This guide will help you to decide on where to stay in Great Barrier Reef and enjoy your holiday with an easy access to the coral reef for some snorkelling, diving and beach time
I have included also a map with the major towns and islands to give more of an idea of the best places to stay along the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for 2,300km.
The best part?
Everything here has been updated to 2018 (there is no out of date stuff).
So without further ado, let’s get started…
You have two options to visit the Great Barrier Reef:
The third option would be a mix of the two above where you spend a few days on an island resort and you move along the coast afterwards. I will list below a few possible itineraries.
In this section, I explore the major towns along the Great Barrier Reef. You can base yourself there and explore the islands and the reef with day excursions.
Be aware that unfortunately, coral bleaching is becoming a real issue (usually due to the higher water temperature). The northern part of the reef has been damaged more than the south. You can read more here.
This is not to discourage your trip, on the contrary, you will be able to witness a wonder of the nature that will not last as long and we all have wished.
In my opinion, Cairns is the best place to stay to experience the Great Barrier Reef, especially if your time is limited.
And let me list here some of the reasons:
Cairns is very famous with backpackers. There are many hostel options as well as cheap eateries.
There are also many upper-class alternatives, especially close to the main harbour, some of which with an incredible and fantastic sea view.
If you are travelling around Australia on a holiday and the Great Barrier Reef is on your bucket list for just a few days then Cairns has to be.
In Cairns, you should go for dinner at the Fusion Art Bar & Tapas, probably the best in town.
For lunch, have a walk to the Rusty’s Markets, besides a great selection of fruit and veggies you can find a few amazing street food options.
Port Douglas is one of my favourite destinations for a week holiday. There are a few reasons:
Port Douglas is reachable through the Cairns Airport (about 1-1.5hours). You can also rent a car and enjoy the 70km as a day trip itself. It’s a beautiful road (read here full post with photos too).
Port Douglas tends to be more expensive then Cairns, it’s more catered for an upper-class clientele.
If you have the time, you can also plan to spend 3-4 days in Cairns, where you can organise your day trips to the Great Barrier Reef, and 2-3 days in Port Douglas where you can enjoy the beach, explore the unique far north and see some crocs.
If you are there on Sunday, do not miss the traditional Sunday Market.
Check out one of the best pizza in Australia, at the Chilly’s Pizza & Trattoria.
Mission Beach is a very laid back area with a few restaurants and bars around, most of them next to the lovely white beach, one of the best in Northern Queensland.
The whole area is well known for the beautiful rainforest that starts from the beach itself, leaving visitors access to the incredible Djiru National Park which can be visited also by bicycle.
You may be able to spot the iconic cassowary, however, stay far from the animal as they can be quite aggressive.
Dunk Island is an easy 10 minutes (and $40 return) boat ride.
You can also organise a half-day and 3 islands tour, including Dunk, Kumboola and Bedarra ($50).
Mission Beach is halfway between Cairns and Townsville, a great spot to relax, an amazing beach and a perfect base to explore a few islands for some snorkelling and diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
The trip from the Cairns airport takes about 2 hours.
For dinner, I suggest the Ocea Restaurant, right in the centre of the town, for some honest and unpretentious food.
Townsville is more of a city, with a population of 170,000 people, than a travel destination.
You get this feeling that not all the business in Townsville is related to the travel industry.
You do not see in the streets as many tourists as in Cairns and in this respect, you can feel more part of a local community.
I find that Townsville also offers better quality restaurants and bars when compared to Cairns. Probably because they cater for local and recurring customers, so they really need to be good.
Why going to Townsville?
I can also suggest to rent a car in Townsville and drive up to Port Douglas for an adventure of the lifetime. You can read part of it in this post.
Airlie Beach was once famous as a backpacker destination. Nowadays the town has opened to a much wider clientele with accommodation of any kind.
Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Whitsundays Islands. Here you will find a plethora of sailing options to spend up to a week visiting one of the most spectacular archipelagoes in the world.
There is also a nice beach on the east side of town, however, keep in mind you will not be able to swim there between October and May (stinger season).
The alternative is the free and fantastic lagoon pool, not too far from the beach (it’s quite similar to the one in Cairns).
On the foreshore, every Saturday morning, you can also check out the Whitsunday Market.
Why going to Airlie Beach?
To use it as a gateway to the Whitsundays Islands. Try to organise your sailing trip before arriving in town, they tend to be quite busy.
Mackay has the highest concentration of beaches in North Queensland I think. And this is the main reason to go there.
You can reach the Great Barrier Reef from Mackay, however, it’s a long trip and honestly, the other towns above offer a quicker and cheaper access.
If you are driving your car or van from Brisbane to the far north then Mackay can be a great stop-over.
If you are still wondering about the vastity of the Great Barrier Reef then you should know that it includes well over 900 island and 2,900 individual reefs, stretching from Thursday Island (in the uppermost point of Queensland) to the south of Gladstone town.
Only a small number of these 900 islands have a resort and a few of them are accessible only by seaplane
Here below I list the most famous islands, with a resort to stay in.
