Most first-time visitors to the Great Barrier Reef plan to leave from Cairns, the northern Australia city and major gateway to vast stretches of coral reef, sending out fleets of glass-bottomed boats teeming with other day-tripping scuba divers and snorkelers.
Our tip: Head eight hours south of Cairns instead, to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the Whitsunday Islands, where you can find the so-called heart of the GBR. That isn’t just fanciful marketing speak: There’s an actual heart-shaped island here—Heart Reef—which, thanks to a new program, you can now explore up close. The marine park is also home to Whitehaven Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and some 2,900 reefs, consisting of 600 types of coral, where you can swim among sea turtles, manta rays, and “Elvis,” a humphead Māori wrasse that looks like a fish with a fat lip and a cheery disposition.
Full disclosure: I’ve done multiple group sailing trips around the Whitsundays and I’m obsessed. I’m not alone, either. Taylor Swift brought her entourage to tony Hamilton Island in 2015, where luxury resort Qualia has, per AFAR, “set a new standard for Australian tourism.” (You won’t find many places where you can snorkel the GBR right outside your suite’s front door.)
The islands offer vacation options for all types of travelers, too—backpackers, families with small children (who usually find it challenging to do at-sea vacations), nature lovers, yachters. In my twenties, I spent several nights on the water with outfitters like Whitsunday Sailing Adventures, but travelers can also upgrade to five-star spots like the Intercontinental Hayman Island, which opened this July. In addition to diving, hiking, and snorkeling trips, the resort offers lots of opportunities for beach lounging—and has made even that “activity” part of its commitment to protecting the surrounding reef by offering guests reef-safe sunscreen.
Daydream Island Resort received a major overhaul in the past two years and returned with an even bigger “Living Reef,” a coral lagoon that wraps around the main building and is tended by a team of marine biologists. This sheltered environment provides a safe, low-key way for little kids to explore the sea cucumbers, crabs, and starfish of the local ecosystem.
Tourism dollars directly fund reef restoration—you might have heard the news about the Great Barrier Reef dying, but we’re happy to report the reef is very much alive, although still struggling in places from mass coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, warmer waters, and an increased frequency of cyclones. In the Whitsundays, about 8 of 120 reef sites have needed restoration following hard-hitting Cyclone Debbie in 2017, says one of Daydream’s marine biologists, Johnny Gaskell. Resort guests can watch Gaskell and his colleagues cultivate coral fragments in the “coral raceways” (which look like rows of aquariums) and then snorkel or scuba out to nearby coral nurseries to see how a reef begins to regrow.
Want an even more “immersive” hotel-meets-aquarium experience? This November, Cruise Whitsundays is rolling out two Reefsuites—underwater guest rooms on a revamped pontoon anchored 40 nautical miles off the coast. Floor-to-ceiling windows in your room allow you to lean back in bed and watch the fish pass by. Drinks, meals, and some activities are included—afternoon tea at sea and a private guided snorkel tour sound pretty idyllic (from $749 per person). In April 2020, Lady Musgrave Island will also unveil a new, government-funded underwater observatory with a guest stay (from $550) aboard a three-story pontoon that has—get this—UV lighting for nighttime fish sighting.
And then there’s the new trip that goes straight to the GBR’s “Heart.” Hamilton Island will take travelers on a scenic 30-minute helicopter flight over Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet to the Heart Reef, which is described by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation as a “coral bommie—an outcrop of coral reef that has naturally formed into a heart shape.” This experience, limited to six guests at a time, means you can swim or snorkel the reef to . . . well, your own heart’s content.
>>Next: Plan Your Visit With AFAR’s Australia Travel Guide