Getting Oriented

A map linking all of northern Queensland's coastal ports and offshore resorts from the Whitsundays north to Lizard Island would look like a lace-up boot 1,600 km (1,000 miles) long. However, you'd only see less than half the reef, which extends south to Lady Elliot Island and as far north as the near-roadless wilderness of Cape York and the shores of Papua New Guinea.

If you're visiting the reef only briefly, it's simplest and most economical to day-trip from the mainland. Some reef-island resorts are accessible by boat; others can be reached only by plane, and both airfare and rates can be expensive. Day trips depart from major coastal cities including Cairns, Port Douglas, Townsville, and Airlie Beach.

  • Cairns. A laid-back tropical tourist hub built around a busy marina and swimming lagoon, Cairns bristles with hotels, tour agencies, dive-cruise boats, and travelers en route to the rain forest and reef. It has some fine retail stores and markets, plus an extensive waterfront park and entertainment precinct.
  • North of Cairns. The pristine coastline north of Cairns is punctuated by charming villages and tourist towns, including Palm Cove, with its European Riviera ambience, and bustling Port Douglas, with its sparkling marina, sprawling resorts, and hip café scene. North of the Daintree River, World Heritage–listed wilderness extends to Cape Tribulation and beyond; here you'll find few services but some terrific, eco-friendly rain-forest retreats.
  • Whitsundays/Airlie Beach. The glorious Whitsunday Islands, just off the mid-north-Queensland coast, lure holidaymakers with world-class water sports, sheltered yacht anchorages, and resorts catering to every taste. Airlie Beach, the closest mainland town, buzzes with backpackers, who flock to its man-made lagoon, markets, bars, and budget digs. Well-heeled travelers might prefer the boutique retreats and resorts that hug the hillsides above the main drag.
  • North Coast islands. The upscale, eco-conscious boutique resort on Orpheus and Bedarra islands, off Ingham and Mission Beach, are tailored to foodies and honeymooners, reclusive VIPs, and nature-loving travelers. Lizard and Fitzroy islands, off Cairns, offer ready access to world-class dive and game-fishing sites.
  • Townsville and Magnetic Island. Regional city Townsville has gracious heritage buildings, excellent museums and marine centers, and a well-maintained waterfront with a man-made swimming lagoon. Offshore, Magnetic Island is a popular holiday spot, with high-end and budget accommodation and an array of aquatic activities, including sea kayaking and scuba diving.

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