Travel tips for the Great Barrier Reef

Since I started talking and planning my trip to Australia, two pieces of information have been consistent from anyone who cared to comment: The Great Barrier Reef is a bucket list item and Cairns is an overrated place to land on the east coast. Because of the cost of getting to Cairns (and the cost of getting to the GBR from Cairns) was most affordable, I decided to go anyway and form my own opinion.

you can ignore this part if you don’t care

The truth of the situation is that Cairns is exactly what everyone told me it would be. The town is built on reclaimed swamp land and doesn’t have a proper beach at its city center. The downtown area is littered with ice cream shops, brick oven pizza joints and hostels teeming with the best traveled of we-backpackers. The night clubs are the stuff of 17-year-old’s dreams. It’s not the quaint, seaside town I’d had hoped and yet… I got stuck in Cairn, by choice, for almost a month.

Two of my friends–turned great friends–from Chicago migrated to Cairns with me. I sought scuba diving, they sought jobs in tourism to meet the Australian requirements for their second year work-holiday visa. Having traveled on my own for almost two years, it was an unassuming luxury to have companions that were not in tourist mode. As I planned to leave Cairns, the thought of leaving them became more and more miserable.

My self-imposed need to leave was delayed by an epic discovery: I could volunteer as hostie on tour boats chartered to the Great Barrier Reef in exchange for free diving. The big opportunity being a live aboard trip that costs upwards of $1,200 AUD! Could I really say no to that adventure?

*Spoiler, I didn’t say no.


Real friend scuba dive together.

Because I spent so much, unplanned time in Cairns, I enjoyed Cairns not as a destination but as a place of rest. I explored the beaches, napped in the heat of the afternoon and discovered the gems that hide along the over-developed streets of the northern town. The seriousness of Australian coffee brewing is strong here as is the Australian desire to be kind to and learn about everyone.

this is the main point of my rambling

If you are look for a place to party when it’s winter in Australia or need a place to land after a few weeks in the outback, smushed into a van with people you may or may not like as much as you did before, Cairns is the obvious choice. If you are looking for a quaint beach town in which you can wake up and walk to sand, I’d suggest Port Douglas.

However, if you wind up in Cairns, don’t count yourself unfortunate; just like my lovable coffee shops, charms hides in Cairns if you look for it.

where to stay

While my friends looked for an apartment, we stayed at Castaways Backpackers Hostel, which gave us a great weekly rate for a ensuite. It’s a bit of a walk to Cairns Central, but it’s a nice, quiet area with strong wifi. It is also great for anyone sleeping in their van!

Most of the action happens between Cairns Central and the water, so if you want to be really centrally located, there ya go.


Cairns, Queensland, Australia

the great barrier reef

You probably ended up in Cairns because of the little known, natural wonder of the world that stretches along the northeast coast of Australia. I’m playfully referring to the Great Barrier Reef, of course!

Reef Teach offers information sessions for $23 AUD and–what appears to have–some pretty cool volunteer opportunities.

I got my scuba certification in Colombia specifically because I knew that I would be coming to the Great Barrier Reef; I wanted to be ready. There are other amazing ways to see the reef if you are not certified, though.

All of the options below are readily available just walking around Cairns. I recommend that you try not to book ahead–even the scuba diving!; instead, walk around town with your ice cream and talk to someone about the experience you want and find the best option for you.

  • Glass bottom boats
    • If you are not the strongest swimmer or are deathly afraid of sea turtles/ reef sharks, stay on the boat with a glass bottom. It’s a dry way to see what’s under the water.
  • Snorkling
    • The reefs comes right up to surface level, in many cases with reef sticking up out of the water. Aquatic life is most active around 5 meters under water–I’m told–so you’ll see plenty.
  • Discover dives
    • If you are not a certified diver, most of the tour companies offer discover divers. You will be given a tutorial on the equipment and then guided closely by certified dive instructors, 1 instructor to every 4 people, to about 10 meters down. The dives only last about 30 minutes.
  • Scuba diving
    • I dove the Great Barrier Reef 22 times (I have an obsessive personality), I saw dozens on clown fish, sea turtles, sharks, minke whales, cuttle fish, great tevally, giant clams, butterfly fish and, of course, the Great Barrier Reef up close and personal.


Snorkelers on the Great Barrier Reef.

want to get your open water certification?

Getting certified in Australia can be expensive–which is why I got certified in South America–but it can be done, and apparently done cheaper than I thought (in some cases).

