Heron Island Resort – An Unbiased Review of the Best + The Worst of Heron Island   

Here’s my friend Alex Armstrong’s hilarious account of a multigenerational family holiday on Heron Island from 2019 which had some unsettling moments. Alex and family still had a great time though. Sit back with a cup of tea and enjoy this story.

I visited myself in 2022 and wrote this story: Heron Island with Kids

Family fun
Three generations enjoying the beach at Heron Island
Fish circle
A circle of fish on the reef

Heron Island      

1 Star for Hospitality, 5 Stars for  Natural Environment

By Alex Armstrong

The 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) 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 in and boarding passes in hand, we boarded the Heron Islander Ferry at 9:15am for a two-hour ride to the Island. With seasickness tablets taken, ginger at the ready and snacks prepared we sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Pland landing and kids snorkling
You can also fly into Heron by seaplane. Here’s one landing as we snorkel.

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Adventure time
Cousins connecting

My niece was turning eight during our stay and my sister-in-law (a professional chef) had pre-ordered a special cake 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 on to 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 wine 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 off grid and disconnected provides a huge TV permanently playing ‘Sponge Bob Square Pants’ at a great volume. Why, I heard everyone around me ask?

Time for pool

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 was broken. It required serious management reform, not to mention new crockery. The rooms were fine, the general grounds were kept in check by an army of groundskeepers who do a fantastic job and the Marine and Information Centres were 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.

NB Things had improved by 2022 – read Heron Island Resort With Kids!

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.

Black tip shark
One of the many (harmless) reef sharks around the reef

Heron Island is unparalleled in aquatic beauty. The abundance of 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.

Following a turtle
Snorkelling with turtles!

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 overdrive. 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.

Scuba boat
The Heron Island scuba boat sets off

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. Here’s to new experiences, to unknown adventures, to crazy spontaneous kids and to reconnecting with the ones you love most in this world and ultimately with ourselves. 

The gantry
The gantry just off the beach at Heron Island
Island Jetty
The Heron Island jetty

Heron Island Things to Know

Ferry Tip: The ferry departs at 9:30am and everyone must be checked in by 9am. The return trip was $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 – goggles, 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 wetsuit 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 audiobooks onto your phone and take some blue tooth speakers.

A trip to see the reef from the submersible boat

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 holidaymakers).

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 earplugs 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!!!!

Photo 1
Tranquil waters, and the wreck just offshore at Heron Island
Heron Island turtle hatchlings walk 1
Read about seeing baby turtles hatching over at Heron Island Resort with Kids.
Heron Island turtle hatchlings walk 5
Heron Island turtle hatchlings walk 4

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  1. What a tragedy Heron Island has become. It used to be a mecca for divers – home to the much-loved annual Heron Island Dive Festival – but for years now it has been left floundering, consecutive owners who seem not to care a jot about the place or its reputation! A guest told me recently she was served both swordfish and orange roughy for dinner – two endangered species. And what a contrast to its wonderful neighbour Lady Elliot Island – that can do no wrong.

  2. says: Morag

    What a shame. We had a great stay in 2007, with 1 staff member for every 2 guests. Felt well looked after and the food was fantastic – especially the buffets. And no TV in the bar. Glad to hear the reef is alive and well. Happy memories for us. Let’s hope it picks itself up.

  3. says: Sarah

    I would send this Heron island holiday account to management!!
    This might seem funny ( the bad service at resort) if you have lots of money to spare and know you’ll be on another holiday soon.
    However the bad service etc would not seem as funny for poorer people who might save for years for that singel holiday to be treated like that. I don’t think I would have taken it so calmly.
    Not impressed. I won’t be booking at Heron Isand anytime soon.

    1. says: Seana Smith

      I did get in touch with the Marketing Manager, and asked what steps are being taken to remedy the situation… still waiting for a reply. I would have been very annoyed by this, as Alex was, but I’m glad she did write it with humour. Keep and eye on the Tripadvisor reviews… it must improve and Tripadvisor is a good place to read the most recent visitors’ thoughts.

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