The stats alone are breathtaking: This UNESCO World Heritage-listed natural wonder stretches over 1,250 miles north to south and covers some 135,000 square miles in total. Famously the largest barrier reef in the world, it’s also the earth’s largest structure built by living organisms—tiny hard corals, whose limestone skeletons form the reef’s bedrock. These intricate underwater structures, millions of years old, play host to more than 1,500 species of fish, over 30 species of whales and dolphins, six of the seven species of marine turtles, and 22 species of seabirds.
But the remarkable scale alone doesn’t fully explain the destination’s almost mystical appeal. It’s one of those places every traveler must truly experience first-hand. Fortunately, it’s easy for all types of travelers—solo, couples, families, or extended families—to make the pilgrimage.
Start in the perpetually sunny state of Queensland, along Australia’s fabled northeast coast. It’s an ideal base for exploring the Great Barrier Reef in all its glory. Several coastal towns—Cairns, Port Douglas, Rockhampton, and Townsville—provide great jumping-off points for trips onto the Reef, and each gateway town offers a unique, vibrant culture well worth getting immersed in. Cairns and Townsville are bustling, cosmopolitan cities, Rockhampton has a fascinating historical center and rich Aboriginal heritage, and Port Douglas is an idyllic, laid-back resort town known for its superlative beaches and stellar dining scene.
Day trips to the Reef are a big hit with tourists and locals alike, but if you prefer an even more immersive Great Barrier Reef experience, several islands—like Hamilton Island, Lizard Island, and Bedarra Island—are home to luxury resorts that offer upscale amenities and services (like private beach picnics), an exclusive castaway vibe, and unparalleled access to the Reef.
Once out there, you’ll find clear turquoise waters, rainforest-fringed white-sand beaches, and idyllic islands. But below the surface lies an even more epic wonderland of biodiversity: the vast coral reef itself, as well as the kaleidoscopic array of marine life that flocks here for food, breeding, and protection.
While scuba diving offers the chance for magical up-close encounters with large marine mammals like whales and dolphins, the entire region is also a snorkeler’s heaven. That’s true even when close to shore, where fascinating creatures like parrotfish congregate to chomp algae off the surface of the coral. And though these may be the two most popular methods of experiencing this unique and bio-diverse region, there are plenty of other options to explore, like sailing, helicopter tours to remote beaches, and island hopping.
Whichever way you choose to approach it, this dazzling natural wonder offers unforgettable moments and a host of hidden treasures, both above and below the waves.