Great Barrier Reef

Brisbane to Cairns

Total Distance: 1775km
23hr 0min

View on Map View on Map

One of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World; two million visitors every year; a World Heritage listing – the Great Barrier Reef is absolutely majestic. Best of all, this remarkable natural wonder is so easy to explore. The Great Barrier Reef touring route begins in Brisbane and emphasises the many destinations that allow easy access to indulge in this gigantic aquatic playground. Many glittering beaches and islands that aren’t part of the reef feature on the journey, too.

Highlights

  • Enjoy a kaleidoscope of colour by diving or snorkelling
  • Relax at Great Keppel Island’s white-sand beaches
  • Take a scenic flight over Heart Reef from Airlie Beach
  • Stay dry with a visit to Townsville’s Reef HQ Aquarium
  • Witness two World Heritage sites meet at Mission Beach

The Great Barrier Reef

Stretching along the Queensland coast from Bundaberg to Cooktown, the Great Barrier Reef provides seemingly endless opportunity for exploring this phenomenal natural wonder.

Considering this is the world's largest coral reef – and contains more than 3000 individual reefs – diving and snorkelling are major drawcards. Whether a beginner or an expert, you are sure to be blown away by the Great Barrier Reef. The variety of marine life is astounding: dugongs, green turtles, and whales join 1500-plus tropical fish species, more than 300 types of hard corals, and a staggering 4000-plus species of molluscs.

Hundreds of islands form part of the Great Barrier Reef, too, and this only serves to enhance its appeal.

Tour options to the Great Barrier Reef are many and varied, departing from a host of destinations outlined on this touring route. Whether taking a cruise to dive or snorkel, hopping on board a glass-bottom boat, or enjoying a scenic flight, the Great Barrier Reef is sure to take your breath away.

Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach

Hamilton Island

Hamilton Island

Heron Island

Heron Island

Brisbane

Start

Brisbane marks the starting point of this touring route and although the Queensland capital doesn’t introduce you to the Great Barrier Reef, it does present a wealth of appeal.

Start at South Bank: cultural attractions mix with restaurants and bars, a man-made beach, the Wheel of Brisbane, and more. Follow that with a Brisbane River cruise.

An attraction that sneaks under the radar is the MacArthur Museum Brisbane. It delves into the city’s interesting link with General Douglas MacArthur.

Or begin the island-hopping theme by visiting North Stradbroke Island or Moreton Island where glittering beaches abound.

Brisbane to Sunshine Coast (Caloundra)

100km (1hr 10min)

Depart Brisbane and head along the Bruce Highway where you will reach the Sunshine Coast.

North of the famous Glass House Mountains is Caloundra, a great place to break up the journey and become acquainted with the sparkling beaches of the Sunshine Coast. Caloundra’s Kings Beach is a people magnet and features a fenced saltwater pool and a time-delayed fountain that will captivate children.

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Sunshine Coast (Caloundra) to Noosa Heads

55km (0hr 50min)

Explore more of the Sunshine Coast where there are several key spots dotted throughout. These include Mooloolaba, home to Underwater World and its profusion of marine life; Maroochydore, the heart of the Sunshine Coast; and Mount Coolum National Park, which provides panoramic views.

Noosa is a sub-region of the Sunshine Coast and one of its main centres is Noosa Heads. This beautiful town enjoys a spectacular location, surrounded by waterways and on the doorstep of Noosa National Park. Noosa’s main strip of sand is a protected beach and Hastings Street is renowned for great shopping and dining.

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Noosa Heads to Hervey Bay

185km (2hr 30min)

Hervey Bay marks your introduction to the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef.

From Hervey Bay, a 40-minute scenic flight leads to Lady Elliot Island, which provides ample dive sites, a vast array of bird species, and sea turtles during season.

Yet Hervey Bay gains most attention for its standing as one of the world’s great whale-watching venues. Tours abound during season (July-November) and will provide an experience you’ll never forget.

