The Great Barrier Reef for Families

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The Great Barrier Reef for Families
Brimming with adventure, the Great Barrier Reef makes a superb pick for a family getaway. With the crystalline Coral Sea, sprawling beaches, dense jungles, and laid-back cities, there's plenty of action to keep kids engaged and parents at ease.
Photo courtesy of Delaware North Companies/Tourism Australia
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    Explore the Water as a Family
    Exploring the underwater world isn't just for divers; snorkeling day trips are popular with families. (Outfitters supply equipment and lunch.) The marine life is abundant and close encounters with colorful fish are common; as a spotted eagle ray swoops over the reef, everyone's mouths will fall open and their eyes go wide. To venture deeper, try a helmet or submarine dive, and to see the reef without getting wet, take to an underwater viewing chamber or glass-bottom boat.
    Photo courtesy of Delaware North Companies/Tourism Australia
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    Family-Friendly Beaches
    From June to November, the beaches of the Great Barrier Reef make an ideal stop for families—the water is warm, the waves are small, and the sand is like fine powder. Mission Beach, south of Cairns, is perfect for kicking off an impromptu soccer match or building a sand castle. On Haslewood Island, not far from Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays archipelago, families can snorkel right off shore and look for parrot fish and passing turtles. At Airlie Beach, the protected lagoon—complete with children's pool—sits near the barbecues, providing great motivation for families to make a day of it. Most beaches have lifeguards to ensure safety.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    Visit Kuranda Village
    The village of Kuranda, just one-and-a-half hours from Cairns via the famous Kuranda Scenic Railway, is an ideal day trip. This relaxed rainforest outpost offers café dining, animal encounters, open-air shopping, and handmade sweets. Kids love the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary's aviary, which features more than 2,000 butterflies. At the nearby Kuranda Koala Gardens, you can hold koalas, feed wallabies, and even handle snakes. In the afternoon, try a riverboat tour, a visit to the exotic bird sanctuary, or simply stroll through the open-air heritage markets. Don't miss the locally made rock candies and honey products. To see even more of the jungle, take a ride above the treetops on the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway. End with an Aboriginal immersion at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park next door.
    Photo courtesy of Masaru Kitano/Tourism Australia
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    Cairns Esplanade
    The Cairns Esplanade is the sort of place that makes parents feel like vacationing is a breeze. The 52,000 square-foot saltwater lagoon is a supervised swimming pool of enormous proportions, complete with a beach and plenty of shade. A bouldering park and skate plaza offer adventure for teens, while Muddy's playground has water jets and hand pumps for the younger kids. Group exercise classes, buskers, and scheduled musical acts mean that there's never a dull moment for children or parents. When it's time to recharge, make a pitstop at the electric barbecues and show your family a good old Aussie cookout.
    Photo by Manfred Gottschalk/age fotostock
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    Dreamtime in the Daintree
    In Mossman Gorge, Aboriginal guides lead Ngadiku Dreamtime Walks, offering a window into the complex traditions, lore, and ceremonies of the local indigenous people. Families will appreciate how the Dreamtime Walks open up a new way of looking at the land and how they create an opportunity for broader discussions about history and culture. After coming to a deeper understanding of the connection between Aboriginal people and their environment, take a self-guided hike along the Dubuji Boardwalk, seeing who can be the first to spot the peppermint stick insect on a pandanus palm. Finish your day with a tour of the Daintree Rainforest or a zip line adventure across the jungle canopy.
    Photo courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland
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    Family Fun in Townsville
    Perhaps because of its unassuming name, Townsville has always been North Queensland's most underrated city. Those who do take the time to visit are rewarded. Townsville boasts 320+ days of sunshine per year, and the locals share this glowing disposition. For families, it's a city full of surprises. Along the foreshore, kids can enjoy a free water park, a supervised swimming lagoon, long stretches of grass, and plenty of playground equipment. For those too young to scuba or snorkel, the Reef HQ aquarium provides a virtual reef experience with in-depth animal encounters every few hours. Local wildlife habitats, weekly craft markets, and proximity to the secluded wonders of Magnetic Island make this a stop not to miss.
    Photo by Hauke Dressler/age fotostock
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    Close Wildlife Encounters
    Both on land and in the water, the Great Barrier Reef is home to thousands of living species. Opportunities for close contact abound, from holding koalas and feeding wallabies by hand to swimming with minke whales. Cairns is home to two zoos, an enormous domed wildlife habitat, and a handful of independent animal sanctuaries. If your family prefers their wild things in the wild, take a bush walk around the Daintree Rainforest, the Atherton Tablelands, or Magnetic Island. At Eungella National Park near Mackay, even the reclusive platypus is easy to spot. No matter where you roam, when the sun sets, a guided nighttime excursion—either of the reef or the jungle—will surely carve out a special place in your memory.
    Photo courtesy of Maxime Coquard/Tourism Australia
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    Hamilton Island Entertainment
    With an airport, a small village, and electric golf carts as the preferred mode of transportation, Hamilton Island is large enough to have something for everyone. In fact, it manages to have many somethings for everyone, especially kids. When the younger set needs a break from the beach, they'll have a bowling alley, go-kart track, art classes, and driving range to choose from. If it's the adults who need some downtime (or a well-deserved visit to the spa), the Clownfish Club can mind kids from six weeks to 14 years, keeping them busy with fun activities and excursions. Soon, you'll be ready to return to the ocean as a family and find dinghies, kayaks, snorkels, and Jet Skis available for rent right on the beach.
    Photo courtesy of Ellenor Argyropoulos/Tourism Australia
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    Vacation like a Castaway
    A vacation spent shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, wandering lonely islands with no Wi-Fi to be found, makes for an alluring prospect for intrepid families. Imagine your feet squeaking in the fine silica, with nothing to distract you from being together besides birdcalls and the whisper of wind through the scrub pines. In the Whitsundays, there are 11 semi-developed camping areas, including an incredible site right on Whitehaven Beach. For those who want isolation plus comfort, the private accommodations on Heron Island, in the Southern Great Barrier Reef, lean more toward Swiss Family Robinson than Robinson Crusoe. What better way to focus on family than to abandon your watches, phones, and laptops completely for a while?
    Photo courtesy of Maxime Coquard/Tourism Australia
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    Preserving the Reef
    As a habitat for rare animals, brilliantly colored coral, and ancient plants, it's no surprise that the Great Barrier Reef is an epicenter of ecotourism. Numerous resorts have on-staff naturalists to lead walks and offer practical tips for how guests can help protect the ecosystem. Dive operators are also eager to share their passion for stewardship, but signs of wear on the reef are visible, and a series of bleaching events in 2016 and 2017, caused by rising water temperatures, has killed off significant amounts of coral. Educating your kids about the impact their actions have on the environment helps them understand the importance of protecting the reef's great expanses of wild beauty. The healthiest sections are in the Outer Reefs and Southern Great Barrier Reef.
    Photo courtesy of Ross Isaacs/Tourism Australia