Hi, Seana here. Now I’ve never been to Heron Island myself, but have dreamed of going for many years. An old uni pal worked as a scuba diving instructor there, my elder sister took her family there when visiting Australia, I shouted my little sister and her husband three days at Heron Island as a wedding present… yet still my family has never been!
We might just wait a while yet before going. Read my friend Alex Armstrong’s hilarious account of a recent multigenerational family holiday on Heron Island and you will understand why. The resort needs to pull its socks up… to say the least! But Alex and family still had some glorious moments. Sit back with a cup of tea and enjoy this story.
Heron Island – The Island Hospitality Forgot
1 Star for Hospitality, 5 Stars for Natural Environment
By Alex Armstrong
Time had come for the traditional intergenerational Bensley family holiday of 2019. It had been researched, discussed, planned, discussed some more and finally booked. Previous adventures had seen us discover locations such as the beautiful Shangri-La Resort in Fiji, a fabulous large mansion, once used as an exclusive top-end brothel (but that’s a different story), located in the iconic Bryon Bay hinterland and a farm stay on a beautiful rural working dairy farm around the Sunshine Coast hinterland town of Maleny. We are a group of 17; 7 adults and 10 children, aged 65 to 5, so finding the perfect location can be tricky but we are nothing if not keen and determined.
This year, after becoming aware of a great idea, we decided to stay in Australia – well sort of. Seventy-two kilometres off the Queensland coast is a small tropical island measuring only 1.8 km in diameter and surrounded by the clearest, richest, bluest waters – Heron Island. Once home to a turtle cannery, the island is now a bird sanctuary, research station and resort nestled firmly in the protected green zone of the largest coral collective in the world, The Great Barrier Reef.
Mobilising three generations we travelled 5, 7 and 15 hrs from Noosa, Brisbane and Orange respectively, to the industrial Queensland coastal town of Gladstone. So far so good, mobilisation had proven effective and the much anticipated and joyful family unification had taken place at the scheduled time and place – Gladstone Ferry Terminal 8am – all system were Go. So, with cars parked, bags checked and boarding passes in hand, at 9:15am we boarded the Heron Islander Ferry for a 2-hour ride to the Island. With seasickness tablets taken, ginger at the ready and snacks prepared we sat back and enjoyed the ride.
About 11:30am we arrived at the island and were ushered to the debriefing room for a quick island run down. The concise tactical overview presented three key points:
- Heron Island Resort is a key-less resort and reportedly extremely safe. There hasn’t been a known theft in over two years. To be honest this sounded precarious but throughout our entire week we felt perfectly safe and the children were able to wander carefree;
- There is no wifi, phone or TV reception on the island. In saying that you can purchase unreliable, limited, costly wifi at Bailey’s Bar and there are public phones if needed; and
- Being located in the Protected Green Zone of the GBR you are invited to observe nature but touch and take nothing otherwise David Attenborough will know and he won’t like it, and just as an aside, ‘cone shells’ are extremely dangerous – ‘if it’s a cone, leave it alone’.
With this new knowledge absorbed, all new guests are free to roam around the island until their rooms are ready at about 3pm. This is quite a long time especially if you have children, so you can have lunch in the restaurant or bar (or bring your own) to pass the time. You could also bring your swimmers and take a dip, with beach towels provided at the bar. Our clan settled into large couches in the bar and after an enormous wait received our coffees and toasted sandwiches. Being school holidays the island was 97% full with 380 guests, and, as we were soon to discover, not enough staff, food, cutlery, water – sorry I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, let me explain.
The majority of staff at Heron Island Resort appeared inexperienced, disconnected, under resourced, and generally unhelpful. The level of service was lacklustre and at times comical. Upon arrival we waited well over an hour to order and receive coffees and a few toasted sandwiches in Bailey’s Bar. The buffet breakfasts and dinners were more than often empty, and if you found a clean spoon you would guard it with your life. You could attempt to order coffee at breakfast but don’t expect it to arrive, and if you enquire as to its whereabouts you might be told by the clearly frustrated barista that he, ‘isn’t an octopus’, and ‘can’t do everything’.
During our seven night stay it was extremely difficult to find a plate, cup or bowl that wasn’t chipped or dirty and if you found bacon that wasn’t cold or profiteroles that weren’t frozen be grateful and eat-up.
