Heron Island Resort With Kids

Ah me, Heron Island: the teeming coral reefs, the curious turtles, the elegance of the swooping rays, baby turtles erupting en masse from their nests and rushing down to the sea, small sharks prowling the shallows, the merciless swooping seagulls.

There is not one day since I left that I would not have preferred to be on Heron island, would not have clicked my fingers and transported myself there if I could work that kind of magic.

But instead, I shall satisfy myself with exciting, happy, colourful memories as I show you photos and explain why I think that a holiday to Heron Island resort with kids is such an eye-opening and unique treat.

a green turtle swimming in clear water at Heron Island
Turtles! You can see turtles all year round in the waters around Heron Island, with nesting and baby hatchlings seen over the summer months.

Note: I went to Heron Island on my own – sorry twins! I was actually there on a swimming holiday. However, I checked it out with my family travel hat on too, and know for sure it would work well for my family of teenagers and young adults.

I also think it would be good for any family with older children, kids who were confident swimmers and who would like to snorkel. I did see much younger children there, and they seemed happy playing on the beach and in the pool. But if it was me I would wait until the kids are water confident and able to get face-to-face with rays, turtles and sharks without freaking out.

If you have read the previous article about Heron Island, written by my friend Alex in 2019, you will know that it is a place that works for all members of the family, young and old. Alex went with three generations of her family, and they all enjoyed themselves, notwithstanding the inadequacies of the hospitality side of things which she detailed with hilarity on this Heron Island Unbiased Review here.

Since Alex’s visit in 2019, things have improved on Heron Island. However, when I visited this year, covid-caused staff shortages were still evident. Meals were sometimes very slow to arrive and I felt for the staff who were sometimes flustered as they ran around trying to keep all the guests happy.

aerial view of heron island wide shot with jetty and snorkellers
The harbour and jetty at Heron Island. I wish I had been able to take the helicopter to Heron Island and see it from above. Image credit: Tourism and Events Queensland. Isn’t it a stunning shot!?

Here’s why I think that Heron Island holidays are a true adventure for families. Something far beyond most of our daily lives, a chance to see some amazing wildlife up very close.

children playing in rock pools things to do on heron island with kids is just to walk around the beaches
Sunsets on the island are pretty
kids on herson island at sunset playing on beach
It is a joy to see kids just playing as they wander the beautiful beaches

Heron Island Quick Q + A

Where is Heron Island?

Heron Island is at the south of the Great Barrier Reef, it is about 72km off the coast from the city of Gladstone. The island lies on the westernmost side of the enormous Heron Reef which is a fringing platform coral reef.

What type of island is Heron Island?

Heron Island is a coral cay, meaning an island made of sand and sediment which has built up very slowly on top of a coral reef over tens of thousands of years. Birds have visited Heron Island for millenia and have helped to build up the island so that it now has soil and forest on top of it.

What makes Heron Island such a special location?

It’s the wildlife, stupid. No seriously, the seas and coral reefs around the island are absolutely teeming with amazing wildlife, and on shore there are all sorts of animals and a vast assortment of birds too.

Most Great Barrier Reef islands with resorts are close to the mainland, whereas Heron Island is far out to sea in the midst of the biggest reef on earth. There are some other islands like this, where people can stay however they are usually much more expensive. Heron Island and Lady Elliott Island are definitely the pick of the kid-friendly offshore islands. They are not places for a budget holiday, but ideal as a special treat holiday.

When is the best time to visit Heron Island?

There is no best time to visit as there are all sorts of things happening each month of the year. Some months are better for turtle watching, and other seasons bring migrations of whales, manta rays and many birds too. Check out the month-by-month guide on the Heron Island resort website here.

What family-friendly features does it have?

The small size of the island and resort is a big winner for families, in my opinion. Everything is very close together so you do not have to go far to the restaurant or to the Marine Centre or the jetty. The island itself is less than 1km long and about 300m at its widest, so no-one can go far. There are lovely short walks across the island to visit the beaches, and you can walk all the way around the island.

