Best Ways to Experience Queensland's Great Barrier Reef

15 June, 2016

The World Heritage-listed Great Barrier reef is said to be the world's largest living structure, and the only one visible from outer space. It is also often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. Stretching more than 2000 kilometres down the east coast of Queensland, the reef is home to tens of thousands of brilliantly coloured fish, coral and other marine life such as whales, dolphins and turtles. It is also a diver's mecca and hosts some of the best scuba diving and snorkelling in the world. Exploring the Great Barrier Reef is easy with the myriad travel options at your fingertips – the only hard part is deciding which one you'll choose!

Two of the best ways…

Sea Kayak around one of the Great Barrier Reef's Islands

With some 900 islands in the Great Barrier Reef, visitors to Queensland have the best at their fingertips when planning a tropical getaway. Exploring the surrounding ocean is a must to do on any island holidays, and how better to do it than on a sea kayak?

Magnetic Island, 8km away from Townsville, has 23 beaches and bays for intrepid travellers to explore, and a kayak tour is the perfect way to discover its natural beauty. A guided kayak tour takes you around the rugged coastline of the island, stopping at a secluded bay for a tropical breakfast on the beach. On the return journey, kayak within metres of huge granite boulders, search the coastline for sea birds, watch huge birds of prey soar above you, or look for sea turtles as they pop their heads above the surface.


Enterprise at your command

Hire an opulent speed boat for a day or overnight discovery of the Great Barrier Reef from Port Douglas, an hour's drive north of Cairns. Enterprise, a 56' Squadron Fairline, combines power and sophistication to take guests on exclusive and tailored trips to the Low Isles and the outer Great Barrier Reef. Offering a customised menu and itinerary for each charter, Enterprise offers unique cruises for up to eight people on day trips, or four people on overnight trips. The eco-accredited vessel is Australian owned and is capable of speeds of up to 34 knots, allowing you more time at the reef and the opportunity to snorkel in quiet and exclusive areas. The fully air-conditioned vessel features magnificent craftsmanship with mirror-polished cherrywood, fine leather suites and plush pile carpets.


On a Budget 

  1. Snorkel Magnetic Island – From just $7 you can hire a snorkel and mask and explore the island's colourful fringing reef: gear hire
    Magnetic Island is easily accessible off Townsville by a 25 minute ferry ride:

  1. See the reef without getting wet – Visit Townsville's Reef HQ, the world's largest living coral reef aquarium. Adults $24.75. Or jump on a local ferry service and visit the Whitsundays' Daydream Island, home to the Living Reef Lagoon. The living reef is designed to house and conserve (under license) live coral and marine specimens from the Great Barrier Reef. Viewing the Living Reef Lagoon is free and ferry transfers cost from around $20 per child, $30 per adult, one-way ex-Airlie Beach.

  1. Sprint to the reef – A new snorkelling adventure tour has guests on the reef just 15 minutes after leaving Port Douglas. Reef Sprinter offers 14 guests the perfect reef snorkelling experience for the time poor on a two-and-a-half hour tour to the vast coral gardens and abundant fish life of the Low Isles. Getting there is half the fun aboard the 500 horse power enviro speed boat reaching speeds of more than 40 knots. Reef Sprinter tours operate three times a day from the Port Douglas Slipway jetty. Cost is from $90 per child, $110 per adult.
  1. Award-winning style – The 2009 Australian Tourism Award winner Passions of Paradise is a 25 metre custom-designed sailing catamaran that travels daily from Cairns to Michaelamas Cay and Paradise Reef. Guests spend the day soaking up the sun, snorkelling with the fish, scuba diving or checking out the beauty of the reef on a glass bottom boat ride. Cost is $115 per child, $174 per adult.

    Day trip to Lady Musgrave Island - View one of the most pristine parts of the Great Barrier on a day trip to a true coral cay, Lady Musgrave Island and lagoon onboard the Spirit of 1770. Departing the marina at Seventeen Seventy, the tour includes snorkelling in the lagoon, a guided island walk and buffet lunch. Cost is $90 per child, $190 per adult.

A Taste of Luxury 

  1. Seaplane over Heart Reef - Share the natural wonder that is Heart Reef with a loved one on a very special seaplane scenic flight. Comprised of a reef system naturally formed into the shape of a heart, Heart Reef can only be properly appreciated from the air. This is the perfect Valentine's Day, anniversary or romantic surprise for that someone special. A one-hour flight is from $260 per person.

  1. The Ultimate Island and Reef EscapeCombine a leisurely three-day cruise with a two-night stay on the exclusive Orpheus Island and experience the “ultimate reef escape”. The privately-owned Orpheus Island Resort is an exclusive sophisticated hideaway nestled amidst the coral-fringed Orpheus Island Marine National Park. Coral Princess Cruises and Orpheus Island Resort's package can be taken from either Cairns or Townsville; the Coral Princess carries just 54 guests to give you an intimate environmental experience.


