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Image credit: Tourism Queensland

Great Barrier Reef

Underwater Wonderland

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, an undeniable must-see right in our own backyard. But with a network of over 2,900 individual reefs the same surface area as Victoria, and it running for over 2,300 kilometres down the coast of Queensland, it can be mighty overwhelming knowing where to start. So we thought we’d break it down for you.

Step One: Choose your region

Northern Great Barrier Reef: This region includes the dynamic city of Cairns and stylish Port Douglas and Palm Cove townships. It is a quick trip to World Heritage Daintree Rainforest and has excellent reef viewing options. Access by flying into Cairns.

Whitsundays: A group of islands off the coast of Airlie Beach famous for its aqua waters, gorgeous sailing and the iconic Whitehaven Beach and Heart Reef (the ones you see on all the advertising.) To access, Hamilton Island has an airport or Whitsunday Coast airport at Proserpine is about 25 minutes from Airlie Beach.

Southern Great Barrier Reef: Sometimes overlooked, the Southern islands have some of the easiest reef viewing experiences. You’ll find the area uncrowded, laid-back and fuss-free. There are fewer commercial reef enterprises on the mainland because it’s not as geared up for tourists as further north.To access, fly into Bundaberg or Gladstone depending on your destination.

Image credit: Tourism Queensland

Step Two: Island or mainland?

Generally mainland accommodation is cheaper. You don’t have that aaaahh – I’m on an island ambience but it’s important to note that being on an island doesn’t mean you have easy access to the true reef. Usually both mainland and islands visitors sign up for an outer Great Barrier Reef day trip to see the true spectacle of the reef.

Northern Great Barrier Reef:
Mainland: Cairns is the hub of Tropical North Queensland, where you can find 50+ tours out to the reef or up to the rainforest. It’s a lively city with its own safe swimming lagoon. Port Douglas and Palm Cove are two fashionable towns to the north, both with stinger resistant enclosures. Great eating and shopping is available in all three districts. Good family accommodation options include: Sheraton Mirage, Port Douglas Resort
Cairns Coconut Holiday Resort, Cairns

Family-friendly islands: Fitzroy and Green Islands are both quick ferry rides from Cairns and offer coral viewing off the beach.

Mainland: Airlie Beach is a vibrant seaside village with funky shops, eateries and a large public swimming lagoon. Choose one of many fabulous holiday apartments in town or the nearby.

Family-friendly islands: Daydream, Long Island (Resort), Hamilton, Hayman, and Lindeman (Club Med) Island.

Southern Great Barrier Reef:
Mainland: Kelly’s Beach Resort is award winning, eco-friendly self-contained bungalows close to Bundaberg.

Family-friendly islands: Heron and Lady Elliot Islands are eco-resorts which have snorkelling the reef straight off the beach.

Image credit: Tourism Queensland

Step Three: How to see the reef?

Outer reef pontoon day trips:

To see the true Great Barrier Reef you will need to travel to the outer reef, often a few hours boat ride out to sea. There you will base yourself on a large pontoon where you can dive, snorkel, take glass bottom boat tours, eat and generally laze in the sun. Some even have crèche options so you can scuba with your partner knowing your kids are okay. The day is long but wonderful.
Check your operator has kid-sized snorkels, masks, suits and safety gear. You might also want to choose one with kids swimming enclosures or waterslides, depending on the age of your children. For an extra special treat, consider the Fantasea Adventure Cruising Reefsleep Experience.
Northern Great Barrier Reef: Quicksilver Cruises, Great Adventures Cruises, Sunlover Cruises and Reef Magic Cruises.
Whitsundays: Fantasea Adventure Cruising, Cruise Whitsundays.
South: No permanent pontoons, but cruise options.

Yacht and Charter:

Bareboat charters are a great family option for those who like a bit of adventure. It’s just you and the family sailing out on the water for as many nights as you choose. No sailing experience is needed; a full briefing is given before departure. The Whitsundays is world –famous for its sailing, but you can also hire boats out of Cairns.


The options are endless and available in all the regions; try snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing, glass bottom boats, semi-submersible craft or even splash out on a helicopter tour. The flight over the Heart Reef is hard to beat.
For something educational try Daydream Island’s Living Reef Lagoon programs or Quicksilver Cruise’s Squid Squad.
To get a full dose of snorkelling, sailing and a visit to Whitehaven Beach, the full day tour on Adventure Whitsunday’s Camira is highly recommended.
If you don’t want to get wet, Reef HQ Aquarium in Townsville is the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. You’ll see things here you’ll miss in the wild.

Image credit: Tourism Queensland

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