The rooms and meals are family-friendly, and, most of all, the amazing and abundant wildlife is both an education and a joy to behold.

Here’s another family-friendly feature… there is no mobile coverage on Heron Island... so put the phones, iPads and laptops away. (Can you hear the sound of teenagers screaming?) You can buy some wifi packages (which I did) but this turns out to be expensive and a bit frustrating. Better to just switch off, that means you too, Mum and Dad. I had downloaded some Netflix shows though, I must admit.

Does the resort cover the whole of Heron Island?

No, the resort is located on one-quarter of the island, another quarter is taken up by the Heron Island Research Station and half is National Park, part of the Capricornia Cays National Park.

What if I have other questions?

rocky beach at heron island with blue skies and clear water
Clear water and beautiful beaches at Heron Island
bright blue green water at Heron Island with wreck in background
The colour of the water at Heron Island is almost unbelievable. This is the channel that has been created to reach the harbour. No editing has been done to this photo. Wow! And you can see the wreck in the background here.

Heron Island Resort – Things To Do

Snorkel on the reefs and the wreck

You will find an abundance of sea creatures all smiling and waving at you when you put your head underwater. Here is a tiny bit of video that I filmed when snorkelling around the wreck of the HMCS Protector one morning.

Everyone who stays at Heron Island resort can borrow a set of mask, fins and flippers for free. There are many places to snorkel just off the beach, this is best at high tide and during the two hours each side of high tide.

On the west side of the resort where the accommodation is there is a large sandy lagoon, lots of fish and other animals live there. The best areas to snorkel here are at Shark Beach (fear not, there are only small sharks there!) and around the Gantry, just off the resort.

On the east side the fringing coral reef is much closer and the wreck of the Protector is on that side too. Snorkelling within the harbour and the channel that leads to it is not allowed from 8am to 5.30pm as there are boats coming and going, but snorkelling outwith those times is great fun. See the section on the sleeping rays below.

You can also book to go out to further parts of Heron Reef in the resort boats. I found these trips very well managed with excellent safety procedures. Young children might not like to jump out of boats into the open sea. I know my own children found this very scary when little. I lured them in as they grew older and held hands as we snorkelled until they became more confident.

brain coral on Heron reef, grey colour
A very healthy brain coral on the outer reef at Heron Island
brown and green brain coral on Heron reef
Another species of brain coral hides below a table coral and a soft coral.
stripy fish swarming amongst staghorn coral at Heron island reef
There were so many shoals of fish, the colour of these turquoise ones was just gorgeous.
table coral and staghorn coral on the outer reef at Heron Island
Staghorn coral looking very healthy.

Seeing small reef sharks is fairly common on the outer reef. This little fellow in the short clip below is a black-tipped reef shark. He wasn’t too inquisitive, luckily.

fish and coral near wreck
Coral and fish around the reef where the wreck is. Beautiful!
the wreck of the Protector at Heron Island taken whilst swimming
A look at the wreck from close by as I swam out to it. Most mornings there were lots of people snorkelling around out there.
a turtle swims amongst the outer reef at Heron Island
Turtle swimming through coral on a boat snorkelling trip
Swimmers legs and a turtle taken underwater
Swimmers chatting and not seeing the turtle gliding below them!

Turtle encounters

There are two species which live around the island, green turtles and loggerhead turtles, and I saw them every day. Turtles don’t swim, they glide. With barely a flick of their flippers they slip through the water. They seem serene, unconcerned, sometimes curious but never in the slightest bit worried about the humans they meet.

Most of the turtles who breed and lay their eggs at Heron Island are green turtles. It is common to see nesting females laying their eggs between November and March. Turtle hatching can be seen between January and May.

