Located in North East Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's seven natural wonders. Stretching for over 2,300 kilometres up the Queensland coast, some 3,000 individual reefs and 880 islands make up this breathtaking natural structure. It's the biggest living thing on earth, as well as the only living thing visible from space – but there's really no need to travel that far. See it up close by picking up a hire car and following our guide to Queensland's best Great Barrier Reef vantage spots.
Longer than the Great Wall of China, the vastness of the Great Barrier Reef is not to be underestimated. It's so big, in fact, that it is separated into three distinct regions, each with its own climate.
The Tropical North Islands sit off the coast of, unsurprisingly, Tropical North Queensland, where the weather is hot year-round and the swimming temperatures are pleasant. What's not so pleasant is the annual arrival of box jellyfish during the wet season (November – April). Although swimming is still possible in designated enclosures or with proper gear, the dry season (May – October) is the optimum time to see this slice of the reef shine.
In the centre of the action is Cairns, a bustling mix of tourists, laid-back locals, sports enthusiasts and nature lovers. And there really is something for everyone here. From refreshing lagoons to tropical rainforests, vibrant city markets and secluded Outback drives, an array of Australia's best scenery lies on the doorstep.
Only got eyes for the reef? You're in the right place. Hundreds of tours depart from Cairns, from 1-day scenic boat rides to deep-water diving adventures. Maximise your time with a 2-day Reef Sleep adventure and hunker down under the stars before seeing a sunrise you'll never forget.
As much as Cairns has it all, there are plenty of places in the region to gain a different perspective. Grab a car hire in Cairns and make your way 330 kilometres north to Cooktown. Previously only accessible by 4WD, the bitumen now stretches all the way to this historic port town, where Captain James Cook established Australia's first European settlement in 1770.
Aside from the architecture, sweeping coastal views and legendary fishing, this is also the place to take in a unique Great Barrier Reef experience. Set sail on a 1-3 day boat trip to dive amongst the spectacular ribbon reefs, a magnificent sight that is only found here in the Tropical North.
If you're looking for a luxurious paradise escape, Lizard Island is the full package. A scenic hour-long flight from Cairns, this island resort is situated right on the reef, boasting miles of unspoilt coastline and turquoise waters. This isn't just your standard tropical paradise though – Lizard Island is all about the premiere experience. From private beaches to 5-star sunset cruises and personal dining boats, this is the Great Barrier Reef in first class.
Less than two hours south of Cairns on the Cassowary Coast, Mission Beach is a beautiful stretch of quintessential Queensland paradise. With miles of palm-fringed beaches and a laid-back vibe, this is the perfect place to relax and find a slice of sand to call your own.
To dive deeper into the underwater action, take a daytrip from Mission Beach to Dunk Island, located just four kilometres off the coast. There is plenty of snorkelling, swimming and diving to be found in the pristine waters surrounding Dunk Island, as well as enough family-friendly onshore activities to keep everyone happy.
350 kilometres from Cairns, Townsville is a lot drier than its northern counterpart, while still enjoying year-round sunshine. This mid-section of the Great Barrier Reef is home to the magnificent Whitsunday Islands – 74 of them to be exact – each offering dazzling coastlines and unspoilt natural rainforest. Back on the mainland, there are plenty of secluded beaches and hidden gems to discover as well. Pick up a car hire in Townsville and make your way south to see it all.
Around three hours south of Townsville lies Airlie Beach, the hub of the Whitsundays region and a thriving tourist destination, home to a plethora of on and off-shore activities. From Airlie Beach, take the short trip to Hamilton Island – a beautiful island-resort featuring calm swimming bays, family-friendly water sports and panoramic vistas over the surrounding Whitsundays.
From Hamilton Island, choose from a number of boat tours to Whitsunday Island and beyond, where you can walk on the glistening white sand of the world-famous Whitehaven Beach. Alternatively, take a scenic flight, seaplane or helicopter ride from Hamilton Island over the Great Barrier Reef and see the famous Heart Reef and Whitsunday Island's Hill Inlet from an awe-inspiring vantage point.
Less than two hours south of Airlie Beach, Mackay is a region of serene beaches teeming with natural attractions. Just a stone's throw from the mainland lies Keswick Island, an unspoilt paradise of rainforest-fringed beaches, surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Snorkel or SCUBA dive amongst the vibrant corals or stay above water to partake in some bushwalking and whale spotting. With less crowds than its northern neighbours, Keswick Island is the perfect place to enjoy the reef from a different perspective.
Mild and pleasant year-round with hot summer temperatures, the Southern Reef Islands are located off the coastline between Rockhampton and Bundaberg. Only a handful of operators offer tours in this region of the reef – and with an area of 150,000 square kilometres to play with, it's safe to say this is the place to come if you want to see a more secluded side to the Great Barrier Reef.
Just a 30-minute ferry ride from Yeppoon on the mainland, Great Keppel Island boasts some of the best beaches in the Southern Great Barrier Reef – and with 17 of them dotted around the island's coastline, it shouldn't be hard to find a relaxing place to hide away. Birdwatchers, bushwalkers, snorkelers and sunbakers are all in their element on this pristine island, while dolphins and whales drop by intermittently to add to the idyllic atmosphere.
Serious snorkelers should dive the depths at North West Island, the biggest coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef. The whole island is a national park and camping permits must be obtained ahead of time. The rewards are tenfold, however, thanks to stunning natural scenery both above and below water and resident Green Turtles who nest on the island every summer.
Ready to dive into everything the Great Barrier Reef has to offer? Hire a car from Cairns and see the best spots on your own schedule