You don't need more than 48 hours to immerse yourself in the Great Barrier Reef. Ditch mum's Sunday roast and dip a toe into the World Heritage-listed wonder this weekend instead.
From the Gold Coast
Within a two-hour scenic flight you can find yourself 80 kilometres off the coast of Bundaberg, popping champagne on a spectacular turquoise coral cay. Marine lovers have been flocking to the eco-paradise that is Lady Elliot Island for decades but it still remains a well-kept secret to most. By noon you can be learning to scuba dive or finding Nemo in the shallow lagoon just a few steps from the buffet. Stay overnight to get the most out of your island escape, or return home on the 2:30pm flight.
Ditch the customs queue (and jet lag) and fly to the Whitsundays to take your pick of 74 islands for the weekend. You've got three easy choices: Base yourself in Airlie Beach and head out on an island hop with Ocean Rafting or Cruise Whitsundays. Fly direct to Hamilton Island and fill your itinerary with snorkelling, golf, spa treatments and kayaking. Or go for broke with a two-night sailing and diving adventure or charter your own yacht.
From the Sunshine Coast
If you don't mind a 5am wake-up call for a half-day's drive to Gladstone, you can be on Heron Island by lunchtime. Surrounded by 24 square-kilometres of reef, there's no need for technology with turtles nesting and hatching, and an educational eco-research station at your fingertips. (Not to mention reef walking, coral submarine tours and an all-important day spa.)
Set your GPS 1.5-hours north to the twin villages of Agnes Water and Town of 1770. Base yourself on the northernmost surfing beach in Australia in a laid-back safari tent and spend the afternoon enjoying sunset views of Bustard Bay while in control of your own Scooter Roo chopper motorbike. Dedicate the next day to snorkelling and try to spot all 1200 of the Great Barrier Reef's 1500 fish species surrounding Lady Musgrave Island. You'll be back on dry land and home in time for the Sunday movie.
On the Capricorn Coast off Yeppoon sits the largest of the sandy cays – Great Keppel Island – home to 17 pristine beaches. Access the island via a 30-minute ferry from Rosslyn Bay and by mid-morning you can be sharing the bush trail with brushtail possums, blue-tongued lizards, goannas and over 90 species of birds. Spot humpback whales migrating from April to November, learn to sail, or steer your SUP to a secluded cay and snorkel with turtles, sea snakes and manta rays.
Peer into the world's largest (660,000 gallon) living coral reef aquarium and go behind the scenes to see vital turtle rehabilitation work in the turtle hospital at Reef HQ Aquarium. After earning your Great Barrier Reef education stripes, catch a 20-minute ferry to the reef's only suburb on Magnetic Island. Keen diver? Head south and get beneath the surface exploring one of the world's most famous shipwrecks – the SS Yongala – which sank in a cyclone over 100 years ago.
This is the epicentre of the Great Barrier Reef and there's more than a few options on tap. Hit the nearby islands within 45 minutes with Great Adventures and spend a half or full day on Green Island, or choose the Fitzroy Fast Cat and visit the turtle rehabilitation centre on Fitzroy Island. Explore the outer reef on a day-tour and come face-to-face with minke whales, sea turtles and potato cod. Or head straight for barefoot luxury, staying in one of eight exclusive villas on Bedarra Island off the coast of Mission Beach, two hours south of Cairns.
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Author: Tourism and Events Queensland
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