Personally I am not keen on watching turtles lay their eggs. Having had four children myself, I feel for that labouring mum turtle and would hate to disturb her in any way. So I didn’t go out in the evening to look for turtles laying. However, you can do that on Heron Island and the naturalist guides will make sure that all guests stay far enough away from the mother so that she is not disturbed.

What I did do very joyfully was to watch baby turtle hatchling erupt in droves from the sand where the clutch of eggs had been and rush off down to the sea. This was happening all over the island and so sometimes we would just come across a bunch of babies whirring their little flippers and heading for the ocean. The rules are – watch but do not touch. Do not interfere with Mother Nature.

a tiny turtle hatching walking over sand
A pretty little turtle hatchling heading for the sea. This photo was taken from further away than it looks. I was using a zoom lens.
baby turtles crawling out of their nest on the beach
A clutch of baby turtles erupting from their nest. Ready, set go!

I joined one of the evening Hatchling Walks with a guide, who explained where the mothers like to lay their eggs and how long the eggs take to hatch.

a baby turtle swims out to see in clear water
Swim, wee turtle, swim!

As the turtle hatchlings reached the sea seagulls began swooping down to pick up a baby by the flipper and fly away with them. Seagulls would dive bomb each other as they tried to steal the dangling baby turtle. But worse was to come.

We saw swishing and splashing in the water, not too far out, the water was about knee height. Then we saw fins as small sharks swam up and down looking for little turtles to eat. It was VERY HARD not to walk into the water and chase the sharks away. Everyone was rooting for the little swimming turtles, except one man who said. ‘But what about the sharks and the birds. They need to eat too, you know.’

Talk about a life lesson on survival. Lots of the little critters did not make it, but I would say most of the turtles did swim out to deeper water. The sun was setting. What would face them next as the water grew dark and night fell?

Well, there are so many adult turtles around Heron Island that we do know enough to survive to maintain a healthy population.

families with kids on Heron Island beach at sunset
Families watching small sharks just off the beach as the sun sets.
boats at the Heron Island jetty and a turtle swimming in the harbour
The resort boats wait at the wooden jetty. Can you see the small turtle that is under the water at the front?

Meeting rays under the jetty

One of my great joys was to snorkel around the jetty early in the mornings before the boats start moving in and out at 8am. I have never seen so many snoozing shovel-nosed rays and stingrays. What a lazy lot. Here’s a bit of video I shot.

Exploring the island reef at low tide

Heron Island Resort with kids 23
View from the resort pool at low tide. Lots of people are out looking at the coral and sea creatures
Heron Island Resort with kids 27
A beautiful view back to the resort as I walk in the lagoon at low tide
Heron Island Resort with kids 24
You can borrow reef shoes and these aquascopes from the Information Centre at no cost

Bird life on Heron Island

Heron Island Resort with kids 2
A white-capped noddy tern calling just outside my room
Heron Island Resort with kids 7
Swooping and sailing, birds were everywhere

If you do not like the sound of chattering birds, Heron Island might not be for you. Over the summer months, hundreds of thousands of noddy terns and mutton birds live on the island, making their nests in trees. Wedge-tailed shearwaters come in their tens of thousands for breeding season. They dig nesting burrows in the soil, and in fact they are the reason that the soil of this coral cay never hardened as many coral cays do. White-capped noddies also nest on the island in vast numbers. No wonder it is noisy!

On the island there are some birds which live all year round, like the eastern reef egret (a species of heron) and the silver gull.

Heron Island Activities – Paid

Snorkelling Boat Tours

You can snorkel further afield on Heron Reef and at nearby Wistari Reef. Children aged 8 – 14 years are allowed and must be accompanied by an adult. If you feel chilly, you can hire wetsuits from the Marine Centre. There are usually several boat trips for snorkelling every day, weather dependent, of course. I really enjoyed my boat trips to the outer reefs.

Semi-submersible Tour

If snorkelling and diving are not your cup of tea then a tour of the reef in this glass panelled craft with a Naturalist Guide is a must. Book at the Marine Centre.

