Great Barrier Reef & Whitsundays

a family picnicking on Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays with a seaplane behind them

Stretch out on Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is the pride and joy of Queensland. This tropical paradise is the world’s largest coral reef (stretching 2,500 kilometres.)  There’s over 1500 types of fish and marine life; 30 different kinds of whales and dolphins; and 215 species of birds. It’s hardly surprising the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. 

If you thought it couldn’t get any better, there’s more. The Great Barrier Reef has 74 tropical islands nestled in its warm welcoming waters. These tropical islands are known as the Whitsundays. A handful of the Whitsundays have been made into resorts – that being Hayman Island, Hamilton Island, Daydream Island, and South Molle Island. The remainder are protected national parks and are important in maintaining the local wildlife.

So if you’re looking for a holiday you can enjoy any time of the year, and you don’t mind a bit of swimming, snorkelling, diving and sailing in crystal clear water, add the Great Barrier Reef and Whitsundays to your list.


How to get to the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef islands are just off Cairns, which makes Cairns the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. 

  • I recommend flying to Cairns if you’re short on time. There are plenty of flights to Cairns from all over Australia and from overseas. 

  • You can also take a train or bus from Brisbane but it's is a 24-hour journey. 

  • When you arrive in Cairns, take a ferry to the Great Barrier Reef islands.

  • As for getting around Cairns, hire a car, catch the public buses, or book a tour. 

How to get to the Whitsundays

The Whitsunday Islands stretch along the coast of Queensland which means you have lots of destinations and islands to choose from.

  • The Whitsunday Islands are near Mackay and Townsville, and both have domestic airports. I recommend catching a flight to Townsville or Mackay and then a ferry to the Whitsunday Islands.

  • If you’re heading to Hamilton Island, you can fly directly there.

  • The other option is to drive to the Whitsundays or catch a bus. If you're driving from Brisbane, allow 1-2 days, depending on which islands you're heading to. 

Things to do on the Great Barrier Reef

a woman diving and exploring the stunning Great Barrier Reef.

Snorkel or dive in the stunning Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Tourism Australia

  • Go snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef. Get some goggles, a snorkel and a pair of fins and glide past colourful coral, tropical fish, sea turtles and dugongs. It doesn't matter how young or old you are or how good a swimmer you are, snorkelling is for everyone. There’s also plenty of shallow reefs for non-swimmers to paddle and watch the underwater world go by.

  • Go scuba diving and really immerse yourself into the magic of the Great Barrier Reef. If you’ve never dived before, book a lesson and take a dive - this is your chance to see one of the 7 wonders of the world for yourself.

  • Book a fishing tour where you can chase tuna, coral trout and mackerel.

  • Take a scenic flight around the Barrier Reef on a seaplane or helicopter.

  • Play on the beach and swim in the warm waters. You are in the tropics!

Things to do in the Whitsundays

an aerial view of Heart Island in the Whitsundays

Visit Heart Island in the Whitsundays. Photo: Tourism & Event QLD

  • Whitehaven beach - Enjoy the beautiful white sands and turquoise water. Whitehaven is known as ‘one of the best beaches in the world’, and being 7 km long, you won’t have any trouble finding your own piece of paradise. There’s walking tracks including the unmissable Hill Inlet lookout if you’re feeling energetic. Book a cruise to Whitehaven or take a scenic flight. 

  • Hire a boat and go sailing or take a cruise around the Whitsundays, or go out in a glass-bottom boat and view the coral reefs, turtles and other marine wonders.

  • Swim and snorkel with tropical fish, turtles, starfish, sea urchins, that live in the Whitsundays.

  • Take a scenic flight over Heart Reef, which really is a coral reef in the shape of a heart. It’s expensive but well worth every cent.

North Barrier Reef Islands

people paddleboarding around Lizard Island.

Go paddleboarding around Lizard Island. Photo: Lizard Island

If you're up near Cairns or Townsville, you're close to the Northern Barrier Reef islands. They all are fabulous getaways and offer unique experiences. The Northern Barrier Reef islands are: 

  • Lizard Island is a luxurious and private 5 star resort. It has its own airstrip and a National Park, and you’ll enjoy some of the best scuba diving, snorkelling and game fishing in the world.

  • Fitzroy Island is another island paradise where you can swim, snorkel or dive with the clownfish and green sea turtles, fish, kayak, or go walking around the rainforest trails.

  • Haggerstone Island is a secluded island retreat. It has just 4 guest lodges, and you can only get there by light aircraft at certain times of the year. This is where you go when you really want to get back to nature.

  • Magnetic Island is off the coast of Townsville and caters for every budget. It has family apartments, resorts and backpacker hostels, and visitors can kayak, sail, scuba dive, or relaxing by the beach.

Where to stay in the Whitsundays

people jumping off a sailing boat into the clear blue water in the Whitsundays

Go sailing around the Great Barrier Reef & Whitsundays. Photo: Tourism Australia

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island is the perfect place to do everything or nothing. This large island is perfect for everyone – from couples, families and groups. It has everything including:

  • great restaurants and cafes

  • free use of catamarans, canoes, windsurfers and snorkelling equipment

  • lots of pools and sandy beaches

  • scuba diving and snorkelling tours, golf, tennis, bike riding, sailing and yacht charters

  • plenty of apartments, hotels, bungalows, private homes, and an adult-only Beach Club.


a boy snorkelling with sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef.
Snorkel with sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Tourism Australia
  • Green Island is just off Cairns, and is surrounded by a magnificent coral reef. You can either stay at the island resort, or do a day trip on one of the many cruises that stop there. Swim, snorkel or check out the island’s rainforest and wildlife.

Daydream Island

a little girl running with glee around the swimming pool on Daydream Island.
Holiday on Daydream Island. Photo: Samuel Bisso

Daydream Island Resort & Spa is a tropical paradise complete with its own spa, open-air cinema and national park. This is a gorgeous island to recharge your batteries or to take the family for a holiday.

Southern Barrier Reef

2 children futting their fins on to go snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
Go snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Tourism Australia

The Southern Great Barrier Reef is just off Bundaberg (a few hours drive north from Brisbane). 

The Southern Barrier Reef has 43 islands including the spectacular Heron Island and Lady Elliot Island.  Heron Island is actually on the reef, so you're never far from the marine life. Get there by plane or ferry.

Hayman Island

a woman enjoying an ocean massage on Hayman Island.
Enjoy an ocean massage on Hayman Island. Photo: Tourism Australia
Hayman Island is an elegant, 5-star resort. It’s renowned as a wedding and honeymoon location, and is much loved by the rich and famous. It’s not cheap, but it is worth every penny.
While you're there, treat yourself to an ocean massage.

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