The Hervey Bay Esplanade is the place to go for a bite to eat, shopping, a picnic, and much more. Easy access to World Heritage-listed Fraser Island is another huge drawcard of Hervey Bay.

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Hervey Bay to Bundaberg

120km (1hr 35min)

Continue your climb to Far North Queensland and stop at Childers, another spot where eye-catching old structures are displayed. Further along is Burrum Coast National Park, which features variable landscapes.

A thriving city on the Burnett River, Bundaberg provides easy access to more of the pristine beaches synonymous with this touring route.
 
Bundaberg is famous for its rum, and distillery tours provide a wonderful insight into this iconic product. Another essential attraction is the Hinkler Hall of Aviation, housed in the Bundaberg Botanic Gardens. Bundaberg Railway Museum is another prized find.

A stop at Mon Repos Conservation Park to view turtles (November-March) will leave you awestruck. Or take advantage of Bundaberg’s proximity to the Great Barrier Reef.

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Bundaberg to Rockhampton

288km (3hr 13min)

Along the next stretch of the Great Barrier Reef touring route, veer off the Bruce Highway and visit the harbour city of Gladstone.

Gladstone is a great access point to Heron Island. Both boat cruises and seaplane flights reach this Great Barrier Reef island where diving and snorkelling are first-rate.

Press on to Rockhampton, an enchanting city on the Fitzroy River. Flights from Rockhampton lead to Great Keppel Island, which has a cluster of gobsmacking white-sand beaches. This Great Barrier Reef gem is part of the many islands that make up the Keppel Group.

For supreme views of Rockhampton and surrounds, stroll within Mount Archer National Park. Continue the nature theme at the Rockhampton Botanic Gardens, which include a zoo.

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Rockhampton to Yeppoon

40km (0hr 40min)

Steer towards the coast on the next leg of this touring route and reach Yeppoon.

The town is alluring, mixing a village-like ambience with a wide range of amenities. A stroll along the esplanade, Anzac Parade, reveals the beauty of its coastline.

Yeppoon is the perfect place to access the many islands that make up the aforementioned Keppel Group. Great Keppel Island can be reached by ferry in just 30 minutes from Rosslyn Bay.

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Yeppoon to Mackay

355km (4hr 5min)

The tropical city of Mackay is a launch point to reach the Great Barrier Reef’s Keswick Island, which forms part of the Cumberland Group. The sheltered bays and turquoise waters of Keswick Island will have you feeling like you’ve found paradise. It can be reached by a helicopter flight from Mackay.

While in Mackay, walk the palm-lined streets to marvel at its resplendent historical buildings or plant your feet along the Bluewater Trail to unearth sparkling views and key attractions.

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Mackay to Airlie Beach

150km (1hr 50min)

The largest Whitsundays town, Airlie Beach provides front-row positioning to incredible beaches and islands and the Great Barrier Reef.

Myriad cruise and flight options reach some of the most mind-blowing destinations of the Great Barrier Reef with ease. A classic activity is taking a scenic flight over Heart Reef.

The Whitsunday Islands consists of 74 islands that include the likes of Daydream, Hamilton, and Hayman Island – this trio is easily accessed from Airlie Beach. So too is Whitsunday Island, the largest of the group and home to world-famous Whitehaven Beach.

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Airlie Beach to Bowen

80km (1hr 10min)

Another key Whitsundays location is Bowen where the opportunity for amazing water-based leisure flows freely.

Perched on Edgecumbe Bay, Bowen hoards an enviable eight beaches, which easily entertain divers and snorkellers. The Front Beach foreshore is great for families.

While its natural beauty captivates, Bowen will also catch your gaze for the many murals that highlight the town’s history.

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Bowen to Ayr

115km (1hr 30min)

Access to the Great Barrier Reef is not a feature of Ayr, but being surrounded by water certainly is. The town is linked to neighbouring Home Hill via the Burdekin Bridge, the area’s biggest landmark.