Heron Island semi Submersible
Photo credit: Heron Island Resort

Kayaking and Paddle Boarding Tours

Join a guide for an hour-long tour of the inner reef and wildlife around Heron Island.

Junior Rangers Program

Children aged 7 – 12 years can join a marine biologist to explore the reef and island and to learn about Heron Island’s prolific bird life and sea life. Children receive a hat, wildlife workbook and a badge. This program runs at weekends and during Queensland school holidays. Call the island to check your dates.

Scuba Diving Courses and Dives

Qualified divers can join daily boat trips to enjoy the spectacular dive sites on Heron and Wistari Reef. Jacques Cousteau loved these sites and so will you! If you have never dived before then you can give it a try on a Discover Scuba dive session or study online then complete the dives to become a PADI Open Water Diver. Find all the scuba diving options on Heron Island here.

Sunset Cruise

Soak in the sunset over the reef on one of the island’s boat. The tour starts with drinks on the Wistari Terrace at Baillie’s Bar and then guests walk to the jetty to set off on their evening cruise.

Heron Island turtle hatchlings walk 6
A dramatic sunset over the reef
Heron Island Resort with kids 15
This is known as the Gantry, you can learn about how it was used when Heron Island was a turtle canning factory at the Information Centre
Heron Island Resort with kids 13
It is lovely to sit outside at Baillie’s Bar and watch the sunset over the Gantry. So relaxing

Heron Island Activities – Free

Heron Island Resort with kids 11
This is the Information Centre where you can sign up for walks and activities. It also has displays about the history of Heron Island and its turtle canning factory – eek. There is a lot of information about the reef life and larger sea animals and the birds here too. It is like a mini-museum.

A stay on Heron Island gives you access to reef and island experts with many opportunities to listen to expert talks and to join the Naturalist Guides on daily walks such as:

Turtle Walks

Evening and early morning walks with a guide are the best way to see female turtles who tend to nest at high tide at night. They slowly lumber up the beach, dig their nest and then lay around 100 eggs, before covering the nest and returning to the sea, exhausted.

During baby turtle hatching season there are guided evening walks. Guides ensure that all turtles are not approached closelt by guests and that we humans do not interfere with nature.

Island Walk

Join a guide on a walk through the pisonia tree forests to Shark Bay and North Beach. Learn how coral cays evolve and about the special features of Heron Island. You will hear about the birds, turtles and other animals and about the coral reefs. 1.5 hours approx.

Reef Discovery Walk

This walk takes place at low tide. Borrow reef shoes and walk through the lagoon waters with your guide who will point out all sorts of fish, sea cucumbers and other animals. Learn about the formation of coral and how the reef ecosystem works. 1.5 hours approx.

Bird Walk

Join a Naturalist Guide on a walk along the foreshore and learn about all the resident and migratory bird populations on Heron Island. See shore birds and sea birds as you walk. 1 hour approx.

Nature Talks

These occur in the evening in a small hall by the Reception area. I was absolutely rivetted by a talk on all the sharks that live around Heron Island. Most are small but I had never heard of lemon sharks before. These are quite large and I was glad to know they are harmless as I saw one early next morning at the harbour very briefly. It was the size of a small car! Talks on turtles and on reef formation and ecology are also given. You will definitely learn a lot from these evening talks. 1 hour approx.


Join a guide at the helipad where a telescope will be set up and you can learn all about the starry heavens above. This is dependent on weather and cloud cover of course. 1 hour approx.

Snorkelling Lessons

If you are not a confident snorkeller when you arrive on the island, book a snorkelling lesson which will take place in the resort pool. Remember that every visitor can borrow mask, fins and snorkel from the Marine Centre at no cost.

