AUSTRALIA’S Great Barrier Reef is one of the world’s natural wonders, stretching for 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast.
In addition to being the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, this World Heritage Site is also the planet’s largest protected marine area, supporting 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc.
Apart from a vast variety of tropical fish, the reef is also home to whales, dugongs, turtles, reef sharks, dolphins and is an important bird habitat.
For the past 50 years, the Great Barrier Reef has been a magnet for divers, sailors and people who dream of finding their own South Sea paradise. The reef, therefore, has a remarkably well-developed tourist infrastructure. A number of islands, such as Lizard, Bedarra and Hayman, have their own self-contained luxury resorts – others offer little more than a tent and hammock.
The Barrier Reef comprises around 2,800 individual reefs, continental islands, reef islands and sand cays and it would be impossible to cover them all in one trip – or indeed one lifetime. So you have to think carefully about the sort of reef experience you want and plan accordingly. Here’s a steer to the best of what’s out there.
Budget, length of stay and the type of things you’re wanting to do will determine which piece of the reef you visit. The main four destinations (Cairns, Townsville, Port Douglas and Hamilton Island) provide plenty of options for the snorkeller, scuba diver and yachtie, but if you are looking for the ultimate escape, consider one of Queensland’s luxurious resort islands.
Townsville, Cairns and Port Douglas are the main hopping-off points for the reef. Irish visitors should fly to Brisbane and board a connecting flight from there to their preferred destination. There are also regular flights to Hamilton Island, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands.
On a Budget
If you’re happy to rub shoulders with European backpackers, Cairns and Townsville are fun and affordable gateways to the reef.
Regular day trips offer full and half-day snorkelling excursions to nearby Green Island from €60. For something more serious, Pro Dive Cairns provides Learn To Dive, Refresher and Liveaboard multi-day dive trips to the outer reef.
From Townsville there are low-cost trips to Magnetic Island or longer expeditions to celebrated dive sites such as the SS Yongala and Wheeler Reef.
Doing it In Style
Queensland has cornered the market in five-star island getaways. Lizard Island, Bedarra Island, Orpheus Island and Hayman Island all provide that red carpet meets palm tree experience, with high-end accommodation, excellent food and a wide range of tailored outdoor activities – including specially equipped dive boats. For something a little more Robinson Crusoe, consider Haggerstone Island (haggerstoneisland.com) or Wilson Island (wilsonisland.com) – both are remote, undeveloped and utterly sublime.
Going IT ALONE
Outside peak holiday
times, independent travellers should find no problem booking accommodation
and reef tours as they go. Hiring a camper van would be the perfect option if you wanted to explore the back roads and find your dream beach.
Beyond The Reef
The Great Barrier Reef naturally dominates most travel itineraries, but far north Queensland also offers plenty of dry-land distractions. An absolute must is a visit to the prehistoric Daintree National Park — including a side trip to Cape Tribulation where the rainforest meets the reef.