Where to stay in Great Barrier Reef
This guide will help you to decide on where to stay in Great Barrier Reef and enjoy your holiday with 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Everything here has been updated (there is no out-of-date stuff).
So without further ado, let’s get started…
Where to stay in Great Barrier Reef – Key Points
You have two options to visit the Great Barrier Reef:
- stay inland in one of the major towns (explore with day tours the reef and a few islands, plenty of options)
- stay on an island (experience the reef around it and possibly explore other islands closeby)
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.
These are my suggested towns to stay along the coast
|Place Name||My favourite hotel||Pros||Cons||Accessibility||Best For|
|Cairns||Rydges Esplanade Resort||Easy access to the reef, plenty of resorts, and activities.||No real beaches.||Near Cairns Airport, well-connected by flights.||Budget Backpackers, Family Travelers, Couples|
|Port Douglas||Regal Port Douglas||Small, upscale town with a variety of resorts.||More expensive than Cairns.||1-1.5 hours from Cairns Airport.||Luxury Travelers, Couples|
|Mission Beach & Dunk Island||Apartments at Mission Beach||Laid-back, beautiful beaches, access to Djiru National Park.||Limited nightlife.||2 hours from Cairns Airport.||Family Travelers, Couples|
|Townsville||Rambutan Resort||Less touristy, better quality restaurants.||More of a city feeling/vibe||Near Townsville Airport.||Solo Travelers, Digital Nomads|
|Airlie Beach & Whitsunday Islands||2-days sailing day||Gateway to Whitsundays, variety of accommodations.||Stinger season restricts swimming.||Regional Airport (more expensive)||Couples, Nightlife, Solo Travelers|
|Mackay||Shakespeare Motel||High concentration of beaches.||Longer trip to the reef.||Regional Airport (more expensive)||Solo Travelers, Budget Backpackers|
And these are my favourite islands to stay in the Great Barrier Reef
|Place Name||My favourite hotel||Pros||Cons||Accessibility||Best For|
|Lizard Island||Lizard Island||Secluded, luxurious, and direct access to the reef.||Expensive.||Private charter flights from Cairns.||Luxury Travelers, Couples|
|Green Island||Green Island Resort||Easily accessible, good for day trips.||Can get very busy.||45-min ferry ride from Cairns.||Budget Backpackers, Family Travelers|
|Fitzroy Island||Fitzroy Island Resort||Close to Cairns, laid-back atmosphere.||Limited dining options.||45-min ferry ride from Cairns.||Couples, Family Travelers|
|Dunk Island||N/A||Good for day trips, water activities.||Limited accommodations.||Boat from Mission Beach.||Family Travelers, Couples|
|Bedarra Island||Bedarra Beach House||Private, romantic, luxurious.||Expensive.||Boat from Mission Beach.||Couples, Luxury Travelers|
|Magnetic Island||Magnetic Sunsets Resort||Beautiful beaches, not as busy.||Limited nightlife.||20-min ferry from Townsville.||Solo Travelers, Couples|
|Whitsunday Islands||Whitsunday Apartments||Variety of accommodations, sailing opportunities.||Can be expensive.||Variety of accommodations, and sailing opportunities.||Couples, Luxury Travelers, Solo Travelers|
|Great Keppel Island||Island Hideaway||Lots of beaches, less crowded.||Limited amenities.||Fly to Rockhampton and than a 30-min ferry from Yeppoon.||Budget Backpackers, Solo Travelers|
|Heron Island||Heron Island Resort||Best for snorkelling and diving||Limited amenities.||From Gladstone (Airport) by boat||Divers and Couples|
Where To Stay In Great Barrier Reef On The Coast
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.
You may have heard that coral bleaching is becoming a real issue in the Great Barrier Reef (usually due to the higher water temperature). The northern part of the reef has been damaged more than the south. This report dated back in 2016 explains the problem which is becoming worse nowadays.
This is not to discourage your trip, on the contrary, you will be able to witness a wonder of nature that will not last as long as we all have wished.
Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef
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:
- easy access: the busiest airport with both national and international flights. From here you can fly to most of the Australian cities. You can see an updated flight map here.
- good size town: plenty of resort and hotel options, restaurants, cafes and a nice esplanade walk with the lovely lagoon swimming pool (free access). There are no real beaches, however, you can reach a few from here.
- access to many swimming holes in the wet season: these are usually natural pools from waterfalls. So amazing.
- of all the inland towns, Cairns has most of the reef tours, either by boat or seaplane. Green Island and Fitzroy Island are literally a stone away, both are so beautiful.
Cairns is very famous for 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.
The Cairns Queenslander Hotel & Apartments are one of the most affordable accommodations in the city. The rooms are very large and the apartments have plenty of space. The interior is not very modern which explains the bargain price.
The Rydges Esplanade Resort is a great value-for-money option. The location is amazing, just a stone away from everything you need, including the public lagoon swimming pool
The Shangri-La Hotel is one of the best 5-star accommodations in the Great Barrier Reef. Most of the rooms have such a great view of the water. A perfect place to have a drink before dinner. The ferries to most of the islands leave from a pier next to the hotel, very handy for day trips. Luxurious and practicality
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, the upper-class alternative
Port Douglas is one of my favourite destinations for a week’s holiday. There are a few reasons:
- nice and small size town centre, well organised with a reasonable selection of restaurants and bars
- a good choice of resorts stretching on the long Four Mile Beach. Taxis are available however the closer you are to the centre the easier life will be
- a good selection of excursions to the Great Barrier Reef
- an easy day or half-day trip to Mossman Gorge and Mossman River to spot the gigantic crocodiles
Port Douglas is reachable through the Cairns Airport (about 1-1.5 hours). You can also rent a car and enjoy the 70km as a day trip itself. It’s a beautiful road (read my full guide with photos too).
