The Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef system – is a haven for water sports enthusiasts. Whether you’re skimming the ocean floor, sailing atop the surface, or soaring through the air in a helicopter, your tour of the reef is sure to leave a lasting impression. And while it may be difficult to tear your eyes away from the mesmerizing marine scene, don’t forget to save time for the mainland attractions. Hop aboard a train bound for a rainforest village or interact with indigenous creatures at the Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas and Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures.
#1 in Best Things To Do in Great Barrier Reef
Many visitors say the Great Barrier Reef is best seen through a scuba mask, but it’s no small feat to traverse the area’s dive spots. When choosing which regions to explore, consider your skill level, the amount of travel involved and the trip length in that area. Two of the most popular diving and snorkeling locales are listed below:
Hosting a kaleidoscope of fish, sea turtles and humpback whales, Cairns’ reefs are teeming with wildlife. Known locally as the Outer Barrier Reef, these reefs are ideal for first-time divers and families because of the one- to three-hour travel times from Cairns’ Reef Fleet Terminal. Popular spots by Cairns include Michaelmas Cay, Moore Reef, Green Island and Hastings Reef. Ocean Free, Seastar Cruises and Tusa Dive all offer a variety of half- to full-day cruises; diving and snorkeling cruise packages start at 205 Australian dollars ($152) per adult and AU$120 ($89) for each child.
Situated alongside northern Queensland’s coast, these 10 narrow reefs – which are numbered one through 10 – are known simply as the Ribbon Reefs. Ribbon Reef No. 10 is home to one of the Great Barrier Reef’s most famous dive sites, Cod Hole. Along with its chromatic parade of tropical fish, Cod Hole features massive potato cod and Maori wrasse fish. After many years of being hand-fed by guides, the resident potato cod aren’t afraid to approach divers. Dwarf minke whales are occasionally spotted as well in June and July. Dive trips at the Ribbon Reefs require more time since they are approximately 60 miles north of Cairns, but the water is clearer here than it is at Cairns’ reefs. Tour operators like Spirit of Freedom and Mike Ball Dive Expeditions offer three- to seven-day trips that start at AU$1720 (roughly $1,262) per person.
#2 in Best Things To Do in Great Barrier Reef
If you plan on exploring the far northern half of Queensland, Cairns (pronounced “Cahns”) offers a convenient home base. About 1,500 miles north of Sydney, Cairns boasts the closest mainland access to the Great Barrier Reef. One reason Cairns is such a popular entry point to the reef is its airport. While there are a number of regional airports dotting the Queensland coast, Cairns hosts the only international airport in the north (Brisbane and Gold Coast welcome international passengers in the south). But while the city provides a favorable jumping-off point for reef explorations, it also touts its own attractions. And along with a variety of shops and restaurants, Cairns hosts plenty of lodging options, from luxurious five-star properties to budget-friendly hostels.
You may be here to discover the reef, but Cairns is worth exploring, too. Travelers recommend strolling along the Cairns Esplanade and swimming in its adjacent lagoon. A plethora of picnic areas and eateries can also be found by the boardwalk, and some report seeing colorful lorikeets in the trees and pelicans floating on the water. Other must-visit attractions include the Cairns Botanic Gardens and the Atherton Tablelands.
Cairns is the starting point for Kuranda Scenic Railway trips and sits about 26 miles southeast of Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Sunbus, a regional bus operator, offers fee-based routes throughout the city; street and lot parking are also available, with most options starting at 1.20 Australian dollars (less than $1) per hour. The city is free to visit 24 hours a day, but operating hours and fees for local boutiques, eateries and sights vary by location. Check out Tourism Tropical North Queensland’s Cairns page for more details about Cairns.
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It’s the most photographed beach in all of Australia, and after one look at its white sands, you’ll understand why. Stretching across more than 4 miles of Whitsunday Island’s east coast, Whitehaven Beach is made up of 98 percent pure white silica. These alabaster sands prevent heat retention, meaning you won’t feel like you’re walking across a string of hot coals while wandering along the swirling azure shoreline.
When you’re not diving or snorkeling in the stunning beryl-tinted waters, recent travelers recommend taking a short hike to the Hill Inlet lookout at Tongue Point for photo ops and panoramic vistas. But keep in mind, jellyfish are plentiful in Queensland in summer and fall, so you’ll need to wear protective gear if you plan on swimming during these seasons. Past visitors also suggest using ample sunscreen with a high SPF to avoid getting burned.
The best way to get to Whitehaven Beach – which is free to visit 24 hours a day – is by boat. Power boats, luxury yachts and ferries by companies like Cruise Whitsundays and Grand Prix Yachting offer daytrips that depart daily from Shute Harbour (near Airlie Beach) or Hamilton Island. Many overnight sailing trips also make a stop at Whitehaven Beach. But if one afternoon along the ashy sands isn’t enough, you can also set up camp in the eucalyptus woodland behind the beach. For more information about day trip operators and tours, visit Tourism Whitsundays’ Whitehaven Beach page.
