Where Should You Stay When Visiting The Great Barrier Reef?

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From Cape Tribulation in the north to Bundaberg in the south, the Great Barrier Reef stretches for 2,300km along the Queensland coast. So what are our picks for the best Great Barrier Reef holiday destinations? From remote islands to glamorous resorts, we’ve picked something for everyone.

Great Barrier Reef Accommodation

Where Should You Stay When Visiting The Great Barrier Reef?

Cairns and Port Douglas are the best-known Great Barrier Reef vacation destinations. But they are not the only ones: at 2,300km in length, the Great Barrier Reef is around as long as the East Coast of the USA. So where should you start?

Do you see yourself on a secluded island oasis, watching a spectacular sunset over the Coral Sea? Perhaps fine dining on the waterfront at an exclusive five-star Whitsundays resort is more your thing? Or maybe you don’t mind where you stay, as long as you have easy access to world-renowned dive sites filled with colourful coral and shoals of incredible fish?

Our Great Barrier Reef destination guide gives a comprehensive overview of places you might want to base yourself. Bustling holiday hotspots, secluded private islands, handy self-drive stopovers - you’ll find them all here.

Great Barrier Reef Islands

Choosing the best destination

To make things easier, we have grouped the Great Barrier Reef destinations into 3 areas:

  • The Northern Great Barrier Reef (Cape York to Hinchinbrook Island)
  • The Central Great Barrier Reef (Hinchinbrook Island to Mackay)
  • The Southern Great Barrier Reef (Mackay to Bundaberg)

The Northern Great Barrier Reef is where you’ll find the more popular destinations like Cairns and Port Douglas. You can fly into Cairns from most major Australian cities, so for many people it’s the first port of call. This region also boasts some beautiful natural attractions on the mainland, like the Daintree Rainforest and the Atherton Tablelands. So if you want to see more than the Reef, the Northern region is a perfect choice.

The Central Great Barrier Reef includes the Whitsunday Islands, famed for their soft white silica beaches and upmarket holiday resorts. On the mainland, Townsville is the ideal base for a diving holiday, while Airlie Beach is a convenient stopover for a short trip to the Whitsundays if you’re on a self-drive vacation and short of time.

The Southern Great Barrier Reef greets fewer international visitors than the northern destinations, with quieter towns and lots of local families vacationing here. There are incredible wildlife-watching opportunities: Bundaberg’s Mon Repos Beach is the best place to spot baby turtles hatching; you can snorkel with giant Manta Rays at Lady Elliot Island; or hang out on Heron Island with around 200,000 birds!

Where to stay in the Northern Great Barrier Reef region

Welcome to Tropical North Queensland! Home to lush rainforests and beautiful waterfalls, colourful birds and year-round sunshine. Thanks to the convenience of Cairns’s international airport, the Northern Great Barrier Reef is where most visitors come to get their coral fix. Here are some of the area’s best destinations:

Cape York Peninsula

Relatively untouched and largely uninhabited, Cape York Peninsula is further than most international tourists will venture. So if you’re looking for a remote, secluded vacation spot, this is it!

Haggerstone Island

600kms north of Cairns, is a private luxury resort island bursting with wildlife. It’s surrounded by spectacular underwater coral gardens and shipwrecks to explore. 

If a rustic (but luxurious) beach house on the edge of the wilderness appeals to you, Haggerstone Island will be heaven.

Haggerstone Island is ideal for: couples, castaways and wildlife enthusiasts

Haggerstone Island

Lizard Island

This is a national park island that lives up to its name - you’ll be sharing it with native goanna lizards who grow over a metre long! 

This remote resort island has a world-famous diving spot known as the Cod Hole, plus 24 white, sandy beaches for exclusive use by the guests.

Lizard Island is ideal for: couples, honeymooners, divers and luxury-lovers

Lizard Island

Cairns Region

The Cairns region includes well-known destinations such as Port Douglas, Mission Beach and of course Cairns itself. As well as the Great Barrier Reef, it’s your gateway to mainland attractions including Cape Tribulation, the Daintree Rainforest, Atherton Tablelands and Mossman Gorge. 

Cape Tribulation

110km north of Cairns, beautiful Cape Tribulation is a remote headland where the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Areas meet. The Daintree’s rugged mountains, deep gorges and flowing rivers will take your breath away. 

A well-known ecotourism destination, you’ll find eco-lodges, hostels and B&B accommodation rather than huge hotels. 

Cape Tribulation is ideal for: backpackers, nature lovers and anyone looking for a laid-back getaway in a quiet paradise.

Cape Tribulation

Port Douglas

A year-round resort destination 67km from Cairns, in Port Douglas you can dine al fresco and swim in the warm ocean waters no matter when you visit. Funky boutiques offer major international labels, handcrafted local jewellery and everything in between. Four Mile Beach runs along the edge of Port Douglas, stretching as far as the eye can see. 

