Under the sea: the world's 17 best snorkelling and scuba diving hot spots
The deep blue delivers breathtaking beauty for those willing to take a peek. Deborah Dickson-Smith dives into the world's 17 best scuba destinations that offer above-water experiences as magical as those below.
By Deborah Dickson-Smith | Published #67, Spring 2016
As lovers of luxury travel look for more adventurous and immersive experiences, scuba diving and snorkelling are becoming increasingly popular, and these days, you don’t need to rough it to explore some of the world’s best dive sites – you can do it in style.
All over the world, high-end hotels, resorts and cruise companies are responding to the increased demand for scuba diving and the increased demand to reach those pristine – and remote – coral reefs.
From Australia’s Whitsunday Islands to Indonesia’s South Sulawesi and the Yasawa Islands in Fiji, you’ll now find resorts with diving butlers, as well as Michelin star-quality dining and first-class spa treatments.
Here is our guide to the most impressive destinations where diving meets luxury.
1. Queensland: The Coral Sea, Whitsunday Islands
The Coral Sea, off the coast of Far North Queensland, is home to world-famous dive sites including Osprey Reef, Cod Hole and the Ribbon Reefs. Cod Hole is famous for its resident family of large potato cod and Osprey is well known for its large population of reef sharks, hammerheads and barracuda.
A favourite with celebrities for its secluded luxury, Lizard Island Resort is in the Coral Sea within a national park covering 1,013 hectares. It has 40 luxury suites, five-star cuisine and an indulgent day spa.
Around 1,000 kilometres south, the Whitsundays' outer reef is spectacular, but until recently, it’s been largely overlooked in favour of Far North Queensland, which has long positioned itself as the epicentre of the Great Barrier Reef experience. However, the Whitsundays are having a bit of a renaissance, with beautiful resorts opening up in the past few years including qualia on Hamilton Island and One&Only Hayman Island; and unique experiences such as Cruise Whitsundays’ Reef Sleep.
The Reef Sleep experience allows you to spend the night sleeping under the stars with the whole reef to yourself. Wave the day-trippers goodbye, perhaps go for an afternoon dive before enjoying a glass of champagne as the sun sets. The only noise you’ll hear is the occasional ripple of water as turtles nibble at algae on the pontoon.
2. New South Wales: Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island is possibly the most beautiful island in Australia, with tall volcanic outcrops reaching almost 900 metres at its highest point at Mount Gower, surrounded by beautiful shallow fringing reef.
Jump in the water at Settlement Beach and you’ll find sea turtles grazing on the seagrass, and over at Ned’s Beach on the other side of the island, trevally and small reef sharks will swim around your ankles and feed from your hand.
At the edge of the lagoon you’ll find a myriad of colourful reef fish and very pretty coral formations. Go out a bit further and you’ll find schools of reef sharks. Luxury accommodation can be found at Arajilla Retreat and Capella Lodge, with fine dining and world-class day spas.
3. Western Australia: the Coral Coast and Rowley Shoals
Ningaloo Reef on the Coral Coast is one to add to the bucket list for that once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming with whale sharks, but there’s great snorkelling and diving to be found along the entire length of the Coral Coast, from Perth to Exmouth.
Snorkel with sea lions in Jurien Bay, Geraldton and the remote Abrolhos Islands, with dugongs in Ningaloo and Shark Bay, manta rays and whale sharks in Coral Bay and Exmouth, and dolphins at Monkey Mia and Ningaloo.
Nearby resorts include the eco-luxury tented accommodation at Sal Salis Ningaloo Reef and the award-winning Novotel Ningaloo Resort in Exmouth.
Further north, 260 kilometres west of Broome, is Rowley Shoals, a group of three atoll-like coral reefs on the edge of one of the widest continental shelves in the world. Here you’ll find about 600 species of fish, 200 varieties of coral and visibility in excess of 60 metres. This relatively undiscovered divers’ paradise has been named one of the top 10 dive destinations in the world and there’s no better way to explore it than in luxury on a cruise with North Star Cruises aboard the True North.
