The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Australia: Stuart Rigg of Southern Crossings.
Stuart, a native Brit based in Sydney, plans tailor-made travel to Australia, covering the length and breadth of the continent. He has personally tested nearly every property, heli-tour, yacht charter, and waterfront restaurant that he recommends. Stuart has the pull to arrange access to private homes, golf courses, and art collections, but his itineraries aren’t just for high flyers. He can work with a range of budgets, offering careful guidance on everything from self-drive itineraries through the Margaret River wine region to sailing trips around the Whitsundays. As for the Great Barrier Reef, Stuart has failsafe strategies for steering clear of the masses, and he knows exactly which island properties are best for hyperactive families, spa-loving hedonists, or Robinson Crusoe fantasists. If you’d like to combine Australia with New Zealand, his Auckland team will take good care of you. He does not arrange airline travel to Australia, so if you’re looking for a complete package including airfare, write to Ask Wendy.
Where to Stay and Eat
Resort worth the splurge
Qualia is an award-winning luxury resort situated on the quiet northern tip of Hamilton Island (easily accessible from Australia’s major cities), surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef. There’s a serene spa, two excellent restaurants, and an 18-hole championship golf course; each of the 60 private pavilions—some with plunge pools—has its own golf cart for exploring the resort’s 30 acres. With a staff-to-guest ratio of 1:1, everything has been meticulously considered to relax the mind, yet completely spoil the senses. Guests can go bushwalking, dive or snorkel along the reef, or take scenic helicopter flights. Travel between February 1 and March 31 or between May 1 and August 31 and your fourth night is complimentary.
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
On a busier part of Hamilton Island and at a somewhat lower price point (but still with impeccable service), the beachfront, just-refurbished Beach Club offers a fifth consecutive night free. Use of catamarans, paddleboards, windsurfers, and snorkeling equipment is included in the rates. Both hotels welcome adults only, so are ideal for a romantic getaway.
Best resort for romance
Staying on secluded Orpheus Island, a high-end private resort, is almost worth it just for its signature dining experience, Dining with the Tides: a romantic, private dinner on a small pier, under the southern stars and overlooking the coral sea. This is included in your stay.
When you want to be alone
Haggerstone Island: Remote and unspoiled, this island resort 375 miles north of Cairns offers an extraordinary Great Barrier Reef experience. The accommodation is rustic, cuisine consists of fresh local produce, and with just a handful of guests at any time, activities include skin-diving, snorkeling, fishing, reef trips, bushwalking, and beachcombing. The island is a haven for green turtles and an impressive collection of birdlife, while the waters teem with tropical fish and coral gardens. Pristine and peaceful, little-known Haggerstone Island is one of the hidden jewels of the reef.
Restaurants the locals love
On the Inlet appeals to both locals and visitors in Port Douglas, given its overwater location and fresh seafood. Famous for its Queensland mud crab (you can select your own from the live tanks), this no-frills eatery is open for lunch and dinner. A 550-pound grouper comes to feed at 5 p.m. most days.
On Hamilton Island, Coca Chu showcases fresh local produce and Australia’s multicultural dining influences with a menu of shared plates incorporating the flavors of Southeast Asia. Nestled in tranquil tropical gardens overlooking Catseye Beach, the restaurant exudes a relaxed atmosphere.
Salsa Bar & Grill: Also in Port Douglas, this modern restaurant with a tropical feel is a favorite of younger locals, given its terrific food, good prices, live music, and excellent service.
Don’t miss out on local coral trout, a sought-after reef fish with fine white flakes and a very delicate flavor. It can be served baked, steamed, poached, or grilled, but I particularly enjoy the pan-fried offering at On the Inlet in Port Douglas.
What to See and Do
Lady Elliott Island is often overlooked, given its southernmost location on the Great Barrier Reef. This 100-acre coral cay offers great reef walks and snorkeling and diving opportunities; the corals and the marine and bird life are excellent. In fact, the island lies within a highly protected green zone with remarkable biodiversity. There is a moderately priced, 40-room eco-resort on the island, or you can visit for the day from Bundaberg, Hervey Bay, or even Brisbane.
Cairns is widely considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is a commercial hub and is particularly popular with backpackers due to the range of inexpensive accommodations, eateries, bars, and clubs. Cairns has a man-made lagoon but no beach and is home to the popular—though commercialized—Aboriginal Cultural Park. A nicer option is Port Douglas: One hour’s drive north of Cairns, this lovely seaside town has a wonderful four-mile beach, great shopping, and a good selection of restaurants. Plus, the World Heritage–listed Daintree National Park is just to the north.
