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Cairns/Port Douglas from Sydney

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We are traveling to Sydney in November and after exploring Sydney we'd like to spend a few days on the ocean. We have 3 days and we are contemplating whether we should fly to Cairns/Port Douglas or if there are similar beaches closer to Sydney that are within driving distance. We really want to see great barrier rief and snorkel there (we also love warm weather and nice beaches) but we'd rather not fly 3 hours back-and-forth if there are similar places that are closer to Sydney. We don't mind renting a car or taking a bus if necessary; I guess we are wondering if we are going to miss out if we don't go to Cairns. Is Cairns anything like Cancun or Carribean or Florida? Are beaches in Sydney or near Sydney much different? Any resort towns on the beach that are similar to Cairns but closer to Sydney?

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