Great Barrier Reef
Each year, more than 1.5 million visitors come to experience this World Heritage–listed area that stretches across 2000km of coastline. Diving and snorkelling are just some of the ways of experiencing this wonderfully rich ecosystem. There's also sailing, scenic flights and a world of DIY options for exploring the reef’s gateway towns and stunning islands.
The rainforest meets the Coral Sea at Mission Beach, a tropical enclave of beach hamlets that has long threatened to take the Australian getaway circuit by storm. Yet this Coral Sea bolt-hole has maintained a beautiful balance between yoga living, backpacker bravado and eco-escape, plus it has Australia’s highest density of cassowaries. Hidden among World Heritage rainforest, a short 30km detour from the Bruce Hwy, this 14km-long palm-fringed stretch of secluded inlets and wide, empty beaches is one of the closest access points to the Great Barrier Reef, and is the gateway to Dunk Island.
There are plenty of opportunities for exploring on foot here: walking tracks fan out around Mission Beach. While Mission’s coastline seems to scream ‘toe dip!’, don’t just fling yourself into the water any old where: stick to the swimming enclosures, lest you have a nasty encounter with a marine stinger…or croc.
Welcome to a little slice of resort paradise where the paved roads are plied with golf buggies, steep, rocky hills are criss-crossed by walking trails, and the white beaches are buzzing with water-sports action. Though it’s not everyone’s idea of a perfect getaway, it’s hard not to be impressed by the selection of high-end accommodation, restaurants, bars and activities – if you’ve got the cash, there’s something for everyone.
Day trippers can use some resort facilities – including tennis courts, a golf driving range and a minigolf course – and enjoy the island on a relatively economical budget.
A few shops by the harbour organise dives and certificate courses, and just about everyone can sign you up for a variety of cruises to other islands and the outer reef.
If you only have time for one walk, make it the clamber up to Passage Peak (239m) on the northeastern corner of the island.
Great Keppel Island
This jewel of the Capricorn Coast is synonymous with deserted island fantasies of the urban travel set. Once home to one of Australia’s most iconic resorts, the 4-sq-km island – natural bushland covering 90% of the interior – has 17 beaches, all in the category of ‘bloody beautiful’. A new mega-resort, environmental research centre and golf course are on the way, so get here soon if you prefer to do your islands in solitude.
Seen approach on a waterborne vessel, or on foot through its hilly heart, Great Keppel Island is a ruggedly perfect island with rocky headlands, forested hills and a wide, dreamy fringe of powdery white sand lapped by clear azure waters.
A steep mountaintop rising from the sea, fabulous Fitzroy Island has clinking coral beaches, giant boulders and rainforest walking tracks, one of which ends at a now-inactive lighthouse. It’s a top spot for swimming and snorkelling; one of the best places to lay your towel is Nudey Beach, which, despite its name, is not officially clothing-optional. Unlike the rest of the island, Nudey actually has some sand on it.
The Indigenous Gunggandji people hunted and fished from the island for centuries; in 1877, it was used to quarantine Chinese immigrants bound for the Palmer River goldfields. Today, Fitzroy is a national park, with a resort occupying but a small section. It’s popular as both a day trip from Cairns and as an overnight(s) getaway from the mainland.
Showing some of the scars that come with fame and popularity, this pretty coral cay (45 minutes from Cairns) nevertheless retains much of its beauty. The island has a rainforest interior with interpretive walks, a fringe of white-sand beach, and superb snorkelling just offshore; it’s great for kids. You can walk around the island (which, along with its surrounding waters, is protected by national- and marine-park status) in about 30 minutes.
Before the island was named after Captain Cook’s astronomer, the Gunggandji people used it as a retreat to perform initiation ceremonies for the young men of their group. In the mid-1850s, the waters around Green Island were heavily fished for bêche-de-mer (aka sea cucumbers); the animals were cured here for export and many of the island’s trees were logged in the process. Today, Green is studded with coconut palms, planted in 1889 to provide nourishment and shelter for shipwreck survivors.
Heron & Wilson Islands
Part of the smaller Capricornia Cays group, Heron Island is ranked among the finest scuba-diving regions in the world, particularly in terms of ease of access. Visitors to Heron generally know what they are coming for – underwater paradise – but the island’s rugged beauty is reason enough to stay above the surface. A true coral cay, it is densely vegetated with pisonia trees and surrounded by 24 sq km of reef. There’s a resort and research station on the northeastern third of the island; the remainder is national park. Note that 200,000 birds call the island home at different stages of the year, so there can be a lot of guano at times.
The island has excellent beaches, superb snorkelling and, during the season, turtle watching.
If the idea of hanging out on one of five uninhabited, coral-fringed islands with excellent snorkelling and stunning white-sand beaches appeals – and really, how can it not? – cruise out to the Frankland Group National Park. These continental islands are made up of High Island to the north, and Normanby, Mabel, Round and Russell islands to the south.
The islands are draped in rainforest, dotted with mangroves and studded with rocky outcrops. They’re an adventurer’s dream come true, though those looking to do absolutely nothing on a deserted beach will also find their bliss.
Southern Reef Island
While much fuss is made about the Great Barrier Reef’s northern splendour, Southern Reef Island is the place of ‘castaway’ dreams: tiny coral atolls fringed with sugary white sand and turquoise-blue seas, and hardly anyone within flipper-flapping reach. From beautiful Lady Elliot Island, 80km northeast of Bundaberg, secluded and uninhabited coral reefs and atolls dot the ocean for about 140km up to Tryon Island. Lady Musgrave is essentially a blue lagoon in the middle of the ocean, while Heron Island is a discerning natural escape for adventurous families and world-class scuba diving.
Several cays in this part of the reef are excellent for snorkelling, diving and just getting back to nature – though reaching them is generally more expensive than reaching islands nearer the coast. Some of the islands are important breeding grounds for turtles and seabirds, and visitors should be aware of precautions to ensure the wildlife’s protection.
Some 16km east of Bundaberg, Bargara is a very popular beachside holiday destination for Queenslanders due to its surf beach, long esplanade and quiet, family-friendly atmosphere. It was built by the South Pacific Islanders who were brought to work in the cane fields from various island nations in the late 19th century. Recent years have seen a few high-rises sprout up along the foreshore but the effect is relatively low-key. Families find Bargara attractive for its clean beaches and safe swimming, particularly at the ‘basin’, a sheltered artificial rock pool.
Lady Musgrave Island
Wannabe castaways look no further. This tiny, 15-hectare cay, 100km northeast of Bundaberg, sits on the western rim of a stunning, turquoise-blue reef lagoon renowned for its safe swimming, snorkelling and diving. A squeaky, white-sand beach fringes a dense canopy of pisonia forest brimming with roosting bird life, including terns, shearwaters and white-capped noddies. Birds nest from October to April while green turtles nest from November to February.
The uninhabited island is part of the Capricornia Cays National Park.