Indonesia is in the centre of the so-called Coral Triangle, the most bio-diverse region on the planet, so as you can imagine, the diving throughout Indonesia is spectacular.
Bali has a plentiful range of luxury resorts, but you might not realise that it also has world-class dive sites, including the renowned USAT Liberty wreck in Tulamben Bay, an easy shore dive on the north-east coast. The biodiversity you’ll encounter here is incredible – greater than the Great Barrier Reef.
Dive operators such as Aqua Marine Bali will pick you up from your chosen luxury resort, whether that’s the InterContinental Bali Resort, Hotel Mulia in Nusa Dua, or Double-Six in Seminyak. For a real luxury diving experience, Pulau Luxury Charters runs day trips to Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida, and longer trips to remote and secluded bays around Lombok. This region is famous for giant sunfish, or Mola Mola, and manta rays. Day trips are typically broken up by lunch at a nearby beach club on Nusa Lembongan and there’s champagne on ice waiting for you to finish your last dive of the day.
Wakatobi, in south-east Sulawesi, was established with the specific objective to create the ‘ultimate dive resort’, after an extensive search to identify the perfect location, in terms of geography, oceanic topography and marine biodiversity. This luxury resort now sits inside the world’s largest privately protected marine reserve and, from shore or boat, you have exclusive access to miles of pristine reefs and dramatic undersea landscapes.
Further east in remote West Papua, Raja Ampat is widely considered the best diving experience in the world. Here you can swim with whale sharks and manta rays, schools of reef sharks, more than 700 species of molluscs and more than 1,400 species of fish. In an area the size of two football fields, scientists discovered more than six times as many coral species as live in the entire Caribbean Sea. Luxury accommodation can be found at the rather exclusive Misool Eco Resort, nestled deep in an archipelago of uninhabited islands with a maximum capacity of 40 guests.
5. Thailand: Similan Islands, Surin and Koh Phi Phi
Thailand’s Similan Islands and nearby Surin Islands are in the Andaman Sea off the coast of Phang Nga province, north of Phuket, and are ranked as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. The marine reserve is only open from October to May each year due to the monsoon season, and being fairly remote, is largely untouched.
Expect to see pristine coral reefs, schools of colourful anthias, fusiliers, jack fish, snapper, a wide variety of nudibranchs and, if you’re lucky, you might spot a tiny ghost pipefish or the biggest fish in the sea, whale sharks.
The best five-star jump-off point for the Similans is The Sarojin in Khao Lak, an hour’s boat ride away. After a day’s diving, you can join in a cooking class or maybe indulge in a spa treatment before a bit of fine dining.
The island of Koh Phi Phi is just under an hour’s boat ride from Krabi or Phuket, and it’s worth staying on the island if you plan to dive here, to get to the more popular sites before the hoards arrive from the mainland. Zeavola Resort offers barefoot luxury and a very intimate guided dive experience on their luxury dive boat.
6. Malaysia: Sipadan and Tanku Abdul Raman Marine Park
Sipadan is an oceanic island off Sabah’s continental shelf, the top of an ancient volcano that rises 600 metres from the sea floor. The island was brought to the world’s attention back in the 1980s by diving pioneer, Jacques Cousteau, who made a documentary about the pristine reef and its large population of sea turtles. Here you can expect to see turtles, thousands of colourful reef fish, huge schools of bat fish, barracuda, bump head parrotfish, white-tipped reef sharks and, if you’re lucky, hammerheads.
On the west coast of Sabah there’s also great diving to be found in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP) – a marine park of five islands, just 15 minutes from Kota Kinabalu. If you get your five-star accommodation fix at the Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort & Spa, after a day’s diving, come home to a spa bath filled with petals on your balcony and champagne on ice.
7. Papua New Guinea: Milne bay and Kimbie Bay
Papua New Guinea is one of the least explored countries in the world – many undiscovered species of plants and animals are thought to exist in its interior. Being this remote means its surrounding coral reefs are truly pristine and, being located in the Coral Triangle, teeming with marine life.
