6 tips to plan your ultimate Great Barrier Reef holiday
Each year, two million people make the trip to Queensland all in the name of a Great Barrier Reef holiday. Are you going to be one of them?
Planning a visit to a wonder of the world that’s greater in size than the United Kingdom, Holland and Switzerland combined can be overwhelming to say the least.
Use this Great Barrier Reef holiday guide to discover the world’s largest living organism, with ease.
When David Attenborough refers to something as an “unforgettable and revelatory” experience you know it’s got to be good. Sir David himself classes the first time he donned scuba gear and dived on a coral reef as “the single most revelatory moment” of his life.
If the world’s most famous biologist isn’t convincing enough for you – these fun facts will have you diving into a Great Barrier Reef holiday:
- The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system made up of five distinct precincts each with their own characteristics and endemic wildlife. To choose where to go, start with our eBook guide to the Great Barrier Reef and decide whether you want to start your adventure in its southern parts, Wild North or somewhere in between
- It stretches 2600km along the Queensland coast, so large, it can even be seen from space
- Tourism to the reef generates approximately AU$5-6 billion per year
- It’s home to thousands of animal species (10% of the world’s fish species live in the GBR alone), including our iconic Great Eight
- The Great Barrier Reef has been inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list since 1981
- There’s more than 900 islands made for hammocks and long walks on the beach
When to go?
Like most natural wonders, timing is everything. Although the reef never sleeps – you’ll be best placed to visit the Great Barrier Reef between June and October when temperatures are still warm enough for swimming but rainfall is minimal.
If you’re visiting the reef between November and May, you can still swim, but you’ll be asked to wear a stinger suit – AKA lycra from top-to-toe, including mittens, booties and balaclava, which will leave little to the imagination.
Outside obvious weather factors like hot vs cold, seasons dictate the movements within the animal kingdom. Time your Great Barrier Reef holiday for the following:
- November/December – turtle nesting
- January-March – turtle hatching
- July-October – humpback whales
- June/July – dwarf minke whales
- Winter – manta rays
Seasonal milestones don’t just happen below the surface, either. If you’re the kind of traveller who prefers to show up where the party is at, synchronise your diary with one of these Great Barrier Reef events.
What to do there
Whether you’re a snorkeller, avid diver or have never swum without a personal floatation device before, the Great Barrier Reef is yours to explore.
Simply start by choosing which Great Barrier Reef day tour is for you, following the guidelines in this post. And if you’re not a natural water baby, don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef without even getting wet.
If you’re here to make a splash, there’s no better place to try underwater sports for the first time than on your Great Barrier Reef holiday. If you’re new to wearing a mask and fins, check out this first timers’ guide to snorkelling. To dive a little deeper, earn your PADI certificate on the Great Barrier Reef and access all the world-class diving on offer.
Can’t decide? End the indecisiveness with this guide to scuba vs snorkelling, which can be as polarising as the northern hemisphere’s great divide – to ski or snowboard?
That said, experienced divers need only apply for the best dive sites in the world.
Where to eat and drink
Seafood isn’t something you only see through a snorkel mask on the Great Barrier Reef, we encourage you to eat it too.
One of the advantages of being a state with so much coastline is that our seafood game is always strong – *ahem* – coral trout, Hervey Bay scallops, Mooloolaba prawns, mud crabs, we’re looking at you!
You don’t need to catch it to be able to cook it. Treat your taste buds to he flavour of the reef at these regional restaurants:
- Where to eat seafood in Cairns
- Where to eat in Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays
- Where to eat seafood on the Gold Coast
- Where to eat seafood in Brisbane
If you’re staying on the reef itself, you’ll be happy to know you don’t need to forgo the gourmet experience in favour of sad sandwiches and morning-tea muffins. Prepare for your mind to be blown with these Great Barrier Reef dining experiences. We’re talking degustations on isolated piers, gourmet picnics packed by a personal chef, and hunting and gathering mud crabs using only a spear.
Where to stay
There’s no shortage of places to stay along and on The Great Barrier Reef, whether you’re basing yourself on the mainland, staying at an island resort, camping, or actually sleeping on the reef (hello liveaboards, bareboat yacht charters and exclusive overnight pontoons!).
If you want to stay on a Great Barrier Reef island there’s a budget point to suit everyone from shoestring (read: camping on the reef) to blow-the-budget big spenders. Start your search over here with this guide to Great Barrier Reef islands.
Eliminate the where-to-stay dilemma by working out what you really want to be doing this holiday season. Do you want to be snorkelling from dawn ‘til dusk? Held up in a hammock with a good book? Or have max-activities at your fingertips so the words “I’m bored” are never muttered, ever.
Once you have your dream holiday in mind, let these posts become your guide:
- If you want to snorkel all day: Dive into Lady Elliot Island
- If you want to be close to all the activities and have holiday options: You’ll need this Cairns Accommodation Guide
- If you definitely don’t want to be on the mainland: Check out this guide to the best Queensland islands
- If you want to stay in the destination dubbed the heart of the Great Barrier Reef: Look no further than our Whitsundays Island Accommodation Guide
- If you’re chasing an uber luxe experience: Bring your credit card for Bedarra Island Resort, Lizard Island, and Daydream Island
- If you want to rent an island for exclusive use: Then there’s these 7 islands you can rent like a rock star
- If you’d prefer to captain your own Great Barrier Reef adventure: Check out how to go bareboating
The important thing to remember is that you can do the Great Barrier Reef on any budget.
Best day trips to take
When you’re talking about discovering a region that’s half the size of Texas, you’re going to need to get tasky on where to start. Tackle these day trips by region:
Southern Great Barrier Reef
For a reef within reach, take a day trip to Lady Elliot Island. Daily flights will connect you from Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Fraser Island and Bundaberg, making short work of the commute to this island, 46 nautical miles off Bundaberg.
In the Whitsundays there are plenty of day trip options leaving from Airlie Beach or islands like Hamilton, Daydream and Hayman. Don’t leave without seeing the world’s most famous love heart and visiting at least one of the islands on this island-hopping list.
In the sunny city, you don’t even need to leave the mainland to see the reef. Townsville is home to the world’s largest living reef aquarium, Reef HQ, where you can see the creatures of the deep without donning the swimwear or mask to see them. If you want to go further afield, feel the pull of Magnetic Island by catching the quick 20-minute ferry over to the only island in the Great Barrier Reef with its own postcode. This post will keep you out of trouble and have you cuddling koalas!
Tropical North Queensland
Take it from us, it’s hard to choose just one day trip from Cairns considering it’s the epicentre of reef activity with everything from sunset sails, island adventures and week-long liveaboard trips. For an express tour of the best the Great Barrier Reef has to offer, we’d suggest visiting an island which has it all, Green Island. The smallest island (15 hectares) in the Great Barrier Reef map proves why good things come in small packages. To see what we mean, swing over here.
Can’t decide? Get your pen ready and start ticking off this list of 100 things to do on your Great Barrier Reef holiday.
Things you need to know
If you’re looking for a history lesson on the reef, go to the mainland to find it. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived on the reef for over 40,000 years. In fact, more than 70 traditional owner groups have continuing relationships with the Great Barrier Reef. Turn back the pages of history with one of these Indigenous tours around Cairns.