The Unesco world heritage-listed natural wonder is a ribbon of blinding blues and greens, a constellation of islands and reefs, running parallel with the Queensland shoreline from the tip of Cape York in the north 1,600 miles south to Bundaberg. At the reef’s southernmost end are Lady Elliot and Heron islands, two stars of David Attenborough’s new three-hour documentary (screening at 9pm on 30 December, BBC1); heading north, Airlie Beach, Townsville and Cairns are popular starting points for reef explorations.
Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands
It’s easy to spend an entire holiday exploring the Whitsunday archipelago’s 74 jungle-clad islands. The jet-set flocks to ritzy Hamilton Island (owned by wine baron and sailing enthusiast Bob Oatley) but nature lovers can delve into uninhabited isles fringed with coral reefs and perfect beaches. Fly to Hamilton Island’s Great Barrier Reef Airport or Whitsunday Coast Airport, a 20-minute drive from Airlie Beach.
Airlie Waterfront B&B
Airlie Beach, gateway to the Whitsundays, attracts visitors eager to wallow in tropical pleasures without paying the hefty price of an island resort stay. Between day trips to the reef and islands, unwind at the town’s manmade lagoon, 200 metres from Airlie Waterfront B&B. Lounge on a deckchair in the B&B’s garden and survey the dramatic rainforest-meets-reef coastline. The double-storey property is all modern geometric lines with a deep veranda up top to catch the sea breeze.
• Doubles from AU$179 (£88) B&B, +61 7 4946 7631, airliewaterfrontbnb.com.au
Palm Bay Resort
Sunrise or sunset? Catch both at Palm Bay Resort, which sprawls over the neck of Long Island (travel there by water taxi from Shute Harbour near Airlie Beach). The 23 suites and Balinese-style villas, with hammocks strung out front, provide a great getaway. Unusually for an island resort, this is self-catering so some planning is required to source provisions. Meals are cooked in a communal kitchen. In 2015 the resort added a cocktail bar that shakes a mean Long Island iced tea.
• Doubles (beachfront villa) from AU$209 (£103), +61 1300 655 126, palmbayresort.com.au
Dive the outer reef
Want to brag that you learned to dive on the world’s most famous reef? Cruise Whitsundays, based at Port of Airlie, ferries divers, snorkellers and day-trippers via high-speed catamaran to a pontoon anchored alongside a coral wall at Hardy Reef. The day-long tour (from AU$230/£112) to the outer Great Barrier Reef includes snorkelling, visiting the underwater observatory and touring the reef in a semi-submersible; scuba diving costs extra.
• Dive lesson AU$119 (£59), certified dive AU$99 (£49), +61 7 4846 7000, cruisewhitsundays.com
Scuba and sand combo
Combine a dive with arguably the Whitsundays’ most popular attraction by going to Whitehaven Beach with Airlie Beach-based Mantaray Charters for a visit so leisurely there’s time to climb Hill Inlet for an elevated view over the gorgeous white sand. Peer into the shallows to spot juvenile sharks and rays before returning to the boat for lunch. In the afternoon, plop into the clear waters near Hook or Hayman Island to scuba dive or snorkel.
• Day trip AU$197 (£96), introductory dive AU$100 (£49), certified dive AU$80 (£39) (second dives $60). Bookings essential, +61 7 4948 1117, mantaraycharters.com
Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island – the group’s largest island – has become a must-see destination for its blue waters and white sand. This means there are plenty of day-trippers along the 7km sweep of dazzling silica; so, for something a bit different, sail over for a day trip (including morning tea and lunch) on the Lady Enid, a former racing yacht. Get the beach (almost) to yourself by taking a barge from Shute Harbour with Whitsunday Island Camping Connections and then camp overnight (the barge company also rents camping gear).