Port Douglas tends to be more expensive than 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.
An accommodation I would highly suggest is the Regal Port Douglas. The place has a great pool right in the middle of the resort. The location is just perfect, right in the middle of the action, however, very quiet at night. Restaurants and bars are 2 minutes away Really a great spot to spend the holiday.
Another of my favourite hotels is Le Cher Du Monde. Rob, the owner, is such an amazing guy, always there ready to help out. The rooms are very spacious and the service is just perfect. The green colour of the facade is so Caribbean style.
If you are there on Sunday, do not miss the traditional Sunday Market.
Check out one of the best pizzas in Australia, at the Chilly’s Pizza & Trattoria.
Mission Beach and Dunk Island
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-minute (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 Apartments at Mission Beach are a great option for both couples and families. They are straight in the centre of Mission Beach with easy access to restaurants and shops and across the road from the beach.
There is also a small pool for a great start to the day
The trip from 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 and the Great Barrier Reef
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 to local and recurring customers, so they really need to be good.
Why go to Townsville?
- Townsville has the second biggest airport in the north of Queensland and it can be the perfect gateway to the Great Barrier Reef exploration.
- easy access to one of my favourite islands, Magnetic Island, just a 30-minute ferry. So beautiful
- easy access to the Great Barrier Reef with day trips for snorkelling and diving (though not as many options as in Cairns)
I can also suggest renting a car in Townsville and driving up to Port Douglas for an adventure of a lifetime. You can read part of it in this post.
The Rambutan Resort is all about location and breathtaking views. The rooms are spacious and beautifully designed, adding a touch of luxury to your stay.
Dining options are great, and you are just a stone away from many restaurants, cafes and bars. Fabulous pool.
Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands
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 go 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.
You have a few options:
- a full-day catamaran trip to the Whitsundays. If you do not have much time then this trip will give you a good idea of the area, although the places you will visit are limited.
- a 2-days sailing day, this will allow you to sleep at least 1 night and enjoy the amazing night under a million stars
- the 3-day sailing trip is my favourite choice. It’s just the perfect way to experience more of the Whitsundays, not just a touch-and-go.
Mackay and the sandy beaches
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 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.
Best islands in Great Barrier Reef
If you are still wondering about the vastity of the Great Barrier Reef then you should know that it includes well over 900 islands 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.
Lizard Island, the tropical heaven
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
With its pristine white sandy beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters, it provides the perfect setting for relaxation and indulgence. The island is known for its incredible biodiversity, both on land and underwater, making it a haven for nature lovers and snorkelers alike.
The island has only one resort, called Lizard Island, luxury accommodations with 24 private pools, suites and private villas. A real oasis of tranquillity.
Green Island, the most accessible
Green Island is just a 45-minute trip from Cairns and, for this reason, one of its primary tourist attractions.
Almost everyone who 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 allows 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, laid back and closeby
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 more relaxed ambience when compared with Green Island.
The Fitzroy Island Resort is a great resort with cosy rooms, attentive staff and lovely food. It’s not the cheapest stay in the Great Barrier Reef, however, still great value for an amazing paradise.
Dunk Island, A Day Trip From Mission Beach
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.
The only resort on the island closed a few years ago and there are now talks about a new opening, possibly in 2025 or beyond. Stay in Mission Beach instead, an easy and quick boat ride away.
Bedarra Island for a romantic stay
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 about 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, another paradise off Townsville
Magnetic Island is another paradise in the north of Queensland.
And you know what is best?
- easily accessible from Townsville with a 1-hour ferry ($35 return ticket). Townsville has the second biggest airport in the north of Queensland, and plenty of flight options.
- big enough for people to spread around with a few secluded beaches, of which one is popular with nudists (unofficially)
- a village in Horseshoe Bay with a nice hippy feeling
- local bus transportation that matches the ferry departure
- options to rent a bike and explore the hidden corners of the island on your own
- a real tropical vegetation
- one of the most beautiful backpacker resorts in the Great Barrier Reef, called Bungalow Bay Koala Village.
And if you are after a resort with a sunset view then have a look at the Magnetic Sunsets Resort, facing the beach and meters from the restaurant area.
Whitsunday islands, resort or sailing
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:
- by boat, usually a sailing boat. You can join one of the many, departing from Airlie Beach. Book the trip in advance as they tend to be fully booked. It’s an experience suggested more for the adventure travellers (sailing boats do not have great facilities)
- booking into a resort on one of the many islands. From there you can also book a day (or half-day) sailing adventure or a seaplane to experience, from the top, this beautiful archipelago.
Hamilton Island is probably my favourite destination because:
- it is the island with the main Whitsunday airport. As soon as you land you can wear your flip-flops and feel straight on vacation (no need to take a ferry)
- it is the right size, big enough to explore it with a few walks, small enough to not get lost
- it has multiple restaurants and bar options beyond the ones of the resort
- it has a wider selection of hotels, from expensive to more affordable
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, 28km of beaches
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-minute ferry leaving from Rosslyn, an often underrated tropical destination along the coast.
The Great Keppel Island, as well as the below Heron, are almost seated 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)
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 Heron Island Resort offers also free snorkelling lessons, free guided reef walks and free water activities such 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.
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