With its beautiful beaches, stunning islands and a host of child-friendly reef tours, The Great Barrier Reef is an unbeatable destination for a family holiday. The largest coral reef system in the world, The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the natural world and a World Heritage Listed site.
A network of over 2,900 individual reefs that runs a staggering 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef is home to thousands of species of fish, as well as turtles, dolphins, sharks and whales and is so huge it can be seen from space.
At its northernmost tip are Cairns and Port Douglas, both excellent gateways for touring the reef. The Whitsundays are a group of islands off the coast of Airlie Beach and home to the iconic Whitehaven Beach and Heart Reef, and another popular gateway to exploring the reef with loads of family friendly tours and activities to choose from. The Southern Great Barrier Reef runs from Bundaberg to Rockhampton and out to Lady Elliot, Heron and Great Keppel Island and is packed with marine life and spoilt with incredible natural beauty.
Visiting families can snorkel or dive the reef on a choice of age appropriate island, outer barrier reef boat or sea plane tours. Visiting a permanent pontoon out in the ocean is a great idea for families as besides snorkeling and scuba diving, they offer glass bottom boats, semi-submersibles and underwater observation decks making the reef more accessible for younger kids.
Stretching 2300 kilometres, the Great Barrier Reef and its surrounding islands offer countless activities for all the family. Here are 10 of our favourites.
While very young ones may not be old enough to snorkel, or explore the underwater world of the Great Barrier Reef, they certainly don’t have to miss out. Green and Fitzroy Islands near Cairns and the Low Isles off Port Douglas are perfectly set up for families, with shallow waters, long stretches of sand and other activities for little ones including glass-bottom boat tours so they can see the coral and marine life without getting wet. Green Island also has Marineland Melanesia, home to Cassius, the largest captive crocodile in Australia, there’s also a chance for the kids to hold or pat a baby croc. And Fitzroy has a fun Ocean Trampoline as well as a Turtle Rehabilitation Centre dedicated to the rescue and care of sick and injured turtles. And if you do head out to the outer reef, The Agincourt Reef pontoon has a kid-friendly underwater observatory and semi-submersibles for little ones to enjoy.
Experiencing only two seasons: the wet and dry, it is an area that allows for special experiences all year round. Summer is the wet season and when most rain falls. Tours from the mainland may be disrupted if there is unsettled weather. Consider an island escape: you are closer to the reef, they have plenty of good deals (especially from September to May) but don’t overlook the mainland which has the best selection of all-weather options for visitors.
The best time to visit the islands of the Great Barrier Reef are from May to October, though peak season is from June to October. The days are usually clear and the rainfall minimal which allows for a full day of activities on and above the water as well as clearer viewing underwater. Along with ideal weather there are often good deals with accommodation venues for all budgets in the shoulder month of May.
Amazing food is part of the experience in this region. With the sea on one hand and a lush hinterland on the other, good food is guaranteed on the Great Barrier Reef’s islands and mainland. The freshest local seafood and produce feature on most menus, as does luscious fruits like mangos and pineapples literally bursting with flavor, as one would expect of the tropics.
On many islands, such as Hamilton, resorts and restaurants offer deals where kids up to 12 can eat free – so it is worth checking out deals being offered before you go. And Airlie Beach on the Mainland is heaving with kid friendly cafes and restaurants serving fresh seafood, Mexican, Italian, Asian, European and modern Australian delights. The Little Vegas Burger Bar, Mr Bones Pizza and The Fat Frog Café are just three that are bona fide favourites with kids.
May – Great Barrier Reef Master Games
Held every two years, a great family event while witnessing the masters.
May – 1770 Captain Cook Festival
Based on the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef at Gladstone, this family festival incorporates live music, entertainment and a parade.
May – Port Douglas Carnival
This festival includes cultural events such as the popular Family Beach Day and Carnivale. “Wonders of the Reef” Street Parade.
August – Airlie Beach Race Week
Raise those sails and watch this colourful week of sailing with events for all ages.
August – Whitsunday Reef Festival
Based in Airlie with massive street parties and live entertainment.
October – Palm Cove Reef Feast
This one is for food lovers of all ages.
Whitehaven Beach, Lindeman and even super-exclusive Orpheus Island. These camping spots give you Great Barrier Reef access for less than $30 a night.
We chat with 11-year-old Natalie about her trip to Lady Musgrave Island. Read up on what she thought about the Barrier Reef, Queensland Museum and seeing turtles hatch.
Pack your snorkels and tick off the top 15 tropical destinations for families around the world. Check out our sightseeing and accommodation tips.
No other Great Barrier Reef island escape will ever come close to a holiday on this stunning little island.
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