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🇦🇺 Great Barrier Reef Tours: How to Find the Best One

great barrier reef tours

There are so many available so how do you choose the best Great Barrier Reef tours?

If you’re visiting Australia, you’d be crazy not to take the extra time and experience the Great Barrier Reef.

Heralded as Australia’s great natural wonder, there’s a reason it’s also considered one of the natural wonders of the world. 

This destination needs to be on everyone’s bucket list.

In 1981, this landmark was declared a World Heritage Area due to its ‘outstanding universal value’.

It’s so big, it can be seen from space!

All in all, the entire size of the reef is around the size of New Mexico.

In this guide, I’m going to give you an overview of the reef as well as cover how to get there, where to stay and things you must see.

And most importantly, how to choose one of the finest Great Barrier Reef tours for you.

Where is the Great Barrier Reef?

The Great Barrier Reef is situated on the north-eastern coast of Australia.

Along Queensland’s coastline, it spans over 2,300km long originating at the tip of Cape York in the north and finishing at Bundaberg in the south.

When to Go to the Great Barrier Reef?

Due to its location, the Great Barrier Reef has a tropical climate and boasts around 300 days of sunshine a year.

During the summer, the temperature varies between 75°F – 91°F.

During the winter, the temperature varies between 57°F – 79°F.

Because of this, I recommend the best time to visit the reef is between June to November.

At this time of year, the weather is perfectly mild.

Due to the lack of rain, the conditions are ideal for visibility.

For this reason, it’s imperative not to visit between December and March as this the rainy season for north Queensland.

How to Get There

great barrier reef tours

The closest major airport to the Great Barrier Reef is Cairns International Airport.

However, there are no direct flights from the USA.

The most convenient route is to fly directly to Sydney further south.

You can fly directly to Sydney from 4 destinations in the States: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas and Houston.

Airlines that operate these direct flights are Qantas, United, Virgin Australia and American Airlines.

From there, you can take a direct flight to Cairns that takes just over 3 hours.

Alternatively, you can always hire a car and drive the 26 hours from Sydney, stopping at some interesting destinations on the way.

Where to Stay

The Great Barrier Reef is so extensive that there are a few areas along the coast where you can stay. 

I personally would recommend staying either in the North Queensland area or on the Whitsunday Islands.

North Queensland

North Queensland is what you would imagine from a traditional tropical climate.

Think of white sandy beaches that go on forever.

This is by far the most popular place to set off and explore the Great Barrier Reef as it’s easily accessible.

Most Great Barrier Reef Tours set off from around these destinations.

The Marina, Shangri-La Hotel

Cairns | Price from $123 a night

the marina shangri-la

I became a lifelong fan of the Shangri-La group after spending many nights at their Tokyo hotel.

The most ideal component of this particular hotel is that it’s only a 3-minute walk from the Great Barrier Reef Departure Terminal.

Each room has a balcony giving you views of either a tropical garden, Trinity Bay or Marlin Marina.

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Pullman Reef Hotel

Cairns | Price from $136 a night

pullman reef hotel

This hotel is very popular and catered for couples.

You will love their rooftop swimming pool with it’s outstanding views of the marina.

Don’t miss their award-winning Tamarind restaurant serving up Thai-inspired fusion cuisine.

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Riley Hotel, a Crystalbrook Collection Resort

Cairns | Price from $149 a night

riley hotel cairns

This luxury hotel is a necessity if you’re traveling to Australia for a special trip.

They are home to Cairn’s highest rooftop bar affording of the local marina and beyond.

It’s close to all the main attractions and only a 10-minute walk to the Great Barrier Reef Departure Terminal.

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The Whitsundays

To really immerse yourself and thoroughly upgrade your vacation, a stay on the Whitsundays is a necessity. 

And here, you’re completely spoilt for choice.

There’s a wide variety of accommodation options, so everyone is catered for.

Daydream Island Resort

Daydream Island | Price from $199 a night

daydream island resort

Recently refurbished, this tranquil and stylish resort is located at the heart of the Whitsunday Islands.

As you can see from the picture above, the views are incredible!

This resort is particularly popular with couples so it makes it the perfect location for a romantic getaway.

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Reef View Hotel

Hamilton Island | Price from $240 a night

reef view hotel

The view from each balcony is what makes this hotel one of the most sought after places to stay on Hamilton Island.

Every room has a furnished balcony, giving you the privacy and space to immerse yourself in that incredible view!

The resort also boasts beautifully manicured tropical gardens creating a true paradise for you to enjoy.

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Intercontinental Hayman Island Resort

Hayman Island | Price from $347 a night

intercontinental hayman island resort

If you’re seeking even more luxury, then head to this private island home to the Intercontinental.

This location is the epitome of opulence.

One spectacular sanctuary at this resort is the spa, which will take your breath away and indulge you into island living.

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Things You Must Do 

There is literally no end to what you can do on the reef.

You’re in the heart of nature and wildlife, and the reef is your oyster!

I’ve narrowed it down to the must-see things to visit while here.

1. Snorkel or Dive the Reef

The most obvious activity that you have to do when visiting!

There’s a reason that the reef is considered one of the natural wonders of the world.

Home to over 1500 species of tropical fish, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe unique marine life.

2. Fly over the Heart Reef

Due to its highly protected status, the only way to see the Heart Reef is by plane or helicopter flights. 

But it’s a sight not to miss!

Measuring at only 17 metres wide, it’s a small wonder in comparison to the Great Barrier Reef surrounding it.

The team at Barrier Reef Australia offer a 60-minute scenic flight from Airlie Beach.

