Great Barrier Reef Travel Guide

Australia  #2 in Best Beaches in Australia
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Courtesy of Jeff Hunter/Getty Images

Free Things To Do in Great Barrier Reef

If you have extra time, Hamilton Island is worthwhile.
  • #2
    Things to do in Great Barrier Reef
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    Cairns
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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.

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    Whitehaven Beach
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    #3 in Great Barrier Reef
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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.

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    Hamilton Island
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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.

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    Townsville
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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.

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