On the dive sites around Milne Bay, you’ll likely see hundreds of species of fish on a single dive in places like Tawali and further east near Gonabalaba Island, sit on the sandy sea floor and watch manta rays sweep over cleaning stations, so close you could almost touch them. In the tropical fjords of Tufi you can explore WWII wrecks and a wide array of marine life including manta rays and sharks, while in Kimbie Bay, you’ll find more than half the world’s species of coral in a single bay.
Explore these reefs in style on board liveaboard dive boats such as the MV Golden Dawn, or on a small ship luxury cruise with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic or North Star Cruises. The best close-by accommodation can be found at Driftwood Resort in Alotau, Tufi Resort on Tufi Island and Walindi Plantation Resort in Kimbie Bay.
8. Solomon Islands
The Solomon Islands were the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during WWII and, as a result, its coastlines and lagoons are littered with wrecks, providing some of the world’s best wreck diving. Off the coast of Guadalcanal you can literally walk off the beach into the water and explore the wrecks of planes, ships and submarines.
Being at the eastern tip of the Coral Triangle, it’s also rich in biodiversity. Snorkel with black-tip reef sharks under the jetty at Uepi Island Resort, explore the reef walls near Munda and beautiful sites such as Grand Central Station in Gizo, so-named for its incredible biodiversity.
The most luxurious accommodation available can be found at Tavanipupu Island Resort in Marau Sound and at the Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara, both of which have played host to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
9. Micronesia: Palau and Truk
Chuuk Atoll (also known as Truk) in the Caroline Islands is famous for its giant lagoon, the final resting place for more than a hundred ships, planes and submarines, many visible while snorkelling. The warm tropical waters and abundance of marine life have transformed the wrecks into beautiful coral gardens.
Palau is a small oceanic group of islands, surrounded shallow reefs, deep drop-offs, vertical holes and horizontal caves. Expect to see large schools of snapper, barracuda and jack fish and large pelagic creatures including reef sharks and manta rays. It’s also famous for its Jellyfish Lake, an enclosed lake full of harmless jellyfish that you can snorkel through.
The best accommodation can be found in Palau’s capital Koror at the Palau Pacific Resort and the Palau Royal Resort, but the more remote islands of Micronesia are best explored in style on board a luxury cruise ship such as those operated by Silversea, which offers a range of itineraries through the region.
10. Fiji: Taveuni, Savusavu and the Yasawa Islands
Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world. Nowhere else will you find such beautiful soft coral formations, and they’re usually teeming with equally colourful reef fish. In the north, there are seemingly endless meadows of soft coral in Bligh Water and Taveuni, and south, in Beqa Lagoon, the opportunity to watch shark feeding frenzies in perfect safety.
Snorkel with manta rays and reef sharks, dive uncharted, unspoiled reefs and enjoy luxury accommodation and fine dining at resorts such as Yasawa Island Resort and Spa. In the Mamanucas, Vomo Island Resort Fiji offers a bespoke diving experience with a PADI-certified dive centre and your own diving butler and at adults-only Likuliku Lagoon Resort, snorkel directly beneath your over-water bungalow before indulging in five-star dining.
Further north in Savusavu, you’ll find beautiful coral gardens and higher-end accommodation at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort; and in Taveuni, home to world-famous dive site, the Great White Wall, secluded luxury at Taveuni Palms Resort. The Great White Wall is part of Fiji’s Rainbow Reef and 10 minutes from here is Remote Resort, where diving on the reef can be arranged for all levels of experience.
In the northeast of Fiji, Laucala Island has a PADI-certified dive centre, allowing guests to get up close with hawksbill turtles and angelfish. The luxurious private island recently added a DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible to its water toys (for those that don’t want to get wet) – one of only a handful of these submarines in the world.
Vanuatu is most famous for the enormous WWII wreck off the coast of Espiritu Santo, the SS Coolidge. Explore the cargo holds, with jeeps and tanks still in place inside, and in the evening, the amazing spectacle of flashlight fish.
12. New Caledonia
Situated in the world’s largest lagoon, the second largest barrier reef and one of the world’s largest marine reserves – covering more than 1.3 million square kilometres protecting around 450,000 hectares of coral reefs New Caledonia is a diver’s delight.
