Southern-Great-Barrier-Reef-visitors-guide

The ultimate Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

The Great Barrier Reef (made up of lots of little reefs, not just one long reef) stretches some 2300km along the Queensland coastline, meaning there’s plenty of places to get your snorkel on. (And there’s plenty of delicious diving too).

But while North Queensland hogs most of the Great Barrier Reef limelight, it’s the southern township of Bundaberg, an easy 400km drive from the state’s capital of Brisbane, where the reef officially begins.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef, with its flagship cities of Rockhampton, Gladstone and Bundaberg, and its idyllic islands of Great Keppel, Pumpkin, Wilson, Heron, Lady Musgrave and Lady Elliot, is packing plenty of lesser-known experiences to rival its northern neighbours. So go on, dive right in with this visitors guide!

WHY GO

Rockhampton | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Rockhampton | Photo by @visitcapricorn

For anyone who loves their reef and beef, you’ve arrived in one of the most divine destinations in which to experience both. Rockhampton boasts the mantle of Australia’s Beef Capital and you’ll relish the country hospitality and hearty fare on offer here.

Head to Rocky’s nearby coastal town of Yeppoon, and it’s a laidback lifestyle, where old beach shacks and cool cafes are reminiscent of your childhood holidays.

Beyond the shore, and out towards the horizon, sit two of Queensland’s most beautiful islands, Pumpkin – which you can rent like a rock star – and Great Keppel. (Find out why Great Keppel makes the ultimate family holiday destination here.)

Agnes Water | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Agnes Water | Photo by @backpackers1770 via @southerngreatbarrierreef

Further south, Gladstone delivers those same old-school feels with its tiny, but terrific Tannum Sands and the twin towns of Agnes Water/1770, named after one Lieutenant James Cook who was so enamoured with the place, he popped in for a visit during the year 1770, and after which it takes its name.

Offshore, sits Heron Island, with its beautiful birds and larger-than-life underwater creatures, as well as Wilson Island, whose new glamping resort is due to open in the near future.

Travel further south again, and you’ll arrive in the cane country of Bundaberg, whose fertile volcanic soil makes it one of Australia’s major food bowls.

Turtle | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

There’s two incredible islands on offer here: Lady Musgrave Island and Lady Elliot Island, both renowned for their nesting turtles, sensational sea life and the chance to swim with giant manta rays.

With its relatively cooler sea temperatures due to its southern position, you’ll find far less impact from climate change events such as coral bleaching on the Southern Great Barrier Reef, which remains in pristine condition.

But it’s not just the coastline that delivers memorable holiday moments in this region. Inland, you’ll find gem fossicking, barramundi fishing, and epic national parks – we’re talking Carnarvon, Byfield and Kroombit Tops – on the menu.

WHEN TO GO

Carnarvon Gorge | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Carnarvon Gorge | Photo by @meandmytravelbugs via @southerngreatbarrierreef

Perched around Latitude 24, the Southern Great Barrier Reef is home to one of the most temperate climates on the planet.

Boasting mild winters and warm summers, visitors can swim and snorkel all year round.

The ocean here is also stinger and crocodile free, and cyclones this far south are extremely rare.

WHAT TO DO THERE

So many different experiences, so little time. Our advice: make the time and you will be richly rewarded.

Rockhampton has undergone a fabulous facelift in recent times, and if architecture and history are your thing, wander Quay Street, the largest heritage-listed street in Australia where latticed verandas typical of Queensland overlook the Fitzroy River.

The riverfront itself has also had a freshen up and there’s some cool dining, fun playgrounds and great walks to take along here.

Catch a boat out to Great Keppel Island and snorkel and swim to your heart’s content on a tour which will also allow you to board a glass-bottom boat and view the reef without getting your feet wet.

Glorious Gladstone has taken a lot of effort to develop its cruise industry and foreshore with plenty of pretty parkland for visitors.

Paperbark Forest Agnes Water | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Paperbark Forest, Agnes Water | Photo by @theblondenomads via @southerngreatbarrierreef

At Agnes Water/1770 you can ride Queensland’s most northern surf break with the cheapest surf schools in the country.

Take a tour in an old amphibious army vehicle or end your day with a sunset kayak tour searching for dolphins.

Heron Island is not only about its nesting birds but is also home to gigantic sea life. Snorkel or dive with the mantas here out to the shipwreck or take a submarine tour.

A must-do at Bundaberg is a food tour taking in the local farms and produce. And you can’t leave Bundy without a taste of its world-famous Bundaberg Rum.

Lady Musgrave Island | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Lady Musgrave Island | Photo by @littlegreybox_phoebe via @visitbundaberg

Take a day trip out to Lady Musgrave Island and you’ll be richly rewarded with a languid lagoon in which to snorkel with the turtles and some awesome reef in which to dive deep.

Back on dry land, head down to Mon Repos during turtle nesting and hatching season and you can experience Mother Nature at her brilliant best.

A scenic flight will deliver you to Lady Elliot Island which has arguably some of the best snorkelling and diving of the entire Great Barrier Reef.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Heron Island picnic | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Heron Island heli picnic | Photo by @jordan_robins via @southerngreatbarrierreef

Refurbished pubs, kitsch cafes, retro restaurants and waterfront dining, the Southern Great Barrier Reef has it all.

Due to its location, climate, and rust, red soil, it’s also one of most flavoursome food destinations in Australia. The seafood is plucked fresh from the ocean while its paddock-to-plate scene rivals that of anywhere in the world, coupled with the friendly faces of its primary producers. 

Get the lowdown on where to eat in Gladstone, Rockhampton and Bundaberg with these guides.

WHERE TO STAY

Beautiful island digs, new hotels, cool camping grounds, beachfront shacks and relaxing resorts mean there’s plenty of choice for travellers in the Southern Great Barrier Reef.

Choose to stay on the mainland in the holiday hubs of Bargara, near Bundaberg (for the closest proximity to turtle tracking at Mon Repos), in a luxurious holiday home in Agnes Water, or in a heritage hotel in the heart of Rockhampton.

For those who prefer to go off-grid, allow us to introduce the Sandstone Wilderness that is Carnarvon Gorge.

BEST DAY TRIPS TO TAKE

Capricorn Caves Rockhampton | Southern Great Barrier Reef visitors guide

Capricorn Caves, Rockhampton | Photo by @jamesrelfdyer via @southerngreatbarrierreef

This rollicking region lends itself to delightful drives pausing to admire the surrounding country and heritage along the way.

But make sure you get wet too, with a boat trip out to one of the islands, there’s numerous operators bursting to show you why they love the Southern Great Barrier Reef so much.

If hiking is more your thing, these day hikes in Carnarvon Gorge should be at the top of your bucket list.

THINGS TO KNOW

You’ll fit right in if you speak like a Queenslander and drop the formal pronunciation of place names around these parts. So Rockhampton is Rocky, Bundaberg is Bundy, and Gladstone…well, it’s still Gladstone. But you get the drift.

LOCAL’S TIPS

Leave your cash at home as the Southern Great Barrier reef is the leading Australian tourism region in which you can spend cryptocurrency.

Have you visited the Southern Great Barrier Reef? Any tips you’d add for first-timers?