• Sailing (eight-hour trip) from AU$225pp a person (£110pp), +61 407 483 000; ladyenid.com.au. Camping permits AU$5.95pp (£2.90pppn) a person a night, +61 13 74 68, nprsr.qld.gov.au Return barge AU$155pp (£76pp), +61 7 4946 6285, whitsundaycamping.com.au
Mountain bike in the rainforest
Peer over your shoulder in Airlie Beach and you’ll realise the town is not only a reef gateway but right next to Conway national park. The rugged coastal rainforest is a birder’s paradise: keep watch for emerald doves, sulphur-crested cockatoos and orange-footed scrub fowl. From November to March, buff-breasted paradise-kingfishers travel from Papua New Guinea to nest in termite mounds. Get among it on an all-day guided mountain-bike tour with Airlie Mountain Bike Tours that includes stopping for a dip in a waterhole.
• Tour from AU$120 (£59), +61 408 800 159, airliemountainbiketours.com
Townsville and nearby islands
Townsville, Australia’s largest tropical city, is more business than pleasure but it’s the perfect gateway to a handful of reef islands. Magnetic Island (Maggie to the locals) lies just offshore; think of it as a far-flung Townsville suburb. Spend a day or two exploring Townsville’s attractions, which include a huge aquarium and an unlikely pink-granite hill overlooking the city.
Rambutan, in Townsville’s nightlife area, bills itself as Australia’s first “glam-packers’” resort. The low-rise property, which opened in 2015, turns the concept of a backpackers’ hostel on its head with a stylish rooftop bar and pool, air-con and en suite for each room, and a restaurant serving American-style food (think barbeuce pit meats and southern fried chicken). Accommodation ranges from undercover van sites to mixed and single-sex dorms, private rooms and a four-bedroom villa.
• Van sites AU$34 (£17), dorms from AU$30 (£15), doubles from AU$119 (£58), +61 7 4771 6915, rambutantownsville.com.au
Magnetic Island B&B
Guests are given a mini-tour of the island – and perhaps a glimpse of a resident koala – when Magnetic Island B&B’s owners fetch them from the ferry. The B&B is at Horseshoe Bay at the island’s northern end. Most of Maggie, which has 23 secluded beaches and bays, is national park. Spend days rambling along bush tracks to lookouts and picking a favourite swimming spot before returning to relax around the pool.
• Doubles from AU$140 (£69), +61 7 4758 1203, magneticislandbedandbreakfast.com
Hinchinbrook, one of Australia’s largest island national parks, is famous among bushwalkers for its cloud-wreathed mountainous backbone, lush rainforest, melaleuca swamps, waterfalls and rugged headlands. Only 40 people at a time can traverse the spectacular 20-mile east coast Thorsborne Trail, which is best enjoyed over four days. Seven campsites offer limited facilities (mainly toilets and picnic tables) along the trail, which requires creek crossings and rock-hopping around the headlands.
• Camping permits AU$5.95pppn (£2.90), +61 13 74 68, nprsr.qld.gov.au
Experienced divers can explore the wreck of the Yongala, a passenger steamer that sank during a 1911 cyclone. Lying 15 metres underwater, the ship is one of the world’s best wreck dives. It attracts sharks, manta rays, turtles, sea snakes, giant trevally and schools of tropical fish. During winter, divers may see humpback whales. Adrenaline Dive also takes snorkellers and divers to Lodestone Reef – popular with parrotfish, angelfish and clownfish.
• Two Yongala dives from AU$255 (£125); two Lodestone dives from AU$250 (£122), snorkelling AU$220 (£108), +61 7 4724 0600, Facebook
Learn all there is to know about the Great Barrier Reef at reefHQ – the world’s largest living coral reef aquarium. The idea behind the attraction was to replicate the reef on land to make it affordable and accessible to all. Highlights include the coral reef exhibit that’s open to sunshine, moonshine and storms – just like the real thing – and a predator exhibit with black-tip reef sharks and a replica section of the Yongala that can be viewed through an underwater tunnel.
• Admission AU$28 (£14) adults, AU$14 (£6.90) children 5-16, +61 7 4750 0800, reefhq.com.au
Hike Castle Hill
Central Australia has Uluru but Townsville has its own unmissable monolith in the shape of Castle Hill – a pink-granite landmark that looms 286 metres above the city. Despite the heat and humidity and the fact there’s a perfectly serviceable road, people persist in taking the hard way to the summit. There are more than a dozen marked and unmarked trails to the lookout – offering views over the city and Magnetic Island.
