Great Barrier Reef Great Barrier Reef

Our guide to theGreat Barrier Reef

You can see it from space and it’s absolutely magnificent. One of the seven wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef is a magnet for tourists and locals and for very good reason. The Great Barrier Reef is ideal for any type of holiday, whether it’s a romantic escape or an opportunity for the whole family to enjoy the snorkeling and scuba diving.

Top Things to See on the Great Barrier Reef

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Of course, the Reef is famous for the marine life. Often described as one of Australia’s most incredible natural gifts, the beauty lies in the coral reef. There are more than 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays and hundreds of islands to explore.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park

The Great Barrier Reef is a Marine Park and World Heritage Area, and currently makes up about 10 per cent of the world’s coral reef system. It’s a multiple-use marine park, supporting tourism, fishing, recreation, scientific research and indigenous traditional use. In fact, it’s one of the most complex natural systems on earth. The uniqueness of the Reef is that because of its vast size, there is a huge range of ecological communities, habitats and species. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park website, the park is home to about 600 types of soft and hard corals, more than 100 species of jellyfish, more than 1600 types of fish and 133 varieties of sharks and rays. That’s a lot to see.

To put its size into perspective, the Marine Park is approximately the same size as Italy or Japan, and is bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined.

Daintree Rainforest

For those who wish to stay on land, and even for those who want to rush into the water, the Daintree Rainforest should not be missed. The vibrant greens of the forest are truly breathtaking and it’s the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. Here’s a fun fact: the ancient ferns, emerald green vines and lush canopy was the inspiration behind blockbuster smash Avatar.

Trek through the jungle, zip-line through the trees or cruise the winding waterways of the Daintree River. Just keep an eye out for the saltwater crocodiles. It’s also worth a trip to Cape Tribulation where the forest meets the Great Barrier Reef. According to Sir David Attenborough, it’s “the most extraordinary place on earth”.

Hamilton Island

It’s one of Australia’s most sought-after holiday destinations and once you arrive, it’s not hard to see why. Surrounded by pristine white beaches and a gateway to the magnificent reef, Hamilton Island is the perfect base. There’s a huge selection of bars and restaurants on the island, and heaps of water sports available. Plus, for the sailors out there, there’s the Hamilton Island Yacht Club and for the golfers, the only Australian 18-hole championship course on its own island, the Hamilton Island Golf Club is a must.

The great thing about the island as well is that transport is complimentary. Simply hop onto the Island Shuttle which runs continuously. If you prefer to go at your own pace, there is also the option to hire a buggy. It’s also just a half hour catamaran trip to Whitehaven Beach, one of the world’s most unspoiled and beautiful beaches and often voted the number one beach in Australia as well as the top eco-friendly beach. Stretching for seven kilometres, the beach is most famous for the exceptionally white sand and the exceptionally turquoise, blue and green water.

Magnetic Island

With quiet, secluded beaches and rugged nature, Magnetic Island is an excellent spot to base yourself to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Best of all, it’s just a 25-minute ferry ride from Townsville. The landscape is a bit different to what is usually associated with Reef islands, mainly due to the rocky terrain and giant boulders that call Magnetic Island home. While the main areas are those on the coast, including Horeshoe Bay and West Point, don’t miss the Hawkings Track for magnificent views across the island.

There are more than 20 beaches to explore and you can even dive the S.S. Yongala wreck, which has often been referred to as one of the world’s top dives site, mainly because of the extensive marine life and the fact that the ship, at 110 metres long, is one of the largest, most intact historic shipwrecks. In fact, more than 10,000 divers visit the wreck every year. The island is also home to Northern Australia’s largest colony of koalas. With eucalypt forests, it’s not hard to understand why so many koalas love the area.

Best ways to explore the Great Barrier Reef

From land, in the ocean or from the air, no matter how you see the Reef, it’s mesmerizing.

