Great Barrier Reef See And Do
A diver's heaven, the reef is one of the world's biggest underwater preserves, and home to 1,500 varieties of fish and 400 types of coral—not to mention dolphins, dugongs, sea turtles, rays, whales, sea snakes…the list goes on and on. There are more than 5,000 different dive sites spread across the reef's various islets and cays.
Island and beach resorts all provide equipment and lessons for a fee and run daily diving and snorkeling trips to various reef sites. Serious divers often forgo the resort experience entirely and instead spend two to ten days on a live-aboard dive boat. This allows them to make several dives per day and visit the farther-flung sites. One of the best live-aboard dive operators is Mike Ball Dive Expeditions. Ball, a Brit who's been in the scuba business for 30-odd years, runs multiday excursions from Cairns on his state-of-the-art, 100-foot twin-hulled boat (for up to 29 passengers at a time). Divers visit sites like Cod Hole (where they can have close encounters with potato cod the size of small cars); Osprey's Reef (famous for its underwater walls and resident hammerhead and grey whaler sharks); Ribbon Reef (home to the beautiful but deadly scorpion fish and, in June and July, minke whales); and dozens of other sites. Prices start at about $1,000 per person for a three-night, 12-dive trip; all meals, snacks, nonalcoholic drinks, and tanks and weight belts are included (61-74-053-0500 or, in the U.S., 888-645-3225; www.mikeball.com).
If one day of underwater sightseeing is enough for you, there are tons of exceptional sites in easy day-trip distance from the mainland coast. One of the most reputable day-trip operators is Tusa Dive, in Cairns, whose fully equipped boats can accommodate up to 60 divers. Day trips include two or three dives (with all the necessary gear), snorkeling for nondivers, and the optional services of a professional underwater photographer—to show the folks at home you really did encounter that giant manta ray or moray eel (61-7-4047-9100; www.tusadive.com).
For more information about diving and snorkeling on the reef, check out www.barrierreefaustralia.com.
The outer reef—particularly Lizard Island —is home to some of the world's best game-fishing sites. Giant black marlin, sailfish, wahoo, Spanish mackerel, and tuna—as well as barramundi and the picturesquely named sooty grunter—are all plentiful here. Closer to shore, your catch might include red emperor, coral trout, sea perch, and mackerel. Regardless of what part of the reef you're on, the fishing is best between August and December.
If you're game to spend several days hunting down your prize catch, it's hard to beat a charter aboard the Port Douglas–based Phantom. This 65-foot Precision Cruiser (owned by Aussie pop icon John Farnham) is tricked out with all the bells and whistles: state-of-the-art tracking equipment, dual live-bait tanks, top-notch gear and tackle, and a 20-foot tender craft for exploring estuaries. Up to eight people can stay on board at once (you must charter the entire boat); at the end of the day, you can lounge with your friends in the opulent saloon below deck while chef Greg Bull cooks your catch (61-74-094-1220; www.phantomcharters.com.au).
Day-anglers can board the 60-foot luxury Norseman, based in Port Douglas (night charters also are available). Work up an appetite hauling in red emperor or coral trout with rods and hand lines, or use float lines to lure giant trevally and tuna. Then tuck into a smorgasbord lunch while the crew cleans and chills your catch (61-74-099-6668; www.mvnorseman.com.au).
If you're short on time or want a literal overview of North Queensland's two World Heritage Areas, helicopter is the way to go. In an hour-long scenic helitour leaving from Port Douglas, you can pack in a sweeping flight over the Low Isles and Batt and Tongue reefs (hovering to see turtles, rays, and sharks); a stop-off on a pristine coral cay; bird's-eye views of Port Douglas, cane fields, and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area; and a vertiginous foray into Mossman Gorge. It's reassuring to know, as the rotors roar and you strap in, that Great Barrier Reef Helicopters' 11 pilots have clocked in more than 50,000 flying hours—and counting (61-74-035-9669; www.gbrhelicopters.com.au).
