From Sydney to Cairns – enjoy the Great Barrier Reef diving

While a direct yellow brick road to the land of Oz sadly isn’t a reality, travellers to Australia’s east coast will be rewarded for enduring the long-haul flight with fantastical sights to top any Judy Garland movie. Dazzling city breaks on land and awe-inspiring dives at sea, Queensland is bound to leave a lasting impact. Start south, in the mega coastal metropolis of Sydney for world-class museums, fine dining and sophisticated port cruises under the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge. While the capital’s surf-ready beaches are no joke, it’s Cairns that holds the most notable of Australia’s natural attractions; the famed Great Barrier Reef. Take your time with a leisurely drive up the coast or fly direct, whatever the pace, your Sydney to Cairns Great Barrier Reef trip is set to be a joy.

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Photo: Giorgia Doglioni

Best time of the year to visit The Great Barrier Reef 

Enjoying balmy temperatures of between 15° and 26° Celsius with little to no rainfall, June to October is unmistakably the best time to arrive in the region. Bringing a whole new understanding of winter, Southern Hemisphere Australia offers ideal weather hand in hand with cheaper accommodation in certain parts. Thanks to these winter lures, Cairns hotels and excursions become fully booked pretty quickly, so it’s wise to book Great Barrier Reef tours ahead of time to lock down a place. If considering a summer vacation to the Great Barrier Reef (between November and May), be aware that this is locally known as ‘stinger season’ when – as well as more rain and poor visibility – deadly box jellyfish arrive on the scene in great numbers.

Spend a couple of nights in Sydney before heading to Cairns

A city of convenience with a top international airport, Sydney is the ideal place to start your vacation. Though Cairns Airport also offers a great number of direct international flights, starting out in Sydney will allow for the full east coast experience, with iconic landmarks, crankin’ beaches and laid-back yet sophisticated culture centred on the glittering shoreline of Port Jackson.

As well as boasting the Blue Mountains and Royal National Park as its back garden, Sydney central is a progressive cultural powerhouse serving up world-class galleries and museums, friendly nightlife and a multitude of vegan-friendly farmer’s markets in almost every neighbourhood. While alfresco socialising is a way of life for Sydney locals all year round, the city’s most significant social event arrives in March with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. At all other times, find the thriving gay community in the area surrounding Darlinghurst and Oxford Street. Discover more about gay life in Sydney with our definitive Sydney gay travel guide.

Sydney | Photo: Dan Freeman

How to get from Sydney to Cairns

Making the trip from Sydney to Great Barrier Reef will take you 2,400 kilometres north up the east coast past a great number of exceptional offshore islands, all ideal for an overnight trip to break up your 26-hour road trip to Cairns, by bus or car. Of course, the much easier alternative would be to fly from Sydney to Cairns in just three hours, with awesome plane-window views up for grabs on any clear day. Otherwise, the train is also a scenic option to consider, which – despite taking some 40 hours – provides the chance to stop in Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, along the way.

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Acting as a gateway to Australia’s rainforest as well as its reefs, Cairns is also a great place to rest up before beginning any trekking voyage

Cairns

Basking in the popularity of its famed offshore reefs, Cairns is a seasoned host with a well-established tourism industry and dynamic town centre. Find high-end lodgings, restaurants and a lively nightlife scene within town, plus outlying adventures easily in reach. The best way to reach the region’s most coveted attractions is to book with a local agency, whether that’s signing up for diving and boating excursions, a multi-day Great Barrier Reef cruise, skydiving adventure and beyond. Acting as the gateway to Australia’s rainforest as well as its reefs, Cairns is also a great place to rest up before beginning any trekking voyage. Based on old swampland in gold country, Cairns has an incredible rags to riches story and while there is a distinct lack of beaches, Cairns’ Esplanade Lagoon and the Pier Marina are two worthy alternative spots to while away an afternoon. Other nearby attractions include the Kuranda Scenic Railway and Cairns Botanic Gardens, with Hartley’s Crocodile Adventures and wildlife Habitat Port Douglas towards the north.

One of the most loved things to do in Cairns Australia is to take a day trip to the reef island of Michaelmas Cay. Here you can don your snorkel or diving gear to swim among turtles and rare Great Barrier Reef fish, or, alternatively, swap the gas tank for a glass of prosecco served atop a glass-bottomed boat. From this angle, you’ll also get to view some 23 species of seabird protected in the area. The number one base for Great Barrier Reef snorkel and diving excursions, Cairns is also a jumping-off point for countless other wilderness adventures. Of the best things to do in Cairns besides scuba diving Great Barrier Reef tours, we recommend immersing yourself in the land’s traditional customs on aboriginal cultural tours, before returning to town at day’s end to sample the lively local nightlife and restaurant scene. Guaranteeing a good time with near-nightly parties across its bars, pubs and clubs, this small town is not as subdued as you might’ve first thought. Venture to its harbourside come sundown to start off a wild night to remember.

