As one of the Australian must-sees - the Great Barrier Reef had always been on our to do list. Perhaps it is the travel time from Perth or our misguided thinking that you need lots of time to see this part of the world – but it was one of the last remaining things on my Australian bucket list.
Fools we were. A weekend, a week, a year – it doesn’t matter – the reef is a must, and it is doable in a short time or a lifetime. What you then add to your Far North Queensland itinerary will just be the icing on the cake.
We added a couple of days to a weekend for four nights in FNQ plus travel time. I was surprised at just how much we were able to see in this short time and just how much I enjoyed exploring this area.
Port Douglas – 2 nights Cape Tribulation – 2 nights
Travelled – June 2013
Recommended for – Cairns and surrounds are well-geared to all kinds of tourists – all age-groups and abilities, and most budgets (it’s not an altogether cheap destination) are catered for here.
Spots we missed – We were satisfied with what we covered in the time available. Although there is more to discover around Cairns, if we’d had an extra day, rather than add extra towns I think we would have gone out on the reef again on a different tour – perhaps to one of the islands, like Green Island.
Planning a successful FNQ trip
1. Cairns vs Port Douglas
I read lots of different online commentary on whether to stay in Cairns or Port Douglas as our ‘entry point’ into FNQ and the Great Barrier Reef. And to make things slightly more confusing, there are also a number of beaches north of Cairns that are like little resort towns themselves. Here is our take on it.
There is about an hour’s drive between Cairns and Port Douglas – along a particularly scenic bit of coast. But there is a huge difference in the look and feel of these towns.
Cairns is a big city, with shopping centres, apartments, and lots of choice when it comes to accommodation, food and reef tours. It has more of a youthful, backpacker vibe to me than the resorts further up the road, and everyone congregates at the ‘Lagoon’ a sort of pool/water playground which offers partial compensation for Cairns City’s lack of a beach. If you don’t have a car, it would probably be a pain to stay anywhere other than Cairns.
Port Douglas is pretty and more village-y, with lovely beaches, a cute main street full of shops, bars and restaurants.
If you want to be on the beach, but closer to Cairns, the Northern Beaches are a good alternative, particularly for families. We stopped in at Palm Cove which has a couple of high-end resorts, great restaurants and a lovely beach.
Another thing to consider is what reef experience you are after. There are a number of operators out of both Cairns and Port Douglas, so it is convenient to stay in the same town as your tour operator - though not necessarily essential if you are able to travel (or the operator provides transport), noting you will probably have an early start. There are a greater number of operators out of Cairns, but a couple of lovely, specialised tours out of Port Douglas.
With all that in mind, we stayed in Port Douglas because of the reef sailing experience that we wanted to do, we had a car and we had found some good value accommodation. We weren't sorry - it is a lovely place to stay.
2. Choose your reef adventure
There are so many different reef ‘products’ to choose from that it was completely bewildering. I wish we had longer to do try a couple of different experiences – but as we only had the chance to do one – the pressure was on to choose wisely.
I investigated lots of options, which basically fall into two categories.
Firstly there are the pontoons. Every day giant ferries (and even helicopters) head out to these structures that sit permanently above the reef, where you can do a range of activities. Some offer snorkeling, semi-submersible boat trips, underwater observatories and so on. This can suit families and groups that have a range of needs, interests and swimming abilities as they are designed to offer something for all, including those that want to stay dry. However they are sometimes criticised for being a ‘reef for the masses’ experience (some pontoons attract hundreds of visitors per day) and that the quality of the coral – and the experience – suffers as a result.
Secondly there are the boats which usually visit a couple of sites in a day. These either specialise in diving or snorkeling or try to mix both. Some also include trips to islands – from Port Douglas for example, you might visit the Low Isles; or Green Island from Cairns – before heading to other section(s) of the reef for snorkeling.
We decided on a reef sailing experience out of Port Douglas that catered to a small number of people each day. As it was a snorkeling only tour, the section of the reef we visited was very shallow (less than one metre in parts), rather than having deeper sections that would be needed to accommodate divers.
While jumping in off the back of the boat can be daunting for those that aren’t great swimmers (and even some that are!), on our trip there was a well trained guide in the water with our small group, and ‘noodle’ floaties – so even if you can only swim a little, it is usually manageable and possible to have a great time.