The ultimate guide to the Great Barrier Reef for first time visitors

Weekend escapes to Queensland are Good to Go! Queensland is blessed to have one of the world’s greatest natural wonders located in our backyard but, surprisingly, many are yet to visit the Great Barrier Reef. So, what makes the Great Barrier Reef stand out from the rest? Claiming the title of the largest coral reef system in the world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches over 2,300 kilometres. It is also one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems made up of 600 islands, 3,000 coral reefs, 300 coral cays and millions of marine life. You could spend a lifetime exploring the Great Barrier Reef and you still wouldn’t be able to visit all 344, 400km2 of it.

This iconic reef provides visitors with the opportunity to become a spectator to a mesmerising underwater world taking place in our oceans. But don’t take our word for it, the great Sir David Attenborough has devoted much of his life to documenting the natural wonder and says “it’s the most magical place on Earth”.

If you are looking to visit the Great Barrier Reef for the first time but don’t know where to begin then we’re here to help. Our guide to the Great Barrier Reef will highlight all the top places to visit, things to do in the Great Barrier Reef and more importantly, how you can get there.

Whether you're looking for a long weekend getaway or to stay a little while, the Great Barrier Reef is Good to Go! With flexible booking options to make your journey stress free, and a perfect climate to visit, an extraordinary getaway is waiting for you.

How to get to the Great Barrier Reef

There are multiple gateways to the Great Barrier Reef starting from Bundaberg to the tip of Cape York in Far North Queensland. You can also access the Great Barrier Reef on day trips from Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Your choice of destination in the Great Barrier Reef may depend on flight availability, travel budget and whether you desire to stay in a city or have a quiet coastal retreat. Here are the most popular hubs to base yourself in Queensland as you venture out to the Reef.

Southern Great Barrier Reef

The Southern Great Barrier Reef may be lesser known compared to its neighbours up north but that’s all part of its unique charm. Two jewels of the Great Barrier Reef can be found here and their names are Lady Elliot Island and Lady Musgrave Island. These coral cay islands are remotely placed and largely untouched making them ideal candidates for a Great Barrier reef experience without too many tourists.

Divers will be in absolute heaven at Lady Elliot Island with a huge population of manta rays, turtles, reef sharks and colourful reefs found within metres of the island. Lady Elliot Island is quite remote and completely surrounded by coral so the only way to travel to the island is by air and the scenic Great Barrier Reef flight to reach the island is often the highlight of those who visit. Day trips with return flights, snorkelling and a glass bottom boat tour are available from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. A day tour to Lady Elliot Island is a once in a lifetime experience you won’t find elsewhere on the Great Barrier Reef.

Lady Musgrave Island

The second coral cay you may wish to visit is Lady Musgrave Island. The island is set upon 3,000 acres of living reef and is protected by a crystal clear lagoon, perfect for snorkelling. Day cruises are available from Bundaberg and Town of 1770 daily with a buffet lunch, snorkelling equipment and a guided island walk included in the Great Barrier Reef cruise. Divers are well catered for also if you wish to take part in an introductory or certified scuba dive.

Regional airlines service the Bundaberg and Fraser Coast Airport, however, the journey by road is just as scenic, taking approximately 4.5 hours drive from Brisbane.

The Whitsundays

If you are looking for a tropical getaway staying at an island resort, then the Whitsundays is the place to be. The Whitsundays are famously known for its collection of 74 islands including the picturesque Whitehaven Beach. Guests can choose to stay on the mainland at Airlie Beach where a wide variety of activities and Great Barrier Reef cruises are available or stay at tropical island resorts on Daydream Island, Hamilton Island or Hayman Island.

To arrive at The Whitsundays you can fly into Proserpine and drive 30 minutes to the seaside town of Airlie Beach or fly directly to Hamilton Island Airport. From here, inter-island transfers are available to whisk you off to the islands or to Airlie Beach.

The benefit of staying in Airlie Beach are the huge choice of accommodation providers, services, restaurants and tour operators to choose from which will help you keep the costs down and stick to a budget. Alternatively, you can opt for a stay at a tropical island resort with all amenities and Great Barrier Reef day tours easily accessible in one convenient location.


Cairns is the main hub for visitors wishing to explore the Great Barrier Reef. The city welcomes arrivals at the domestic and international airport and hosts dozens of hotel chains.

Not only does a stay in Cairns offer visitors a variety of things to do in the Great Barrier Reef but the city is ideally located near the world heritage listed Daintree Rainforest and Cape Tribulation making it a popular destination for families looking to experience multiple attractions in one holiday.

