite literally makes you jump.
This breathtaking section of the Great Barrier Reef is home to over 400 types of coral and 1,500 species of marine life–expect everything from comical batfish who eyeball you to goose-bumpy encounters with the likes of huge nosey potato cod, Napoleon wrasse, manta rays and nursing whales. The most romantic way to experience this chain of drowned volcanoes is aboard a timber tall-ship, anchoring at a different dreamy haven each day.
For freeform adventure, the abandon of chartered sailing–sans strict itinerary, knowledgeable crew doing the hard work–is the stuff of bucket lists.
Whilst resort islands administer a sedating barefoot luxury, Airlie Beach buzzes with boutique shopping, atmospheric dining, beachside markets and live music.
Island strolls reveal blissfully secluded beaches, unfazed wildlife and a surprising diversity of topography. The crowning glory is Whitehaven Beach, an icon of captivating aquamarine swirls.