Aside from the Burdekin River, Ayr is close to creeks, lagoons, and the coast. Alternatively, Plantation Park makes a great picnic spot.

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Ayr to Townsville

90km (1hr 5min)

Quite literally, Townsville shines – the city collects a whopping 300-plus days of sunshine each year.

In Townsville, you can be introduced to the Great Barrier Reef without even leaving shore.  Reef HQ Aquarium is a top attraction that provides a comprehensive insight into the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef through a series of fascinating exhibits.

To experience the real thing, head to Magnetic Island and spy beautiful beaches and bays, just a 20-minute ferry ride from Townsville. Or join a diving tour to reach prized spots that include Lodestone Reef.

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Townsville to Rollingstone

55km (0hr 40min)

Just ‘up the road’ from Townsville is Rollingstone, which provides an alternative base for exploring the wonders of the area. Head to nearby Balgal Beach for a relaxing swim or enjoy a glimpse of the past at the Rollingstone Railway Station.

Rollingstone is a great spot for unearthing nearby Paluma Range National Park, which marks the start of the World Heritage-listed Wet Tropics of Queensland. Jourama Falls and towering Mount Spec are key park features.

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Rollingstone to Mission Beach

185km (2hr 15min)

Along this leg of the touring route, head to Cardwell. Just 8km from town is stunning Hinchinbrook Island, which joins the throng of Great Barrier Reef islands.

Hinchinbrook Island showcases an array of landscapes, including wetlands and rainforests. A profusion of marine life is drawn to the surrounding waters and includes dugongs.  

A short detour from the Bruce Highway leads to Mission Beach, a majestic area consisting of four villages linked by a 14km stretch of sand.

Mission Beach enjoys a rare and breathtaking distinction. This is where two World Heritage sites meet: the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.

Not surprisingly, Mission Beach serves as a great departure point for Great Barrier Reef cruises. A host of operators allows for supreme snorkelling adventures or easy access to deserted islands.

Or head to Dunk Island, 4.5km offshore from Mission Beach, which forms part of the Family Islands. It can be reached via water taxi or charter boat.

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Mission Beach to Innisfail

50km (0hr 45min)

While Innisfail is not known as a departure point for Great Barrier Reef tours, it makes a worthy stop. Check out the town’s striking architecture: cyclones have devastated Innisfail but a positive has emerged in the shape of art deco buildings that dominate the town. Pay particular attention to Edith and Rankin streets.

Innisfail is a great base for exploring Wooroonooran National Park. It is home to Queensland’s highest mountain, Bartle Frere, as well as the glorious Josephine Falls.

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Innisfail to Cairns

90km (1hr 10min)

The booming city of Cairns is packed with attractions and is regularly bathed in sunshine. And it is another destination along this route where Great Barrier Reef exploration is hassle free. Myriad diving and snorkelling tour options are available.

A cruise to Green Island is among the many choices. This coral cay is a wonderful spot for either heading below the water or staying dry on a glass-bottom boat tour or simply relaxing along a pristine stretch of sand.

To feel the pulse of the city, you can’t go past the Cairns Esplanade. This sprawling foreshore area includes parklands, a lagoon, a playground, and more.

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Cairns to Port Douglas

65km (1hr 5min)

Port Douglas earns worldwide attention. Walk palm tree-lined Four Mile Beach and you’ll fall in love with this alluring village.

Like Cairns, abundant tours options lead to the Great Barrier Reef. This is a super base for exploring the outer edge of this World Heritage wonder where underwater visibility is often at its peak and a greater variety of marine life can be expected.

Consider extending the touring route and venturing into magnificent Daintree National Park to reach Cape Tribulation. Like Mission Beach, this tranquil village occupies a point where the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics of Queensland meet.

You can reach the Great Barrier Reef within half an hour from Cape Tribulation and the chance to swim with turtles is among the unforgettable experiences.

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