Explore the Great Barrier Reef

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Explore the Great Barrier Reef
Underwater and on land, variety is the Great Barrier Reef's calling card. Where else can you lounge on deserted beaches, swim with sea turtles, enjoy fresh oysters at a sidewalk bistro, and play hide-and-seek with tree kangaroos, all in one day?
Photo courtesy of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort/Tourism Australia
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    Many Ways to Explore the Reef
    Float above the reef listening to the almost-imperceptible crunch of parrotfish gnawing on coral. Dive under the surface and watch for electric yellow and blue surgeonfish. Continue your descent and you just might see a Maori wrasse on patrol. A visit to the Great Barrier Reef would be incomplete without venturing underwater. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to do so, ranging from scuba diving and helmet diving to undersea observation chambers and riding in a mini-submarine. Head to the Outer Reefs and Southern Great Barrier Reef for the healthiest corals.
    Photo courtesy of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort/Tourism Australia
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    Scuba Diving
    To scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef is to visit an alien planet where neon Christmas tree worms sprout from the coral (only to vanish instantly at the slightest disturbance) and elegant manta rays patrol the depths. For beginners, introductory dives are readily available, operating out of Cairns, as are certification courses. While day trips are hugely popular, the sections of reef they frequent are also the most heavily trafficked. Visitors with more than a passing interest should consider a night on a live-aboard boat—mixing day and night dives at a variety of sites. For advanced divers, a multi-day trip is the way to go—giving you time to explore more remote Outer Reef sites like the Ribbon Reefs.
    Photo courtesy of Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort/Tourism Australia
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    The Blessed Whitsundays
    As far as sun-dappled white-sand beaches go, the Whitsundays are blessed beyond comparison. With 74 islands in the chain—each seemingly more stunning than the next—and fine dining and spa treatments right on the sand, it's impossible to go wrong. Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island is famous for the sort of pristine beauty reserved for postcards. Hamilton Island, the most developed island in the chain, has an airport and all the major conveniences, plus superb restaurants and spas. Lesser known islands like Hayman and Heron offer more remote escapes. Island-hopping trips via sailboat or seaplane can easily be customized to suit your interests, whether you seek luxury or isolation, romance or family fun.
    Photo courtesy of Maxime Coquard/Tourism Australia
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    The Daintree and Cape Tribulation
    Cape Tribulation, part of Daintree National Park, is located in two overlapping World Heritage Areas—The Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef. Double the World Heritage means double the biodiversity: The park is famous for prehistoric plants, endemic mammals like the ringed bandicoot, and rarely seen bird life. In fact, this entire lowland jungle feels Jurassic—massive banyan trees and spreading fan palms provide hiding places for tiny marsupials and the pterodactyl-like cassowary, while saltwater crocodiles sun themselves on the sandy riverbanks. The park is easily accessible from Cairns or the slower-paced town of Port Douglas. A hike through nearby Mossman Gorge and dinner at Julaymba at the Daintree Eco Lodge & Spa are two experiences not to miss.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    Cairns: The Perfect Base for Exploration
    Cairns is clean, easily navigable, and pleasant for a day or more. As such, it is an ideal base for exploring the reef. For a city that seems surrounded by jungle in all directions (including the underwater jungle just offshore), its restaurants, hotels, and nightclubs are notably modern. Take a jog along the Foreshore Promenade, stopping for a dip in the saltwater lagoon. If you're keen for adventure, go bungee jumping or swoop through the rain forest on a jungle swing. For a more traditional experience, Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park offers a chance to understand North Queensland's distinct Aboriginal culture. Later, have dinner at Salt House, whose pavilion-like design blends Australian, Balinese, and Japanese aesthetics.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    The Great Green Way
    With the constant gurgle of water coursing over mossy stones, the strange calls of exotic birds, and the brilliant green palms, the lowland jungles of Queensland's far north are not be missed. The Great Green Way stretches from Cairns to Townsville along the A1. To the east lie some of the loneliest beaches on the Australian mainland, plus a chance to wreck-dive the SS Yongala. Inland, you'll find the famous waterfall circuit—11 falls neatly tucked into the jungle, just a few clicks away from one another. Head further west to reach the cooler climes of the Atherton Tablelands. As you explore the dense rainforest via serpentine trails, keep an eye out for the elusive cassowary, a flightless bird known to grow over six feet tall.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    Discover the Seaside Towns
    Driving the A1 along the Great Barrier Reef, you can't go far before reaching a town where flip-flops are the footwear of choice and the sun bounces enticingly off the water. Port Douglas, Mackay, Rockhampton, Townsville, and Airlie Beach all fit the bill—with the latter two being top picks for travelers. Townsville is home to a beautifully maintained waterfront, the Reef HQ aquarium, the region's best craft market, a professional rugby team, and lively nightlife. Further south, Airlie Beach's scenic harbor makes it the favored jumping-off point for trips to the Whitsundays, but the city has its own merits: The foreshore is an ideal place to enjoy a barbecue while watching yacht sails slice across the expansive blue horizon. After dark, head to Fish D'Vine for fresh seafood and more than 550 types of rum.
    Photo by Manfred Gottschalk/age fotostock
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    Romantic Island Escapes
    With white-sand beaches, pale blue water, and constant sun, the Great Barrier Reef exudes romance. Lizard, Bedarra, and Orpheus Islands, plus Qualia Resort on Hamilton Island, all boast the exclusivity, private infinity pools, and breezy villas that romantic dreams are made of. For even more privacy, Heron Island, in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, is small enough to rent out in its entirety. For something simpler, picnic on Whitehaven Beach after the day-trippers have left and enjoy the setting sun and passing sea turtles. For a lasting impression from above, sip champagne while flying in a charter plane over the aptly named Heart Reef.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    Bareboats, Charters, and Live-Aboards
    Captaining your own ship with the wind in your hair and the horizon laying out in front of you is an experience you're not likely to forget. This is the reef of your childhood dreams and pirate fantasies. If you're a confident yachter, a bareboat offers the chance to take charge of your own vessel. Eating breakfast on deck as the sunrise streaks the horizon in pinks and purples is a peak experience. If you have the independent spirit but lack the sailing know-how, you can enlist a charter (with captain and crew), or a motorized yacht from Airlie Beach. Live-aboard dive boats may not offer quite as much autonomy, but they do give you a chance to venture out to Cod Hole and other less-visited Outer Great Barrier Reef locales.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    Dining near the Reef
    The culinary scene along the Great Barrier Reef is as varied as the marine life. Not surprisingly, seafood takes a starring role, but proximity to Asia and the South Pacific influences the food, too. Fine dining meets Aussie bush tucker at Flames of the Forest, in Port Douglas, which has lemon myrtle infused kangaroo loin on a bed of toasted macadamia nuts on the menu. Salsa Bar & Grill is another standout spot in Port Douglas for local prawns, spatchcock, kangaroo, and barramundi. In the town of Walkamin, Mt Uncle Distillery serves house-distilled spirits to wash down the wood-fired pizzas. Sailing with Enterprise Charters allows you to feast while actually on the water, and for something quick and easy, head to Mocka's Pies & Bakehouse for a meat pie stuffed with crocodile or kangaroo.
    Photo courtesy of Ellenor Argyropoulos/Tourism Australia