When someone mentions The Great Barrier Reef, what immediately comes to mind? Hamilton Island, Whitehaven beach, expensive resorts? Well, there’s another side to the reef and Tropical North Queensland just waiting to be explored.
How about enjoying an island paradise from as little as 35 bucks a night? Or seeing the reef like you’ve never seen it before, with a marine biologist.
We’ve compiled an itinerary that lets you experience The Great Barrier Reef – but not as you know it.
Part 1: Cairns
Why not start with a dive… from 14,000 feet!
Skydive Cairns have been helping people jump out of their comfort zones for over 30 years. You can choose to take in the views of the Great Barrier Reef from a few spots along the coast – like Cairns, Mission Beach or Airlie Beach.
From up high it’s easy to see why they say that “this is where the rainforest meets the reef”.
Our Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef in the World, measuring 2600km in length and 72 kilometres across at its widest point. That’s roughly the same size as Germany or Japan.
A skydive is certainly one way to take in the views and something that everyone should put on their bucket-list.
When it comes to bucket list experiences Cairns turns it on!
It’s the adventure capital of Tropical North QLD and of course it’s also the gateway to The Great Barrier Reef. The best place to base yourself to take in all the action is at the Cairns Marina.
We recommend checking into Cairns Harbour Lights which is right on the water. The rooms take in fabulous views of the Harbour and neighbouring islands. The apartments are self-contained which make them perfect for families or extended stays.
While you could easily stay in, the Marina has a smorgasbord of dining options. The Cairns dining scene dishes up a few surprises and The Prawn Star (gotta love the name) is a real locals secret. It’s a vintage trawler that serves up the local catch of the day right from the back of the boat. The adorable little vessel is moored at the Cairns Marina. You can grab takeaway, or dine in and enjoy the down to earth vibe and all day $5 happy hour.
Part 2: The Great Barrier Reef
You can’t visit The Great Barrier Reef without staying on one of the many beautiful islands. But forget everything you think you know about an island getaway. What if we promised you a tropical paradise with no long travel time, no big bills and no crowds?!
Yes, such a place does exist. Surrounded by coral reef and covered by national park – it’s one of the most unspoiled islands on the Great Barrier Reef.
While the island is a natural gem, it also offers a bounty of activities – from kayaking & snorkelling off pristine beaches, gorgeous resort facilities, to its very own turtle rehabilitation centre.
Now we bet you’re dying to know where it is….
Fitzroy Island is just a 45 minute fast-cat ride from Cairns. They say it’s the Great Barrier Reef’s best kept secret.The island is 95% national park and offers 5 walking tracks for visitors to enjoy. The Lighthouse Summit track is the longest at 4 kilometers, or 2 hours return, and the views at the summit are well worth the effort.
Another spot on the island worth visiting is Nudey Beach. Don’t worry, everyone here is fully clothed – it was actually named after Captain Nudey and it’s the best spot on the island for a snorkel right off the beach. It’s also made it on the list of top ten most beautiful beaches in Australia.
The resort also offers a very special experience, that lets visitors get up close with a few of the Island’s locals. The Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre is a volunteer organisation that cares for and rehabilitates sick and injured turtles from all over the reef. The centre offers daily tours to educate visitors about the plight of the turtle.
The resort has so many unique experiences for visitors, and a holiday here doesn’t come with the expected island price tag. A stay in one of the 99 rooms starts an affordable $140 a night. Or you can pitch a tent at the beachfront campsite for just 35 bucks a night.
When it comes to the end of the day, Foxy’s bar is the place to be. You can enjoy a bite and a cocktail while taking in the surroundings.
Come nightfall, Zeffa’s restaurant dishes up the fresh catch of the day, and the meals are just as spectacular as the views.
Part 3: Cultural Experience
The blue waters of tropical north Queensland have attracted visitors for generations. But long before tourism, these waters were the lifeblood of communities, and they have been for thousands of years.
Linc Walker has a deep connection with the land and sea at Cooya Beach, 15 minutes north of Port Douglas. It’s the traditional fishing beach of the Kuku Yalanji people and Linc, along with his brother Brandon, are passionate about sharing their culture with visitors through their Kuku Yalanji Habitat Tours.
The tours introduce visitors to the traditional fishing and gathering methods the family still practice today – like spear throwing and tracking. Linc’s incredible knowledge of the area and tracking skills have been passed down from his forefathers and he shares them with visitors on the tour.
The two hour tour takes visitors through the different ecosystems – from the beach and mudflats to the mangroves. It’s an incredible cultural experience and a privilege to walk alongside Linc in the footsteps of his ancestors.
Part 4: The Great Barrier Reef – Like You’ve Never Seen It Before
It’s one of the world’s most remarkable natural wonders. The largest living structure on the planet. The Great Barrier Reef spans two thirds of Queensland’s coastline, making it larger than the Great Wall of China and the only living thing that can be seen from space.
While it’s impressive from above, there’s another out-of-this-world experience waiting below.
Diving or snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef is a must-do experience, and from Cairns it’s as easy as jumping on one of the many tour boats, like Tusa Dive, which whisk visitors out to the reef daily. It’s incredible to see this underwater world for yourself, but if you really want to go below the surface, you can now join a marine biologist on a guided expedition.
Gareth Philips runs Reef Teach in Cairns and started these guided dive and snorkel trips to give visitors a greater appreciation of the reef. Not only does Gareth point out creatures that you may have swam right past, but he really helps put things into perspective. Gareth’s knowledge is as vast as the reef itself and he has a fascinating way of explaining how this complicated ecosystem came to be…to find out, you’ll have to join his tour!
Skydive Cairns, Skydive Mission Beach, Skydive Airlie Beach
1300 663 634
Cairns Harbour Lights
36 Grafton Street, Cairns
The Prawn Star
Marlin Marina Cairns City Centre
0456 421 172
Prawn Star on Facebook
Fitzroy Island Resort
Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre
Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours – Cooya Beach
Mainstreet Arcade, Lake & Grafton Street
Special thanks to Stuart Ireland from Calypso Productions for the amazing underwater footage, calypsoproductions.com.au