A convenient option if you want to visit the Daintree Rainforest as well as the Reef. Check out our 7 Day Discover Port Douglas sample holiday itinerary for ideas on how you can make the most of the area’s many attractions.

Port Douglas is ideal for: those who would love a chic, boutique, relaxing vacation

Port Douglas

Palm Cove

Between Port Douglas and Cairns, Palm Cove is a relaxed and upmarket resort destination. Think palm-fringed beaches, day spas, fine dining and sophistication in a tropical village paradise. You might even spot a Hollywood star or two. 

There are daily shuttles and transfers to Cairns or Port Douglas for Great Barrier Reef day cruises and activities. Want to see how it’s done? Our 10 day Sydney, Rock and Reef Itinerary includes 3 nights in Palm Cove, with day trips to the Reef and the Daintree Rainforest.

Palm Cove is ideal for: Luxury family resort holidays, beachy weddings and sun-filled honeymoons 

Palm Beach


This regional city 1700kms north of Brisbane is your gateway to scuba diving, snorkelling, reef cruises, adrenalin activities, fishing, rainforest walks, native bird and wildlife watching. 

Base yourself here for a few days and you can take day trips to major attractions, all from one city. No need to pack and repack every day!  

Cairns is ideal for: families, adventure junkies, and anyone who loves the convenience of shops, restaurants and bars close by.


Mission Beach

Mission Beach is the closest access point to the Great Barrier Reef from the mainland. It’s only 22km from the Reef, plus it’s away from the main tourist track, so you can dive and snorkel the pristine waters in peace. 

Mission Beach is made up of 4 villages connected by 14kms of golden beaches, so there’s plenty of beautiful nature spots to explore at your leisure. 

Mission Beach is ideal for: Situated between Townsville and Cairns, it’s a wonderful, mellow place to stop if you’re on a self-drive holiday along the Queensland coast.

Mission Beach

Where to stay in the Central Great Barrier Reef

The Central Great Barrier Reef stretches from Hinchinbrook Island to Mackay. Stay on the mainland for convenience, or if you want to really push the boat out, head to the white sand beaches and resorts of the popular Whitsunday Islands.

Orpheus Island

This exceptional resort island welcomes a maximum of 28 guests at a time, and you arrive here by private helicopter - not a bad introduction! Luxurious and exclusive, it’s the perfect place to spoil yourself and someone special. 

An unmissable highlight is the protected giant clam garden, where you can snorkel among 300 huge-lipped molluscs weighing 150-200kg each!

Orpheus Island is perfect for: Weddings, honeymoons, anniversaries and any occasion where you really want to indulge.



Australia’s largest tropical city is a great base for divers and snorkellers, and a brilliant place to learn to scuba. Experienced divers can take a liveaboard trip to the SS Yongala wreck from here, while Magnetic Island is ideal for beginners with self-guided snorkel trails among the corals. 

Townsville is ideal for: diving and snorkelling, outdoor activities.


Airlie Beach

Airlie Beach is a small but popular tourist town with palm-lined beaches, waterfront parks and many restaurants. It’s a gateway town for the nearby Whitsunday Islands - if you’re on a coastal Queensland driving holiday it’s a great place to stay a night or two and enjoy a full day of island-hopping. Our sample 14 Day Pacific Coast Brisbane to Cairns vacation itinerary is a great example of this.

Airlie Beach is ideal for: People who are short of time and want a convenient base to experience the beauty of the nearby Whitsunday Islands.

Airlie Beach

The Whitsunday Islands

The Whitsundays are an archipelago of 74 islands located at the heart of the Great Barrier Reef. Only 8 of these picture-perfect islands are inhabited, but you can explore the others by sailboat for private beach picnics, secluded snorkelling spots and world-class dive sites.  

Where should you stay in the Whitsundays? Here are a few suggestions:

Whitsunday Islands

Hamilton Island

This 6 square kilometre resort island is fringed by coral reefs and secluded inlets, and 70% of the landscape is protected National Park. 

On this beautiful island, you’ll find a range of accommodation from self-catering apartments to high-end resorts including Qualia, Australia’s most luxurious resort. There is a spellbinding array of watersports activities and Reef excursions to entertain travellers of all ages.

It’s also a popular honeymoon destination - if you’re looking for Whitsundays honeymoon ideas, our 12 day Reef & Rainforest Honeymoon sample itinerary could be all the inspiration you need.

Hamilton Island is ideal for: couples, families, luxury lovers and anyone who fancies a round of championship golf overlooking the Whitsundays!

Hamilton Island

Daydream Island

Just 30 minutes from the mainland by boat, Daydream Island Resort is home to the Living Reef, a lagoon filled with over 100 species of marine fish and over 80 species of coral. 

There’s even an underwater observatory to safely observe marine life 4 metres below the surface, without getting wet.

Daydream Island is ideal for: families, non-swimmers who want to experience the Reef.