My niece was turning eight during our stay and my sister-in-law (a professional chef) had pre-ordered a special cake to celebrate weeks in advance. At the scheduled time we attended the restaurant only to be told they knew nothing about it. We then contacted reception who informed us that, yes they had the information but that no one had passed it onto the restaurant – which is literally 50 metres away. We received no apologies, no excuses, just apathy. We then went back to the restaurant who told us that they would have something ready in two hours. Without an alternative option we returned in two hours and collected a cake that was the wrong type and proudly presented on a chipped platter. Not only is this unacceptable from a hospitality perspective, it’s also extremely unhygienic and the health department would have a field day.
A lovely option on the island, or so we thought, is to have your lunch as a picnic including sandwiches, cheese, fruit and sparkling Australian white. Unfortunately upon pick-up, the baskets were missing items, the sparkling was warm and they had run out of picnic blankets. It was like a lucky dip reaching into each basket, not sure what we would find. By this stage we had learnt just to be happy to receive anything, so we took our rations and enjoyed a fun filled afternoon on one of the beautiful sandy beaches, saving our warm sparkling for later.
The main entertainment area, Baileys Bar, is a wonderful open space to relax and the live music provided each night was fantastic. Well, it would have been if not overpowered by the one television on the island located in the upstairs area of the bar. Ironically the island that prides itself on being offgrid and disconnected provides a huge TV permanently playing ‘Sponge Bob Square Pants’ at a great volume. Why, I heard everyone around me ask?
The bar itself was always under resourced by staff members who clearly did not have hospitality backgrounds. Upon finding shards of glass on the broken tile floor of the bar and highlighting this to the lone bar attendant, he simply shrugged his shoulders, said he knew and then continued on with something else. My husband ended up finding a dustpan and brush from a storage cupboard and cleaned up what he could to avoid the many barefoot children walking around the area from getting glass in their feet.
Our rooms, of which we had four, were often left unserviced and at one stage the whole island ran out of bottled water, clean towels and laundry detergent. The island makes its own water with a desalination plant, which is essential for the inhabitants on the island but be warned it has an interesting taste and somehow leaves you thirsty after having consumed litres of the clear liquid, so fresh water is a must.
After seven nights of family merriment, daily snorkelling, children’s talent shows, trivia nights, endless card games and constant bewilderment and comic relief of the absolute abysmal service, it was time to book out. The number of complaints we heard from fellow guests was remarkable but we all had to laugh or anger and annoyance would have taken hold.
The Aldesta Heron Island Resort is broken. It requires serious management reform, not to mention new crockery. The rooms are fine, the general grounds are kept in check by an army of groundskeepers who do a fantastic job and the Marine and Information Centres are run and operated by experienced and helpful staff, a stark contrast to the rest of the resort.
The wine list at Bailey’s Bar is limited and uninspiring. As a family who had owned and run hotels, restaurants and continues to work in the Australian food and beverage industry, we understand the depth and value Australian wine and beer has to offer. I know Aldesta is a Canadian company but when four out of every five guests to Heron are international why not highlight acclaimed Australian beverages and make a point of not only providing a premier Australian natural environment but wine, and food for that matter, to match.
On Aldesta’s website it states: ‘At Heron Island, nothing comes between you and an unforgettable Heron Island holiday’ – well we certainly won’t forget our holiday to Heron but let me tell you why – the Reef.
Heron Island is unparalleled in aquatic beauty. The abundance in fish life, turtle activity, rays and reef shark movements is awe inspiring. Snorkelling in this almost alien, yet strikingly familiar environment is bewildering in its fabulousness. It’s like nature with bling.
Imagine gliding along the surface of a coral forest, coral spans out in front of you; fantastic fans, fields of brilliant branches, colourful soft swaying trees, ancient majestic boulders, hidden canyons and gorges all being gently touched by delicate rays of sunlight filtering through the surface.
You notice you are swimming through countless schools of blue and silver fish, below long yellow trumpet fish float suspended while feeding on the coral, barramundi cod can be seen enjoying a clean, poppyseed sea cucumbers dot the sandy bottom tirelessly producing more clean soft sand for the reef, green sea turtles cruise by looking for a suitable mate, sleek white and black tip reef sharks coast along the coral’s edge, cow-tail rays lie still just visible in the sand below and then out of the corner of your eye you see a magnificent manta ray, twice your size, swimming gracefully in the warm water.
