The Great Barrier Reef and beyond: a beginner’s guide to Queensland’s coast
From Coolangatta in the south to far-flung Cape York in the north, Queensland is huge – twice as big as Texas and full of hearty and adventurous personalities to match. Queensland’s main attraction, though, is the incomparable Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for 2300km of unbelievable undersea ecology.
It’s a beacon for adventurers from all over the world and anchors any trip to Queensland, whether you’re a seasoned scuba diver, first-time surfer, resort lover or rainforest wildlife enthusiast.
Great Barrier Reef
Mimicking the curves of Queensland’s east coast, coming as close as 15km to shore, the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world and host to more than 900 tropical islands. Divers delight in its unbelievable sights – rich navy blue butterfly fish, luminescent pastel turkfish, teeny neon damsels, six-banded angelfish are all on display, not to mention whales, dolphins, dugongs, six species of sea turtles, sharks, giant clams and more.
To see what’s under the sea, book yourself a boat trip. The reef mecca of Cairns is the main hub for explorations, with dozens of options from quick-fire day trips to inner-reef atolls to longer trips to pristine outer-reef sites and overnight sailing voyages to isolated dive locations. Strap on a snorkel and some fins and splash into the deep blue sea to explore some of the greatest biodiversity of anywhere on earth: swimming into this hyper-coloured spectacle of coral and tropical fish, it’s easy to see why the reef is one of the world’s seven natural wonders.
Meanwhile, Port Douglas makes for another great gateway to the reef, offering ritzy accommodation and dining to boot. Port Douglas also has a flotilla of boats waiting to whizz you out to reef highlights like Low Isles and Agincourt Reef, an outer ribbon reef featuring crystal-clear water and stunning corals.
Exploring the Great Barrier Reef from above
For those unprepared to take the full plunge, there are plenty of other ways to explore the reef. Some operators offer day trips in glass-bottomed boats, through which you can peer down into the watery world below – a cinematic experience! Short on time? Take a scenic flight from Cairns or the Whitsundays for a macro-perspective of the reef's beauty and size. Another dry-footed option is a reef walk. Some southern sections of the reef are exposed at low tide, allowing you to amble across the reeftops on sandy tracks between the coral: try Heron Island.
The Whitsunday Islands – halfway up Queensland’s coast – are Australia’s promised land of tropical atolls, spinnakers and daiquiri-soaked resort nights. This improbably photogenic archipelago comprises 74 islands with sleeping options from the luxe resorts on Hayman, Daydream and Hamilton islands to the budget beds on Hook Island. Book your Whitsundays sailing trip from the constant party town of Airlie Beach, the Whitsundays’ gateway town: a yacht is the perfect way to cast yourself away on an untrammelled arc of white sand, and the Whitsundays boast an enticing string of fringing coral reefs.
The Capricorn Coast also hosts some fab little isles, less touristy than those further north. Try Lady Elliot Island for snorkelling and wildlife watching – it’s the best place on the Reef to see manta rays. Great Keppel offers unpretentious accommodation and relaxed vibes, while the tiny, tranquil coral cay (and diving mecca) of Island Heron offers a traditional family resort experience.
Queensland’s islands aren’t all swaying palms and swimming pools. A few hundred kilometres north of Brisbane is World Heritage–listed Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island (1840 square kilometres). Hire a 4WD, pack a snorkel and ferry across to Fraser’s glorious beaches, shipwrecks, forests, fresh-water lakes and rampant native wildlife, including wallabies, dingoes, echidnas, birds of prey and myriad reptiles. Resorts here are low-key, and you could even just bring a tent for beach camping under the stars.
The 1200-square-kilometre Daintree Rainforest is a remarkable place full of 3000 plant species and countless birds, bugs and crocs. A World Heritage site itself, it’s the biggest single tract of tropical rainforest in Australia, and home to more native wildlife than seems plausible. Here, the green forest seems to tumble down towards the brilliant white-sand coastline and visitors are enveloped by birdsong, fan palms, mangroves and constant conversations of frogs. Activities are endless, but they include wildlife-spotting tours, mountain treks, interpretive boardwalks, tropical-fruit orchard tours, canopy walks, 4WD trips, horse riding, kayaking and cruises.
Getting to the Daintree is half the fun – the super-scenic drive from Cairns to Cape Tribulation is a real show-stopper. The Great Barrier Reef Drive, as it’s now known, clings to the coastline and passes some awesome beaches.
If you’re seeking culture, you’ll want to head straight to Brisbane, Queensland’s buzzy big smoke. Folded into the elbows of the meandering Brisbane River and home to 2.3 million Queenslanders, ‘Brizzy’ is an energetic city on the rise, with edgy arts, buzzing nightlife and simmering coffee culture (check into Brew for a perfect cup). Its bourgeoning restaurant scene (E’cco is a must, the Gunshop Café is a quirky and locally sourced treat) focuses on global palates and open-air seating whenever possible. Brisbanites rise with the sun to tackle activities from jogging and cycling to kayaking and rock-climbing.
But it might be the Brisbane River itself that gives the city its edge. The river’s organic convolutions carve the city into a patchwork of urban villages, each with a distinct style and topography: bohemian, low-lying West End; hip, hilltop Paddington,; exclusive, peninsular New Farm, prim, pointy Kangaroo Point. Move from village to village and experience Queensland’s diverse, eccentric, happening capital.
Sugar cane, sea turtles and authentic Queensland
To the north, the Fraser Coast and Capricorn Coast regions are Queensland at its most authentic. In Bundaberg, sugar cane grows tall to fuel the well-known local Bundaberg Rum; and Rockhampton, Australia’s ‘Beef Capital’, where Queenslanders get their rodeo on. There are over 2.5 million cattle in the area, and the city’s roots in the 19th-century heyday of gold and copper mining are reflected in the city’s fine Victorian-era buildings. The quiet beach at Mon Repos is a one-of-a-kind place to spend a night spotting loggerhead turtle mothers and hatchlings. Mackay is also worth a look – it’s a compact seaside city with art-deco architecture and surprisingly few tourists.
Surfing hot spots
Though the Great Barrier Reef effectively acts as enormous breakwater for much of the state’s coast, southern Queensland offers some great surfing beaches, and those in search of a perfect break will have plenty of options. Many will start at the Gold Coast, which culminates in the high-rise hedonism of Surfers Paradise, where a classic Aussie beach and breaks still offer a great training ground for first-timers surfers.
Meanwhile, Gold Coast surfie towns like Coolangatta and Burleigh Heads seem purpose-built for unhurried, stress-free experiences. At Coolangatta, look for the Superbank, a 2km-long sandbar stretching from Snapper Rocks to Kirra Point. Trucking north, don’t miss affluent Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. The water here is popular with longboarders, with good wave action at Sunshine Beach and the point breaks around the national park.
Great surfing can also be found in Agnes Water, Yeppoon and Town of 1770. Agnes Water is Queensland’s northernmost surf beach: north of here the Great Barrier Reef shelters the coastline from Pacific Ocean swells.
Last updated in 2017.