Price is no barrier to the Great Barrier Reef, reports Katie McGonagle

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Australia likes its icons big, bold and beautiful – think Uluru, the Outback and Sydney Harbour Bridge – but none more so than its best-known natural wonder.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure in the world, stretching nearly 1,500 miles down the Queensland coast and visible from space.

It’s a kaleidoscope of colour with 2,900 individual coral reefs and an amazing assortment of bright tropical fish, serene sea turtles, dolphins, porpoises, whales and other marine life. They don’t call it great for nothing.

Thankfully, visitors don’t need an equally big bank balance: the reef can be tailored to any budget, from cash-strapped backpackers eyeing up a bargain to globetrotters keen to see it in style.


Travellers low on time and money can stick to a short trip. Cairns and Port Douglas enjoy easy access to the reef, competitive pricing and budget-friendly accommodation.

Day cruise options such as Virgin Holidays’ pre-bookable Silverswift Outer Barrier Reef cruise aboard a 29-metre catamaran, visiting three snorkelling and swimming spots (from £135 ex-Cairns). Several operators also feature Quicksilver day cruises such as the Low Isles cruise on Wavedancer, popular with families for its mix of beach time, glass-bottomed boat trips and marine biologist-guided tours (from £106, or £56 for children, with Signature from Thomas Cook).

If they can spare an extra night, Gold Medal’s two-day Waltzing Matilda itinerary flits between the Whitsunday Islands with time to snorkel through reefs then relax on secluded beaches (from £282).

Active types who take their watersports more seriously can opt for a dedicated departure. Contiki has a three-day Snorkel to Adventure tour spotting stingrays, schools of tropical fish, giant turtles and clams, with two nights aboard the boat (from £399); or a five-day Padi-certified Learn to Dive itinerary, combining classroom and pool training with a chance to practise the craft in the world’s best underwater playground (from £695, with two nights on the boat).


If the thought of bumping into backpackers fills clients with dread, try a relaxed reef-and-beach combination. Kuoni’s Rainforest Retreat pairs three nights at boutique Silky Oaks Lodge in the Daintree Rainforest with a full-day reef cruise and spa treatment (from £849 without flights). Trafalgar’s new four-day Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef tour uses the Hilton – an oasis in the midst of busy Cairns – as its base for visiting Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park, the Kuranda train and a high-speed catamaran to Agincourt Reef (from £579).

Staying on land doesn’t always mean the mainland. The islands offer an all-you-can-eat buffet of reef-related activities. Austravel product manager Katie Warburton says: “Remember how vast the reef is – it’s not always necessary to book an additional excursion. There are fantastic areas of marine life as far south as the Whitsundays, up to Cape Tribulation in the north. Paradise islands are perfect for those wanting to escape, and there are some ultra-luxurious resorts, but despite perception it doesn’t always have to break the bank.”

She recommends tropical Green Island, just an hour by boat from Cairns, starting at £204 a night with breakfast, glass-bottomed boat tours, snorkelling, canoeing and catamaran transfers.

Other mid-range favourites include Hamilton Island, which offers a free shuttle around the island, plus windsurfing, snorkelling and paddle skiing (Anzcro has five-nights-for-four from £644, with breakfast and transfers from Airlie Beach) and Heron Island, which is best-suited to nature lovers and offering good-value full-board rates (from £151 with Gold Medal).

If clients already have their sea legs, recommend a few nights skimming the waves. Signature from Thomas Cook has a three-day liveaboard with nine daytime dives and two at night, which starts at £457 including equipment hire, insurance and meals.

Intrepid has also added Whitsundays sailing options this year: a four-day trip from Hamilton to Hook Island from £480, or a seven-day sail aboard an eight-berth yacht from £845, both stopping at Whitehaven Beach, often touted as the best beachin the world.


The five-star Hayman Island resort has racked up numerous awards and for good reason. This tropical paradise offers stunning accommodation in beach villas and rainforest-set penthouses, plus myriad activities: forest hikes, snorkelling, diving and more. Lead-in pool rooms start at £166 per night including breakfast, with Signature from Thomas Cook.

At opposite ends of the reef, tiny Lizard and Orpheus Islands (Orpheus pictured below) make excellent high-end honeymoon options, according to Bridge & Wickers. Both require a scenic flight transfer from Cairns or Townsville respectively, but once guests arrive, they will enjoy total tranquillity, verdant parklands and some of the most impressive underwater activity anywhere on the reef. Migrating minke whales have even been spotted off the coast of Lizard Island.

Those with cash to splash can try a luxurious liveaboard, with longer itineraries taking passengers to areas of the reef day-trippers don’t see. Coral Princess Cruises has three, four and seven-night trips, which include all meals and drinks, glass-bottomed boat tours with a marine biologist, bush walks and beach barbecues, plus leisurely snorkelling and diving excursions. Kuoni has a four-day itinerary from £1,015.

Barrier Reef