It is astounding, wonderful, and you can’t help but smile, even giggle into your snorkel in pure delight. At that glorious moment nothing else in the world matters, your childlike sense of wonder is in over-drive. You are amazed, intrigued and completely happy. You forget the inefficiencies of the dour resort. You float and attempt to photograph everything in your mind, to remember every detail but most of all, to enjoy the brilliance of the moment.
This is why Heron Island will remain etched in our memories forever, from little Freddie who roamed carefree amongst his cousins and the hundreds of birds, to our matriarch, Pippa, who actively combed the glorious sandy shores for the perfect photo and adored every minute with her precious family.
As for me, my beloved and my gorgeous brothers and sisters, we laughed until tears fell, we bathed in the bluest waters of the Pacific, we let the final rays of the brilliant setting sun soak into our very consciousness as it slowly sank over the water, we drank in the marvellous mysteries of the deep and we simply held space and time for each other.
Where the next adventure will take us we aren’t quite sure but something tells me Pippa is already hard at work planning. To new experiences, to unknown adventures, to crazy spontaneous kids and to reconnecting to the ones you love most in this world and ultimately to ourselves.
Seana’s note: Now hopefully the problems that are clearly going on at Heron Island will improve. Keep an eye on Tripadvisor here to see whether current reviews are as scathing as they were when Alex visited.
Heron Island Things to Know
Ferry Tip: The Ferry departs at 9:30am and everyone must be checked in by 9am. The return trip is $138/adult and $69/child (12 yrs and under) and it is important to note that this is on top of your room rate and you pay for it when you check out from the resort. There is covered and uncovered secure parking for $12/night and $10/night respectively, as well as some public unsecure parking within walking distance from the ferry. Bookings are essential for the secure parking and can be made through the Gladstone Marina. It is best to drop your bags at the ferry check-in first then park your car. The ferry is notoriously rough so be sure to take seasickness tablets half an hour before departure. Cold drinks and snacks are sold on board but you are welcome to take your own. There are toilets on board the ferry as well as at the Marina before you depart.
Flying in: If you don’t want to catch the ferry, you can fly over to the Island from Gladstone via helicopter $500/person each way or seaplane $350/person each way (prices can vary and bookings are essential).
Snorkelling: Everyone is provided with snorkel equipment – googles, snorkel and fins. Make sure your snorkel equipment fits properly, including fins and if not, change them. The Marine Centre staff are very accommodating and experienced. Snorkel out as far as you can – head to the drop-off just like Nemo!!! You will not regret it.
Toothpaste for goggles: To keep your googles from clouding up, wipe a very thin layer of toothpaste on the plastic and then rinse it in the water. Works a treat.
Best ages for kids to visit Heron Island: Due to the main activity being snorkelling, although younger children would enjoy it, the best age to take kids to Heron would be 10 +. There is a pool at the resort but it is small and often taken up by the scuba diving course. There are places to swim close to shore and lots of sandcastles to be made but the reef is where you want to be.
Wetsuits: Depending on when you visit hire a wet-suit for your stay for warmth and buoyancy or take one with you. They are $15 or $20/day depending on whether you want short or long.
Food: Depending on your package take lots of packaged food like JAX, Pringles, nuts, muesli bars, lollies, two-minute noodles, biscuits, chocolates etc. No fresh food is allowed on the Island.
Alcohol: The resort is licenced and taking alcohol is prohibited.
Must haves: Books, games, binoculars, a camera, hat, sunscreen, casual clothes and swimmers. You can even download some music or audio books onto your phone and take some blue tooth speakers.
Activities: Make sure you book into the activities you want to do during your stay ASAP as positions are limited. Some activities cost extra, like the over 18’s sunset cruise and snorkelling adventures but others are free. The research station is well worth a visit. Reef walking is great fun and there are a large number of reef shoes you can borrow already on the Island (left behind from past holiday makers).
Bird life: The island is a bird sanctuary so from October to March thousands of birds flock to the island to mate. This does result in increased noise and an interesting smell but ear plugs are available at reception and you do get used to the smell. The rooms do seem to be well insulated for noise.
The rooms + views: All the rooms are different and have different views. If you want water views make sure you ask as some of them are set back into the scrub and aren’t as nice.
Laundry: There are three laundries on the island for guests to use free of charge. Laundry powder is also provided (as long as they don’t run out).
Have a great trip!!!!