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If the diving spots closest to the Queensland coast are too crowded for you, consider trekking a few miles east of the mainland to Hamilton Island. It’s the largest inhabited island of the Whitsundays (a collection of 74 islands situated off central Queensland’s coast), yet 70 percent of it remains undeveloped. Besides its phenomenal diving, Hamilton Island is a prime spot for sailing and features amenities like bars and restaurants, a marina and Catseye Beach. Australia’s only 18-hole golf course on a private island is also situated just off shore on Dent Island.
Previous visitors loved checking out the shops and restaurants at the Hamilton Island Marina and hiking to the top of Passage Peak, the island’s highest point. Many also suggest renting water sports equipment like kayaks, paddleboards and snorkeling gear at Catseye Beach during high tide.
The fastest and most convenient way to get to Hamilton Island is by plane. As the main air hub for the Whitsunday Islands, Hamilton Island welcomes flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns via Jetstar Airways, Virgin Australia Airlines and Qantas. You can also hop on a regional flight from other central coastal towns like Mackay, Prosperine and Airlie Beach. If you’d rather enjoy an extended scenic route, take a coach bus from Brisbane, Townsville or Cairns to Airlie Beach and catch a ferry to Hamilton Island from Shute Harbour.
Cars are not permitted on Hamilton Island, so plan on walking, renting a golf cart or using the island’s complimentary shuttle service. Buses travel along two routes every day between 6:50 a.m. and 11 p.m. The island is free to visit, and six accommodation options are available if you wish to stay on-site. Visit Tourism Whitsundays’ Hamilton Island page for more information about area hotels, activities, events and transportation options.
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Located by the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, Townsville is conveniently situated between Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands. It sits a short ferry ride away from Magnetic Island and Palm Island, but visitors will find an array of attractions to explore within its city limits. Reef HQ Aquarium – the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world – overlooks Ross Creek by Breakwater Marina, and The Strand – a beachfront promenade that features bike paths, picnic spots, a water park, a fishing pier and various restaurants and bars – is ideal for a leisurely stroll and swim.
Previous travelers said The Strand is a must-visit for families, citing its ample playgrounds and free water park as highlights. Many also enjoyed the views provided at the top of Castle Hill (a large pink granite rock formation located just west of the downtown area) but cautioned that the walk can be a bit strenuous for visitors who are not in shape. Other standout sights include the animal-focused Billabong Sanctuary and the historic Jezzine Barracks.
Townsville is free to visit 24 hours a day, but fees apply for some of the city’s attractions. Metered street parking and free parking lots are available throughout Townsville’s central business district, or visitors can use Sunbus’ shuttles to get around the area. Bus fees vary by zone but start at 1.70 Australian dollars (about $1) per person. Several hotels, shops and eateries can also be found in the city center. Check out Townsville’s official website to learn more about things to see and do in and around the city.
Picture it: As the wind-powered craft clips along the Coral Sea, a tropical breeze teases your hair while the ocean spits sea spray on your arms. You drop anchor within swimming distance of an uninhabited island or cay and spend an afternoon exploring. Whether you’re on a multiday cruise or a quick jaunt off the mainland, sailing along the Great Barrier Reef is a must-do.
If you’re looking to sail north of Cairns, you’ll enjoy the best cruising weather between June and November. For optimal conditions year-round, head farther south to the waters surrounding the Whitsunday Islands. A bevy of operators – including ISail Whitsundays and OzSail – offer trips on tall ships, maxi yachts and catamarans to destinations all around the region. Past visitors especially enjoyed sailing excursions by Hamilton Island and Whitehaven Beach. Trips start at 474 Australian dollars (or about $352) per person and include two or more nights at sea, water sports equipment and all meals.
If you’d rather be at the helm of your own vessel, you’ll find several local bareboat operators (no crew, no supplies – just you and the boat) that offer five- to 14-night charters. Rates from providers like Charter Yachts Australia and Queensland Yacht Charters depend on the boat but start at AU$485 ($360).
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After getting a fish-eye view of the reef, experience a bird’s perspective of unique sights like Heart Reef and Hook Reef with an air tour. According to recent travelers, soaring above the chain of islands and rainforests is a must-do experience. And with the area’s plethora of carriers and tour packages available, there are plenty of high-flying adventures to choose from.
Tour operators available around the Great Barrier Reef include GBR Helicopters, Air Whitsunday, GSL Aviation and Hamilton Island Air. GBR Helicopters offers scenic flights from Cairns and Port Douglas, but if you’re based farther south near Airlie Beach, you can book a flight with Air Whitsunday or GSL Aviation for trips to the Whitsunday Islands. And for those staying on Hamilton Island, there’s Hamilton Island Air, which features tours that depart from the island’s Great Barrier Reef Airport.
