You don't have to be a scuba diver to uncover the magical marine wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef (though any diver will, of course, recognize this as a veritable Shangri-la). And while snorkeling is an optimum, yet obvious, choice here, consider these five fantastic alternatives to taking in one of the uncontested wonders of the natural world.
Spanning a 1,600-plus mile stretch of eastern Australian coastline, the reef is best accessed via coast-clinging Cairns. The well-serviced tropical tourism town touts some 300 days of sunshine a year, easy access to a string of offshore islands and coral reefs, a seemingly endless array of reef-oriented tours, and a lush World Heritage-listed tropical rain forest back on shore, when you're ready to give your sea legs a break.
Whatever approach you choose, the massive Great Barrier Reef, with its staggering 2,900-plus individual reefs and some 900 isles, is guaranteed to be drenched in dramatic beauty, with colorful coral formations and unimaginable biodiversity (representing an astonishing 1,500 fish species alone) coming together to form the world's largest living entity. You might encounter anything from Nemo-reminiscent clownfish to giant clams, or sea turtles to minke whales (in season).
1. Head Out to an Outer Reef Pontoon
Ogle the pristine ocean terrain of the Outer Great Barrier Reef with full-day excursions that bring guests out, via catamaran, to permanently anchored reef pontoons that act as manmade adventure islands. Cairns's harbor is full of boats waiting to take you out on these practically one-stop shopping trips (like Reef Magic Cruises, Sunlover Reef Cruises, and Great Adventures), though our vote goes to the Port Douglas-based Quicksilver Cruises (set about an hour's drive north of Cairns, with optional coach transfers provided).
Quicksilver's pontoon-based activity platform is the largest on the Great Barrier Reef, and outings here offer discovery of the rich coral gardens and marine life of Agincourt Reef, set near the Reef's outer edge. Expect of full-day roster of both wet and dry activities, including a reef presentation from a marine biologist, unlimited snorkeling (enhanced by twice-daily fish feeding), semi-submersible boat tours, underwater observatory viewing, and a buffet lunch, all included in the rates. Or, opt in for extras like scuba diving (for both certified divers and newbies), marine biologist-led snorkeling tours, helmet diving, or scenic helicopter flights.
2. Stay on a Great Barrier Reef Island
Just off the coast of Cairns, several reef-fringed tropical islands invite visitors to lay out a picnic, swim and snorkel in relative seclusion, or even spend the night. Try Fitzroy Island, a 45-minute catamaran ride from Cairns, which offers all of the above, with beachfront access primed for swimming and snorkeling on the reefs, as well as lush rain forest bush walks that are protected national parkland. Hook up with the onsite Cairns Dive Center for snorkeling gear, kayak, and paddleboard rentals; dive outings; and glass-bottom boat rides. The three-year-old, 99-room Fitzroy Island Resort provides the isle's sole accommodations, with rooms ranging from basic studios to self-contained apartment-style units complete with full kitchens (from $167/night).
3. Go for a Helmet Dive or Scuba-Doo Ride
Want to take a dip without getting your hair wet? No problem! Several of the outer reef pontoon companies offer helmet dive tours, like Quicksilver's Ocean Walker outing, which allows guests to walk on an underwater platform while fresh air is pumped down from the surface into the helmet's dome. Visitors to Green Island can also sign up for a similar Seawalker adventure, though instead of an artificial platform, participants walk right on the seafloor.
Or, have a go at a Scuba-Doo, a unique underwater scooter offered exclusively in Australia by Great Adventures. The scuba bike contraption works similarly to the helmet dive model—no mask or mouthpiece is required: Simply sit down, slip your head into the dome (a scuba tank provides the air), and zoom away for the ride of a lifetime.
4. Survey from Above on a Helicopter or Sea Plane
Head out with helicopter operator GBR Helicopters for a bird's-eye perspective over the reef. Their chopper tours fly out of Cairns and Port Douglas—opt in for 30-minute scenic reef flights or hour-long tours of both the reef and the rain forest. Most of the pontoon reef operators also offer discounted fly-and-cruise packages, with optional reef helicopter flights launched from floating helipads set up near their pontoons.
But Cairns Seaplanes proposes another way to soar over the cays and reefs, with options to extend their seaplane flightseeing tours with an island beach picnic or a water-landing just offshore from Green Island.
5. Cruise in a Semi-Submersible or Glass-Bottom Boat
For another way to get in on the fun, without getting wet, opt to explore the seafloor via semi-submersible or glass-bottom boat tours. Semi-submersibles are pleasure cruising's take on the submarine, offering recessed seating areas that give passengers submerged views of the passing underwater landscapes.
Again, most pontoon reef boat outfitters offer some variation of these boat tours, usually included in the upfront ticket price. Quicksilver's slow-going semi-subs regularly zip past sea turtles, schools of Technicolor fish, and incredible coral gardens.
Alternatively, Fitzroy Island offers nighttime reef viewing via glass-bottom boats, while Green Island pioneered the prototype for glass-bottom boats back in the 1930s—with tours still going strong today.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard has set out circumnavigating the globe on an ambitious 14-month adventure. Tag along on her travels through Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America—and on the high seas in between—as she reports back to Fodors.com on captivating cruises, hot hotels, and timely travel trends.
Photo credits: Outer Reef Pontoon courtesy of Quicksilver Group; Fitzory Island Resort courtesy of John Garay; Scubadoo courtesy of Quicksilver Group; Seaplane courtesy of Cairns Seaplanes; SemiSub courtesy of Quicksilver Group