When people think of visiting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, they can face some tough budgeting decisions. Once the realisation sinks in that sailing through the Whitsundays on a private yacht or snorkelling off an isolated island are no-goes, the question of “where do we stay?” comes into play.
Fortunately, many unique towns along Queensland’s coastline offer all-year round, affordable accommodation and entry points to the reef. So if you’re wanting to save your pennies without compromising those dreams of tropical fish, colourful coral and amusing sea cucumbers from your plans, then check out our Great Barrier Reef guide below.
This one is a no-brainer. Cairns has often been labelled “the gateway” to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and it is pretty easy to see why. This palm tree-lined town offers a huge range of diving and snorkelling tours, as well as day and overnight trips to the outer reef and nearby islands. Green Island is particularly good for beginners and Fitzroy Island has a huge diversity of marine life. See Tusa Dive for a range of packages or Cairns Dive Adventures for some great advice on how best to explore the Great Barrier Reef. Accommodation prices in Cairns may hike during peak season, but four-star hotels can still be found for under $150 per night and well-rated hostels from $50 up.
Cairns has lots of budget-friendly activities: you can take a free dip in the public Lagoon on the Esplanade, take the bus up to Palm Cove (approximately 50 minutes), or visit the town’s buzzing night markets. When the tropical heat starts to make you feel a little loco, try the Mexican-themed Green Ant Cantina and Brewpub or delve into some great value meals at local favourite, Jamdrop Cafe. For Cairns nightlife, there’s really only one way to party in an orderly fashion… and that’s on a pub crawl. Ultimate Party’s double-decker bus will stop by all the popular watering holes, including Gilligan’s Nightclub, where you can find two-for-one drink deals, a lagoon pool, and plenty of like-minded “budgeteers”.
trivago recommends: Caravella Backpackers, Cairns
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Did you know the Great Barrier Reef is longer than the Great Wall of China?
Mission Beach is Australia’s closest mainland point to the Great Barrier Reef. To see the amazing coral formations up close, catch the Reef Express, a fast rigid-inflatable boat that leaves directly from the beach and takes approximately 45 minutes. If you’re travelling with friends (or if you made a few on the pub crawl) you may want to charter a boat with Mission Beach Charters and divvy up the costs. Holiday apartments or B&B’s on Mission Beach are often reasonably priced at $130 and under per night during peak season, whilst hostels tend to start at $60.
Offshore are the Family Group of Islands, including popular filming location Dunk Island, which is reachable in just ten minutes daily with the Mission Beach Dunk Island Water Taxi. Be sure to have a drink or two (or three) whilst listening to some chilled-out tunes at the Dunk Island Sunset Bar. Once back on the mainland, tuck into some legendary ribs at Tuskers Tuckerbox and then work them off on one of Mission Beach’s four walking tracks – and don’t forget to keep a lookout for those prehistoric-like Cassowaries!
trivago recommends: Apollo Jewel Apartments, Mission Beach
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Okay, so Townsville may not exactly be a secret – but the value of its accommodation is. In the dry season (May through October), it is possible to snatch a four-star hotel for less than $120 per night. Conveniently, there is a local airport and regular tours to the Great Barrier Reef operate from the town. Day and overnight trips can be easily arranged via Adrenaline Snorkel and Dive. For those wanting to check out Magnetic Island (one of the relatively cheaper islands) the Sealink Magnetic Island Ferry runs frequently and takes approximately 20 to 25 minutes. On the island, you can hire a moke from MI Wheels and maneuver your way around the coastline. Stop by Bungalow Bay Koala Village for a koala pat.
If you’re tired of being a water baby and need some feet-on-the-ground time, the neighbouring landscape has a lot to offer: rainforests, beautiful beaches, rugged outback and country terrain, all of which are viewable from Castle Hill lookout. And if the weather turns particularly bad, you can always watch the pretty fish at Reef HQ Aquarium. At the end of the day, put your feet up and enjoy a drink overlooking Maggie Island at Cbar on the strand.
trivago recommends: Rambutan Hotel, Townsville
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Did you know the Great Barrier Reef is the only living thing on Earth visible from outer space?
Bowen had its 15 seconds of international fame when its giant mango was stolen by Nandos in a publicity stunt in 2014. If that doesn’t amuse you, then many other things will in this charming seaside town. It’s surrounded by crystal-clear waters that make for excellent snorkelling and diving spots, so there’s no need to catch a boat to outer sea if you wish to see what marine life the coast has to offer. Just visit Aussie Reef Dive for gear as well as guidance on Horseshoe Bay. Be sure to also soak up some sun at the gorgeous array of nearby beaches: Rose Bay, Murray Bay and Grays Bay, just to mention a few. And once all the bays start to meld into one, drive over to the Elliot River to experience some needed bush time.
