Extending nearly 1,200 mi/2,000 km along Australia's northeast coast, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's most magnificent coral reefs. The colorful outcroppings of coral and the abundance of other sea life, along with the clarity of the water, make the area a must-visit. The reef and the islands between it and the mainland are incredible places to sail, snorkel, dive, and ride in glass-bottomed boats and semisubmersible craft.
The reef begins in southern Queensland about 185 mi/300 km off the coast of Bundaberg and Gladstone. It runs parallel to the mainland as far north as the tip of Cape York, where the reef almost touches land. The lagoon between the reef and the coast includes several thousand small reefs, as well as more than 600 islands. Only about 20 of the islands have resorts, but you can camp at some of the other small islands.
The easiest way to explore the reef is on day trips from Townsville, Cairns, Port Douglas and a few other places along the coast. Tour companies are everywhere and offer a variety of tours. Travelers should be aware, however, that after travel time is subtracted, a day trip leaves only about three or so hours for snorkeling and diving.
Most operators offer a scuba experience for noncertified divers. They'll give you a quick lesson and take you down to see what you're missing. Boats range from large, comfortable catamarans to small, intimate yachts. Budget-priced excursions also abound, but some boats are slower and offer fewer services and possibly a noisy, crowded trip. Experienced divers should spend several nights aboard a dive boat. You can see more of the reef if you travel north of Cairns to the Coral Sea (the Yongala Wreck and the Cod Hole are two popular dive spots).
Another option is to stay on one of the coral islands near the reef. Three of them offer overnight accommodations and operate a variety of boat, air or helicopter services for viewing coral areas and fish. Our favorite is Heron Island, which is reached by air or a two-hour boat ride from Gladstone. We recommend that first-time visitors stay at least two nights. It's an ideal spot for divers, nature lovers and those wanting to get away from it all, and the dining is good. (Heron is a bit more formal than many of the other islands.)
You can visit Green Island on a day trip from Cairns, or you can overnight at its small luxury resort (http://www.greenislandresort.com.au). The closest coral island to the mainland, Green Island offers good snorkeling, scuba diving and coral viewing. Lady Elliot (reached from Bundaberg or Hervey Bay) is the southernmost coral cay on the reef, offering white-sand beaches, diving, reef walking and fairly basic accommodations in cabins and safari tents.
The other resort islands are high or continental islands, which are actually the tops of submerged mountains. They are located at varying distances from the outer reef. You can stay on one of them and take day trips by boat to the outer reef.
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