3. Hand Feed a Baby Stingray

View this post on Instagram

Feeding time in the lagoon

A post shared by Amie Brennan (@amie117) on

Baby stingrays are like little puppies and feeding them is an unforgettable memory.

On Daydream Islands’ Living Reef, you can feed the baby stingrays followed by a guided tour through their underwater conservatory.

4. View Marine Life from a Glass Bottomed Boat

If snorkelling or diving isn’t for you, then you are still able to see the wonderful marine life from the safety of a glass bottomed boat tour.

Green Island Reef Cruises offer half-day or full day tours for you to enjoy.

5. Visit Whitehaven Beach

A trip to this area of Australia is incomplete without visiting Whitehaven Beach.

This stretch of sand is one of the world’s most unspoiled and beautiful beaches.

Head there with Hamilton Island for one of the better experiences.

6. Cruise to Uninhabited Islands

How can you enjoy this area even more? 

With no people at all (except the ones with you).

Frankland Islands Reef Cruises offer an exclusive tour, which includes a rainforest river tour as well.

7. Cuddle a Koala

Magnetic Island is home to northern Australia’s largest koala colony and is a world-heritage listed island.

Eco accredited Bungalow Bay Koala Village is the ideal place to learn more and get close and personal with this unique wildlife.

8. Spend Some Time on Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and is a perfectly relaxed town to spend some time in.

Think palm tree beaches, alfresco eating and parks on the waterfront.

It’s an ideal tropical aquatic playground to enjoy before heading to one of the islands.

I recommend checking out this condo hotel at Marina Shores if you stay for a few days.

How to Find the Best Great Barrier Reef Tours for You

Every traveller is different so finding the choosing between the many Great Barrier Reef tours is going to be down to you.

What kind of traveller are you?

Below, I’ve listed out the many different types of tours you can take.

Whether you’re a family, an adventurer or short for time, one of these Great Barrier Reef tours are bound to work for you.

A Family Friendly Reef Cruise

great barrier reef tours

On this day trip, you’ll be taken to the outer Great Barrier Reef where a reef activity platform will be waiting for you.

This option is perfect if you’re taking children as the platform provides a safe, stable base to explore from.

There is also a qualified lifeguard supervision, keeping your mind even more at ease.

Not only is two thirds of the platform in the shade, you also have the option of sitting inside their air-conditioned cabin.

Quicksilver offer a full day trip including 3½ hours at the reef platform, including buffet lunch and equipment, for $175 per adult and $89 per child.

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A Leisurely Day of Snorkelling and Beach

great barrier reef tours

If you’re looking for a relaxed style visit to the reef, eco-certified Ocean Spirit Cruises offer the perfect day trip.

They’ll take you to a spot that has calm and shallow waters, which are perfect for some leisurely snorkelling.

Once you’ve tired snorkelling, you can take the beach buggy shuttle and spend some time unwinding on a nearby sandy island.

Included in the day is a full buffet lunch, afternoon tea, and wine and cheese.

Ocean Spirit Cruises offer a full day trip including 4 hours on the reef, for $149 per adult and $79 per child.

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A Luxury Island Experience

great barrier reef tours

Situated out of the stunning Port Douglas, this French designed catarman caters you and up to 11 guests in complete privacy.

You’ll head out to Low Isles and Snapper Island, located off the coast by Daintree Rainsforest, to snorkel in comfort knowing that your dedicated crew are nearby.

If there’s anyway to truly experience an outstanding area like this, it’s by private charter.

Snapper Island only allow one commercial tourism boat to visit each day so you’re guaranteed seclusion and privacy.

Barrier Reef Australia offer a full day charter for up to 12 guests for a total of $1999.

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A Diving Extravaganza

great barrier reef tours

If you want to experience more of the underwater world, this diving trip is ideal.

You’ll visit up to three different locations on the reef giving you the opportunity to adventure 3 dives in one day.

This is not an exclusive diving trip and you will have the option to snorkel as well.

The colorful marine life here is not to be missed so if you can dive, or are interested in learning, this jam packed excursion will fill your boots.

Pro Dive offer a full day trip including 3 hours of diving/snorkelling, for $159 per adult and $119 per child.

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A Beach Focused Day

great barrier reef tours

Unlike most other tours, this one offered by Sailaway differs as they moor at Low Isles instead of at sea.

So you can base yourself at the beach to explore the nearby reef and coral cay.

With 4½ hours on the island, you have plenty of time to relax, explore and swim.

You’ll even have the opportunity to swim with turtles in their natural habitat.

That is, if you can drag yourself off your beach towel!

Sailaway offer a full day trip including 4½ hours on the island, for $192 per adult and $134 per child.

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A Short But Sweet Snorkel Trip

great barrier reef tours

If you’re short on time (or short on cash), this quick and budget friendly trip takes around 2¼ hours.

In 15 minutes, you’ll be on the reef and have 1½ hours to snorkel before the quick 15 minute ride back to shore.

Reef Sprinter holds an exclusive permit for mooring at this Low Isles reef and only two of their boats visit at a time, meaning no crowds.

You’ll get the opportunity to see an abundance of fish species as well as green turtles swimming nearby.

Reef Sprinter offer a half day trip including 1½ hours snorkelling, for $95 per adult and $82 per child.

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Hello! I’m Chef Tariq.

I’m a food, travel & lifestyle blogger who is passionate about creating recipes from my Arab American background. I love to travel and share my experiences and top tips along the way.

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Hello! I’m Chef Tariq.

I’m a food, travel & lifestyle blogger who is passionate about creating recipes from my Arab American background. I love to travel and share my experiences and top tips along the way.