It’s famous for its spectacular pyramid reef formations, including the breathtaking L’aiguille de Prony (or Needle of Prony) at the southern end of the main island, the swim-through at Damien Reef in the North Province and the Garden of Eden on the Ile des Pins.
Accommodation can be found in Nouméa (the capital city) at Le Meridien Nouméa, which combines European chic with Pacific Islands ambience; and in Bourail (a small town on the island of Grande Terre) at the Sheraton New Caledonia Deva Resort & Spa.
13. Tahiti and French Polynesia
Having one of the world’s largest shark sanctuaries (an area covering 3.9 million square kilometres), the South Pacific archipelago of French Polynesia is famous for its healthy population of reef sharks. There is great diving to be found across most islands in French Polynesia, with sites around Tahiti (the largest island) ranging from the shallow lagoons such as The Aquarium, to the incredible 40-50 metres high reef walls of Papa Whiskey and St Etienne Drop-off.
Tahiti has plenty of luxury resorts to choose from, with the epitome of luxury perhaps The Brando, former home to Marlon Brando, reached via a 20-minute private flight north of Tahiti on the exclusive island of Tetiaroa.
14. The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands (an archipelago of 15 isles south-west of Tahiti) established a shark sanctuary adjacent to that of French Polynesia at the same time in 2012. This one covers an area close to two million square kilometres, so you can expect to see lots of reef sharks here as well.
In the shallow lagoons of Rarotonga (the largest island) and Aitutaki (to its north), you’ll find pretty coral gardens and giant clams, while on the ocean side of the barrier reef, you’ll discover giant hard coral formations, schools of eagle rays, reef sharks and turtles.
Luxury accommodation can be found at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, and Pacific Resort Aitutaki and on Rarotonga (site of the capital city Avarua, known for its white coral churches), Pacific Resort, Rumours Rarotonga, or the beachfront Seachange Villas.
The Galapagos Islands is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean – more than 900 kilometres off the western coast of Ecuador – incorporating 18 main islands, three smaller islands and 107 rocks and islets. Earlier this year, Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa declared a third of the Galapagos Marine Reserve a complete ‘no-take zone’, so you can expect to see incredible vibrancy and biodiversity here for years to come.
The new Darwin and Wolf Marine Sanctuary include the region’s most famous sites – Wolf, Gordon and Darwin Rocks – where you can expect to see large schools of hammerhead sharks and swim with iguanas and penguins. Being so remote, the islands are best explored on board a luxury small ship cruise such as those operated by Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic or Silversea.
16. Philippines: Palawan, Bohol and Cebu
Snorkel with whale sharks off the coast of Cebu, dive with thresher sharks in Malapascua, chase dugongs in the shallow lagoons of Palawan and search for pygmy seahorses in the pristine coral gardens of Anda, Bohol.
In Cebu, Shangri-La’s Mactan Resort & Spa is the best luxury option and north-west of Palawan Island on its own private island, the ultra-luxurious Amanpulo has one of the most beautiful white beaches you are likely to see and easy access to the pristine coral reef in its self-declared marine park.
17. Indian Ocean: Maldives
The turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and over-water bungalows of the Maldives are everybody’s idea of a desert island paradise. In the shallow lagoons of the Maldives you’ll find pretty coral reefs, teeming with colourful reef fish and plenty of turtles, and in deeper water, dolphins, manta rays, eagle rays and a variety of sharks – including whale sharks.
Anantara’s Naladhu Maldives Resort has 19 colonial-style ‘houses’, each with a private swimming pool, and 13 ocean houses with a private sundeck extending over the Indian Ocean. The resort now offers a PADI-certified free diving centre.
LUX* South Ari Atoll resort has 62 private villas with infinity pools, seven restaurants, six bars and a five-star PADI dive centre which offers tailored programs for divers of all abilities and interests.
The best way to explore the more remote reefs of the Indian Ocean is on an Indian Ocean Odyssey cruise with Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, which takes you to the Maldives, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka, visiting pristine dive sites including the spectacular Baa Atoll.
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