Whitehaven Beach on uninhabited Whitsunday Island. There are many superlatives that can describe this nearly four-mile stretch of pure white silica sand; the forested foreshore is beautiful, and the beach offers excellent, child-friendly swimming. But to my mind, nothing beats taking a good book and simply chilling out.
Offering great value, the Reefsleep package includes two days of snorkeling, diving, and swimming at the Great Barrier Reef with the unique opportunity to sleep under the stars on a permanently moored pontoon. From early afternoon, just the 12 overnight guests have the pontoon to themselves, enjoying the solitude and tranquillity of the Great Barrier Reef as the underwater world comes to life and stars appear in the evening sky. A barbecue dinner is served before guests retire to a swag (bedroll) on the deck; one double room is also available.
Bypass the throng of dive boats and take a private cruise from Port Douglas to Lizard Island aboard a 90-foot yacht designed by American naval architect Jack Hargrave. We can book the yacht charter and make sure you dive at the more secluded parts of the reef, enjoy a fabulous lunch aboard the boat, and laze around the gorgeous empty beaches of Lizard Island before taking a prop plane back to Cairns.
I particularly like a book produced by the Queensland Museum, titled The Great Barrier Reef. Dedicated to “the world’s last great wilderness,” this 440-page coffee-table book contains 1,300 beautiful images and illustrations.
May through October sees clear blue skies and generally good visibility for divers and snorkelers (though wind can occur from April through July, reducing underwater visibility on or near the shore and making a trip out to the reef somewhat rougher). The Southern Hemisphere’s winter months (June through August) are also the best time to view wildlife: dwarf minke whales visiting the northern reefs, manta rays off Lady Island Elliott in the southern zones, and humpbacks on their annual migration to Antarctica. It should be noted that winter water temperatures are somewhat cooler, particularly in the southern areas of the reef.
December through April is the “green” season, which can include oppressive heat and abundant rainfall. Tropical storms can occur during this period. This also coincides with the jellyfish season; stingers are largely coastal and therefore not generally found out on the reef, however they sometimes congregate around islands close to the mainland. All mainland Queensland beaches north of Gladstone can attract jellyfish; the farther north, the more prevalent they are. Most popular beaches in areas prone to stingers have stinger-resistant enclosures for swimmers. Reef operators normally supply wet suits to reduce the risk of stings.
Assuming that the Great Barrier Reef is a single destination. In fact, it is the largest living structure on the planet, stretching for more than 1,200 miles and made up of approximately 2,800 individual reefs, islands, and sand cays. Accordingly, it’s vital to think carefully about the type of reef experience you seek; this could involve a stay on a reef island or coral cay, a mainland-based experience with day visits to the reef by sea or air, a cruise, a yacht charter, or maybe a live-aboard dive vessel.
For those who want to see it all, a new Great Barrier Reef flightseeing adventure takes in iconic reef experiences from Green Island in the north to Fraser Island in the south in just six days. The itinerary incorporates spectacular low-level scenic flights over the reef, outer reef cruises, snorkeling excursions over colorful coral gardens, a cruise to stunning Whitehaven Beach, and a visit to the world’s largest living reef aquarium and turtle hospital.
The reef day-trips that are offered from the mainland—particularly Cairns—are of wildly varying quality. Many of these trips might appear to offer great value until you discover that much of your time will be spent travelling to and from a site on the reef where you are snorkeling with hundreds of other people among average corals and marine life. Moreover, there can be additional charges for elements such as an “introductory dive”—one that requires no prior experience—which might bring you to a shallow area with only average sea life. Book through a reputable company (like Southern Crossings!) to get the most out of your time on the reef.
Employees in Australia do not depend on gratuities for their income, nor are service charges routinely added; however, a tip of up to 10 percent in recognition of excellent service has become common in the better restaurants. Tip tour guides or concierges only when service has been exceptional. Taxi drivers and hotel porters appreciate a small tip but no more than that.
Water shoes for beach and reef walks: Corals can be sharp, and cuts can get infected quickly and severely.
It’s important that divers bring their dive certification card (and ideally, log books), as it’s not always possible for dive operators to check certification online.
While sunscreen is a must in Australia, it is harmful to the reef itself—wearing a wetsuit or a lycra suit while snorkeling is the better option.