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The Great Barrier Reef, in Queensland, Australia, extends 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles) and is made up of five precincts. The precincts, starting from the north, are: The Wild North (aptly named), Port Douglas and Cairns, Townsville, Whitsundays and Mackay, and finally, the Southern Great Barrier Reef. While a trip to Brisbane or Sydney puts you on the right coast of Australia for a jaunt up to the reef, it’s still a bit of a hike (read: a two-hour flight, at minimum). Nonetheless, the areas surrounding the Great Barrier Reef, whether Cairns or a smaller reef-adjacent town, are worth poking around for a few days as you explore one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
How to Get to the Great Barrier Reef
If you’re flying internationally and want to start your Australia trip at the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns airport is ideal. You can fly non-stop from Bali to Cairns in four and a half hours. You can, of course, use Cairns even if flying domestically; Cairns to Sydney is about three hours. Those flying domestically have three smaller airport options as well: Hamilton, Proserpine, and Townsville airports. The flight from Brisbane to Townsville is about two hours. Flying from Brisbane is a smart option if you want to tour the Great Barrier Reef immediately after spending time on the Gold Coast.
How to See the Great Barrier Reef
For a bird’s eye view, you can tour the Great Barrier Reef via seaplane or helicopter. Great Barrier Reef Helicopters offers three scenic flight packages—Reef Discovery, Deluxe Reef Explorer, and Ultimate Reef & Rainforest Explorer. Or for a more romantic route, Air Whitsunday and GSL Aviation do seaplane tours of the Heart Reef, a favorite honeymoon tour.
Cruising the Great Barrier Reef is the best way to see the reef up close; A catamaran or decked-out houseboat you can dive directly off is ideal. For a three-day, two-night cruise leaving from Cairns, set sail on the Santa Maria, a wood-paneled luxury vessel that visits Thetford, Moore, and Briggs Reef. In addition to swimming, snorkeling, and diving daily, you can also sign up for additional night dives or even an introductory diving course on the Santa Maria.
If you don’t have three days to dedicate to cruising the Great Barrier Reef, Ocean Spirit does day-long cruises from Cairns to Michaelmas Bay. You can dive and snorkel from the boat, or watch the fish from Ocean Spirit’s “semi-sub,” their separate, partially submerged vessel that offers a “diver’s view of the reef.”
Where to Stay Near the Great Barrier Reef
Airlie Beach is a resort town about 20 minutes from Proserpine airport that puts you right on the Whitsunday Coast. Stay at Pinnacles Resort & Spa, a five-star property with oceanfront apartments and a dreamy infinity pool.
Green Island sits right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef—it’s about 45 minutes off the coast of Cairns. Green Island Resort enables you to snorkel and dive the reef without using a boat as your homebase, a nice alternative for the Dramamine-averse.
You can also opt to stay in Cairns proper, which gives you the ability to see the city and take a day trip out to the reef. The Shangri-La Hotel, The Marina, Cairns puts you right in the Marlin Marina, a departure point for many Great Barrier Reef cruises.
For a small-town getaway, head north of Cairns to Port Douglas, a beautiful enclave right on the water and a perfect entry-way to the upper Great Barrier Reef. Stay in luxury on a private reserve at Thala Beach Nature Reserve. Book their Coral Sea bungalow perched on the “highest ridge of Thala’s private headland, with views of the Coral Sea all the way to the horizon.”
When to Visit the Great Barrier Reef
The best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef (and Queensland in general) is June through October, because it’s the dry season—November through April is Queensland’s rainy season. Because June to October sees less precipitation, the water is clearer, making for superior visibility and diving conditions. November to May isn’t just less ideal in terms of visibility—it’s also prime jellyfish season.