Great Barrier Reef, Queensland: where to dive and snorkel
The Unesco world heritage-listed natural wonder is a ribbon of blinding blues and greens, a constellation of islands and reefs, running parallel with the Queensland shoreline from the tip of Cape York in the north 1,600 miles south to Bundaberg. At the reef’s southernmost end are Lady Elliot and Heron islands, two stars of David Attenborough’s new three-hour documentary(screening at 9pm on 30 December, BBC1); heading north, Airlie Beach, Townsville and Cairns are popular starting points for reef explorations.
Airlie Beach and the Whitsunday Islands
It’s easy to spend an entire holiday exploring the Whitsunday archipelago’s 74 jungle-clad islands. The jet-set flocks to ritzy Hamilton Island (owned by wine baron and sailing enthusiast Bob Oatley) but nature lovers can delve into uninhabited isles fringed with coral reefs and perfect beaches. Fly to Hamilton Island’s Great Barrier Reef Airport or Whitsunday Coast Airport, a 20-minute drive from Airlie Beach.
Dive the outer reef
Want to brag that you learned to dive on the world’s most famous reef? Cruise Whitsundays, based at Port of Airlie, ferries divers, snorkellers and day-trippers via high-speed catamaran to a pontoon anchored alongside a coral wall at Hardy Reef. The day-long tour (from AU$230/£112) to the outer Great Barrier Reef includes snorkelling, visiting the underwater observatory and touring the reef in a semi-submersible; scuba diving costs extra.
• Dive lesson AU$119 (£59), certified dive AU$99 (£49), +61 7 4846 7000,cruisewhitsundays.com
Scuba and sand combo
Combine a dive with arguably the Whitsundays’ most popular attraction by going to Whitehaven Beach with Airlie Beach-based Mantaray Charters for a visit so leisurely there’s time to climb Hill Inlet for an elevated view over the gorgeous white sand. Peer into the shallows to spot juvenile sharks and rays before returning to the boat for lunch. In the afternoon, plop into the clear waters near Hook or Hayman Island to scuba dive or snorkel.
• Day trip AU$197 (£96), introductory dive AU$100 (£49), certified dive AU$80 (£39) (second dives $60). Bookings essential, +61 7 4948 1117,mantaraycharters.com
Whitehaven Beach on Whitsunday Island – the group’s largest island – has become a must-see destination for its blue waters and white sand. This means there are plenty of day-trippers along the 7km sweep of dazzling silica; so, for something a bit different, sail over for a day trip (including morning tea and lunch) on the Lady Enid, a former racing yacht. Get the beach (almost) to yourself by taking a barge from Shute Harbour with Whitsunday Island Camping Connections and then camp overnight (the barge company also rents camping gear).
• Sailing (eight-hour trip) from AU$225pp a person (£110pp), +61 407 483 000;ladyenid.com.au. Camping permits AU$5.95pp (£2.90pppn) a person a night, +61 13 74 68, nprsr.qld.gov.au Return barge AU$155pp (£76pp), +61 7 4946 6285,whitsundaycamping.com.au
Mountain bike in the rainforest
Peer over your shoulder in Airlie Beach and you’ll realise the town is not only a reef gateway but right next to Conway national park. The rugged coastal rainforest is a birder’s paradise: keep watch for emerald doves, sulphur-crested cockatoos and orange-footed scrub fowl. From November to March, buff-breasted paradise-kingfishers travel from Papua New Guinea to nest in termite mounds. Get among it on an all-day guided mountain-bike tour with Airlie Mountain Bike Tours that includes stopping for a dip in a waterhole.
• Tour from AU$120 (£59), +61 408 800 159, airliemountainbiketours.com
Source: The Guardian.