Scuba and Snorkeling

It ranks pretty high on the bucket list of many people, Australians and tourists alike, and it’s easy to see why. The water is warm and the scenery is spectacular. And what’s great about the reef is that it’s the perfect place for absolutely anyone to snorkel, no matter if you’ve done it a thousand times before or never. All you need is to be able to swim. The Great Barrier Reef is also the most accessible reef on earth. Walk straight off the beach and start exploring. Of course, for the more adventurous or curious, there are also catamaran tours that take passengers directly to the most incredible sections of the reef.

For those who wish to scuba dive rather than snorkel, the Great Barrier Reef is an excellent choice. It’s renowned for amazing diving locations and no matter where you dive, you’re sure to see the incredible marine life and coral reefs. It’s also perfect for first timers as there are gentle reef sites in calm, protected and shallow waters.

Read our pick of the best snorkelling and diving sites on the Great Barrier Reef here.

Seaplane and Helicopter

Yes, the Great Barrier Reef is spectacular at eye level, but if you haven’t experienced it from the air, you haven’t fully seen it in all its glory. So step out of the water, off the beach and straight into a seaplane or helicopter.

Travelling by seaplane means you can fly close to the ocean’s surface and truly see all the colours and textures of the reef. There are also scenic helicopter flights that you can take, most departing from Port Douglas. The helicopters generally head out over the reef so you can gaze down at the magnificent waters below. Again, you can hover quite close to the water and you may even glimpse some of the marine life below the water’s surface.


Sailing the Great Barrier Reef is a must. Whether it’s a day trip, a weekend or a full week on the waters, it’s truly magical to cruise through the waters. There are, of course, several options to cruising the reef from cruise ships through to chartered boats, either with a driver or captained by you. If you are going on a major cruise line, some may not give you the option to actually swim or snorkel the reef so always pay attention to the itinerary. Of course, if you’ve charted a boat, it’s completely up to you when and where you stop to dive right on in to the water. There are also loads of options for glass bottom boat tours which means, for those who don’t wish to get wet, you can still marvel at the marine life and coral that sits underneath the water.

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Stay in Luxury Accommodation

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The Great Barrier Reef is definitely not short of luxury accommodation options, from resorts to whole islands.

InterContinental Hayman Island Resort is often described as a secluded paradise with breathtaking beauty. The only way to get to the island is via seaplane, helicopter or luxury yacht which is already a great start. And once there, it’s all about indulgence, elegance, pampering and privacy.

When the Oatley family envisioned qualia, they imagined heaven on earth and boy did they deliver. The resort embraces its island home, with sculptures in timbers, sandstone and glass framing the landscape. There are 60 individually designed pavilions with infinity plunge pools overlooking the sea. Fine dining is offered at Long Pavilion and the soothing treatments at Spa qualia are simply divine.

It’s the only beachfront property on Four Mile Beach and is the perfect gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas is surrounded by 147 hectares of lush tropical gardens and includes two hectares of lagoon pools. The rooms, suites and villas all have views of the tropical gardens or lagoon pools, with some even providing swim-up entry. There are also plenty of dining options on site. You’ll never want to leave.

Lizard Island Resort is the northernmost resort on the Great Barrier Reef and we mean it when we say it’s incredibly secluded. The Island has 24 private beaches and only 40 suites and villas so it’s exceptionally private too. Just a one-hour flight from Cairns and you’ll be transported into a marine wonderland with direct access from the resort to the reef – no boat necessary.

Tours and Packages

Land, sea and air tours and packages are available and if you have time, it’s recommended to check out all three options. It’s the only way you’ll truly appreciate the grandeur that is the Great Barrier Reef.

If you’re staying at one of the resorts, chances are they will have plenty of tour options to choose from. Many will also include the transfer from Cairns to the islands themselves.

If staying on the mainland, there are several options to explore the reef including private charter or group cruises and a multitude of companies that offer it. For many, there are also multiple-day passes so don’t be too concerned about trying to see everything in one day. It’s pretty much impossible to do so anyway. Some tours will also offer a visit to the Daintree Rainforest which is an added bonus.

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