Cairns | Photo: Manny Moreno

Great Barrier Reef | Photo: Yanguang Lan

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Visible from space and split into four distinct areas that support a diversity of life within fringing reef, patch reef, barrier reef and atoll, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a true gift from mother nature herself as one of the seven natural wonders of the world

Gay Scene of Cairns

Doing their best to make visitors feel at home, Cairns locals are generally very accepting of LGBT lifestyles, particularly in the area surrounding the official gay beach. Although the gay community is on the small side, you’ll find that the gay scene is easy to locate thanks to a whole host of online information. The summer is especially vibrant for LGBT holidaymakers, couples and singletons alike. Aside from socialising on glittering beaches, visitors can take advantage of the town’s varied nightlife, with gay hotspots popping up all around town. Log on to meeting platforms such as Gaydar, Grindr, PlanetRomeo, RealJock and Scruff to have the best access to the local gay scene, or ask around during the day. While it’s easy to find cute gay couples on the gay beach and multiple nudist beaches here, you can also try mingling on the private beach of Cairns’ best gay resort, the LGBTQIA+ adults-only Turtle Cove Beach Resort.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Visible from space and split into four distinct areas that support a diversity of life within fringing reef, patch reef, barrier reef and atoll, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is a true gift from mother nature herself as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Thanks to massive conservation efforts within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – funded by as much as $200 million AUD per year – the reef and its marine life benefit from long-term sustainability plans backed by science.

The Australian Institute of Marine Science is even going as far as to plant lab-grown coral onto the reef to ensure its future amid rising ocean temperatures and acidity levels. Tourism sadly remains as one of the biggest threats to the reef but this is largely offset by the environmental management charge every visitor must pay along with the additional $6 billion AUD that tourists generate for the region each year. Visit the reef responsibly with a reputed tour agency, checking the eco-credentials of the company before booking. And, while swimming with the fishes, be sure to follow your guide’s orders and not wear sunscreen!

Whitsunday Islands | Photo: Guillaume Marques

How to visit Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

Scale up your Great Barrier Reef map to find a marine reserve that spans a whopping 344,400 square kilometres, 2,900 coral reefs and stands as planet Earth’s largest underwater kingdom. While there may never be enough time to cover it all,  catch glimpses of this epic marine world either by swimming, snorkelling, diving or sailing through the area. On your watery journey, spot sea turtles, reef sharks and whales from surface level, moving below the waves for a more intimate view of manta rays, clownfish, giant clams, Maori wrasse and more, frolicking among immense networks of coral and anemone. Spot Australia’s Great Eight any time of year with an experienced scuba guide, snapping photos on an underwater camera to relive the experience later on (you’ll need a red filter edit!)

As well as seeing the reef from below the surface, make sure to sail the 74 paradise islands known as the Whitsundays where a number of remote resorts boast infinity pools and luxury lodges overlooking the azure shores of the Coral Sea. When wondering about where to stay, know that Cairns is the best spot on the mainland for easy access to the north end of the reef, while Townsville and the Whitsunday islands best serve the central area. Then, further down between the Capricorn Coast and Fraser Island, lies the supremely popular Airlie Beach, home to one of the few underwater beauty spots to have avoided coral bleaching in recent years.

Photo: Kristin Hoel

Photo: Neonbrand

Things to do in The Great Barrier Reef

On top of ubiquitous snorkelling and diving tours, non-swimmers can rejoice in the fact that they don’t have to get wet to enjoy the beauty of the reef. Glass-bottom tours operate both day and night, with the opportunity to stay overnight on a Great Barrier Reef liveaboard cruise ship while anchored near the reserve. It takes a bird’s eye view however to fully appreciate the reef in all its glory. To get some perspective on the reef’s mosaic qualities, visit one of the nearby offshore islands and hike to a local vantage point. Fitzroy Island is one such choice, where various trails run through rainforest towards its highest point. As well as taking in the epic views from the top, take a moment to appreciate the native wildlife found here, such as the Orange Footed Scrub Hen and the elusive Green Triangle Butterfly.

Another fun alternative, on neither land nor sea, is a trip to a floating adventure park where tethered pontoons host wet ‘n’ wild water slides, assault courses and diving boards, alongside rentable snorkels and sea walking gear. All heavily regulated to ensure no harm is done to the reef below, these at-sea water parks can please both your inner child and eco-conscious mind side-by-side.

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