I wanted to write this post to let everyone know what I think are the top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef. There were so many highlights in the area from Airlie Beach to Cape Tribulation so I want to persuade you to do them!
As I was travelling up the East Coast from Melbourne, I couldn’t wait to get to the Great Barrier Reef. It’s one of the most famous natural wonders on this amazing planet, plus I love snorkelling and everything sea based. I’d heard that it offers some of the best snorkelling with an amazing diversity of marine life.
First and foremost, I will admit that these activities around the Great Barrier Reef won’t be the cheapest things you do on your Australian Trip, however they simply can’t be missed. Please let me persuade you to at least consider them. Why come all the way to Australia if you’re going to do things 50%. Like me, I assume most will know it’s expensive here and saved up some dollar!
Top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef Scenic Flight
Not in any particular order, but this scenic flight blew my mind. It was everything people told me it was and didn’t disappoint. It should be in everyone’s list of top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef.
- Price: $200
- Duration: 1 Hour
- Where: Airlie Beach
- Company: GSL Aviation
From a tiny airfield, a 10 minute drive from Airlie Beach (transport included if needed) you will take off in a small aircraft. The aircraft holds about 10 passengers and is the smallest plane I have travelled in! We booked through an agent in Airlie Beach. The scenic flights company is called GSL Aviation.
You will fly over and past Hamilton Island, Whitehaven beach then out towards the outer reef. You will catch sight of the famous Heart Reef (yep, a reef in the shape of a heart). The pilot gives some commentary during the flight through the head gear provided, and ensures that he flies over the sights a couple of times, so that passengers from both sides of the aircraft get the best view for photos.
The flying over Whitehaven Beach/Hill Inlet is stunning. Seeing the bright blue water, with those magical white swirls weaving through the water.
Don’t Miss it
It’s truly spectacular and I have never seen anything like that in my life. You won’t believe it’s really like that from looking at the pictures. The reef almost looks like looking at bacteria through a microscope.
My tip would be to check the weather for the next few days and book the Day before. You need at least a clear day to get the most of the flight. If it is very cloudy, perhaps consider booking a different day. It was OK on the day we went as you can see but there were still clouds which made the water have a undesired glare.
Most budget travellers I met, chose to avoid this tour due to the $200 price tag. But if you think about it, once you go home, you won’t have the opportunity to see the reef like that again. Seeing it from sea level is amazing but different from an aerial view. That $200 won’t make the biggest difference to you once you get home. Save on a couple of boozy nights and do this instead.
Outer Reef Snorkel Cruise
A lot of people who go to the Reef might do some snorkeling on some of the near-by islands such as Hook Island, Hamilton Island or do some snorkel on their Whitsunday Cruise. These are all really good and on a calm day, the water looks great. But if you want to see the Reef in all its glory, you simply have to get to the Outer Reef. It’s more untouched, being further out and thus there is more marine life and the water is just so clear.
- Price: $240 (lunch and gear included)
- Duration: Full Day
- Where: Port Douglas
- Company: Wavelength
Some of the tours will take you to the Reef but not the outer reef. These are often the shorter ones.
It takes about 45 mins to get to the outer reef by boat from Port Douglas and once you are there, Wavelength take you to 3 of the best snorkeling spots. They choose on the day based on conditions for that day.
Mainly, the outer reef cruises operate from Cairns and Port Douglas. We heard its better from Port Douglas but they are probably quite similar.
Choose a cruise
There are two main recommended companies who are Wavelength and Calypso. I chose Wavelength and didn’t regret. The staff are all Marine Biologists and give really informative talks about the Reef and marine life. It’s great to hear about the future of the Reef coming from people who actually know what they are talking about and who live and breathe the Reef every single day. Plus they showed us how to behave in the water to maximise our experience and even come snorkelling too. They offer to have people follow them to show us good areas and help spot sharks.
One of the spots we were taken was called the Opal Reef, and it was the most incredible snorkelling I have experienced. The waters visibility must have been around 40 metres plus. We could see the fishes very clearly, sparkling at us even from the boats deck. I was fortunate enough to see various species of shark, Humphead Maori Wrasse, turtles, Porcupine Fish and huge pillars of coral.
