All Australian visitors want to enjoy the world-class marine life of the Great Barrier Reef, and who could blame them; it is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, a World Heritage Site and the only living thing on earth visible from space!
Stretching all the way down the east coast of Queensland, from the top of Cape York in the north down to Bundaberg in the south, this is one of Australia’s most prized assets and a massive draw for all sorts of different reasons.
From scuba diving and snorkelling to sailing trips, island hopping and even scenic flights, there are a multitude of ways to explore and experience the Great Barrier Reef.
I absolutely love this part of the country and having travelled the length of it as part of our great budget 4wd around Australia, here are 8 unmissable places I’d highly recommend if you’re looking to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
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Where to Stay in Cairns: Travellers Oasis
One of the tourist meccas of Australia, Cairns is the most popular launching point for many people who visit the Great Barrier Reef.
With plenty of boats going every day to the reef, there is a good level of competition if you’re looking to snorkel or dive this most famous of natural wonders.
If you’re not yet experienced in scuba, then Cairns is also a great place to learn, with most of the dive shops offering 5-day PADI Open Water Courses that will get you up to speed and underwater in next to no time.
If you’re already experienced, then longer multi-day liveaboard diving trips are also readily available from Cairns and will allow you to access some of the outer reef and less crowded spots.
#2 Port Douglas
Where to Stay in Port Douglas: Coral Beach Lodge
If you want somewhere quieter than Cairns, why not make the short journey north to the quaint, beach town of Port Douglas. From here, boats going to the Great Barrier Reef are generally less crowded, so you are likely to see more when snorkelling or diving.
Heading out from Port Douglas also means you are able to reach what is known as the Outer Reef, which are the stretches of coral further away from the shoreline. This means they are better preserved and therefore home to a greater range of aquatic life.
Not just for luxury travellers, there’s plenty of accommodation to choose from in Port Douglas, which is a gorgeous little beach town in its own right and comes highly recommended!
#3 Mission Beach
Where to Stay in Mission Beach: Jackaroo Treehouse Mission Beach
Working south from Port Douglas, the awesome little beach town of Mission Beach is another superb stop if you looking to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
Set in the tropics, this long stretch of beach gave me the feeling of being more in Asia, than Australia, with its coconut palms and wooden beach shacks.
As such, it’s a wonderful place to unwind and kick off your shoes for a few days.
Most famous for its skydiving fun, Mission Beach is also home to a few sailing companies that will happily you take you out to the reef for a snorkelling, swimming or fishing adventure.
With incredible weather and stunning natural views, setting off to visit the Great Barrier Reef from Mission Beach is probably hard to beat.
The low key and quiet nature of the place also adds to the feeling of getting away from the crowds and enjoying this spectacular part of nature all to yourself.
#4 Hinchinbrook Island
Set between Mission Beach and Townsville, Hinchinbrook Island looks like something out of Jurassic Park as its huge jungle-covered mountainous mass looms towards you.
This place is the largest National Park Island in the Great Barrier Reef area and is an unmissable place to go hiking or walking if you want to check out views of the reef from the land as well as the sea.
As such, Hinchinbrook Island provides visitors with the opportunity to explore the flora and fauna of the reef region, as well as discover hidden beaches accessible only by your own 2 feet.
It’s full of rich mangrove everglades, primary rainforest and remote campsites that are part of internationally-rated walking trails.
Hiking on Hinchinbrook will also give you the chance to relish in the silence of a place so protected only 40 people at a time are allowed to step foot on it.
Where to Stay in Townsville: Rambutan YHA (read the review here)
Townsville is the perfect place from which to visit the Great Barrier Reef from the air – for it’s really only at this height that you can start to appreciate its immense size and beauty.
Several companies run scenic flight tours out to the reef from Townsville, including helicopter tours, which provide you with a quick and easy way to enjoy this natural wonder.
In particular, Townsville Helicopters grant visitors the opportunity to fly out to, and then actually land on, a sand cay at Wheeler Reef, which is right in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. The opportunity to experience this remote level of beauty is both unique and amazing.
#6 Magnetic Island
Where to Stay on Magnetic Island: Arcadia Beach Guest House
With the reef coming right up to the shore of this gorgeous tropical island, getting access to the Great Barrier Reef’s splendour is easy from Maggie!
Snorkelling is possible right off the beach here and there are 2 designated snorkel trails (1 in Geoffrey Bay and the other at Nelly Bay) that will lead you to sunken shipwrecks and some awesome giant clams!
Boat trips are also easily available and with kayaking, as well as stand-up paddle boarding opportunities, there’s loads of different ways to get your reef fix from Magnetic Island.
Where to Stay at The Whitsundays: Nomads Airlie Beach
If you’re more interested in sailing, rather than scuba diving, when you visit the Great Barrier Reef, then Whitsundays is the spot to head to.
This archipelago of 74 islands is a stunning tropical paradise that offers plenty of opportunities for you to sail, crew or just relax onboard in the beauty of this natural wonder.
With incredible white sand and turquoise waters, it’s no surprise that some of the Whitsunday beaches have repeatedly been voted the world’s best. Sailing here is a great way to enjoy these beaches and the gorgeous islands they belong to, as well explore the reef and its marine life.
You can even camp the Whitsundays and enjoy the beauty of the area overnight if you like. It’s the perfect way for budget travellers to get amongst it!
#8 Agnes Water / 1770
Where to Stay in Agnes Water: Workmans Beach
Located almost at the bottom of the Great Barrier Reef are the gorgeous coastal towns of Agnes Water and 1770.
These twin towns, which sit next to each other, are at the end of a long track off the highway and provide all the relaxed, barefoot atmosphere you’d expect from this sort of location.
As well as beautiful beaches and great surfing opportunities, Agnes Water can also provide those who want to visit the Great Barrier Reef with some great adventure too.
A day trip to the untouched Lady Musgrave Island for example, will give you a unique opportunity to visit this remote part at the southern tip of the reef. Uninhabited, with incredible coral and calm-watered bays, Lady Musgrave is the ideal place for snorkelers and divers to enjoy the abundant marine life here.
We spent 3 days in Agnes and absolutely loved the town, so I definitely recommend making it a stop here even outside of getting your reef fix!
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So those are the 8 unmissable places I’d recommend if you’re looking to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
With tons to explore and experience, there’s no doubt this incredible natural phenomenon should certainly be part of your Australia bucket list.