Beach Vacations to Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Great Barrier Reef, Australia (Jeff Hunter/Getty)

Great Barrier Reef Beach Travel Tips

  • April through November is the best time to visit the Great Barrier Reef, when the days are drier and the temperatures more comfortable. Conversely, November through April marks the official cyclone (hurricane) season in Queensland, also the rainy and humid time of year.
  • Beaches are found north and south of Cairns, but the only one right in town is a man-made 43,000-square-foot saltwater lagoon pool and artificial beach on the Esplanade, which opened in early 2003 as part of a multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the city and port.
  • Green Island and Fitzroy Island are both famous resort isles, but you don’t need to stay on them to enjoy their beaches; both welcome day visitors from the 45-minute ferry rides out of Cairns.

The Earth’s largest structure made by living organisms is one of the major reasons travelers head Down Under. With sections dating back 18 million years, the incredible 135,000 square-mile reef is made up of 3,000 individual reefs and islands, and hosts over 400 species of coral along with 1,500 species of fish. When you put your head underwater you’ll find a rainbow of animals: green and purple clams, pink sponges, red starfish, purple sea urchins, electric blue fish, green and loggerhead turtles, gray dugong (manatee), sharks, giant manta rays, and sea snakes. The reef stretches most of the length of the tropical northeastern state of Queensland, from Lady Elliot Island off Bundaberg to just south of Papua New Guinea. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the biggest marine park in the world.

Needless to say, diving and snorkeling on the reef is unparalleled in the world. Three kinds of reef are found here—fringing, ribbon, and platform—making for a variety of underwater features. Islands dotting the reef are classified as either continental, meaning part of the Australian landmass, or cays, meaning crushed dead coral and sand. Numerous deluxe space age-like pontoons moor on the reef and are used as nautical bases for snorkeling, diving, and submarine adventures. These spacious pontoons come complete with cafeterias, glass-bottoms, lifeguards, guides, and high-speed air-conditioned catamaran service to jet visitors out to them on day trips. Some pontoons even offer rooms for overnight stays—one of the better options is operated by Great Adventures. If you don’t like getting your hair wet, you can also kayak amid the isles, or fly over them in a seaplane.

A necklace of mainland towns act as bases for the reef, including the old sugarcane town of Cairns, the upscale resort of Port Douglas, and Townsville, the headquarters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The reef is pretty much equidistant from any point along the coast, about 90 minutes away by high-speed ferries. The exception is Townsville, which is about two and half hours away from the reef.

Most visitors fly in to Cairns’ international airport. This tropical town on the northwest coast of Queensland is said to be the fourth most visited city in Australia, but visitors don’t flock here for the town itself (which is a mere five blocks wide), but for proximity to the reef. Intact rainforests to explore are inland. If you love nature you won’t be bored in the area of the Great Barrier Reef.


Published: 21 Apr 2009 | Last Updated: 30 Mar 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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