Island paradise off Brisbane trumps Fiji

Tracey Ferrier
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Travd Qld Tangalooma

Choosing Tangalooma over an overseas island resort will leave you stashing your passport away

I've always ignored those ads that urge Aussies to holiday at home. The lure of overseas destinations has typically won me over when it comes to deciding how to spend my cash and leisure time.

But the next time I daydream about lying on a tropical white beach, drink in hand, watching my daughter splash and play, I'm going to park my passport and give the credit card a break.

Almost two years ago, I packed my family up and at great expense jetted off to Fiji for a tropical island getaway. It turns out I could have just stayed home.

Tangalooma Island Resort on Moreton Island, just over an hour's ferry ride off my hometown of Brisbane, is infinitely closer, cheaper and offers far more natural beauty than the five-star Fiji destination we paid $15,000 to visit a couple of years back.

I'm not sure how I missed the memo on this place. It must have been my disdain for those holiday-at-home campaigns. But it's a common story as far as Tangalooma goes, even for Brisbane locals.

"We get that all the time. People just don't seem to understand what's right here, on their doorstep," says Hank Loosschilder, who came to work at the resort for a few months and is still there 15 years later.

Tangalooma occupies a stunning stretch of beach on the island - the third largest sand island in the world, behind Fraser and North Stradbroke.

This shiny but little-known jewel in the crown of the Great Sandy Strait has everything the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia have to offer - without the expense of international flights and two days lost to travel.

Almost all of the island is national park and like its better-known northern neighbour Fraser, it offers towering sand dunes, freshwater creeks, and stunning inland and coastal lagoons.

Campers have long known about this offshore gem. But I don't camp. So for me, Tangalooma's four-star holiday apartments, with their stunning views of Moreton Bay and stylish climate-controlled interiors, ticked all the boxes.

The island itself really does have it all for the laziest of beach bums or the most restless adrenaline junkies. In just two days on the island, our family of three, including an adventurous eight-year-old, crammed in a tonne of activities.

We hooned down a mighty sand dune at 55km/h, went quad-biking through the island's sandy interior, and indulged in a James Bond-style sea scooter safari of the island's rusty shipwrecks, encountering a curious turtle and a spectacular lionfish with its venomous fin spines on full display.

But best of all, we got to experience the thrill of hand feeding fish to the island's famed population of wild dolphins.

The dolphins first started visiting Tangalooma 25 years ago, when the Osborne family, who own the resort, would throw fish into the water from a well-lit jetty.

Over time, they began turning up for a bite to eat on a nightly basis, and a year later Tangalooma's dolphin feeding program is recognised as one of the most sustainable in the world.

Ecoranger Jessica Poole is one of the staff tasked with making sure the dolphins - who come willingly into shore at dusk - are never touched by the tourists who come to admire them. After two years in her dream job, she still has to pinch herself.

"It truly is indescribable. Each night that I am in the water close to these amazing animals," she says.

She won't say if she has a favourite but she and the other feeders do share a special bond with their wild visitors.

"They seem to recognise our voices," Jessica says.

"They are naturally very inquisitive and will often turn on their side and make eye contact - that is the most incredible experience of all."

We got to meet Echo, who first came to Tangalooma at 10 months of age. He was extremely vulnerable with no mother to care for him and was promptly adopted by the other Tangalooma dolphins.

He's best mates with Rani, who was a baby when his mother Bess began bringing him to the resort back in 1993. Bess died in 1999, but Rani and Echo, now both healthy adults, continue to show up for a feed each night before going on their way.

But the ecorangers are careful about how much fish they give the dolphins, wary of encouraging reliance especially among the juveniles who are still learning to hunt.

Staff use their nightly talk to tourists on the beach to reinforce key conservation messages, including animal mortality linked to plastic and other contamination in Moreton Bay.

"We are entirely focused on environmental protection and after guests have had such a personal experience feeding the dolphins, they leave with a deeper understanding of conservation goals," Jessica says.

For time-poor working families, Tangalooma is a great option for a resort-style weekend break, or a longer holiday. There are no costly flights, and no precious leave days lost to international travel that turns kids into ratty balls of pent-up energy.

And it had everything Fiji had, but with a distinctly Aussie flavour and no hint of the mega-resort madness we encountered in Fiji, where the restaurant queues were so long they left us wishing we'd packed some two-minute noddles. Tangalooma, we'll be back.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Tangalooma Island Resort, on Moreton Island, is 75-minute ferry ride from Brisbane.

The ferry leaves from the Holt Street Wharf at Pinkenba, about 10km from the Brisbane airport.

Day passes are available if people want to visit the resort and enjoy experiences like dolphin feeding but aren't staying overnight.

STAYING THERE: Guest accommodation ranges from budget rooms and hotel-style accommodation to holiday home rentals and elegant, modern deluxe apartments with 180-degree beach views.

PLAYING THERE: Experiences include feeding wild dolphins off the beach, underwater tours of the island's shipwrecks, water sports, helicopter tours, sand dune adventures and quad biking, night paddles in transparent kayaks, scuba diving, fishing, and touring the Blue Lagoon. For more, visit www.tangalooma.com