The snorkelling was an amazing experience, which I can really recommend. It will probably ruin snorkelling for you, as compared to a lot of other places, here is very special. My tip is to also check the weather for the next few days and book the day before.
There is usually plenty of room on the boat as it only accommodates no more than 48 passengers. This is in contrast to some of the large cruises which seem impersonal and chaotic. Wet suits, snorkel and masks are provided, but if you have your own, why not take it, as it’ll probably be of a better quality and fit. In addition, the boat is also really new and modern. All in all, it’s definitely one of the top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef.
Whitsunday Islands Cruise
If you are in Airlie Beach, then don’t miss out doing a multi-day cruise. It’s a great way to experience what the area has to offer and plus, you get to live out on the seas on a boat.
- Price: $380
- Duration: 3 Days 2 Nights
- Where: Airlie Beach
- Company: Summertime
Start at Airlie Beach
When you arrive on Airlie Beach you will find that there are millions of travel agents who will all offer you cruises. If you don’t pre-book you will have less options as it’s most likely you have some time constraint to move onto the next destination. However you will definitely pay less. If you are super flexible, you can try to get a stand-by meaning the boat needs to fill spaces last minute and will get an even cheaper price.
When deciding on your cruise, you must consider the trade off between small personal cruises, with 5 or 6 people vs the party boats that can have 50+. Summertime accomodates 16 people max which i think is a good number for a social but relaxing trip. One thing i want to emphasize about this cruise is that you get the full day on day 3 rather than other cruises, where day 3 is simply returning to Airlie Beach.
To give you an idea, the quoted price for the Summertime Cruise was $629, meaning I got $250 off. We were two people so that equates to $500, which is insane! Bargain hard and go round different agents. There are a few agents who really push the hard sell, which we hated so much. These were Peter Pan and Happy Travel. They became very bitter when we didn’t want to book a cruise with them.
The cruise is scenic, relaxing as all food is provided. Its on a really classic, old wooden boat with sail. Plus, you will be fed very well, with 3 meals a day plus snacks during the day. Remember to bring your own booze, which they will store in a huge cool box. Cans only! The cruise isn’t a party booze cruise, but has people in their 20’s 30’s who want to enjoy, relax and socialise over some beers.
Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach
During the trip, the highlights are going to Whitehaven beach and Hill Inlet to see that amazing scenic view of the beach and all those patterns of swirling white sand. As far as top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef go, Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach are way up there. Unfortunately the weather was awful on our day so we barely saw anything. We still trekked up there though and enjoyed our time on the beach for half the day. Luckily, i saw it from the scenic flight on a clear sunny day so i will show you that video instead!!!
You will be taken to numerous snorkelling spots too throughout the cruise. We weren’t rushed and found the pace to be good. Snorkelling is good but nothing compared to the outer reef!
If you are a diver, you are able to dive with the instructor every time the rest of us stop for snorkelling. It’s really cheap for Australia at $70 for 1 dive and $110 for two. I didn’t dive but the people who did said it was excellent.
We also did a kayaking activity where we followed our crew member around the ocean, looking for turtles and stingrays, swimming around the Mangroves. Lucky for us we spotted a few! Not many of the cruises, if any, have kayaks on board, so Summertime cruise is a massive bonus.
What was also fantastic, we had a slide show at the end of each day with photos taken throughout the day. The staff were great, funny and friendly. The sleeping arrangements are tight, but what would you expect on a boat. Showers are limited to a one minute shower per day, as water is scarce. It is hot though, which is a bonus. The cabins are also air conditioned!
If you are looking for top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef, then get out there and book a cruise. Even if it’s not this one, I’ve heard they are all very good.
The Great Barrier Reef was the most pricey part of my Australian Road Trip but I enjoyed all of it and would do it all again. Start saving those dollars now so you can do as much as you can! If you enjoyed my post on top things to do in the Great Barrier Reef, please click the share/like buttons and check out my other Australian posts!