If you’re itching for a sea breeze, why not head over to the North Queensland Cruising Yacht Club on Wednesdays and Saturdays, where you can try out sailing for free. If you’re there on a Thursday, the tapas bar at the Denison Hotel, Bartinis, offers a great $10 lunch special. Luckily, most of Bowen’s high-rated hotels generally remain below $130 all-year round. The town also tends to attract less comers and goers than its neighbour, Airlie Beach, and has often been referred to as “Queensland’s best kept secret.” Well not anymore (sorry guys!).
trivago recommends: Sails on Main Motel, Bowen
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Situated right next to the Whitsundays, it’s hard to find a more convenient entry point to the Great Barrier Reef than Airlie Beach and its surrounds. The town has faced major changes in recent years and is slowly transforming from a backpacker paradise into a resort haven. Nevertheless, there remains plenty of hostel-like accommodation and if you have a car, two kilometres or more outside the town centre you can find affordable tourist parks from $50 up. Day trips to the islands are abundant and packages include dual trips to Hamilton and Daydream Island, glass bottom cruises to Whitehaven Beach and drop-offs at Heart Reef. See AirlieBeach.com for a thorough run-down of options and details on the Island Hopper Pass.
After a day on the water, head back to the main street to satisfy your munchies at Little Vegas Burger & Bar. Grab a beer at the traveller-packed Magnums Hotel while the sun sets and then hop your way into the night between the town’s various bars and nightclubs. And if you’re still wide-awake by dawn, take an early jog along the stunning Bicentennial Walkway to sweat out the non-retractable memories of the previous night.
trivago recommends: Colonial Court Holiday Apartments, Airlie Beach
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Did you know Australia is the only place in the world to have two world heritage sites listed side by side – the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest?
Driving south along the Bruce Highway you’ll reach the tropical Mackay, a vibrant town that still manages to maintain a country feel (without the onslaught of tourists). Good luck deciding on a spot to swim though, as no less than 31 spectacular sandy beaches border the region. A day trip to visit the relatively untouched Keswick Island is an absolute must and can be arranged for snorkellers and divers alike. When you return, head down to the Pioneer River and chill out by the Bluewater Lagoon, which features two separate pools, a 19.5 metre slide and electric BBQs set amongst stunning parkland – all of which are completely free. Most accommodation is competitively priced all-year round and a decent hotel can be snatched for under $120 and a motel from $80 up.
trivago recommends: Rover Holiday Units, Mackay
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Yeppoon / Rockhampton
Yeppoon is the heart of the Capricorn Coast. This sleepy town is home to quaint cafes, long beach walks and less rowdy backpackers. It is also the launching point to the beautiful Great Keppel Island – an island which features 17 flawless white-sand beaches, vast bushland and over 90 species of birds. Daily departures are operated by Freedom Fast Cats with glass bottom coral viewing. If you’re yearning for a scenic afternoon drive, head south along the coast to see other picturesque towns in the area, such as Rosslyn, Causeway Lake and Emu Park. And for those who are feeling brave, drop into Koorana Crocodile Farm for a tour. Among Yeppoon’s plush resorts lie a couple of hostels and motels, starting at $85 per night in peak season.
If you can’t find suitable accommodation in Yeppoon, just 40 minutes inland is Rockhampton – instantly recognisable by its large cow statue that greets visitors as they arrive. There are more accommodation options here, and prices start at $70 in high season. Make sure to spend some time in the town centre to appreciate the grand old buildings and stunning views across the Fitzroy River. As the sun starts to set, make your way to the Great Western Hotel to enjoy a value-for-money steak with the locals and perhaps watch some bull riding in the Rodeo and Music Arena. Afterwards, head over to Ginger Mule to test some of their deliciously cheap cocktails.
trivago recommends: The Edge; Rockhampton
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Did you know the Great Barrier Reef is greater in size than both Tasmania and Victoria combined?
Agnes Waters / Seventeen Seventy
Apart from the slightly odd name (to commemorate the year Captain Cook landed), Seventeen Seventy and its sister town Agnes Water are anything but uncool. With their laid-back ambience and stunning scenery, more and more visitors are starting to recognise these Central Queensland gems. To get your Great Barrier Reef fix, there is no better way to see the jewels of the ocean than a trip to Lady Musgrave Island with 1770 Reef Cruises. Given the Discovery Coast’s growing popularity as a tourist destination, prices can be relatively high in peak season for hotels – but you can still find hostels, tourist parks and motels for under $100.
If you’re starting to feel like a human fish and need some above-the-surface time, Agnes Water is the East Coast’s most northern surf beach and Reef2Beach Surf School will have you riding down a wave in no time. For something a little different, take a trip on the Larc, a giant pink amphibious craft that will show you the very best of the waters all the way up to Bustard Head Lighthouse. There’s also plenty of scenic tracks in the area for nature lovers including coastal walks with spectacular lookout points and peaceful forest trails in the Deepwater National Park.
trivago recommends: Mango Tree Hotel, Agnes Water
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Where do you like to stay when visiting the Great Barrier Reef? Let us know below!