It’s where rainforest descends toward the sea, divers meet reef, and backpackers get acquainted with countless bars bustling with business. It’s Tropical North Queensland, where travellers play in bath-like water and on the palm-fringed islands. The mai tais and white beaches are great reasons to visit, but the main lure is the largest coral reef in the world, the Great Barrier Reef. Sprawling for more than 2,300 kilometres, from Haggerstone Island in the north to Heron Island in the south, visiting “the reef” can be overwhelming. So we’ve made your research a little easier, with our list of the best experiences for soft and hardcore adventurers. Put these on your itinerary:
The Whitsunday Islands, in the southern Great Barrier Reef, is the go-to place for novice sailors, but the archipelago’s popularity is reason enough for us to steer you elsewhere. Hire a yacht from Townsville instead, and head to the beautiful Magnetic Island, known as Maggie to locals. You can sign up for a lunch-time or sunset cruise departing the island, or, for those wanting a more hands-on experience, head there for Magnetic Island Race Week, every winter. This year, the event runs from August 31 to September 6.
Harness the wind with Pilgrim Sailing on its 58-foot luxury sailing yacht.
Giant gropers, rays, sea snakes, turtles and giant trevally may be the star residents of the reef, but up the adrenaline factor by diving a wreck instead. The most infamous is S.S. Yongala, which shot to notoriety when American honeymooner Tina Watson died there in 2003. Her husband, Gabe Watson, was initially charged with her murder, but the charge was later downgraded to manslaughter with a guilty plea. It was a case that gripped Australian media, but that was 14 years ago and there are plenty of other reasons this former ocean steaming vessel is worth your time. Firstly, it’s in top condition, despite sinking in a cyclone in 1911. It’s also 107 metres long and resting 30 metres below the water’s surface, making it an advanced dive.
Gear up with PADI dive resort Yongala Dive, about 90 minutes south of Townsville.
OK, so you’re not on the reef itself but you are only a few metres above it, sleeping on a floating pontoon in the stunning Whitsunday Islands. Escape the nightlife of Airlie Beach and head 40 nautical miles offshore to Hardy Reef, where you can watch the sun set over the Outer Great Barrier Reef, before curling up in a swag, getting all dreamy-eyed by the sight of the Milky Way, and falling asleep to the sound of water lapping against the pontoon. In the morning, you’ll have the Whitsundays all to yourself, so take advantage of a post-breakfast snorkel before returning to shore.
Have sweet dreams with Cruise Whitsundays.
If you love gliding across glassy, aqua water, grab your kite gear and head to stunning Lizard Island, north of Cooktown. A 1000-hectare national park with 24 sand beaches, kiting isn’t the only reason to visit. But with consistent south-easterly winds most of the year, it’s a flat-water kiteboarder’s dream location. The island is in the line of the trade winds and the best time to make the most of them is over winter, with 20- to 30-knot conditions common.
Get there with East Air from Cairns Airport.
Every winter, adventurers can get up close to dwarf minke whales when they visit the northern reaches of the GBR. Australia is the only country where tourists can go snorkelling and diving with these beautiful ocean giants, making the experience extra special. Most of the whales are seen in June and July around the remote Ribbon Reefs, and there are limited operators with access to this special location. Expect the whales to come within a few metres of you, so have your camera ready.
Head underwater with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions on a three- to seven-day live-aboard expedition.