Great Barrier Reef Vacations: Where to Stay

Great Barrier Reef Vacations Australia
Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Tourism Queensland

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system and a bucket list destination for many of our clients! This spectacular destination is perfect for snorkeling or diving. There are even several options for travelers who want to see the miraculous, colorful marine life while staying dry.

Wondering where to stay in the Great Barrier Reef? There are multiple gateways to the reef, each with its own unique draws. The most popular are Cairns and Port Douglas in the Northern Reef, and the Whitsunday Islands further south.

Where you should stay depends on your personality, and also when you travel. At Down Under Endeavours, we usually recommend visiting the Northern Reef from April until December. We find that most of our clients like having access to the Daintree Rainforest. In December, it does become rainy season (cyclones) and stinger season at the reef. From December to April, we generally recommend the Whitsundays, as they are located far enough south that you will be outside of the tropical rain belt.

At the Northern Reef, because it is warmer and tropical, you will see more colorful fish and coral in the reef. Around the Whitsundays, because it is further south and less tropical, you’ll find larger, less colorful fish and marine animals (including lots of sea turtles) by the reef.

If you want more information on where to stay for your Great Barrier Reef vacation, give us a call at (312) 951-8517. Our luxury travel designers can help you choose the best destination to suit your interests, timeframe, and budget.


Great Barrier Reef - Where to Stay - Cairns Australia
Vlassof Cay, Cairns. Image: Tourism Queensland

  • Cairns is ideally located just 15 minutes from the airport, so it’s easy to make the most of your time here.
  • It offers a larger variety of Great Barrier Reef excursions than Port Douglas. All the live-aboard boats depart from Cairns, as well.
  • It is the perfect launching point for most activities, like horseback riding, ATV tours, whitewater rafting, Chillagoe Caves, bungy jumping, food trail tours, and more, which would be long day trips from the Port Douglas area.
  • However, Cairns doesn’t have a beach in town, so any swimming or sunbathing would have to be done in your hotel pool or on an island excursion.
  • Cairns accommodations are going to be larger, chain-style hotels.
  • See a sample itinerary with a stay in Cairns

Port Douglas

Great Barrier Reef - Where to Stay - Port Douglas Daintree
Mossman River, Port Douglas. Image: Tourism Queensland

  • Port Douglas is a chic beach town with a laid back feel. The many shops and al fresco dining options make it a great holiday destination.
  • It features more boutique hotels and apartment-style accommodation, as opposed to the more touristy Cairns hotels.
  • There are multiple operators running daily reef trips, so it’s quite easy to spend a day on the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Port Douglas is just 15 minutes from another UNESCO World Heritage site: the Daintree Rainforest, the world’s oldest living rainforest. The Daintree has deep ties to Aboriginal culture, and you can take a cultural/nature tour of the rainforest with an Aboriginal guide.
  • The beautiful Four Mile Beach offers plenty of opportunity for swimming and sunbathing.
  • See a sample itinerary with a stay in Port Douglas

The Whitsundays

Great Barrier Reef - Where to Stay - Whitsundays Whitehaven Beach
Hill Inlet, Whitehaven Beach, Whitsundays. Image: Tourism Whitsundays

  • The Whitsunday Islands are the vacation spot of choice for Australians, offering a more refined and cosmopolitan feel than the northern gateways.
  • The islands are home to fabulous beaches and some of Australia’s most exclusive luxury resorts.
  • This is the ideal launching point for more high-end excursions like helicopter or seaplane flights. Seeing Heart Reef from the air is a popular activity, as well as flying to Whitehaven Beach, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
  • Because they are sheltered by the Great Barrier Reef, the islands are perfect for leisurely sailing and island hopping.
  • The water in the Whitsundays is colder than that of Cairns or Port Douglas, so you won’t see as many colorful, tropical fish.
  • See a sample itinerary with a stay in the Whitsundays

Ready to start planning your adventure to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef? Contact our Australia experts or give us a call at (312) 951-8517 to start planning your trip of a lifetime!