Tour lengths and prices vary by company but can range from 10-minute scenic flights to half-day excursions with island stopovers and boat cruises. Tours generally cost between 119 and 699 Australian dollars (or $88 to $519) per person. Before booking your air expedition, consult with your hotel’s concierge – they may offer their own packages at a reduced price.
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The Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas is a wildlife sanctuary that strives to promote conservation through up-close encounters with its creatures. You’ll have access to four immersion exhibits – the Woodland, Wetlands, Rainforest and Savannah – where you can feed and touch animals like pythons, kangaroos, crocodiles and pelicans. But the attraction’s main draw is its koalas, which can be held for photo ops.
Past visitors loved interacting with the habitat’s koalas and kangaroos. However, travelers reported mixed feelings about the experiences included with upgraded tickets, especially the lorikeet lunches.
You’ll find the Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas next to Captain Cook Highway, about 3 miles south of central Port Douglas and 39 miles northwest of Cairns. Shuttle services from local providers can be arranged for a charge, or you can drive and park for free in the adjacent lot. Entrance fees start at 35 Australian dollars (or $26) for adults and AU$17.50 ($13) for kids ages 4 to 14, and family tickets (which admit two adults and two children) can be purchased for AU$87.50 ($65). All tickets are good for five consecutive days and include access to facilities like a gift shop, a cafe and restrooms, as well as participation in standard tours and presentations. Souvenir photos cost AU$20 (roughly $15) each. The property is open every day except Christmas Day between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. For more information, head to the habitat’s website.
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Visitors who want to enjoy a close encounter with Australia’s unique animals will love checking out Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures. Though the main draw of this wildlife habitat is its crocodiles, travelers will also see kangaroos and koalas, as well as lesser-known creatures like cassowaries (large flightless birds that look like emus but with bright blue heads) and quolls (small nocturnal animals known for their spotted fur).
According to recent visitors, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is a “first-class facility” filled with indigenous animals. Although some were initially skeptical about visiting, many said this attraction’s interesting shows and knowledgeable staff exceeded their expectations. Must-do activities include going on a lagoon cruise, touring the crocodile farm and watching the snake show. Travelers also recommend paying extra to hold and take a photo with one of the property’s koalas.
Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures is located in Wangetti by Captain Cook Highway and about halfway between Port Douglas and Cairns. Public transportation is not available in the area, but visitors can drive and park for free in the property’s lot. Available facilities include a gift shop, restrooms, two amphitheaters, a restaurant and multiple croc feeding areas. Standard tickets cover three consecutive days of admissions and cost 39 Australian dollars ($29) for adults and AU$19.50 ($14.50) for kids between 4 and 15, or a family pass that includes entry for two adults and two children can be purchased for AU$97.50 ($72.50). Additional charges apply for tickets that offer extras like animal photo ops, transfers and breakfast. The attraction is open daily (excluding Christmas Day) from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit the property’s website.
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If you need a break from exploring the reef, why not go 1,076 feet above sea level with a ride on the Kuranda Scenic Railway? Departing from Cairns, the train takes a two-hour journey through the upper Barron Gorge before reaching Kuranda, known as “the village in the rainforest.” Along the winding route, you’ll weave past gushing waterfalls and lush greenery while hearing commentary on the railway’s history. Upon your arrival in Kuranda, you’ll have your pick of activities: Get to know the wildlife at the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary or the Kuranda Koala Gardens, or stretch your legs on the Barron Gorge National Park walking trails.
While some past visitors bemoaned the high ticket price, others enjoyed the unique experience and breathtaking views. Some also cautioned that the town of Kuranda is a bit touristy and expensive, and a few advised against joining this excursion on a hot day since the old train cars lack air conditioning.
For morning departures to Kuranda, you can board at the Cairns Railway Station or the Freshwater Connection (about 7 miles northwest of the Cairns station). Trains departing from Cairns leave at 8:30 or 9:30 a.m., while trains leaving from Freshwater depart at 8:55 and 9:55 a.m. When it’s time to head back to Cairns, trains depart Kuranda at 2 and 3:30 p.m.
You can choose from a variety of tour packages, depending on what you’d like to do in Kuranda – options include a visit to Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park and an army duck tour of Rainforestation Nature Park. Round-trip tickets to Kuranda (without the additional village activities) cost 76 Australian dollars (about $56.50) for adults, AU$38 ($28) for children and AU$190 (approximately $141) for families. Upgraded Gold Class tickets, meanwhile, include a gift pack, a welcome drink and snacks like macadamia nuts and cheese. For a full menu of package prices, visit the railway’s website.