Cairns is serviced by all major airlines including Qantas and Virgin Australia with regular services throughout the day so you should have no trouble finding a competitively priced airfare.

Port Douglas

Port Douglas, one hour’s drive from Cairns is the epitome of a tropical paradise dotted with relaxing resorts and calm beaches to while away the days. The Crystalbrook Superyacht Marina is centrally located in Port Douglas with Great Barrier Reef full day and half day tours departing here daily.

Things to do on the Great Barrier Reef

The highlight of all visits to North Queensland are Great Barrier Reef day tours and you may find yourself overwhelmed with choice. There certainly are a lot of reef cruises to choose from but how do you know which one is best for your family or travel group, particularly, if you have some who are non-swimmers while others are keen divers. It is possible to find a Great Barrier cruise with activities to suit everyone, whether it be a reef cruise, island cruise or a tour to the Outer Great Barrier Reef pontoon.

Types of Great Barrier Reef cruises

Great Barrier Reef day tours

Great Barrier Reef day tours are the perfect way to experience the world’s largest coral reef with transport, meals and activities all taken care of so you can sit back, relax and enjoy the journey. When deciding which Great Barrier Reef tour is the right one for you, first consider whether you prefer a cruise that visits multiple coral reef locations in a day or a tour with a diverse itinerary visiting an island or coral cay.

Reef cruises provide passengers with the opportunity to jump in the water for a snorkel or dive experience bringing you face to face with a dazzling array of marine life and vibrant coral reefs. If you’ve ever been curious about the world of scuba diving then the Great Barrier Reef is a wonderful place to try it for the first time. Introductory scuba diving experiences are available on most vessels and experienced dive experts will take you by the hand, leading you on an unforgettable first dive on the Great Barrier Reef.

Great Barrier Reef Island tours

From Cairns

The Great Barrier Reef has thousands of beautiful islands and coral reefs and the beauty of these tours is that you can get off the boat and stretch your legs or try other non-water based activities. Departing from Cairns, Green Island tours will take you to see the one of a kind coral cay with a rainforest walk through the middle of the island. The island is also surrounded by coral reef so you choose to jump in the water for a snorkel or keep the feet dry and join a glass bottom boat tour. Don’t forget to stop by and say hello to Cassius, the world’s largest crocodile at the Marineland Melanesia.

Fitzroy Island

Fitzroy Island offers the best of both worlds for snorkelers and non-swimmers. In just 60 minutes, the Fitzroy Island ferry will have you on a remote tropical island where a number of water and land based activities are available. Choose from snorkelling from the beach, kayaking or a glass bottom boat tour. Fitzroy Island also has a number of short nature walks you can take to help you explore the island further. One such short walk we recommend is the Nudey Beach trail to see the spectacular beach. Don’t worry, it’s not actually a nude beach.

And, when you get peckish, the Foxy’s Bar is the perfect place for a snack or cocktail with views overlooking the stunning crystal clear waters.

Michaelmas Cay

Michaelmas Cay is a small, low lying cay on the Great Barrier Reef that acts as a safe habitat for migratory birds. If you wish to see this secluded cay plus take part in some snorkelling, diving and sailing then have a look at this Michaelmas Cay Sailing Cruise.

From The Whitsundays

The most famous Great Barrier Reef island of them all is Whitsunday Island, home to Whitehaven Beach. Picture strolling along soft silica sands and swimming in crystal clear waters here. A visit to Whitehaven Beach is a must-do experience when in The Whitsundays and there is plenty of choice with sailing tours, ocean rafting tours and catamarans delivering you to this corner of paradise.

Outer Great Barrier Reef pontoon tours

If you are a non-swimmer but still want to experience the Great Barrier Reef then we suggest booking Outer Great Barrier Reef pontoon tours departing from The Whitsundays, Cairns or Port Douglas.

It takes approximately two hours to cruise to the Outer Great Barrier Reef where activity pontoons are moored. From here, passengers will be able to go snorkelling or join a guided introductory or certified scuba dive. There are plenty of ways non-swimmers can experience the Great Barrier Reef too with an underwater observatory and glass bottom boat tours giving guests a sneak peek under the water without getting the feet wet. Additional services such as massages, sea helmets or scenic helicopter flights may also be available depending on which Great Barrier Reef Pontoon cruise that you book.

With return transfers, snorkelling, diving opportunities and a tropical lunch included, it’s hard to look past a Great Barrier Reef pontoon cruise with activities to suit every person in your travel group.

For more information about Great Barrier Reef tours, you can view our range of experiences from Cairns, Port Douglas, The Whitsundays and the Southern Great Barrier Reef here with tours and activities to suit each and every budget.

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