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Year visited: 2017
Time of year: June
Although I have been in Australia (for 2 hours… At the airport…) my sister lived in Papua New Guinea for a year and a half, and would always stop in Australia on the way to and from PNG.
With her help, we’ve put together this guide for visiting the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns, Australia.
After I achieved my dream of holding a koala in Australia, the next thing I wanted to do was visit the Great Barrier Reef.
Luckily for me, Cairns–the “gateway to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef”–was the city I routinely traveled through on my way in and out of the country in which I was living at the time, Papua New Guinea.
Cairns (pronounced “cans”) is a small tropical city of about 150,000 people. It is also a big tourist hub because of its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef, so there are plenty of amenities.
You can access the Great Barrier Reef from other locations in Queensland (the province encompassing the northeastern coast of Australia), but I personally like the atmosphere of Cairns. While it doesn’t have the bustling and sophisticated feel of cities in southern Australia like Sydney or Melbourne, it has a relaxed, tropical vibe that facilitates relaxation and recreation.
How to Get to Cairns from the Airport:
The airport isn’t that large, which is nice because lines tend to not be very long and it’s easy to navigate.
Transportation from the airport is easily accessible. We used a taxi for rides to and from the airport. Taxis queue up at the taxi rank at the front of each terminal building, and you just go to the first taxi in line.
You can pay (Australian) cash or credit. Don’t forget that there might be fees on your credit card for international usage. Some banks allow you to purchase foreign currency, which we did before leaving the US so we had Australian cash on hand without having to pay any service fees. In Australia, you do not need to tip taxi drivers.
Know Before You Go
To travel to Australia, you need to apply for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA). It is easy to apply for, and it is electronically attached to your passport—you don’t need to print anything or put anything in your passport.
The first time I did this, I was nervous because there is nothing physical to say you have it (other than the email you get saying your application is approved), so I printed the approval email to have with me. It wasn’t necessary though; once you’re approved (usually immediately after applying), it will be in the system so they’ll know you have it when your passport is scanned at the airport.
It costs 20 Australian dollars (about $13 USD), and it is good for 12 months. You can stay in Australia for up to three months at a time and can enter as many times as you want during the 12 months. You need to have this before you get to the airport, though, or they won’t let you on the plane!
When to Go
Since Cairns has a tropical climate, you can do a Great Barrier Reef snorkeling (or scuba) tour at any time of the year. However, keep in mind that the dry season (April through October) is cooler than wet season (November through March).
Being in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed from those in the US, so when it is winter here, it is “summer” there (though technically Cairns only has two seasons).
I did this tour in June, and I wished I had done it when I visited in January. Being out on the water (and IN the water), I got chilly on the boat ride. Being wet and traveling on the water (on a windy day, no less) was not conducive to staying warm.
We visited two locations on the Reef, and I shivered the whole way between the first and second locations. I had finally warmed up by the time we reached the second location, but I opted to not go in the water the second time because my towel was wet, so I knew I would be miserably cold on the return trip if I went back in the water.
Another consideration, however, is the potential for thunderstorms in the summer/wet season. Opting for the milder dry season increases the likelihood of cooperative weather.
Tours of the Great Barrier Reef
There are a number of Great Barrier Reef tours you can book from Cairns. A Google search will produce a number of options you can explore to find the best tour for you, or you can check out this website on how to access the Great Barrier Reef from Cairns.
If you don’t want to get in the water, you can take a glass bottom boat tour. If you want to be up close and personal with the reef and its inhabitants, there are plenty of snorkeling tours to choose from.
For an even more intimate experience, you can scuba dive on the reef. Options are available for everyone from novice to experienced divers.
Our Tour Experience
Unfortunately, I didn’t record the tour company we used to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef (I didn’t expect to ever go back, or to some day help my sister with a travel blog!), but what I DO vividly remember is that I regretted using a budget tour.
When comparing the available tours, I chose the one that cost the least and saved a lot of money; however, on our way back from the outing, I remember thinking that if anyone I knew ever went to the Great Barrier Reef, I would tell them to spend more money to go on a better tour.
Why You Shouldn’t Use a Budget Tour
The biggest drawback to the budget boat is that it was much slower than other tour boats. On our way back to Cairns after a day on the reef, we were continuously passed by smaller, faster boats while I sat on our slow-moving boat shivering, a little seasick, and just wanting to get back to shore.
Because our boat was slower, it also took longer to get TO the reef, so we had less time in total to spend snorkeling. In my opinion, it would have definitely been worth spending more money to get more time in the water and to get back to shore sooner at the end of the day.
Another issue with our boat being so slow is that every time the faster boats went by, they made waves that rocked our boat. Before we departed, the crew informed us that it was a windy day and that if anyone was prone to motion sickness, they recommended buying some medication they had for sale on the boat.
I do get motion sickness but had been on many boats before without a problem, so I declined to follow their advice. Another budget mistake! Both my husband and I got seasick within a half hour on the water.
The waves from the other boats did not help with that, of course. We spent the entire trip to and from the reef glued to the railing on the side of the boat.
Other Things to Do
Cairns Esplanade Lagoon
These tours depart from the marlin marina, which is adjacent to another fun activity, the Cairns Esplanade Lagoon.
The Esplanade has walking paths along the pristine ocean (the Pacific Ocean, to be specific), playgrounds, a swimming area (with toilets and showers), volleyball courts, and many other activities (both pre-arranged and impromptu). And it’s free!
We enjoyed strolling along the Esplanade before and after our tour. It has a very tropical vacation vibe.
Kuranda: Village in the Rainforest
Kuranda is a village that is often visited as a day trip from Cairns. Even getting there from Cairns is part of the experience! You can ride the Kuranda Scenic Railway or ride in a gondola on the Skyrail (or both!).
There are so many unique things to do in Kuranda, from feeding wallabies, to holding a koala, hiking through the jungle, to cruising down the river. It is definitely worth the trip out from Cairns.
Is the Great Barrier Reef Worth Visiting?
While visiting the Great Barrier Reef is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I did (and would do again if I had a twice-in-a-lifetime chance), keep your expectations moderate.
You may have heard about the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the loss of a large percentage of coral due to rising water temperatures. Those things are sadly true, and observable as you snorkel the reef.
I saw significantly less color and life when I was out on the reef than I saw in the pictures of the reef available for purchase at the tourist shops. It was a neat experience because of where in the world I was, but honestly the snorkeling itself was much better in the Bahamas.
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