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Great Barrier Reef, Australia: Insider’s Guide

by Stuart Rigg | February 16, 2019

The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Australia: Stuart Rigg of Southern Crossings.

Trusted Travel Expert
Stuart Rigg

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.

Travel arrangements start at $750 per day for two travelers.

Where to Stay and Eat

rustic beach bungalow overwater suite at Haggerstone Island resort at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia

At the remote Haggerstone Island resort at the Great Barrier Reef, five rustic beachfront villas accommodate just 12 guests. Photo: Haggerstone Island

Resort worth the splurge
Lizard Island is one of Australia’s most celebrated lodge-style resorts, and your arrival there comes via a very scenic one-hour flight from Cairns over the turquoise waters and reefs. Since the resort is located directly on the Great Barrier Reef, guests can snorkel amongst pristine corals right off the beach (of course, diving and fishing trips to secluded cays and atolls further afield can also be arranged using the resort’s launch). There are 40 beautifully appointed suites and villas, many with direct beach access or their own plunge pools; splurge on a Beachfront Suite and you’ll be mere steps from the reef. There is a well-equipped gym, floodlit tennis court, freshwater swimming pool, an indulgent day spa, and a range of water-sports gear (including stand-up paddle boards, motorized dinghies, glass-bottom sea kayaks, and snorkeling equipment). In addition, guests can tour the Lizard Island Research Station, which is owned and operated by the Australian Museum and offers fascinating insights into the reef’s ecology.

underwater photo of a Green Turtle swimming off the cost of Lady Elliot Island, Queensland Australia

Snorkel with sea life in Queensland. Photo: Tourism and Events Queensland

Best bang-for-your-buck experience
A Coral Expeditions cruise of the northern reefs offers superb value for money. The four-night itinerary on this 22-cabin vessel takes in some of the world’s most remote and pristine reefs (including the rarely visited Ribbon Reefs), a full day on Lizard Island, and a visit to historic Cooktown. Away from the crowds of countless day-trippers, the ship’s passengers have the opportunity to snorkel with spectacular tropical fish, glide over colorful coral gardens in a glass-bottom boat, stroll golden sandy beaches, and explore lush rainforest trails.

Sunset dining at the Qualia resort at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia

Sunset dining at the Qualia resort at the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Qualia

Best resort for romance
On a private headland at the northern end of Hamilton Island, overlooking the Coral Sea and the Whitsunday Islands, Qualia is a sophisticated, adults-only romantic retreat. Each of the 60 light-filled private villas is meticulously designed for relaxation and indulgence. We can kick-start the romance with private beach picnics, in-villa dining, couples spa treatments, and champagne sunsets. There’s a day spa, gym, library, two restaurants, and two swimming pools nestled within the resort’s lush tropical bushlands, and guests have access to a number of private beaches, a range of watersports (including the resort’s luxury motor yacht), the neighboring Dent Island golf course, and use of a golf cart (the island’s main mode of transport). The Windward Pavilions have private plunge pools; my pick is Pavilion 23, which is the most private and has uninterrupted panoramic views out over the Coral Sea.

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 five rustic beachfront villas accommodate just 12 guests, for whom meals are prepared from locally grown produce and freshly caught seafood; activities include skin-diving, snorkeling, fishing, 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
Head to Barbados, on the boardwalk at the Port Douglas Marina, for sundowner cocktails, a local craft beer, or a glass of Australian wine and a casual bite to eat—think salads, pizzas, and shared plates—overlooking Dickson’s Inlet.

Bury your toes in the sandy floor at The Beach Shack, also in Port Douglas. Enjoy a crisp salad, gourmet pizza, fresh fish and chips, or a local Tablelands steak, or join the locals around the pool table in the bar area.

Coca Chu is nestled in tranquil tropical gardens overlooking Catseye Beach on Hamilton Island. The restaurant exudes a relaxed holiday atmosphere, and the menu of shared plates showcases fresh local produce and Southeast Asian flavors.

Must-have dish
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

aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef from an airplane

Reef, you have to see it from above. Photo: Tourism Whitsundays

Don’t miss
To really appreciate the scale and spectacular natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, you have to see it from above. This is the world’s largest coral reef system, and it covers an area larger than the entire state of New Mexico. There are a wide range of helicopter, fixed-wing, and seaplane scenic flights available from Port Douglas, Cairns, Airlie Beach, Hamilton Island, and even Brisbane.

Don’t bother
Cairns is widely considered the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. This tropical north Queensland town 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; head a little farther north to Palm Cove or Port Douglas to enjoy palm-fringed beaches, some of the region’s best restaurants, and a more relaxed atmosphere.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland.

Whitehaven Beach, Whitsunday Island, Queensland. Photo courtesy Tourism Australia.

Best beach
Whitehaven Beach on the 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. Consistently voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Whitehaven attracts great numbers of visitors—so to enjoy it at its unspoiled best, charter a yacht and stay the night or fly in before the day-trippers arrive.

Cheap thrill
Head to the Port Douglas Yacht Club on a Wednesday afternoon for a sunset sail crewing aboard a local yacht. While the club’s generous members offer their time and yachts, participants are encouraged to return to the club for dinner and a few drinks—another great opportunity to mingle with locals and pick up a few insider tips.

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Best Time to Go

May through October sees warm, sunny days with clear visibility for divers and snorkelers. Although the winds can get up from May through July—reducing underwater visibility on or near the shore and making a trip out to the reef somewhat rougher—these are also some of the best months for whale watching: swimming and snorkeling with dwarf minke whales on the northern Ribbon Reefs or cruising with humpbacks on their annual migration.

Worst Time to Go

December through April is the “green” season, characterized by hot, humid days and higher rainfall. Tropical storms may occur during these months, which also coincide with jellyfish season. Stingers are largely coastal and therefore not generally found on the reef, but they sometimes congregate around islands close to the mainland. Most popular mainland beaches north of Gladstone have stinger-resistant enclosures for swimmers. Reef operators normally supply wet suits to reduce the risk of stings.

That said, this time of year is when you can witness coral spawning and see turtle hatchlings; if you go, head to Heron or Lady Elliot islands at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, which enjoy more comfortable summer temperatures.

Bragging Rights

Take a scenic helicopter flight to a remote coral cay, where you can enjoy a private picnic surrounded by nothing but miles upon miles of turquoise waters and millions of brightly colored fish.

Biggest Rookie Mistake

Assuming that the Great Barrier Reef is a single destination. In fact, it is the largest living structure on the planet, stretching for over 1,200 miles and made up of more than 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. Accordingly, it’s vital to think carefully about the type of reef experience you seek; this could involve a stay on a reef island, a mainland-based experience with day visits to the reef by sea or air, a multi-day cruise, a yacht charter, or maybe a live-aboard dive vessel.

 

The souvenir

The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has partnered with several companies that sell reef-inspired goods, from silk scarves and swimwear to stylish beach bags and cushion covers. A portion of the profits from these products goes toward the foundation’s conservation efforts.

Word of Warning

The Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a protected marine national park. Visitors must not touch or collect any of the coral and are strongly encouraged not to purchase any coral souvenirs. Before you book anything, ask the outfitter about their responsible tourism policy.

Tipping Tips

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.

Don’t Forget to Pack

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.

Reviews

The highlight of the trip was…

Sheila and Jeff Davis | July 17, 2019

"Hotels we NEVER would have found…"

Judith Goodman | May 10, 2019

Amazing perspective of the city…

Sandra Southwick | March 24, 2019
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