Top Attractions Along the Great Barrier Reef

Stretching more than 1400 miles, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on Earth. There’s a lot to do in that much territory. Here are 10 top experiences to get you started.

Ribbon Reef, Lizard 4892, Australia
For the most otherworldly corals and creatures—that is, what makes the Great Barrier Reef “great” besides its sheer size—snorkelers and divers should venture to outer reef sites such as Cod Hole, the Ribbon Reefs, or even further offshore. Wavelength Cruises, one of the few companies considered Advanced Eco-Certified, offers snorkeling trips to St. Crispin Reef, Tongue Reef, and even Opal Reef, whose plate corals, angelfish, grouper, anemones, and giant clams with fuzzy purple flesh have appeared in BBC documentaries. Better yet, book a multiday live-aboard adventure with Mike Ball Dive Expeditions, which might take you photographing reef sharks, discovering the ancient Osprey nautilus, swimming through swirling schools of neon yellow snapper, or—between June and August—the rare opportunity of coming face-to-face with a friendly dwarf minke whale.
Mossman Gorge Road
Join the indigenous guides at the Mossman Gorge Centre for a hosted Dreamtime walk through this spectacular canyon, starting with a traditional smoking ceremony to ward off evil spirits and finishing with bush tea and damper (bread). Along the way, you’ll take in traditional bark shelters, medicinal and artistic uses of native plants, and fascinating legends about the relationship between the rainforest and its native residents. Before you leave, cool off in one of the sheltered swimming holes that pool along the Mossman River. Nearby, on Cooya Beach, the owner of Kuku Yalanji Cultural Habitat Tours demonstrates Aboriginal spear-throwing, hunting for (and eating) mud crabs, and playing the didgeridoo during an unforgettable cultural exchange.
The gateway to the Whitsunday Islands is world famous for its sophisticated collection of restaurants and hotels—Qualia Resort may have invented “barefoot luxury”—as well as nature experiences from hiking up Passage Peak to hugging koalas at Wild Life Hamilton Island. It’s also the perfect basecamp for other Whitsunday adventures such as digging your feet into the silica sands of Whitehaven Beach; spending the night on the floating Reefworld pontoon; a five-star pamper fest at Hayman Island (set to reopen in early 2019); flying over Heart Reef in a helicopter; skippering your own sailboat around the archipelago; and mountain biking plus beach camping on South Molle Island.
Unnamed Road
Rising from the Great Green Way like a primordial plateau, the Atherton Tablelands have become a hotspot for hiking, mountain biking, and outdoor adventures of all adrenaline levels, thanks to the area’s abundance of waterfalls and lakes as well as ancient craters and lava tubes. Don’t miss the Mareeba Wetlands for wildlife, the Curtain Fig Tree to play out your fairy fantasies, or Mungana Caves National Park—it’s carved with 500-some caves, some of them 400 million years old. Beyond natural attractions, visitors will enjoy the pioneer town Herberton, the Kuranda Original Rainforest Markets, and gourmet food and wine tours—which should end with a “milkshake on steroids” at Petals and Pinecones in the town of Atherton.
4 Skyrail Drive, Smithfield QLD 4878, Australia
Discover the world’s oldest living culture at Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Centre—the largest indigenous employer in Australia—where the Bulurru Story Waters Theatre transports visitors back 40,000 years with the Dreamtime creation story of the Djabugay people. Photographic exhibitions and historic films further reveal the mind-blowing history of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, and the cultural village displays traditional tools, instruments, medicines, and foods. Travelers can taste some of the ancient traditions at the on-site restaurant and during Night Fire events, set to flames, traditional songs, and vibrations from the didgeridoo. The evening ends with dancing and good yarns (stories) around the campfire with your indigenous hosts.
Devastating coral bleaching events of 2016 and 2017 hit the northern and central stretches of the Great Barrier Reef the hardest, leaving some of the brightest corals blooming in the south. Plan a snorkeling or diving excursion around Lady Musgrave Island, Heron Island, or Lady Elliott Island to swim with sharks, manta rays, and large pelagic fish. The southern reef is also famous for sea turtle nesting and hatching between November and April, most notably on Lady Elliott Island and at the Mon Repos Turtle Centre. At the very southern end of the reef, Hervey Bay becomes a playground for breeding humpback whales from July through November.
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