Daydream Island

Hayman Island

If an indulgent island getaway is what you’re after, Hayman Island certainly delivers. The elegant 5-star InterContinental Hayman Island Resort is the sole accommodation option. There are 3 fine-dining restaurants, a luxury spa, and a swimming pool 7 times bigger than Olympic size. 

With beautiful beaches and bushwalks on your doorstep, you can experience the remote beauty of the Whitsunday Islands without giving up any creature comforts.

Hayman Island is ideal for: couples, families or friends seeking total indulgence in an idyllic private island setting.

Hayman Island

Where to stay in the Southern Great Barrier Reef region

The lesser-known Southern Great Barrier Reef region is often overlooked by international visitors, but this laid-back, un-touristy region is home to some of the Reef’s most wonderful wildlife. 

Heron Island

This stunning coral cay is known for its extraordinary wildlife and its spectacular diving and snorkelling opportunities. Famous Heron Island dive sites include Heron Bommie, named by undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau as one of his favourite dive sites on the planet. Snorkel straight from the beach and you’ll find vibrant coral reefs within easy reach. 

Heron Island is ideal for: diving and snorkelling, forest walks and birdwatching.

Heron Island

Lady Elliot Island

Lady Elliot Island’s renowned Eco-Resort has no TVs, radios or WiFi. So how will you pass the time here? Snorkelling the coral gardens and protected lagoons? Spotting giant manta rays and loggerhead turtles? Exploring the more than 20 world-class dive sites? 

You’ll soon see why David Attenborough chose Lady Elliot Island as a key filming location for his Great Barrier Reef documentary. 

Lady Elliot Island is ideal for: wildlife lovers, anyone wishing to disconnect from the outside world.

Lady Elliot island


This inland city might not seem like an obvious choice for a Great Barrier Reef holiday destination, but thanks to its proximity to Lady Elliot and Lady Musgrave Islands, you can discover spectacular Reef scenery and wildlife within a 4-hour drive of Brisbane. 

Bundaberg’s Mon Repos Beach is home to the largest number of nesting marine turtles on the eastern Australian mainland, so if you want to witness the spectacle of thousands of baby turtles hatching, this is the best place to do it. 

Other highlights of the region include Hervey Bay, one of Australia’s top whale-watching spots, and Fraser Island with its famous Dingo population.

Bundaberg is ideal for: self-drive vacationers who don’t want to drive to the far north, wildlife lovers.


North, Central or South?

Which Great Barrier Reef region should I choose?

Great Barrier Reef Short Stays: where to stay if you’re short of time

Are you flying in and out? If you have 2 days or less Cairns is convenient to fly in and out of, and there are dozens of all-inclusive, full-day reef tour options to help you make the most of your short stay. 

What about if you’re driving to the Great Barrier Reef? Lady Elliot Island, at the southern end of the reef, is driveable from Brisbane in around 4 hours. Our 14 day Coral Reef, Island & Outback FlyDrive itinerary is a nice example of how to add 2 nights at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef into an Australia-wide vacation.

Where to stay if tropical humidity doesn’t appeal

The further south you go, the less humid it will be. If your hatred of humidity threatens to ruin your holiday, opt for the Southern Great Barrier Reef, or head north only during the cooler winter months.

Where to stay on a family holiday to the Great Barrier Reef with young children

Larger mainland destinations such as Cairns, Port Douglas and Bundaberg may suit you best. If you’re self-catering or travelling with small children, knowing that you can nip to the shops or go out for dinner whenever you need to can be a lifesaver. 

Alternatively, choose one of the many island resorts, such as Hamilton Island in the Whitsundays. You’ll find an abundance of bars, boutique shops, activity clubs for the kids, and even a golf course… all on your doorstep.

Great Barrier Reef on a budget: where to stay

Staying on the mainland will dramatically reduce the cost of your Great Barrier Reef vacation. Any of the gateway cities (such as Cairns or Townsville) will offer more competitive prices for everything from accommodation to food. 

What if you have your heart set on an island vacation but your wallet isn’t keen? Try Magnetic Island - it’s essentially a suburb of Townsville, being only 20 minutes away by ferry. But you’ll find coral reefs, secluded beaches and a relaxed tropical island lifestyle here.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of the Great Barrier Reef’s top holiday destinations. For more help with planning your Great Barrier Reef holiday, or fitting it seamlessly into your Australia-wide itinerary, why not take advantage of our free Travel Planning Service

We believe that planning your dream holiday to Australia should be a fun and stress-free experience. Our friendly, experienced Travel Experts will work with you to fine-tune your dream Australia itinerary, down to the last detail. Get in touch today and let’s get your journey underway!

More articles to help you plan your trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Tropical Queensland.

Why You Must Visit The Great Barrier Reef
The best honeymoon destinations in Tropical North Queensland
Best Things To Do In Tropical North Queensland
Alternatives to Diving Australia's Great Barrier Reef


Elizabeth Marshall
Submitted by
Elizabeth Marshall
: 15 Jun 2021 (Last updated: 15 Jun 2021)

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