There’s a lot more to do at the Great Barrier Reef in North Queensland than diving and snorkelling. From enjoying a family picnic on a remote sand cay to learning about turtle rehabilitation at Fitzroy Island, sliding down a natural rock waterslide at Josephine Falls to touring a castle hidden in the jungle and staying at Cairns’ first five-star hotel to open in decades, there are activities to suit every family and budget. Read on for Tiana Templeman’s insider guide to the best of North Queensland for families.

The most brilliant spectacles in North Queensland lie underwater. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Marine biologist Fiona Merida, who is the Manager of Eye On The Reef at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, first visited the Great Barrier Reef as a child in 1985.

“My new favourite place had been found and my curiosity was ignited,” says Fiona.
“When you take children to the reef during those influential years, you instil a connection with the Great Barrier Reef and with nature. Their environmental conscience is phenomenal.”

More than 30 years later, the Great Barrier Reef continues to inspire a sense of wonder that brings families together.

“Parents and children connect in a way that they don’t get a chance to in the regular world as they are sharing experiences on the same level,” notes Fiona. “Everybody who goes to the reef reverts to childlike wonder.”

With so many different ways to experience the Great Barrier Reef and North Queensland, your biggest challenge will be deciding which trip to do first. So choose an adventure, grab your family and dive in!

You won’t be able to wipe the smiles from your faces in sunny North Queensland. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Go camping

Take two of Australia’s most iconic travel experiences – camping and the Great Barrier Reef – and combine them for an unforgettable family adventure at Reefsleep, an overnight camping experience on a pontoon in the Whitsundays. “Visiting the Great Barrier Reef is not just about what is under the water – it is also about the sky, the birds, the moon on the water and simply being out in the middle of the ocean,” says Fiona – and she’s right. As the sun spreads its orange glow across the ocean, a maximum of just 30 travellers enjoy a barbeque as they watch giant trevally leap out of the water in pursuit of bait fish. After dinner, everyone climbs into a one-person tent and falls asleep by the light of the moon. When the sun slowly rises over the ocean, it feels as though the Great Barrier Reef is yours alone. 

Live the life of Riley

Riley hotel in Cairns takes service seriously – but other things? Not so much. An official sign by the pool reads “Free use of floating flamingos at all times”. A good thing, too, as the 1000sqm pool, with its sandy zone and children’s wading area, is the perfect roosting spot for these family friendly birds. Tasteful tropical decor and friendly staff make it feel like you’re on holiday from the moment you arrive. Rooms sleep up to six people and come with a choice of two king beds or four king singles. Add stunning Coral Sea views and great in-house dining and you’ve got the perfect family holiday. 

Explore a Spanish castle

Paronella Park is a rainforest-draped Spanish castle built by romantic visionary José Paronella in the 1930s. José was a local cane farmer who was inspired by childhood memories of Catalonian castles to build a turreted folly beside Mena Creek Falls. People thought he was crazy but José turned Paronella Park into a must-see destination. The same is true today. Most of the park is a ruin but the spirit of José’s grand dream lives on. With a little imagination and the help of a local guide, the lichen-covered picnic tables, delicate fountains and remains of a grand ballroom will take you and your kids back to Paronella Park in its glamorous heyday. 

A visit to Paronella Park is like a step back in time. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Ride the waterslide

Why visit a theme park when you can zip down a (free) waterslide in the rainforest? Cascading water has turned a 10m long sloping rock face at Josephine Falls into a natural waterslide. After you’ve walked to the highest viewing platform to check out the view, head down to the natural waterslide and have some fun. At the bottom of the slide there is a large swimming hole for bobbing about and admiring the rainforest. The easiest way to reach Josephine Falls is by car, or you can join a tour that includes time for swimming.

The rainforests and waterfalls of North Queensland are some of Australia’s most impressive. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Rehabilitate turtles

Fitzroy Island is just a 45-minute catamaran ride from Cairns but feels like a world away. Along with enjoying the tropical vibe, hiking through Fitzroy Island National Park and snorkelling the fringing reef, daytrippers and Fitzroy Island Resort guests can visit the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. This voluntary non-profit organisation is dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick and injured turtles. Tours operate several times a day and include the chance to observe turtles that are about to be released after a successful rehabilitation program. All tour fees go towards turtle rehabilitation and research – yet another reason to do this educational tour. 

Have a family picnic

Got the urge to splurge? Channel your inner rockstars with a private heli-picnic in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. It feels as though you are looking at a postcard each time you gaze out the helicopter window on the way to Vlasoff Cay. The crystalline blue ocean surrounding this tiny sand island will have you reaching for your camera, and so will your Insta-worthy picnic. This exclusive beach is yours alone for the next two hours. Relax in a deck chair, take a dip in that beautiful water, snorkel off the shore or simply sit back and enjoy the spectacular view with a glass of wine (or juice for the kids). 

Turn up the luxe-factor and splurge on a helicopter ride. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Babies and toddlers

Head to Cairns Aquarium for more Great Barrier Reef magic. The on-site cafe overlooks the underwater action in the aquarium and kids under 3 get free entry.

The Low Isles is just an hour from Port Douglas – it’s an unspoilt coral cay with fringing reef and clown fish aplenty.

Primary-schoolers

Teach your kids to snorkel in the resort swimming pool before you go to the reef. If they aren’t confident snorkelers, stay local. A day spent chilling by the pool, enjoying Cairns’ excellent playgrounds and strolling along the Esplanade is a cheap and cheerful option that can be just as enjoyable as a day trip.

Teens

Reefsleep is not just a fabulous and unique tour experience – it will also allow your teen to socialise with travellers from across the globe in a friendly, welcoming environment.

Venture beyond the reef to explore Cairns’ funky cafe scene, eat seafood on Prawn Star’s fishing trawlers or get your hearts racing with white-water rafting or jungle-surfing.

You’ll have fun simply relaxing on stunning beaches. Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland

Need to know

Best time to visit

Far North Queensland can be quite humid. The wet season runs from November to April, so visit outside of these months to experience more moderate weather. Visiting at this time will also mean you’ll miss stinger season from October to March.

Getting there

Jetstar, Virgin Australia and Qantas fly direct to Cairns.

Read more:

Great Barrier Reef islands you can camp on

A day trip to Daydream Island

Top 10 Aussie adventures

This story first appeared in Family Travel magazine. To subscribe or read back issues of the magazine, click here.