The Great Barrier Reef stretches for more than 1,250 miles along the Queensland coast— from Cape York in the north to as far south as Bundaberg—and is sprinkled with more than 600 islands. Most of the ones we've covered in this guide—including Double, Hinchinbrook, and much of the Whitsunday group—lie close to the mainland and are easily accessible by motorboat or ferry (see "Getting Around" for information about jumping-off points). More remote islands, such as Lizard and Lady Elliott, can be reached only by seaplane, helicopter, or, for guests prepared to take a few days, charter yacht.
Much of Tropical North Queensland's coast is protected Wet Tropics preserve; the preserve land extends roughly from Cooktown in the north to Townsville in the south, and encompasses some 3,453 square miles. The Daintree Rainforest, north of Cairns, is Australia's most diverse rain forest, home to numerous rare plants, insects, and animals—and a growing number of eco-lodges.
WHEN TO GO
Coastal North Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef islands are always temperate; the climate gets warmer and wetter as you move north. While the islands are cooled by ocean breezes, the heat and humidity on the mainland between November and April (the Southern Hemisphere's summer and early fall months) can be extreme, with frequent rains and daily temperatures averaging around 80 °F. These are also the months when deadly box jellyfish occupy the waters off mainland beaches (although they aren't a problem off the islands on the outer parts of the reef). The late-autumn and winter months between May and October are the driest and most comfortable (and safest), with temperatures averaging around 70 °F.
HOW TO GET THERE
Travelers arriving from the U.S. need to change planes in Sydney or Brisbane before landing at Cairns International Airport, the one nearest the Barrier Reef (www.cairnsport.com.au). From there, visitors can travel by scheduled boat, water taxi, or seaplane to various island and rain forest destinations. Hamilton Island also has its own airport; Qantas runs 35 Jetstar flights per week round-trip from Cairns, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne (61-29-691-3636; www.qantas.com.au ). Note that for these small flights, a baggage weight limit of 33 pounds sometimes applies (depending on the number of passengers)—so to be on the safe side, pack light.
Most mainland resorts on the beaches north of Cairns, Port Douglas, and the Daintree Rainforest offer transfers via minibus to and from Cairns International Airport. A number of privately run coach companies also run regular scheduled services to Palm Cove and Port Douglas resorts, from around 6 a.m. till 11 p.m. (your resort can suggest a good choice). You can also rent a car and drive to your resort; Avis, Hertz, Europcar, and several other rental agencies have branches at the airport. The main road of Captain Cook Highway runs north from Cairns to Palm Cove and Port Douglas; all mainland resorts in this guide are well signposted from it and reachable within an hour's drive. Just make sure you refuel at or before Wonga Beach, between Mossman and Daintree; beyond there, gas stations are scarce.Island Resorts
Because the reef islands are spread along more than a thousand miles of coast, there are different mainland departure points for different groups of islands. Cairns is the place to get seaplane or helicopter service to Lizard Island; the town of Palm Cove, about 16 miles north of Cairns, is a few minutes' boat ride from Double Island. About 120 miles south of Cairns, the town of Cardwell has boat service to Hinchinbrook; another 100 miles south, the city of Townsville is where boats and seaplanes leave for Orpheus, Bedarra, and Dunk islands. About 130 miles south of Townsville, Airlie Beach is the jumping-off place for the Whitsunday Islands (including Daydream and Long islands). To make boat, seaplane, or helicopter arrangements, contact your resort.
The best way to get from Cairns to your island departure point is by taking a train. Queensland Rail runs modern, clean, and efficient trains to all coastal destinations; some have individual small-screen TVs, power sockets for laptops, sleeping berths, and gourmet dining cars. For routes and fares, go to www.traveltrain.com.au.
If you stay on remote islands (such as Orpheus or Lizard), you'll likely remain there throughout your vacation, so getting around won't be a concern. If you do island-hop, seaplanes, ferry services, and water taxis are available. Note that more remote and secluded island resorts may only schedule one boat or plane transfer per day: Try to ensure your schedules match up, or you'll have to arrange a private charter (your resort can recommend the best local operators) or stay overnight on the mainland.
Passengers over four years old must pay a AU$5 "reef tax" every time they visit the reef (to fund its conservation). Your tour operator will collect it from you when you pay for your trip.
The website www.greatbarrierreef.aus.net is an excellent source of visitor information about tropical North Queensland and the Barrier Reef islands. The tourism authority of Tropical North Queensland also has an information center in Cairns, which is open seven days a week:
Gateway Discovery Centre
51 The Esplanade
Tel: 61 74 051 3588