  1. Seafaris in absolute luxury - Sail the Great Barrier Reef in first class luxury that's even been favoured by the Prince of Dubai! With three guest levels and spanning 41 metres, Seafaris is available for pricate charter for up to ten guests. Onboard facilities include a gymnasium, library, cinema, hydrotherapy spa, sun lounges, a backlit onyx cocktail bar and three beautiful dining areas. Stunning and unique artworks adorn the exquisitely appointed interiors, which feature cream suede, stitched leathers and red Australian Jarrah timber. Departing from Cairns, charters will allow you to discover the surrounding islands and reefs; if you have your heart set on a particular area, however, tours can be tailored to suit your needs. The crew can also make arrangements for a masseuse or beautician to join the vessel for tropical spa treatments.


  1. Reef Encounter - Feel like a rock-star as you board a helicopter bound for your boat in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef! The luxurious Reef Encounter vessel is based in Cairns and can cater for up to 42 guests. The superbly-appointed 35 metre catamaran includes 21 spacious staterooms with private bathroom facilities, teak furniture and air-conditioning as well as an onboard heli-pad. With gourmet meals, complete sets of diving and snorkelling equipment, a personal glass bottom boat and a small fishing vessel, Reef Encounter has everything guests need to enjoy the Great Barrier Reef in style. For that extra bit of indulgence choose Reef Encounter's Top Deck Club, which includes accommodation in a deluxe stateroom, champagne on arrival, tropical breakfast served in your room daily, exclusive use of the Top Deck Club's private sun deck, complimentary sunset cocktails with the Captain, and all meals and snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Cost is from $449 twin-share for one certified dive (2 days/1 night) – heli transfers are an extra $360 one-way or $720 return.

  1. Sleep with the fish – Reefsleep is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the solitude of spending the night right on the reef. Located at the Reefworld pontoon at Hardy Reef, 40 nautical miles from Airlie Beach, the experience includes overnight accommodation (maximum six people), alfresco dinner with wine, full breakfast, buffet lunches, sunset cocktails, two scuba dives or guided snorkelling safari, and use of the underwater viewing chamber, semi-submersible and waterslide. Visitors travel to Reefworld with day trippers and remain on the pontoon when the tour departs at 2.30pm, returning at 10.30am the following day. Cost is from $460 per person.

  1. Learn to fly in 1.5 hours - GBR Helicopters has introduced an exciting new addition to their portfolio, where guests can pilot an aircraft within a span of 1.5 hours, where they will be briefed on basic flight training such as handling helicopter controls and aviation safety. This introductory flight programme will be the new obsession of budding pilots and a great way to see the reef in style.

  1. Hire Your Own IslandWant to enjoy five-star luxury with guaranteed privacy and seclusion? Double Island off Palm Cove in tropical north Queensland is reserved exclusively for one group at a time, making it a five-star haven that celebrities favour. Located 10 minutes offshore from Palm Cove, Double Island is an idyllic location for meetings, conferences, incentive programs or exclusive getaways. Accommodation is available for up to 40 guests. All facilities and activities are included, ranging from an indoor cinema, beachside gymnasium, catamarans, windsurfers, walking tracks and moonlight outdoor cinema.

  1. See it from Above - A spectacular bird's eye perspective is the best way to see all the famous Whitsunday icons – and how better to do it than in a private helicopter or seaplane charter? Gaze at some of the 74 islands floating like gems amongst the azure waters below, then visit some of the world-renowned destinations such as Heart Reef and Whitehaven Beach. Whether it's a snorkelling tour, a champagne beach picnic or just a scenic flight, Aviation Tourism Australia will cater for all your needs, and service all of the Whitsunday Islands and Arlie Beach on the mainland.

  1. Hire your own island - Double Island, off Palm Cove in Tropical North Queensland, is reserved exclusively for client at a time. This stunning tropical island has become a five-star haven for celebrities such as Hollywood star Keanu Reeves seeking guaranteed privacy and seclusion. Located 10 minutes offshore, Double Island can accommodate up to 36 guests and all facilities and activities are included, ranging from an indoor cinema, beachside gymnasium, catamarans, windsurfers, walking tracks and moonlight outdoor cinema. Exclusive sole-use from $17,500 per night, including all meals.

Beyond the Reef

Reef to Outback

Explore two stunning Queensland regions that are relatively undiscovered by international visitors – Central Queensland and the Outback. The Reef to Outback drive route allows you the freedom to choose either a fly-in trip or a longer self-drive adventure where you can experience the wonders of the southern Great Barrier Reef and wide open spaces of the Outback. The Reef to Outback region covers from Bundaberg in the south, north to Yeppoon and west to Winton, including the coral islands of the southern Great Barrier Reef off the Central Queensland Coast.

Great Tropical Drive

Soak up the beauty of two World Heritage areas – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest – while travelling on the Great Tropical Drive, one of the most beautiful ocean drives in the world. As you cruise the highway between Cairns and Port Douglas, you'll take in historic mining towns, waterfalls and wildlife, as well as seeing the only place in the world where reef and rainforest meet. The Reef to Rainforest Discovery Trail is a 260km loop linking Cairns to Port Douglas, which you can easily experience over a relaxed three-day drive. The second part of your route takes you inland from the coast to the Cairns Highlands, including the luscious natural paradise of the 5000 acre Mareeba Wetlands.


Word Count: 1841

Author: Tourism and Events Queensland 

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