Heron Island Research Station

Heron Island Research Station is one of the world’s most important coral reef research facilities. Established in the 1950s it is now run by the University of Queensland. There are teaching and research laboratories, student accommodation for 80 students, a library and accommodation for the more permanent staff. You will see students and researchers at the harbour at times. Occasionally guests can take a tour of the Research Station.

Heron Island Resort with kids 5
The route to the beach just beside my room
Heron Island Resort with kids 4
Slow walks along the beach felt like a meditation

Heron Island Resort Facilities

Heron Island Resort with kids 14
That little tree and the wooden boardwalk by the pool are so pretty.

The pool at Heron Island

The kidney-shaped pool at Heron Island is quite small. Ah but the views from it are superb. There are plenty of loungers around it and I saw children playing in there for ages. It’s a good spot for a cool dip, but for proper swims you need to hop into the ocean.

Heron Island Resort with kids 12
The pool area
Heron Island Resort with kids 21
Sunset from the pool area

Aqua Soul Spa

Heron Island Resort with kids 20
This is the spa building… sadly I only saw the outside as it was booked out when I enquired. Book as soon as you arrive, or even before you arrive.

Shearwater Restaurant and Baillie’s Bar

Shearwater is the only restaurant on Heron Island, with a large internal room and verandahs. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here with some a la carte options and some buffet options. I am not a fussy person or a foodie and I could live with the sometimes exceedingly slow service. I was always hungry after all the swimming and snorkelling so I really enjoyed my meals on Heron. The sweet potato chips were a lifesaver.

However other people were certainly not happy at all times with the choices of food and with the service. Also, people were practically fainting when there was no staff member to act as barista and make coffees. I managed fine with the self-serve machine though.

I was on a package holiday so all my meals were included. Usually only breakfast is included in the nightly rate. Although Heron Island’s website states that no food is allowed to be brought over to the island I did talk to people who had popped cheese and crackers and avocado into their suitcases so they could make lunches.

Baillie’s Bar is another large space with plenty of room to sit and relax, both indoors and outdoors. There are pool tables and there is a giant chessboard on the terrace. You will find puzzles, games and a library to browse. This is a top spot to chat with friends and to read that much-anticipated novel. Children are welcome to spend time at Baillie’s.

Heron Island Boutique

The small resort shop sells souvenirs, toiletries and some snacks, including large bars of chocolate and ice cream.


There are laundry buildings that guests can use at no cost.

Heron island resort map

Accommodation Heron Island: The Rooms

There are several types of accommodation, some right on the beach and some set back in the trees. I was fortunate to stay in a beachside room which did have fab views through foliage to the sparkling aquamarine sea. However next time I might save money and go for a cheaper option as all of the rooms are very close to the beach. Also, all of the rooms have either a balcony or a terrace.

Whilst the rooms are fairly basic, they have kettles to make tea and coffee, plus a fridge. Most rooms have no aircon, all have fans. All rooms are ensuite and have sitting areas.

Heron Island Resort with kids 17
A block of Reef Rooms
Heron Island Resort with kids 19
The two single beds in my Beachside Room. The king bed was in a separate space, but not closed off by a door.

Turtle Rooms can sleep three or four people, depending on the type. Reef Rooms can sleep four or five. The Beachside Rooms have a king bed and two single beds.

Heron Island Resort with kids 18
A Turtle Room

The Wistari and Point Suites are for two people, and there is a beach house which sleeps four.

As ever, I do think it is a good idea to call the resort and chat through your family’s needs and preferences… and budget!

How To Get To Heron Island

To get to Heron Island you need to catch a ferry or helicopter from the city of Gladstone.

The Heron Islander is the ferry and it takes just over two hours to do the crossing. The ferry is large and comfortable with indoor and outdoor seating. Currently the ferry runs most days, but not on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Do check for yourself to see if this is current.

The Heron Island Ferry Terminal is a very cheap 10-minute taxi journey from the centre of Gladstone. You do need to arrive about 45 minutes early for the 9.30am departure. Your luggage needs to be checked in and then you can relax at the cafe which serves coffee in the largest cups I have ever seen.

