Heron Island

From beach to bush: 5 days exploring Heron Island and the Gemfields

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What if we told you, you could take a holiday and come back all the more richer?

It might sound like an inspirational quote read from a fridge magnet, but we’re talking about this 5-day itinerary road tripping from Heron Island to the Gemfields (or for Google Maps: Gladstone – Rockhampton – Sapphire).

Trust us, you could leave central Queensland a few thousand dollars richer just for visiting it, which puts a new spin on my favourite saying “you’ve got to spend to save”.

In this neck of the woods, all that glistens could be sapphires and on this itinerary, we promise you’ll be seeing more blue than Eiffel 65.

DAY 1

AM: Arrive into Gladstone

Set your GPS to Central Queensland or the Tropic of Capricorn to find yourself in Gladstone.

From Brisbane, it’s a smidge over 500kms to drive, but you can also fly or take the Tilt Train to Rockhampton, and then mosey south to Gladstone to pick up the start of this itinerary.

With so much to do to both the left and the right of the town’s CBD, start your Gladstone experience at the marina ready for Heron Island takeoff.

NOON: Ferry to Heron Island

Heron Island from above

There’re 89kms of coastline separating the mainland from this jewel in the Great Barrier Reef crown, Heron Island.

It takes just two hours to reach this coral cay surrounded by pure white sand and crystal-clear turquoise waters on board the Heron Islander (ferry).

Keep your camera handy because you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the Gladstone Marina and also pass some of the other coral cays before docking at Heron Island.

You’ll know you’ve locked Heron Island in your sights when you see the abandoned ship on the shore and that iconic long jetty that wouldn’t look out of place in the Maldives.

PM: Get a lay of the land

It takes all of 30 minutes to get your bearings on Heron Island – so there’s no need to allocate the rest of today for island orientation.

The island is 800m long, 300m wide and offers very little elevation in between.

Check into your accommodation, which regardless of price point (aka from Turtle Room to Point Suite), will mean only a few short steps between beach, bar and bed.

The resort is full service, right down to a day spa offering massages and facials, making this the kind of island which is set up for snorkelling by day and spas by night.

Once you’ve settled into your room, make the tour desk your first port of call to organise a variety of diving and snorkelling tours around the 16 dive sites within 15 minutes of the island.

Snorkellers will need to work around high tides, so plan your day with the same whim of the waves.

Tip: If you can, time your visit for December to March for the chance to see the turtle nesting and hatching, which is a natural encounter with enough ‘wow factor’ to land Heron Island a place on this list. Alternatively, you can holiday with the humpbacks who visit Heron Island each June on their annual pilgrimage.

DAY 2

AM: Kick back, Heron Island-style

Heron Island Itinerary

Photo by @_markfitz

You know you’re in for good snorkelling and diving when the legendary Jacques Cousteau writes that Heron Island is one of the top 10 dive sites in the world.

And it’s not just Cousteau who’s been captured by the Great Barrier Reef’s attention, David Attenborough filmed his Great Barrier Reef series here too.

With two nature-loving legends giving this island their tick of approval, don’t waste another minute ‘umming and ahhing’ about how to fill the day and dive into the underwater paradise.

If you’re able to drag yourself away from the colourful snorkelling and diving, there are some interesting guided walks, including reef walks, bird watching, night stargazing and a tour of the research centre based here.

To end the day, we recommend soaking up one of Heron Island’s famous mango-coloured sunsets with a wine and cheese cruise which circumnavigates the island in time for the sun to set below the horizon.

Of course, if you get stuck on things to do on this island, don’t forget to check out this guide.

Overnight: Heron Island

Day 3

AM: Swap coral for cattle, driving to Rockhampton

Rockhampton

After returning to the mainland, it’s time to mix the reef with beef and make tracks to Rockhampton.

Best known as the beef capital of Australia – since its cow population (3.5 million) far outweighs its human population (120,000) – Rocky is a must-stop, even if only for steak.

We can assure it’s more than just ribs and rumps up here, though. You’ll find a town that’s experiencing a nip and tuck and jumping on board the laneway coffee shop and hole-in-the-wall bar trend faster than you can say “hipster barbershop”. You’ll need at least a day to discover what’s revolutionising Rocky and of course, test out these 9 things to do.

The city is on the mooove (oh yes, there are still cow statues everywhere) but new projects to revamp the Fitzroy River riverbank with a pier, restaurant and wet play area, and a laneway street art project are all great proof points that if it’s been a long time between Rockhampton visits, it’s time to go back.

If you’re interested in staying a little longer, make sure you read this post.

Where to stay

There’s no shortage of hay to hit in Rockhampton, but if you’re travelling with little ones check into Discovery Holiday Parks, which has you covered from apartments and villas through to tent sites.

With two swimming pools, a tennis court, games room, an excellent laundry and a shower block (if you’re camping), there’s plenty of ways to rejuvenate yourself in Rockhampton.

Day 4

Day: Drive from Rocky to discover the Gemfields

Fossicking in Rubyvale gemfields

If you’re all about the bling, swap Rockhampton for another sort of, well… rock, with a visit to the Sapphire Gemfields.

Three hours west of the beef capital, you’ll find 900 square kilometres of prime gem fossicking opportunity.

It’s not one to be dismissed as just another tourist attraction. This is the real deal.

Just ask the locals, who all have a story or two to tell about sapphires they’ve unearthed. The most famous Sapphire story has to be the 753-carat sapphire found in 2014 by a man who was simply scanning the ground, or “specking”.

The blue-green treasure was larger than a golf ball and believed to be the biggest sapphire found in the Gemfields this decade!

PM: Get digging!

With rags to riches headlines a possibility after this holiday, get straight to fossicking at Fascination Gems in Rubyvale to learn how to sleuth for sapphires.

The Fascination Gems self-drive tour includes a fossicking licence, tips from an experienced miner, all the tools and driving directions to sieve to it – so no experience is necessary to learn the art of sapphire hunting.

From what we make of it, all you need to play along is the patience and tenacity of a truffle dog on the search for blue knobbly things.

Following a similar principle to gold panning, it’s about dusting off and washing stones in a bucket of water so any heavy sapphires sink to the bottom. You never know what you’ll find.

Where to stay

As they say on MasterChef – if you want to cook like a master chef, you have to shop where a master chef shops. Well, the same can be said for accommodation up here – and to fossick like a real sapphire miner, you should sleep at accommodation provided by one.

We recommend checking into Rubyvale Gem Gallery Apartments, owned a couple who have called the Sapphire fields home for over 30 years. Here you can swap stories and tips for the best chance of digging up a treasure.

The other obvious treasure about staying here is the Rubyvale Gem Gallery Cafe, which serves four signature scone flavours. Yum!

Day 5

AM: Take a history lesson

Get schooled in all things sapphire by taking a tour of an underground mine to learn how the early mines worked. You’ll see the exact locations where some of the world’s most famous and valuable sapphires have been found.

Hearing just how big some of the discoveries have been on this Miners Heritage Walk will give you the energy to mine on! 

PM: Keep digging

If you’re still empty handed, the search should go on! Leave no potential sapphire unturned as you scour the Gemfields meticulously.

Of course, if you do unearth something, there’s no shortage of gem-cutters available to polish up your very own find and jewellers to set them into valuable family heirlooms.

And if you’re having no luck, you can just buy one! There’s no better place to purchase an Australian-mined and cut sapphire or quality sapphire jewellery.

Now, a giant sapphire ring just like Kate Middleton’s is a holiday souvenir I could get behind!

Did we miss anything? Have you been to Heron Island and the Gemfields before?