How To Plan Your Great Barrier Reef Holiday

If you are planning your first Great Barrier Reef Holiday, you probably have a few questions. When is the best time to visit? Which town is the best base? How much time should you allow to see the reef? Well, let’s go and get a few answers so you can begin making plans.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most stunning places on the face of the earth, bar none. It’s a place of wonder and variety, of danger and majesty. The lucky people who take a Great Barrier Reef holiday never forget the colour and life that exists so close to the surface and yet hidden away.

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Everything you need to know to plan a fantastic trip to reef

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

Most people have heard of the Great Barrier Reef. It stretches over 2,300 kilometres (1,400 miles) and is composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and islands.

Low Isles Great Barrier Reef Holiday stop
Low Isles Great Barrier Reef Credit: Tropical North Queensland Tourism

Located in the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, it’s the biggest structure made by living creatures in the world.

In 1981, the Reef was named a World Heritage Site; it’s also one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

When you visit, you’ll find everything – rainbow-hued coral, bright, darting fish, slow-moving turtles, graceful sharks of all kinds, and clear blue water. You’ll also find white-sand beaches and islands and a relaxed, laidback atmosphere that’s truly contagious.

If you’re planning a Great Barrier Reef holiday, be prepared for the most beauty you will ever see in one place. 

How many days should you spend visiting the Great Barrier Reef?

When you’re planning a Great Barrier Reef holiday, you will need to take more than a couple of days. People wait for years to be able to visit this part of the world, so make sure you put aside the time to see it properly.

NDTReef NewEdits 1 3 Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef 800
Credit: Tourism Tropical North Queensland

You’ll also want to visit different areas so you can see a wider range of sea life and do a few activities. Plan for at least a week in the area, or even longer if you can afford it. If you really only have a couple of days consider staying on a liveaboard or one of the Islands to reduce traveling time to the Reef.

When is the best time to visit the Reef?

Choosing the right time for your Great Barrier Reef holiday is almost as important as where you go. Most of Queensland, including the north where the reef is, doesn’t really have four seasons. Instead, they have what’s known as the wet and dry season.

The Wet Season

The wet season runs from November to April. This is officially summer in the Southern Hemisphere; the weather is warmer with a high chance of rain. It rarely rains all day in the wet season, but the storms do stir up the water, which means visibility isn’t as good for snorkeling or diving.

The Dry Season

The dry season is from May to October. It is a little cooler at this time of year, though it rarely drops below 20 degrees – except in the far south of the State. Rain is rare, and the days are usually sunny and pleasant. This makes it a popular time for the Great Barrier Reef holidays.

What about Stingers?

You will need to be careful if you visit the north of Queensland between November and May. This is box jellyfish season, and those things are deadly, so you will have to wear a stinger suit if you’re swimming close to the shore.

Jellyfish warning sign Queensland
Most beaches will have signs like this one that show the dangerous fish and treatment for stings

It’s often safer to swim further out from the coast, as the jellyfish prefer the areas closer to land. Some beaches will have stinger nets that allow you to swim.

When is the best times to see wildlife?

Some special events you might want to see on your Great Barrier Reef holiday are:

  • Manta rays in winter
  • Humpback whales passing by the coast between July and October.
  • Nesting turtles between November and December.
  • Hatching turtles between January and March.
  • Dwarf minke whales in June and July.

The Best Base for Awesome Great Barrier Reef Holidays

If you’re planning to visit the reef or Great Barrier Reef Islands, then you don’t want to stress out about your choice of base. Everyone is unique and wants to do different things while on holiday. So, here’s a guide to the best places to base yourself on the mainland:


Cairns is the most popular base for Great Barrier Reef holidays. Located in Far North Queensland, it’s a friendly small town with a quirky charm that attracts travellers from all walks of life.

Check out the best things to do in Cairns after you have visited the Great Barrier Reef

You’ll find everything from high-class and pricey tour operators and hotels to backpacker options in Cairns, which makes it an excellent all-around choice. But if you’re looking for a quieter option away from the crowds, you might want to try a different area. 

Cairns Lagoon at sunset
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon Credit: Tourism Tropical North Queensland

There’s plenty to do and see in Cairns, including:

  • Short reef trips, mostly to Arlington Reed and Sudbury Reef as well as high-end options to quieter areas.
  • Spending time at the Cairns Lagoon, a pool and artificial beach close to the ocean that makes up for the fact that box jellyfish usually hang out at the beach.
  • The beautiful Botanic Gardens.
  • The Esplanade Boardwalk.
  • Lots of playgrounds and water parks to keep the kids occupied.
  • Every type of water sports you can imagine, including jet-skiing, rafting tours, snorkelling, and diving. 
  • The opportunity to visit Kuranda, a quirky rainforest village with restaurants, a butterfly sanctuary, and shops.