Port Douglas Road
Tel: 61 74 099 3235
No luck spotting wildlife in the wild? Make up for it at the delightful Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary just outside Port Douglas, where you're guaranteed close, eco-friendly encounters and Attenborough-worthy photo ops with 180-plus species of native Australian birds, reptiles, and mammals. Wide boardwalks wind through a gigantic walk-through aviary (divided into rain forest, wetland, and woodland environments) and a compact grasslands wildlife park. You'll see bright-plumed parrots, wallabies, 'roos, lizards, crocs, and koalas. Arrive early for the popular Breakfast With the Birds and Lunch With the Lorikeets sessions.
Cruising the Coral Sea, dropping anchor at deserted beaches, and hopping overboard to snorkel and swim: Could there be a more idyllic way to enjoy the reef? Although the sailing weather is best between June and December if you're north of Cairns, it's fabulous year-round further south—especially around the Whitsunday Islands.
A multiday trip on board a crewed luxury yacht is, obviously, the best way to sail here—and there are tons of posh vessels that make three- to seven-day cruises from Cairns and other mainland ports. One of the most opulent choices is the 60-foot Juston motor sailer appropriately named Bliss, based in Airlie Beach. The boat has three queen-size suites and can accommodate up to eight people; you'll need to book the whole boat ( www.bliss.com.au).
Day-sailing trips are a great option for those on tighter budgets. Cairns-based Ocean Spirit takes groups of between 80 and 100 passengers to the beautiful sand islands of Upolo Cay and Michaelmas Cay on luxury catamarans; the boats have attentive crew members, restaurant-quality food, comfortable decks for sunning, and well-maintained snorkeling gear for passengers who want to get wet (61-74-031-2920; www.oceanspirit.com.au).
A comprehensive list of sailing trips and craft—including retired World Cup maxi sailboats and historic square-riggers—can be found at www.whitsundaysailing.com.au.
Mareeba Tropical Savanna and Wetland Reserve
Tel: 61 74 093 2514
An hour's drive southwest of Port Douglas but an ecological world away, Mareeba's wetlands give refuge to hundreds of bird species, including ospreys, sea eagles, black swans, red-tailed black cockatoos, pink-eared ducks, rare Gouldian finches, and Australia's only stork, the Jabiru. The terrific two-and-a-half-hour guided Twilight Safari combines a tranquil bird-watching cruise on a lagoon, a leisurely drive through termite-mound-dotted savanna, and a stop for "billy" tea (boiled in a tin pot over a fire). Back at the visitors' center afterward, you can chat with other wildlife enthusiasts over fine Australian wine, cheese, and (bird)song as the sun sets over Clancy's Lagoon. Call ahead to get detailed driving directions from the reserve staffers.
Closed January to March.
It's hard to wrench yourself away from the water, but once you do, you'll discover that many Barrier Reef islands have great walking trails. Large portions of the islands are designated national parks, with surprisingly varied scenery: Some are shrouded in rain forest; others are rocky and mountainous. The abundant wildlife on islands like Hinchinbrook and Long Island includes colorful lorikeets, kingfishers, possums, lizards, snakes, 'roos, and wallabies.
In the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest, scenic walks abound, but wildlife, though abundant, can be elusive. Touring with a guide will help you spot well-camouflaged natives such as the endangered southern cassowary (a large flightless bird with blue-black plumage), nonvenomous tree snakes, amethystine pythons, goannas (large monitor lizards), bandicoots, the elusive Bennett's tree kangaroo, and estuarine crocodiles (known in these parts as "salties"). Both Daintree Eco Lodge and Coconut Beach Resort run wonderful rain forest tours for their guests.
Outside of the resorts, there are lots of independent tour operators to take you creature-peeping. Down Under Tours, based in Cairns, is a cut above; by appointment, their expert guides bring small groups on four-by-four treks into the rain forest, as well as to other prime wildlife-viewing spots around the coast (61-74-035-5566; www.downundertours.com).