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Best Things To Do in Great Barrier Reef

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.

How we rank Things to Do.

#1

#1 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:
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Natural Wonders Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Diving and Snorkeling
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:
... more

#2
Cairns Free

#2 in Great Barrier Reef

Free
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.
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Neighborhood/Area Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Cairns
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.
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#3

#3 in Great Barrier Reef

Free
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.
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Beaches Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Whitehaven Beach
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.
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#4

#4 in Great Barrier Reef

Free
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.
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Natural Wonders Type
More than Full Day Time to Spend
Hamilton Island
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.
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#5

#5 in Great Barrier Reef

Free
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.
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Neighborhood/Area Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Townsville
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.
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#6

#6 in Great Barrier Reef

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.
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Recreation Type
Half Day to Full Day Time to Spend
Sailing
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.
... more

#7

#7 in Great Barrier Reef

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.
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Sightseeing Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Air Tours
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.
... more

#8

#8 in Great Barrier Reef

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.
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Zoos and Aquariums Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas
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.
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#9

#9 in Great Barrier Reef

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).
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Zoos and Aquariums Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Hartley's Crocodile Adventures
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).
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#10

#10 in Great Barrier Reef

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.
... more
Sightseeing Type
2 hours to Half Day Time to Spend
Kuranda Scenic Railway
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.
... more
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