The ferry terminal is at 72 Bryan Jordan Drive, Gladstone at the Gladstone Visitor Information building.

If driving, there is secure parking near the ferry terminal.

The return ferry journey from Heron Island to Gladstone leaves at 12.45pm.

Given the ferry times, most visitors have to stay a night in Gladstone before and after their ferry journey to Heron Island. If you can fly on the same day as the ferry do make sure that there is plenty of time to get from and to the airport, at least 90 minutes to two hours. The ferry is weather dependent and can be delayed.

Talking of weather, the sea crossing can be rough so take seasickness pills well ahead of time. The crew turned out to be excellent at looking after seasick passengers on one of my crossings when the sea was up.

Marine Helicopter Charter offers helicopter transfers to the island at over $500 each way. Excellent for a special treat and an amazing and scenic journey I am sure. But expensive!

Heron Island Packages + Deals

Heron Island tends to run at high to full capacity during all Australian school holidays. If you can avoid these then the prices are generally lower.

You can sometimes find special deals on websites like Tripadeal and Luxury Ecapes. Heron Island Resort itself also runs specials and deals at certain times of year. I have just had a look as I write this and none were showing but it’s always worth checking. The website link is below.

If you are planning to travel with a large family group do give the resort a call on 1800 875 343 (within Australia) or 1(855) 251 8261 (outside Australia) to discuss your group’s needs and to ask whether there can be any deals organised for you.

Booking A Stay At Heron Island

If you like to use Booking.com you can check dates and prices for Heron Island Resort here.

To book direct visit the main Heron Island Resort website here.

Gladstone cafe playground 2
The Gladstone Maritime Precinct is a must-visit for families.
Gladstone cafe playground 1
I enjoyed a meal one night sitting outside at the Gladstone Yacht Club.

Gladstone: Where To Stay and Play

Gladstone is a small place and it is very easy to get around. I walked to all the places I visited but took a taxi over to the ferry terminal. There is a fantastic playground and water splash play area at the Gladstone Maritime Precinct East Shores park. There are plenty of picnic tables to lounge around on and very modern toilets and change facilities. Also down in this area is a terrific restaurant/cafe called Auckland House. Nearby there is the family-friendly Famiglia Restaurant and Gelateria at 17 Flinders Road.

Gladstone cafe playground 4
Huge water splash play area, quiet when I visited one evening!
Gladstone cafe playground 3
Swings and play area

I stayed at the Oaks Gladstone, other friends stayed at Rydges, the Mantra and the Gladstone Reef Hotel. You have plenty options. Check out the Booking.com map below.

Gladstone Hotels Search – Map


Would Heron Island with kids work as a family holiday for you?

Are there any questions you would like to ask, please do so in the comments and I will get back to you.

Happy holiday planning! Here’s to Queensland island adventures.

NB Click here to check dates and prices for Heron Island on Booking.com

Heron island swimmers last day rainbow 3
Photo from our last day of swimming at Heron Island, a stormy sky with a bright rainbow.

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  1. says: Barbara

    August 22. Just had three days on Heron Island and it was disgusting. The rooms were dirty and run down, the pool was closed also the spa and shop. Meals poor at $50 per head. Reef walk,Ispy boat and island walk were booked out on the first day for all my stay. For the price paid I did not expect a run down resort. Booked through Hello World and a complaint registered.

    1. says: Seana Smith

      Hello Barbara, that is no good. I was there in March and did not think that it was run down. Definitely also found that one needs to book ahead for things. Why was the pool closed? And the spa and shop? What a drag? Agree that it is not cheap and the resort is not as good as one might expect. But what did you think of the wildlife and sea life? I think it is a place to visit only if you are keen to immerse yourself in the reefs and the natural beauty, go out on the boats, snorkel etc. Otherwise, not a great spot to holiday.

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