Mark Chipperfield, The Daily Telegraph, June 28, 2013
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a place that generates superlatives – but instantly transcends them. Rated as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, it stretches for 2,300 kilometres (1,430 miles) along the Queensland coast – from Bundaberg to the Torres Strait.
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 phantasmagoria 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.
While marketed as a single destination, the Great Barrier Reef is in fact a big cluster of distinct experiences, which range from the joyful (though a tad full-on) hedonism of Cairns and Port Douglas to the wonders of diving on the pristine outer reef. Despite its remoteness, Queensland’s far north still caters for those on a modest budget, as well as jet-setters who want to charter a private yacht in the Whitsundays.
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 a single trip – or indeed a single 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. British visitors should fly direct 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. Cathay Pacific ( cathaypacific.com ), Singapore Airlines ( singaporeair.com ), Qantas ( qantas.com.au ) and British Airways ( ba.com ) all operate flights from Heathrow to Brisbane; flying time is about 27 hours. Return economy flights from £1,144.
When to Travel
Queensland is promoted as a year-round destination, but it is at its best during the southern winter (June to August). Ocean temperatures are a pleasant 70F and the days are clear and sunny. In the tropics, there are two seasons: the wet and the dry. The wettest part of the year is from January to March, when the weather can be uncomfortable; this is also the cyclone season. Avoid Australian school holidays when accommodation and tours are heavily booked – especially during the long summer (November-February) vacation.
Marine stingers are a big problem between November and March, especially when swimming from mainland beaches. Stinger suits need to be worn during this period.
Packages from the UK
A number of British-based operators offer trips to Australia that would include time at the Great Barrier Reef. Check the following: Travelbag (0871 703 4698; travelbag.co.uk ), The Lotus Group (0844 822 5222; lotusgroup.co.uk/businesstravel.aspx ), Austravel (0800 988 4834; austravel.com ), Scott Dunn (0203 468 5063; scottdunn.com ), Kuoni (01306 744304; kuoni.co.uk ) and STA Travel (0800 988 0390; statravel.co.uk ).
On a Budget
If you’re happy to rub shoulders with European backpackers, Cairns and Townsville are fun and affordable gateways to the reef. You can pick up a day trip with Big Cat Green Island Reef Cruises (0061 7 4051 0444; greenisland.com.au ), which offers full and half-day snorkelling excursions to nearby Green Island from A$84 (£51). For something more serious, Pro Dive Cairns (7 4031 5255; prodivecairns.com ) provides Learn To Dive, Refresher and “Liveaboard” multi-day dive trips to the outer reef. Introductory dives cost from A$125 (£76).
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. Adrenalin Dive (7 4724 0600; adrenalindive.com.au ) offers a full day of diving on the Yongala for A$226 (£137).
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.
Respected inbound operator Outback Encounter (8 8354 4405; outbackencounter.com ) and Wilderness Australia (2 9571 6677; wildernessaustralia.com.au ) can both design the perfect itinerary for you, including island stays, transfers, yacht charters, private wilderness guides and scuba diving on remote parts of the reef.
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. Britz (toll-free 00800 2008 0801; britz.com.au ) has a wide range of vehicles available – six-day rentals cost from A$528 (£321). Britz has branches in Brisbane and Cairns.
Where to stay, eat and drink
Silky Oaks Lodge, Daintree
Ever wanted to sleep in a tree house? Surrounded by an ancient rainforest and within striking distance of the Daintree National Park and the Great Barrier Reef, this boutique property (just 39 private suites, river houses and tree houses) offers oodles of tranquillity, a world-class spa, brilliant cuisine and plenty of eco-friendly activities. Double rooms from £304; silkyoakslodge.com.au .
On the Inlet, Port Douglas
Located on an old wharf, this well-established seafood restaurant couldn’t get much closer to the water; it even has a resident giant groper fish that visits every evening. Nothing too sophisticated, but great value for money – try the local mud crabs, freshly shucked oysters or pan-fried coral trout. See portdouglasseafood.com .
The Brewery, Townsville
Apart from producing a range of small-batch lagers, ales and stouts, The Brewery, in Townsville’s historic post office building, is a great place to hang out, play a game of pool and meet the locals – the food offerings range from el cheapo bar snacks to formal restaurant fare. See townsvillebrewery.com.au .
Beyond The Reef
Such is its size and rampant beauty that 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. Trek North Tours (7 4041 4333; treknorth.com.au ) in Cairns offers small group tours to the Daintree and Cape Tribulation, including a river cruise and guided walks, for A$170 (£103) per person. Similar tours are available from Port Douglas.
Inland from Cairns is the Atherton Tableland, where you can buy organic teas, plantation coffee and all manner of tropical nuts and fruits. Birdwatchers will want to visit the magnificent Mareeba Wetlands. Jabiru Safari Lodge (7 4093 2514; jabirusafarilodge.com.au ) offers daily wildlife safaris using small boats and 4WD vehicles. Its four-day Reef, Rainforest and Outback Experience costs A$820 (£498) per person and offers a taste of the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree and the Mareeba Wetlands.
Before You Go
Give yourself a flavour of what’s ahead by immersing yourself in some literature on the reef. First published in 1908, EJ Banfield’s The Confessions of a Beachcomber (Hardpress, £20.95) is a classic tale of one man’s survival on a tropical island. The book is set on Dunk Island. The Great Barrier Reef (£25) is the companion book to the BBC Earth television program — now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Lonely Planet’s Queensland & the Great Barrier Reef (£14.99) is the standard travel guide, while European impact on the reef is chronicled in The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage (Cambridge University Press, £27.99).
Earlier this month, Unesco gave the Australian government one year to limit mining and infrastructure projects near the reef or risk having the Great Barrier Reef stripped of the World Heritage status it has enjoyed since 1981.
Scientists are becoming alarmed by the declining health of the reef, caused by a mixture of coral bleaching, cyclones, attacks by crown of thorns starfish and rapid coastal development and giant freighters carrying Queensland coal and LNG to Asia. The Australian and Queensland governments have pledged to impose tough new restrictions on commercial development near the reef.
What to Take/Pack
Lots of sunblock (with a high protection factor): pale-skinned visitors from the northern hemisphere always underestimate the strength of the Australian sun and the fact that the risk of sunburn is magnified on the ocean.
Floppy hats and loose-fitting T-shirts.
Underwater camera – even a disposable one will earn its keep on the reef.
Footwear suitable for walking on jagged coral.
Tropical-strength mosquito repellent for the rainforest.
PADI scuba diving certificate (if applicable). Essential for divers. If you have mislaid your certificate, bring a logbook and/or a letter from the dive company where you took instruction. Learn-to-dive courses are widely available in Australia, but are pricey.
What to avoid
Cheap day trips to the reef from Cairns, Townsville and Port Douglas. They may seem like good value, but most of your time is spent travelling to and from the reef – and you’ll be snorkelling with hundreds of other day trippers once you arrive. Book a bespoke reef adventure instead (an overnight trip to the outer reef is ideal), even if you have to trim your travel budget elsewhere.
Bogus “Aboriginal” souvenirs made in China are found widely in Queensland. Ask for authentication before buying indigenous artwork.
- Australia tourism website: australia.com