The Great Barrier Reef hat trick

The Great Barrier Reef hat trick: 3 reef experiences in 3 locations in (just over) 3 days

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Three different reef experiences, from three different locations, in just over three days? Piece’a cake.

Sure, the Great Barrier Reef is a vast and diverse marine home, stretching almost the entire length of Queensland, but if you’re short on time and want to make the absolute most of it, then in the words of Rob Schneider, YOU CAN DO IT.

But to completely understand the reef in all its World Heritage-listed glory, you’ve got to experience it in a number of different ways; here’s where this railway itinerary comes in.

You might be thinking, “pfft, trains“, but there’s something about this slower form of transport that’s making this a current travel trend; namely, the chance to soak up changing landscapes – from rainforest and farmlands to mountain ranges and valleys – without the fuss of worrying, ‘have we got enough fuel, did we bring enough snacks and am I sober enough to drive this morning?’ (Hola 24-hour Club Cars.)

Jumping onboard Queensland Rail‘s Spirit of Queensland, you can stalk the coastline from Cairns to Gladstone covering half of the reef’s length with enough variety to experience it from every angle.

*The Spirit of Queensland heads south from Cairns to Brisbane every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 9am. The journey can also be done in reverse. 

Stop 1: From the air in Cairns

Green Island

Starting in Tropical North Queensland, take to the air with a scenic heli flight from Cairns – destination, Green Island.

This tiny coral cay sitting 25kms off the coast is a hot spot for day-trippers, and rightly so, with rainforest walks and fringing reefs literally on its doorstep.

Take off from the city with GBR Helicopters, who’ll whisk you away for some island time after taking in a birds-eye view of the magnitude and sheer beauty that is the Great Barrier Reef.

From this vantage point, you’ll witness the extensive range of greens and blues below forming an artist’s palette, with the occasional sand-coloured patch thrown in for good measure.

TIP: If you’ve already booked your day cruise to Green Island but still want to throw in some air time, you’re in luck. GBR Helicopters also offer scenic flights from the island, making sure no one misses out on this high-roller experience.

Following your day of play is a day of easy travel, as you hop aboard the train for the 600km trip south to the Whitsundays.

Stop 2: On the water in the Whitsundays

Cruise Whitsundays

Day passes to night and before you know it, you’ve arrived in Proserpine for your next stop-over in Airlie Beach.

After a night’s rest, it’s an early start for a day on the water with Cruise Whitsundays‘ Camira, an 85ft bright lilac sailing catamaran. Don’t let the pretty aesthetic fool you though, because despite being an Insta-snapping dreamboat, this baby is one of the fastest commercial sailing catamarans in the world.

Leaving the marina, you’ll be taken on a Whitsundays whirlwind in a see-everything-thrill-ride sailing adventure: witness the #earthporn splendour of Hill Inlet, whose white sands and blue hues blend effortlessly into an au naturel mosaic; swim, sunbake, repeat on Australia’s best beach, and spot loggerhead turtles and stingrays (and maybe even a humpback or two if you’ve picked the right season!) as you jet to-and-from Whitsunday Island.

Arriving back on the mainland in the late afternoon, there’s no time to dawdle if you want to make it to your last stop within 24 hours, so grab a taxi and head to Prosperine station to catch the last leg.

Stop 3: Under the water off Gladstone

Heron Island diving

Next stop, Gladstone, and the final destination on your three-part railway adventure.

This spot marks the centre of the Southern Great Barrier Reef, and what better way to get amongst it than with some underwater time at Heron Island.

Just a two-hour ferry ride from the marina, this coral cay is a scuba mecca, offering a plethora of dive sites (more than 20 if you can believe it), most just minutes from the jetty, and some of the clearest visibility on the entire reef.

An hour underwater is never enough time for reef fiends, and thanks to the close proximity of these diving hot spots, you can easily squeeze in up to three dives per day.

(Psst, if this is still not enough reef time for your liking, try this 5-day railway itinerary jumping off at the best diving spots in Queensland.)

Have you ticked off all three reef experiences in Queensland?




  • Bill Bunnell

    What is the point of an article like this is it does not give a price, or even a few prices of the various stops, etc. As it stands it is just some nice words and pretty pictures…my overseas friend says she read it with her limited English and passed on to the next site…so you lost her business…and the last time I looked Tourism was all about overseas visitors..

    • Hi Bill we’re sorry you didn’t gain any information from the post but hope you will see there is much more than just “nice words and pretty pictures” once you click through to each of the destinations and operators websites via the links provided for all the info you could ever require. We just hope this post helps to shine a light on a different way to experience the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland and if this one is not right for your friend, then she might find some more relevant stories over at blog.queensland.com