Still trying to choose between Port Douglas, Palm Cove, and Cairns?
Read our Pros and Cons of where to stay in North Queensland here

Port Douglas

Port Douglas is not far from Cairns; it caters to a more upscale market and slightly older demographic. You won’t find many budget choices in this area; however, even though it’s quieter than Cairns, there’s just as much to do. It’s also unashamedly romantic and an ideal place for a honeymoon trip.

Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas
Sheraton Mirage Port Douglas Credit: Tourism Tropical North Queensland

When you stay in Port Douglas, you’ll have access to better quality tours and reef trips that go to less crowded areas that haven’t been as impacted by human activity. Some awesome things to do in Port Douglas are:

  • Visit the Sunday market for fresh produce.
  • See alligator feeding and other Australian animals at the Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas.
  • Take tours to the outer reef to areas like Opal Reef, Tongue Reef, or St. Crispin Reef.
  • Keep an eye out for a variety of animals in the quieter reefs like sharks, clownfish, parrotfish, and sea turtles.
  • Visit the Daintree National Park.
  • Make the drive to Cape Tribulation
  • Explore the Mossman Gorge, an important Aboriginal site.
  • Visit the beautiful Agincourt Reef, one of the best options for non-swimmers because of the variety of pontoon activities.

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is about seven hours drive or a one-hour flight south of Cairns. It is an up-and-coming area that was once mostly for backpackers but is becoming more upscale. It’s quieter than some of the other choices but offers terrific access to the reef and the Great Barrier Reef Islands.

Australias Whitsundays

Airlie Beach has small shops and cafes to explore, as well as one of the best beaches in Australia, where you can lay around in relative peace and quiet. Here’s what you can do in this area:

  • Take a day trip or multi-day trip out to the Whitsunday Islands for diving, snorkelling, and amazing animal experiences.
  • Go hiking in nearby Conway National Park.
  • Spend time on some of the gorgeous local beaches, like the humanmade Airlie Beach Lagoon. 
  • Take the kids to the local water park.
  • Check out the nightlife at the local bars and pubs.


Townsville is about four hours drive south of Cairns. It is a sturdy little town that feels very businesslike. However, it’s still a popular choice for Great Barrier Reef holidays because of the awesome diving in the area.

Horseshoe Bay in Magnetic Island, Queensland, Australia
Magnetic Island Queensland is off the coast of Townsville

Townsville offers exciting diving opportunities for expert and novice snorkelers and divers and is probably the best place to go if you want to do a lot of either activity.

Just three hours off the coast, you can dive around the SS Yongala. This passenger ship sank in 1911 and is often called the best wreck dive site in the world. It’s only for experienced divers as large marine species like sea snakes, sharks, and barracuda often visit the wreck. Less confident divers and snorkellers have some easier choices, like Lodestone Reef and Kelso Reef.

Here are some of the best things to do in Townsville:

  • If you’re an experienced diver, head out to see the SS Yongala.
  • Go diving off the reefs if you’re less confident about your ocean skills.
  • Visit Magnetic Island for fantastic diving and calm, shallow waters.
  • Visit the Reef HQ Great Barrier Reef Aquarium for a close up look at marine life.
  • Spend time at the Billabong Sanctuary if you still haven’t seen enough of Australia’s wildlife.
  • Have a museum day and visit the Museum of Tropical Queensland, the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, and the Army Museum of North Queensland.
  • Discover Townsville’s natural surroundings on hiking trails like Castle Hill, the Thorsborne Trail, or Wallaman Falls.

It is also a great base for daytripping around the region. We actually came up with 11 self drive options for exploring Townville you might like.

The Best Great Barrier Reef Islands

If you don’t want to stay on the mainland, there are a vast number of islands just offshore, many of them untouched and just waiting to be explored.

You’ll probably have to pay a little extra to stay in the island resorts, but the proximity to the reef and the luxury will be worth it.

Pathway to beach at Lizard Island 800
Lizard Island Credit: Tourism North Queensland

We think these are some of the best islands to stay on:

  • Wilson Island, for isolation and animal experiences.
  • Daydream Island, for lots of facilities that cater to kids.
  • Fitzroy Island, for quiet waters and lots of sea life close to shore.
  • Heron Island, for easy access to 15 reef dive sites, fabulous beaches, and wildlife.
  • Lizard Island, for a secluded oasis that embraces the simple and leaves a light footprint on the earth.
  • Hamilton Island, for a comfortable holiday with all the amenities.

The Takeaway

A Great Barrier Reef holiday is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people. So make sure that you have the best trip possible by doing some planning before you leave. Then you’ll be able to have an incredible and return home with lots of pictures and precious memories.

Got a question? Head over to our Australia Travel Tips Facebook Group and ask a local.

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