Great Barrier Reef Travel Guide

Australia  #2 in Best Beaches in Australia
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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

Updated October 27, 2017

  • #1
    Things to do in Great Barrier Reef
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    #1 in Great Barrier Reef
    Natural Wonders, Sightseeing, Swimming/Pools
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    Half Day to Full Day
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    Natural Wonders, Sightseeing, Swimming/Pools
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    Half Day to Full Day
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    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 FreeSeastar 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.

  • #2
    Cairns
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    Cairns
    free
    #2 in Great Barrier Reef
    Free, Neighborhood/Area
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    Free, Neighborhood/Area
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    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.

  • #3
    Whitehaven Beach
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    #3 in Great Barrier Reef
    Beaches, Natural Wonders, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
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    Beaches, Natural Wonders, Recreation, Swimming/Pools, Free
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
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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.

  • #4
    Hamilton Island
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    #4 in Great Barrier Reef
    Natural Wonders, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/Area
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    More than Full Day
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    Natural Wonders, Recreation, Free, Neighborhood/Area
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    More than Full Day
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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.

  • #5
    Townsville
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    #5 in Great Barrier Reef
    Free, Neighborhood/Area
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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.

  • #6
    Sailing
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    #6 in Great Barrier Reef
    Recreation, Sightseeing, Sports
    TYPE
    Half Day to Full Day
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    Recreation, Sightseeing, Sports
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    Half Day to Full Day
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    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.

  • #7
    Air Tours
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    #7 in Great Barrier Reef
    Sightseeing, Tours
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    2 hours to Half Day
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    Sightseeing, Tours
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
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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. 

  • #8
    Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas
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    #8 in Great Barrier Reef
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
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    Zoos and Aquariums
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    2 hours to Half Day
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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. 

  • #9
    Hartley's Crocodile Adventures
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    #9 in Great Barrier Reef
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Zoos and Aquariums
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
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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.

  • #10
    Kuranda Scenic Railway
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    #10 in Great Barrier Reef
    Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND
    Sightseeing
    TYPE
    2 hours to Half Day
    TIME TO SPEND

    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.

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