If you want more information about getting your PADI certification, read my post, breaking it down: getting your scuba certification

As far as scuba diving tour go, I’m told Mike Ball’s Diving is the tops.


Green humphead parrotfish at the Great Barrier Reef.

travel hack of epic proportions

Deep Sea Diver’s Den offers free snorkeling and scuba diving if you volunteer as a hostie on their boats. You help serve lunch, stay after to clean the boat… and that’s about it. You have to sign up in person in the diver center, buy a $35 AU t-shirt and then wait for an available date. They have locations in Cairns and Port Douglas.

But if you have the time to spend in Cairns, why not see the reef for free?!

I even got a 5 day, 4 night live aboard trip for free by volunteering as a hostie. This was extensive, all-day work, not for the faint or lazy.


Fitzroy Island, Queensland, Australia

islands + beach fun

The water as seen from Cairns City looks great from far back, and if you don’t want the illusion shattered, stay far back. Up close, the “beach” near Cairns City is simply a pile of mud that looks ready to eat you. There is a public pool near the pier for those wanting to swim around, but for a beach experience, a bit more effort is required.

  • Getting to Fitzroy island can only be done through a travel agency (or your hotel, I guess). Round trip should cost you about $78 AUD. A lot of the day trips offer extras, like lunch, snorkeling and unlimited access to their beach-toys.
  • Machans Beach is a quiet little beach, more for sand-play than water play. Also stop by O’Shea’s for a beer.
  • Palm Cover has a high-end, resort feel to it. I’m told one of the places has amazing donuts… but I can’t remember what that place called, now.

port douglas

Port Douglas is a dreamy port town with beaches, parks, palm trees and a quiet, vacation vibe.

A round trip shuttle bus to Port Douglas from Cairns costs $64 AUD. I found out–of course after getting to Port Douglas–that the hostel I stayed at offers free shuttle service between the two towns. Learn from my frustration: use the Internet better.


Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia

I stayed at Global Backpackers, which was a neat, clean little hostel in the center of the small beach town with pretty good wifi. I don’t ask for much any more.

On Wednesday, there is a market at the Marina, which was lovely.

The local yacht club also has an event called “Wednesday Sail.” If you go to the yacht club around 3:30pm on Wednesday and hang around the bar, a local member will ask you come sail with them. All they ask is that you hang around after for drinks and/or dinner to hear a presentation. It’s a beautiful, sunset cruise from the port.

There are a lot of fine coffee shops, shop-shops and tourist centers. My favorite was Hemingway’s Brewery right at the marina because… I just love Hemingway and how he is now synonymous with sailing and beer.

There is also morning yoga on the beach for $20 AUD.

rainforest adventures

Though a lot of the tours into Daintree Rainforest are pricey-pricey, I’m told that it’s the best way to go. You need to get on a car-ferry, which is an expensive both ways, and that everything on the north side of the car-ferry isn’t covered by rental car insurance; tow trucks alone cost north of $400 AUD.

All this makes the tours sounds much less expensive.


other things of note

  • The Cairns Library offers free wifi. And better than that, the trees on the north side of the library are home to hundreds of huge bats that you can see and hear throughout the day. Call me odd, but I would walk by the library on my way to and from Cairns City specifically to oggle at those bats.
  • Going to Kuranda is something that people do, taking the train over the mountains to the small town.
  • Explore the table lands for geological wonders–volcanic tubes and waterfalls–plus a bunch of pubs.


  • Smith St. Cafe is dreamy and has wifi and a sweet staff and good coffee and I love it.
  • I feel I must recommend the Funky Monkey as a cool, local stop because it is a cool local shop… but also because my friend got a job there. Go bother the American! (written July 2017)
  • Mi Piace Espresso Bar is a chic little place.
  • Rusty’s Market is a delicious weekend market for local (and cheap) find for meals.
  • Salt House for fancy people wanting fancy cocktails
  • Prawn Star is a boat, serving beers and seafood, docked right at the harbor!
  • Poemphun Thai Food is a hike from Cairns City, but so worth it!
  • The Conservatory is a wine bar
  • Three Wolves is the Lonely Planet suggested bar
  • Gilligan’s is the party, apparently
  • Woolshed is another party location. Promoters walk around to all the hostels and give out wristbands for free entrance and free drinks. … there had to be something free to get me to venture into this place, but to each their own party.

other sources

Something to Add?