You can also explore other islands without a resort however you need a permit. Read more on the Marine Park Authority for the process.
The list below is sorted based on the location, from the far north (Lizard Island) to the south (Heron Island, facing Gladstone)
Lizard Island is a true tropical heaven. You don’t believe me? Have a look at the below video. It says more than a thousand words
Lizard is the northernmost island with a resort. It’s accessible only with a local flight organised by the resort itself. 60 minutes with one of the most beautiful views in the world: the colourful Great Barrier Reef
The island has only one resort, called Lizard Island, a luxury accommodation with 24 private pools, suites and private villas. A real oasis of tranquillity.
Green Island is just a 45 minutes trip from Cairns and, for this reason, one of its primary tourist attractions.
Almost everyone that has spent time in Cairns has also visited this tiny island that you can walk all around in less than 30 minutes.
Some of the boat tickets also offer a short island trip with a semi-submarine that allow you to watch the beautiful underwater world around Green Island.
The main activity is of course snorkelling and just relaxing on the beautiful white beach under a palm tree.
You will not be alone, as you can imagine. It’s a popular day destination.
If you are looking for tranquillity then book a night at the Green Island Resort and once all the boats will leave you can enjoy the place almost on your own.
Fitzroy Island is hiding behind the Trinity Forest Reserve, off Cairns and just 3km from the coast.
It comes almost unnoticed to the mass tourism, a still hidden gem of Cairns
Fitzroy is a hilly island, great for some easy trekking, with turquoise ocean water all around, perfect for snorkelling, and two beautiful beaches to relax.
You can visit the island on a day trip and enjoy a much calmer and relaxed ambience when compared with Green Island.
If you plan to spend the night then you can either stay in the only resort or the local camping ground. Both great options.
Dunk Island is just a 10 minutes trip from Mission Beach, a fantastic day trip for some trekking and a swim in a beautiful exotic beach
The island has a few walking paths, not very challenging, that go over the pick, for a gorgeous view, and through the Palm Valley to a few hidden and secluded beaches.
Even though it’s so close to the coast, Dunk Island is nowhere as popular as Green Island. Most of the tourists stay on the main beach, where the boat docks. As soon as you walk 10-15 minutes on either side you will be almost on your own.
My suggestion here is to stay at Mission Beach and not in the resort in Dunk Island. You will have more restaurant and cafe options besides being less expensive
Bedarra Island is the destination for a romantic and secluded stay.
If you are looking for a private beach, an endless possibility for snorkelling and a private house then Bedarra is one of the best places to stay in the Great Barrier Reef.
Bedarra Island is reachable with a private launch that you can organise from Mission Beach (ask the accommodation once booked, they will be happy to assist you with that)
If you can, book well in advance, as there is only one house overlooking the beach and it’s so popular for a romantic hideaway
Magnetic Island is another paradise in the north of Queensland.
And you know what is the best?
And if you are after a resort with sunset view than have a look at the Magnetic Sunsets Resort, facing the beach and meters from the restaurant area.
The Whitsundays is an archipelago of 74 islands, mostly inhabited, with fabulous beaches and a great coral reef all around.
Does it seem too much to be true?
Probably, but it is truly amazing.
You have two ways to enjoy the Whitsunday islands:
Hamilton Island is probably my favourite destination because:
The Whitsunday Apartments are one of the best value accommodations on the island, with a beautiful view of the reef and possibly a few dolphins or whales in the early morning.
For a 5-star adults-only experience have a look at the Beach Club, just stunning with a perfect location overlooking the beach
Great Keppel Island has something like 28km of white beaches where you can literally get lost, or train for a marathon :).
You can visit this island easily on a day trip with a 30 minutes ferry leaving from Rosslyn, an often underrated tropical destination along the coast.
The Great Keppel Island, as well as the below Heron, are almost seating on the Tropic of Capricorn and they both enjoy a nice sub-tropical climate which tends to not be affected by the tropical monsoons. However, winters can be quite chilly.
My suggestion is to visit this part of Queensland during the shoulder seasons (October/November and April/May)
The Great Keppel Island Hideaway resort has possibly one of the best locations on the island, nestled between 2 beautiful beaches. The resort itself is good value, considering we are in the Great Barrier Reef. For the best snorkelling head down to Shelving Beach.
Heron Island is a unique marine park inside the world heritage Great Barrier Reef.
It’s probably the best island for snorkelling and diving in the Great Barrier Reef, with 20 sites all around the island, mostly less than 15 minutes away.
It’s quite a tiny island however with a huge reef area, many many times the size of the island itself. Its fish and coral diversity is almost comparable to the full Great Barrier Reef.
It’s now easy to explain why Heron is so popular with divers from all around the world.
The only resort on the island offers also free snorkelling lessons, free guided reef walks and free water activities as kayaking. And best of all it’s also a great value accommodation.
You can reach Heron Island from Gladstone by boat (one service/day), seaplane or helicopter.