5 Major Australian Port Cities on the Great Barrier Reef

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One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, and certainly a bucket list adventure, the Great Barrier Reef is one of those places that you must see if you are on holiday in Australia. The best way to access the Great Barrier Reef is by taking excursions out from one of the five major port cities along the Queensland coast adjacent to the reef.

The five major port cities are Port Douglas, Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, and Rockhampton. Each of these 5 major port cities on the Great Barrier Reef have something quite different to offer, but all include amazing adventures in nature along Australia’s natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef as well as plenty in the way of boat, dividing, and fishing charters and things to do on land, accommodations, restaurants, and more.

Port Douglas

For our journey down the Queensland coast, we will start at the top in the Far North of Queensland. Port Douglas is the northernmost major port city to the Great Barrier Reef. Especially if you are visiting from the northern hemisphere, it is important to know that the further north you go, the warmer and more tropical it gets. From Port Douglas, you can take a charter out to the Low Isles, two islands located 15 km off shore where snorkelling, SCUBA and sailing are quite popular since the clear waters there are filled with coral, marine life, and especially turtles. It makes for a great day trip.

Heron Island is also a popular Great Barrier Reef destination from Port Douglas. There are only a handful of islands on the Great Barrier Reef where you can spend the night and Heron Island is one of them. While there, you can snorkel, relax on the beach, and enjoy being surrounded by beauty and nature. While on land in Port Douglas, you should visit Mossman Gorge, the Rainforest Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Daintree Rainforest is a must see. It is the oldest and largest contiguous tropical rainforest left in the world. It is thought to be 140 million years old and has more biodiversity per square metre than anywhere else on the planet.


Cairns is just about an hour south of Port Douglas and still considered northern Queensland. Cairns is one of the most popular places for visitors on holiday. It is home to some of the best dividing on the Great Barrier Reef. There are many different daily charters that host dives out on some of the best places on the reef. Just as the Daintree Rainforest is a must see for visitors to Port Douglas, the Kuranda Rainforest is a must see spot for visitors to Cairns.

The lush tropical rainforest can be explored under the canopy on foot or above from the scenic railway or scenic skyway. In addition to the Kuranda Rainforest, there are quite a lot of places to visit on land in Cairns including Barron Gorge National Park, Paronella Park, the Cairns Zoo, the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure Park, Chillagoe Caves, Tjapukai Cultural Park, or go white water rafting or horseback riding.

Sunrise at Point Danger

Sunrise at Point Danger


Heading further south down the Queensland coast, the next stop is Townsville, which is about 350 km south of Cairns. This is the central region of the Great Barrier Reef but is still a very tropical climate. You can expect some good steak dinners in Townsville as it is the beef capital of Australia. Off the coast of Townsville are several different islands that allow you to enjoy everything the Great Barrier Reef has to offer. These islands near Townsville include Magnetic Island, Hinchinbrook Island, Orpheus Island and Great Palm Island. On land in Townsville and surrounds, you can visit the Billabong Sanctuary, the Museum of Tropical Queensland, Reef HQ Aquarium, or hike Castle Hill. In addition to those attractions, there are several national parks nearby like Bowling Green National Park, Paluma Range National Park, Girringun National Park, Koombooloomba National Park, and Wooroonooran National Park.

Backpacking in Queensland


Mackay is a very popular holiday destination. This city is located less than 400 km south of Townsville. Mackay is the port city that is closest to the well-known Whitsunday Islands close to the southern section of the Great Barrier Reef. The Whitsundays are the world’s largest archipelago, made up of 74 islands and cays. The beaches on these islands are some of the purest white sand beaches in the entire world. The picturesque scenery with the contrast of the bright turquoise Coral Sea is something to behold.

The Whitsundays have some island resorts where you can stay overnight and also some spots just for some relaxing day trips to commune with nature, the sea turtles, and the rest of the marine life here in the waters surrounding the islands and cays. On land, you have even more sights to see including the Pioneer Valley with a rich colonial history, Eungella National Park where you can see platypus in their natural environment, and Hillsborough National Park, right on the coastline with protected beaches to savor.


Our last stop is the southernmost port on the Great Barrier Reef and that is Rockhampton, 335 km south of Mackay. In this port city, you are a short boat ride away from Great Keppel Island, the Keppel Bay Islands National Park, Curtis Island National Park, in addition to some popular dive spots. When on land in Rockhampton, you can enjoy fresh water sailing on the Fitzroy River or visit the Capricorn Caves in Mt Archer National park. No matter which city you visit, always try to take an Aboriginal tour to learn about the culture and history of each region.

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