• Free. Trail map at thegotownsville.com.au
Cairns and beyond
Cairns is the northernmost point of Australian tourism’s “golden triangle” (Sydney and Uluru are the other two). While the city’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, it’s now on an upward trajectory following major investment in several developments.
Stay in a traditional Queenslander – think corrugated-iron roof, louvre windows, high ceilings, deep veranda and timber floor and walls – with nine rooms ranging from singles with shared facilities to self-contained two-bedroom apartments. Seven blocks back from the lagoon, this place attracts guests seeking a quieter stay away from the city’s party zone. There’s also an on-site pool for those needing a close-at-hand dip.
• Doubles from AU$66 (£33), +61 428 514 738, ryansrest.com.au
The Hotel Cairns
In a city with its share of generic hotels, The Hotel Cairns stands out for architecture that channels the tropical surroundings. The hotel has an excellent location: it’s only a block from the Esplanade, home to a spectacular all-year swimming lagoon and beach. The Hotel Cairns has its own pool, framed by towering palms, while rooms are kept cool with plantation shutters, terracotta tiles and that all-important air-con.
• Doubles from AU$129 (£63), +61 7 4051 6188, thehotelcairns.com
Port Douglas Motel
With pops of primary colour, the Port Douglas Motel exudes a joyful 1960s vibe. The property’s central location makes it easy to stroll to both Four Mile Beach and the marina – the departure point for reef tours. Jump into the motel’s saltwater swimming pool or watch others frolicking there while cooking up a storm at the communal kitchen. The resort town of Port Douglas is about one hour’s drive north of Cairns.
• Doubles from AU$125 (£61), +61 7 4099 5248, portdouglasmotel.com.au
Cairns Dive Centre
Snorkellers, first-time divers and certified divers travel via Fitzroy Island before reaching the outer Great Barrier Reef with Cairns Dive Centre. The daily trips cover two reef sites offering great viewing of the reef’s famous fish, as well as turtles, stingrays and reef sharks. The full-day trip includes morning and afternoon snorkels and dives, with lunch served aboard the catamaran.
• Snorkel day trip AU$150 (£74), add introductory dive AU$50 (£25), certified diver day trip AU$200 (£98), +61 7 4051 0294, cairnsdive.com.au
Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park
Learn about the region’s strong indigenous culture at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, which unveiled a multimillion-dollar makeover in 2015. There’s a humorous touch to performances relaying the beliefs and stories that have shaped this ancient culture. At night, an interactive dinner show includes a fiery finale. The park neighbours the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway to Kuranda.
• Park admission from AU$60 (£30) adults, AU$40 (£20) children, AU$160 (£78) family; Night Fire AU$120 (£59) adults, AU$75 (£37) children, AU$315 (£154) family; Tjapukai with return Skyrail, from AU$135 (£), +61 7 4042 9999, tjapukai.com.au
Moore Reef pontoon
Those who aren’t water-confident can still enjoy a day on the reef thanks to a pontoon anchored at Moore Reef 40km from Cairns. Sunlover Reef Cruises runs day trips to the covered platform where visitors can snorkel, hop in the glass-bottom boat and semi-submersible coral-viewing boat, check out the underwater observatory and explore the marine touch tank. Extras include Seawalker helmet diving, scuba diving and a guided snorkelling safari.
• Day trips from AU$199 (£97) adults, AU$99 (£49) children 4-15, +61 7 4050 1333, sunlover.com.au
Mossman Gorge Centre
What’s better than leaping into a waterhole deep in the middle of a rainforest? Try pairing that experience with stories from the local Kuku Yalanji people. The Dreamtime Gorge Walk at Mossman Gorge, 77km north of Cairns, begins with a smoking ceremony to ward off bad spirits. Learn about bush foods, traditional plant uses and how to make ochre paint before finishing the 1.5-hour tour with tea and damper (soda bread).
• Shuttle bus into the gorge AU$8.90 (£4.40), Dreamtime tour AU$60 (£30) adults, AU$30 (£15) children 5-15, AU$150 (£)74 family, +61 7 4099 7000, mossmangorge.com.au