How 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.
To ensure you do more snorkelling than stressing, we’ve done the digging on why, when, where and how you should see the Great Barrier Reef.
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 this guide to the Great Barrier Reef and decide whether you want to start your adventure in its southern parts, the 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$5.7 billion per year in economic value and supports almost 59,000 full time jobs
- 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 scattered across the Reef
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 May and October when temperatures are still warm enough for swimming, underwater visibility is high and rainfall is minimal.
If you’re visiting the reef between November and May, you will still encounter favourable conditions, but in the north you’ll be asked to wear a stinger suit for safety reasons.
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
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.
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 dive certificate on the Great Barrier Reef and access all the world-class diving on offer.
Where to eat and drink
Seafood isn’t something you only see through a 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 is world-class. We’re talking coral trout, Hervey Bay scallops, Mooloolaba prawns and mud crabs.
You don’t need to catch it to be able to cook it. Treat your taste buds to the 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
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 sandwiches and morning-tea muffins.
Resorts such as Lizard Island and Orpheus Island take dining to the next level, with local, seasonal produce the stars. On Orpheus Island, they’ll even cook your catch from a fishing trip, it doesn’t get fresher than that.
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.
Eliminate the where-to-stay dilemma by working out what you really want to be doing on your holiday. 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 a little pre-planning – here’s some idea starters per region:
Southern Great Barrier Reef
For un-inhabited reef within reach, set yourself for Lady Musgrave Island, a tiny coral cay off the coast of both Bundaberg and 1770.
Lady Musgrave Experience will get you there from Bundaberg onboard their vessel Reef Empress. On arrival you’ll be taken on a guided walk (via glass-bottom boat) of the island that’s a significant turtle nesting site from November-March every year plus hours of time to explore every coral bommie you possibly can.
In April 2020, Lady Musgrave Experience will launch their three story pontoon with underwater observatory and underwater accommodation so you can fall asleep watching the Great Barrier Reef in action.
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 to the only island in the Great Barrier Reef with its own postcode.
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.
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.
Can’t decide? Get your pen ready and start ticking off this list of things to do on your Great Barrier Reef holiday.